Standing by the huge granite solstice stones set on the top of Holt Hill in Andover, Massachusetts, I could clearly see the Boston skyline twenty miles off to the southeast, Beyond the towers of the city on this clear autumn day, the horizon was formed by the Blue Hills in Milton. I wasn't able to see Noanet Peak in the Noanet Woodlands in Dover further to the southwest, but I was thinking about it. Trail use pressures have led to restrictions such as trail-use scheduling and registration of bike riders at Noanet. I was all alone here at the Charles W. Ward Reservation, no other mountain bikers, not even any walkers.
Just like Naonet, the Ward Reservation belongs to The Trustees Of Reservations. It's not quite as large, 640 acres to 695 acres. It has a local high spot, Holt Hill at 420 feet is the highest point in Essex County, and 33 feet higher than Naonet Peak. Both have about 10 miles of trails. But the difference is in bike traffic; even on a weekend the Ward Reservation gets only moderate use, No regulations governing bicycle use have to be promulgated (as of 1993) other than the basic rules that apply to all Trustee's properties, chiefly the prohibition from trails in mud and cross country ski seasons, and the restriction of group sizes to 5 riders.
After three rides at Ward, I can say that this area has some really fine "playground" riding (my definition of riding done in a confined location on a dense trail network), almost all of it singletrack stuff with two major hills (Holt and nearby Boston Hill), two hilltop clearings with long distance views from Gloucester to Boston, and interesting artifacts like the solstice stones on top of Holt Hill. These stones were placed by Mrs. Charles Ward in memory of her late husband, who had bought the property in 1917 and had turned it into a reservation in 1940.
Despite the prominence of the two major hills (Boston Hill is 385 feet high, I found that I could put together a trail loop that for nearly 5 miles traveled over singletrack through low, rolling woodlands, with lots of rocks and a couple of stream crossings on exposed rocks, as a sort of warm-up before tackling the hills. The climbs are not a lot in overall feet, a bit over 100 vertical feet, but short and steep. Longer climbs of lesser steepness are possible, making hilltop access easier if desired.
After my five mile warm-up, I go for the top of Holt Hill right up the steepest trail back now near the parking area. I don't make it all the way on the steepest pitch on the loose stuff, but the rest at the top is worth it, sitting on the hub of the solstice stones(it looks like an old granite millstone to me), and viewing busy Boston so far off from my solitude.
Then it's off on a meandering ride down into the valley between Holt and Boston Hills. a detour along a hill crest trail on intervening Shrub Hill, then a steep charge to the top of Boston Hill, diverging off the property to have at the ski lift of the abandoned ski slope that abuts the reservation. Then a trail around the cyclone fence enclosing a water tower and some antenna towers leads to my favorite spot, elephant Rock, overlooking the whole north shore to the east, Gloucester to Boston.
Reluctantly leaving this last outlook on my ride, I head down the longest downhill trail, over a mile on singletrack. leading to a succession of lefts and rights, including one trail along the boundary with an adjacent holding. This property features several noisy dogs, one of which, who seems to be allowed to run loose, comes onto the trail to object to my passing. This route eventually takes me back up Holt Hill by a longer more gradual ascent, and then the final drop towards the parking lot crosses one more smaller hill and an open field, then crosses a paved driveway, and then it takes a really steep two step drop to the head of a boardwalk that leads out to Pine Hole Pond, a quaking bog of some interest. Here.I turn right a few hundred feet to the parking lot. I have a dozen miles on my computer due to some doubling back on trails, a nice interesting ride..
On three different rides in November (none on weekends) I met several walkers, some with dogs, all were cordial, and in the parking lot at the end of my third ride I met a mountain biker from nearby Lawrence, a fortyish guy who said he prefers to ride alone. He'd been out all day, starting here and riding via adjacent lands on the Bay Circuit Trail over to Harold Parker State Forest and on further to the woods around Middleton Pond. He knew his way around and we compared trail notes some.
I decided last summer, when I began to look into Trustees' properties hereabouts for riding opportunities, to join them, and did so. They do a lot for anyone who enjoys being outdoors in unspoiled surroundings and I feel we should support them with memberships if we are going to ride on their trails. My $65 family membership is a good investment in access to several good riding areas, though it's not required, (TTOR lands are open to everyone, ) as well as providing me discounted access to some of their shoreline properties like fabulous Crane's Beach Reservation in Ipswich, and including Miser Island in Salem Sound to which I sometimes paddle my sea kayak. Those of you who enjoy riding on trails on such quasi-public land might consider investing some of your biking budget in the organizations that provide these places to ride. When one thinks of all the money that's spent on techno-junk for the bikes...
From route 125 in Andover, take Prospect Road to the Reservation's parking lot.
By Bob Hicks