On a shaded stretch of pavement straddling the Erving–Northfield border in central Massachusetts, my colleague Ryan Smith and I pause our hike to take a drink and study our map. We haven’t been standing on the shoulder long when a rapid series of beeps and chirps erupts from a field across the street. “The R2-D2 bird!” Smith says. “That’s what I call it. It’s a bobolink—one of my favorite birds.” Another string of digital-sounding chirps rises and falls from the field. Indeed, it sounds more like a Star Wars droid than a real-world creature.
A woman in a lavender sweater and jeans strolls toward us. “You know where you’re going?” she asks. When we say yes, she continues on. We’ve just walked a short stretch of road connecting two portions of the New England Trail (NET). Over two days and almost 20 miles on the trail, she’s the closest to a fellow hiker we’ll encounter.
We tuck our water bottles back into our packs and continue northbound as the trail cuts away from the road at a 90-degree angle. The bobolink, still singing behind us, isn’t a common sound on a New England hike. It nests in fields and meadows, not forests and mountains. Its presence reminds us of the diverse landscape of this trail, which stretches 215 miles across Connecticut and Massachusetts, from Long Island Sound to the New Hampshire border.
The NET reveals many facets of the region on its meandering path. Earlier in the day, we stood on a cliff in Erving, eye-level with turkey vultures circling above Millers River. Then we descended to these agricultural lowlands. About 12 hours from now, a symphony of song birds—ovenbirds and warblers—will welcome us into the next day, high on a hillside above Mount Grace State Forest.
“There’s something very special about the trail traveling through this really densely populated part of New England, and it links all these really scenic and special places,” says Clare Cain, trail stewardship director for the Connecticut Forest and Park Association (CFPA), which manages the southern half of the NET. “That it’s all intact is pretty remarkable.”
THE NEW ENGLAND Trail received its name and federal National Scenic Trail designation in 2009, joining a selective list that includes the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and eight other long-distance trails. But the history of the individual trails that make up the NET goes back much further. The first sections were likely American Indian footpaths in the valleys and along the ridges of what are now the towns of Meriden and Middletown, Conn. Early trail names reflect that legacy: CFPA blazed the Metacomet and Mattabesett trails in the 1930s.
By the 1950s, an extension into Massachusetts was underway, eventually extending into New Hampshire along the Monadnock Trail. Collectively, the network became known as the MMM. Generations of volunteers from CFPA and AMC’s Berkshire Chapter have maintained the trail system from the beginning.
John Olver, a U.S. congressman from Massachusetts from 1991 to 2013, was the first to suggest pursuing a National Scenic Trail designation. He recognized the tenuous status of the MMM, which existed at the goodwill of hundreds of landowners who allowed it to cross their property. Along with his colleague Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, Olver proposed a study of the trail, which was published in 2006. Three years later, Congress designated three new National Scenic Trails, the NET among them. That legislation also provides the option for New Hampshire to become part of the New England Trail.
“The trail is especially under pressure to be lost when land ownership changes,” says Charlie Tracy, superintendent of the NET for the National Park Service (NPS). “There was a consensus that the national scenic designation could help stabilize the trail and support the volunteer management structure.”
Despite the NET’s National Scenic Trail status, some uncertainty remains because, unlike the nearby Appalachian Trail, NPS doesn’t own any land in the trail corridor. Instead, AMC and CFPA have retained their roles as trail maintainers and continue to work with landowners along the trail. Even without federal land ownership, though, the designation has elevated the trail’s stature as a national priority. “It gets landowners, funders, and the public to take it more seriously,” Tracy says.
Since 2009, federal support of the trail has allowed for more consistent communication with landowners (613 total, owning 1,070 parcels of land, according to the 2006 study). In some instances, the trail was even rerouted around properties where the owner didn’t want to continue hosting it. In central Massachusetts, this led to a 22-mile segment of new trail near the Quabbin Reservoir. Federal funds also have helped build a boardwalk to the beach at the trail’s southern terminus, in Guilford, Conn., and paid for the construction of a hikers cabin in Northfield, Mass.
Likewise, a wealth of new stewardship programs provide support for the network of more than 30 individuals and groups who serve as trail adopters, many of whom were working on the trail long before it received federal recognition. Assistance includes teen trail crews, volunteer training sessions, and the recent purchase of a mobile tool trailer.
This cooperative strategy extends to the region’s landmarks. The NET was intentionally routed through historic Guilford, around the town green, and past a 17th-century stone house—one of the oldest in New England. In the Holyoke Range in Massachusetts, the trail passes the spot where, in 1836, Thomas Cole painted The Oxbow, considered a masterpiece of American landscape painting.
“New England is very much a cultural landscape,” says Tracy, who has worked hard to continue that artistic heritage. Touring musicians have walked the NET, conducting concerts along the way; artists-in-residence have photographed the landscape; and a youth group produced a music video about the trail. An art installation—a series of glowing rocks inscribed with stanzas from Emily Dickinson’s poem “The mountains stood in haze”—was even placed on the trail in Hadley, Mass., near where the writer grew up.
CFPA and AMC are also leading community-outreach efforts. CFPA’s Trails to Every Classroom program provides training for local teachers on the ecology and geology of the NET. In Massachusetts, AMC is working to mobilize the Amherst-area college community, connecting students to local high school outing clubs through a mentoring program.
“Our big mission now is getting more people involved as volunteers and getting more people out onto the trail to enjoy it,” says Josh Surette, AMC’s trail planner for the NET. Emily Bedenkop, a 2015 University of Massachusetts–Amherst grad, recently joined Surette on staff. A frequent NET hiker with her school’s outing club, she now coordinates trail maintainers and helps plan workdays for students active in the new NET College Network.
“One of our goals, perhaps even more than the AT, is to manage the NET as a community-based trail,” Tracy says. Though the trail skirts reservoirs and passes under power lines, crosses yards and occasionally gives way to roads before retreating again into fields and forests, the very development that can encroach on the trail is also one of its strengths. The trail passes within 10 miles of 2 million residents—many of their homes visible from the trail’s exposed ridges—and is a part of the many communities it passes through.
“It’s really interesting to look through the valley and see the life around us, the places we go,” says Mike Zlogar, a volunteer trail crew leader for AMC’s Berkshire Chapter. “It seems more connected to the communities. It’s our trail.”
BACK UNDER THE trees, Smith and I follow an overgrown dirt road along a broad, crumbling stone wall. There’s open field to one side and young forest to the other. It’s easy to imagine all of this land once being farmed. Soon the trail darts left, over the remains of the wall, and into a forest more common to higher elevations and cooler climates. We duck beneath tall rhododendron branches, skip over orange newts, and bend down to inspect mayflower, purple trillium, and pink lady’s slipper. The habitats, and the landscape, shift quickly and often here.
About a mile later, we reemerge from the trees onto another stretch of pavement. Gulf Road in Northfield leads us to our final leg of trail for the day. Along the way, we see a few people in their yards. One woman tends a garden, another feeds a horse. We wonder if the sight of backpackers is peculiar to them, despite the trail’s proximity. Although sections of the NET are immensely popular with day-hikers, thru-hiking is still a rarity.
We also spot “Stop the Pipeline” placards stuck in just about every lawn we pass. Later we learn that a proposed pipeline would carry natural gas from Pennsylvania, through New York, and across Western Massachusetts. It would intersect with the NET just north of us, after crossing the AT about 50 miles to the west. By the time we enter Northfield State Forest, we’re almost to the proposed 242-acre site for a compressor station that would pump the gas toward its destination, in Eastern Massachusetts.
SMITH AND I follow the trail around the flank of Stratton Mountain, where it switches back and forth—not due to steep terrain but to avoid old stone walls, some still topped with rusty barbed wire. We pass a vast stretch of swamp at a low point before climbing gradually to our destination, the Richardson-Zlogar Cabin. Barbara and Sam Richardson, long-time trail maintainers who own the surrounding land, built the cabin in 2011 with Mike Zlogar and a team of Berkshire Chapter volunteers. By the time we trudge up to the door, we’re exhausted and relieved to have a roof over our heads as we unpack and prepare dinner. With the cabin’s broad wooden shutters thrown open and a cool breeze drifting through, we eventually pass out on a pair of mattresses.
A few rays of sunlight crawl across the floor of the cabin early the next morning. We fight the urge to roll over and sleep in. First Smith then I stagger outside to watch the sunrise. The cabin faces east, perfectly situated for this moment. Golden light spills over the shoulder of Mount Grace, and Monadnock beckons in the distance. A thin ceiling of clouds divides the crisp blue sky from the lush green forest below. It’s an Instagram photo with the saturation pushed to the max. After breakfast we’ll make our way down into those trees then up and over Mount Grace, to my car waiting for us on the far side. But right now we stand still, watching the colors grow more vibrant, marveling that this unblemished view, like the trail, has survived.