The place to get a close-up view of a masterpiece is in Bolton’s Vaughn Hills conservation land. This architectural wonder is constructed of interwoven sticks, rocks, and mud, arranged with obvious deliberation and intent, holding back the water of a pond. As you stand on the trail marveling at the structure, it is all that is between you and a flood of water.
This is a magnificent beaver dam. It is not a static construction but is constantly worked on, as evidenced by fresh white sticks, stripped of bark, laid in parallel lines. The beavers have seamlessly tapered the ends of the dam to meet the land at the water’s edge. The beaver lodges in the pond, on the other hand, look like accidental accumulations of debris, but now, having observed their engineering skills, I suspect that is on purpose, so as not to draw attention to their homes.
A friendly sign at Holy Hill invites hikers to take a walking stick. (Courtesy photo)
To get to the beaver dam, my hiking companion and I took the trail over the North Peak, “one of the highest land areas between Boston and Wachusett Mountain … with sweeping views,” according to the Bolton Trail Guide. At this time of year the view is limited by foliage but gives a sense of height with a glimpse of the ground far below. Up here, signs advise staying on the trail, because some worn paths go directly to a cliff’s edge.
In the pond were tall trees holding the nests of great blue herons. Some adult herons stood guard on branches outside the nests. One was constantly and softly vocalizing, its moving beak pointed toward a nest. Their squawks were loud and rather harsh when they flew away. Two Canada geese were showing their goslings around. Other birds flew back and forth over the water and back into the surrounding forest. A couple of birdwatchers with binoculars were standing at the edge of the water.
On our way back to Bare Hill Road, where we had parked on the side of the road, we walked by impressive rocky ledges, draped in leafy black and olive-brown lichen. At the base of the ledges were some jack-in-the-pulpits and tiny wildflowers. Some field pussytoes were growing by the trail that skirts the edge of a beautiful private field, dotted with bluebird houses.
We walked an approximately 2-mile loop from Bare Hill Road. The area has several entrances from the west and south, some with parking. Trails crisscross, but the main trail is marked with well-placed yellow triangles. Some places are steep but short. The trail can be rooty but is generally wide, comfortable, and free of obstacles. It’s possible to visit the beaver dam without going up the steep North Peak by taking trails from the west or south entrances. Parking is easiest on Woodside Drive.
A longer walk, about 5 miles, can be strung together by starting in Harvard at the Mary Abbot Trail parking area off Bolton Road. By veering right at every junction you will get to Bare Hill Road. Cross the road, step up onto a faint path along a rock wall, and soon you will see the familiar yellow triangles. After seeing the sights at Vaughn Hills, instead of backtracking the way you came, it’s possible to make a loop by adhering to the edges of private land along a rock wall, following the yellow triangles, and crossing Bare Hill Road about a quarter-mile south of the earlier crossing. You will pass through a picturesque swamp and pop out at the ponds of Bowers Springs. Going around the large pond will put you on a choice of paths that will take you through the fields to the parking area of the Mary Abbot Trail.
It’s helpful to have a map or GPS, because the area is dense with trails and paths. A digital map of Vaughn Hills is available at www.boltontrails.org. Press the blue square that says “close” at the bottom of the first page, then scroll to “maps,” then scroll to #2 Vaughn Hills for a good map.
For an online map of Bowers Springs/Bare Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, go to harvard conservationtrust.org, “Trails.” These properties are connected to Vaughn Hills by two unmarked trails. On the map, unmarked trails are indicated by dotted lines. One is labeled “To Vaughn Hills,” the other dotted line goes off the map at the Bolton/Harvard border, but also leads to Vaughn Hills.
This is a popular area for walking, running, and even biking, so it’s a good idea to go early.