Wachusett Mtn., Balance Rock, and Echo Lake

Destinations:  Wachusett Mtn. (2006'), Balance Rock (1200'), Echo Lake (1280')
Trails:  Harrington Trail, Link Trail, Mountain House Trail, Old Indian Trail, West Side Trail, Semuhenna Trail, Balance Rock Trail, Bicentennial Trail, High Meadow Trail, Echo Lake Road, Echo Lake Trail, Westminster Road, Midstate Trail
Region:  MA - Central North  
Wachusett Mountain State Reservation
Location:  Princeton, MA
Rating:  Moderate  
Features:  Summit, views, ponds, loop hike
Distance:  7.5 miles  
Elevation Gain:  1600 feet (cumulative)  
Hiking Time:  Typical: 4:35  
Outing Duration:  Actual: 3:15   Typical: 6:30  
Season:  Spring
Hike Date:  05/18/2009 (Monday)  
Last Updated:  09/06/2009  
Weather:  60's, rainy
Author:  Bill Mahony

Route Summary   

This loop hike makes a good exploration of Wachusett Mountain State Reservation. First hike up to the summit of Wachusett Mountain and then down to Balance Rock. Then climb again, circling not quite back to the peak, on the west and south side of the mountain. Then finally descend, passing Echo Lake near the end of the circuit. On a clear day, the summit of Wachusett offers views to the Boston skyline as well as to New Hampshire's Mount Monadnock and Franconia Ridge.

This loop trail touches upon many of the paths in Wachusett Mountain State Reservation's network and finishes up with a half-mile walk on Westminster Road. Part of the route follows the Midstate Trail which is marked with both yellow and blue triangular blazes. The other paths are blazed just with blue. The system is well marked with trail signs at the many junctions.

To Wachusett Mountain's summit:
  • You will follow the Midstate Trail route (blazed with yellow triangles) all the way up to the summit.
  • Start on the north side of Westminster Road on Harrington Trail / Midstate Trail. Be sure to start off northeasterly on Harrington Trail / Midstate Trail and not southwesterly on Dickens Trail / Midstate Trail which leaves from the opposite side of the road.
  • After 0.5 mile, where Stage Coach Trail comes in from the right, keep straight on Harrington Trail / Midstate Trail.
  • After another 0.2 mile you will reach the gravel West Road; go straight across, still on Harrington Trail / Midstate Trail.
  • Just 0.3 mile later, you will encounter the paved Administration Road; cross the street to stay on Harrington Trail / Midstate Trail.
  • You will quickly pass by Lower Link Trail coming in from the right (keep straight) and 0.3 mile later you will reach a junction with Semuhenna Trail on the left and Link Trail on the right where Harrington Trail goes straight. At this point, keep following the yellow blazes and turn right onto Link Trail / Midstate Trail.
  • Balance Rock (photo by Bill Mahony)
    Balance Rock (photo by Bill Mahony)
  • Link Trail will end 0.2 mile later where it meets Mountain House Trail and Jack Frost Trail.
  • Turn left, still following the yellow blazes, now on Mountain House Trail / Midstate Trail.
  • Ascend for about 0.15 mile, cross Summit Road, then ascend a final 0.15 mile, first on the trail, then on the road to reach the top of the mountain.

To Balance Rock:
  • We will continue following the Midstate Trail route all the way to Balance Rock.
  • Descend from Wachusett's peak to the northwest, just a bit to the left of the chair lift and ski slope, on Old Indian Trail / Midstate Trail.
  • After 0.4 mile you will reach a junction where West Side Trail goes left and Old Indian Trail veers right. Turn left, following the yellow blazes, onto West Side Trail / Midstate Trail.
  • After 0.3 mile on West Side Trail, there will be a junction where Semuhenna Trail crosses.
  • Turn right to follow the yellow blazes, now on Semuhenna Trail / Midstate Trail.
  • Summit Road will be encountered after 0.3 mile. Cross the street and keep going straight on Semuhenna Trail / Midstate Trail.
  • After another 0.3 mile, the trail will merge into Old Indian Trail which comes in from the right.
  • Go straight on Old Indian Trail / Midstate Trail, still following the yellow blazes, for another 0.3 mile.
  • Cross Balance Rock Road onto Balance Rock Trail and 50 yards later arrive at Balance Rock which is one boulder balanced atop another in a small clearing.

Return:
  • The return route will only follow a couple segments of the yellow-blazed Midstate Trail so be sure to pay attention to trail signs and junctions in order to follow the correct route.
  • From Balance Rock, turn around and retrace your steps for 50 yards up the path and then across Balance Rock Road.
  • Follow Old Indian Trail / Midstate Trail for 0.3 mile, then bear left onto Old Indian Path leaving the Midstate Trail route to continue right/straight on Semuhenna Trail.
  • After 0.2 mile on Old Indian Trail, turn right onto West Side Trail / Midstate Trail.
  • Follow West Side Trail / Midstate Trail for 0.3 mile – this is the same section you followed on the way down to Balance Rock.
  • Upon reaching the junction where Semuhenna Trail crosses the trail, this time go left onto the portion of Semuhenna Trail that is not part of the Midstate Trail.
  • Follow Semuhenna Trail for 0.6 mile which will return you to a junction with Harrington Trail / Midstate Trail which we met during the ascent.
  • Turn left onto Harrington Trail / Midstate Trail, then right onto Link Trail / Midstate Trail.
  • Follow Link Trail / Midstate Trail (which we followed during the ascent) for 0.2 mile where it will meet Mountain House Trail and Jack Frost Trail.
  • This time, go straight onto Mountain House Trail – the portion that is not part of the Midstate Trail and that we have not yet traveled.
  • Pass by a junction with Loop Trail on the left and continue on Mountain House Trail for 0.6 mile until reaching a junction where Bicentenniel Trail crosses the path.
  • Turn right and follow Bicentenniel Trail for 0.2 mile until it ends at a T-junction with High Meadow Trail.
  • Turn left onto High Meadow Trail and follow it for 0.2 mile until it ends at Echo Lake Road with Echo Lake on your right.
  • Turn right and walk along Echo Lake Road for 0.1 mile, then turn left to reenter the woods at Echo Lake Trail.
  • Follow Echo Lake Trail for 0.5 mile until it ends at Westminster Road, a parking area, and Administration Road.
  • Turn right onto Westminster Road and follow it for 0.5 mile back to the Harrington / Midstate Trailhead where this hike began.

Place         Split
Miles
     Total
Miles
Harrington Trailhead on Westminster Road (1250') 0.0 0.0
Jct. Harrington Trail/Administration Road (1500') 1.0 1.0
Wachusett Mtn. (2006') 0.8 1.8
Balance Rock (1200') 1.6 3.4
Jct. Link Trail/Mountain House Trail (1800') 2.0 5.4
Harrington Trailhead on Westminster Road (1250') 2.1 7.5

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Click for the full trail map (it will open in a new window).   

Trail map of hike route to Wachusett Mtn., Balance Rock, and Echo Lake (map courtesy of Wachusett Mountain State Reservation)


Trail Guide   

I didn't have a chance to travel far this weekend for a hike, but I wanted to get some exercise as a tune-up in for an upcoming long trip. The forecast was calling for rain with a chance of thunderstorms, so I would have a good chance to test how well my raingear works and to see what changes I would make to my gear to make wet weather easier to deal with. Wachusett Mountain was perfect for this test because I live close by and the mountain is small enough that a bailout would be easy (should I need it).

Since this is a long trip report, I've divided it into sections:

Ascent of Wachusett Mountain    |    To Balance Rock    |    Return via Echo Lake


Ascent of Wachusett Mountain   

I arrived early thinking that I could catch a sunrise or some wildlife. The trail was wet, but rocky most of the way so there was no problem with standing water. I warmed up quickly with the climb starting right from the parking area at 1,250 feet. It was too dark for any pictures until halfway up, but I could see into the woods quite well with the ambient light of dawn.

I was carrying a nearly full pack trying to replicate the weight I have on a full hike. The climb is somewhat steep in places, but the rocky ground gives decent footing. The birds were out in force and they were the only thing to be heard above the sound of dripping leaves (just spitting lightly for now). Near the summit, rain came a little more forcefully and I put on a new poncho. Unfortunately it didn't have snaps under the arms (which seemed odd) and the wind kept blowing it off of my pack and to one side of my body. I was not happy with it and soon shoved it back into my pack. The pack seemed to fare better in the rain on its own anyway.

The summit was cloudy with visibility of about a quarter-mile (not bad considering the day I picked). With not much to see and the sounds of the backup generators and the diesel exhaust smell, I decided to start down the far side. The generators are for all of the antennae that dot the summit of Wachusett. Since it is the highest peak east of the Connecticut River in Massachusetts, it is a good site for every type of antenna that needs a "good view" of the covered areas.

To Balance Rock   

Split Rock on Semuhenna Trail (photo by Bill Mahony)
Split Rock on Semuhenna Trail (photo by Bill Mahony)

Just below the summit, I did stop at the chair lift (under cover) for a minute to make some gear adjustments. The hike down was steep in places and the wet rocks, while not slippery, looked like they would have been painful if I had slipped and fallen. Much of the way down was exposed granite rock face.

On the way down I encountered a red eft (Notophthalmus viridescens) who never moved despite my getting very close (one inch away) with the phone/camera. The close shots came out poorly, but even worse with my camera on zoom. The other thing I noticed as I traversed West Side Trail and headed down the north side of the mountain was how badly damaged the canopy was from the ice storm this winter. This area was the worst hit in Massachusetts and the trees looked as if giants had mowed the lawn. Every tree had damage at the top and some very large trees had been felled. The trails were well cleared and very easy to pass though. The Semuhenna Trail had a cool split rock and of course I had to get a photo of Balance Rock.

Return via Echo Lake   

The hike back toward the summit via Old Indian Trail crosses some of the downhill ski slopes, which are hard to recognize without snow (having skied here many times). I was making good time and enjoying the fact that despite trails that are close to the summit road, the road did not open until 9:00 a.m. so with my early 5:00 a.m. start, I completely avoided all traffic.

Trail junction: West Side Trail and Old Indian Trail (photo by Webmaster)
West Side and Old Indian Trails junction (photo by Bill Mahony)
The upper Semuhenna Trail is one of the nicer trails as it crosses blueberry barrens (but no bear sightings unfortunately), through cedar woods and finally beneath a gorge/wall around the south side of the summit. I was trying to cover new ground where possible and moved quickly to the downhill part of Mountain House Trail.

The rain really started coming down now around 7:00 a.m. I stopped and decided to don the rest of my rain gear and make myself comfortable. The temperature had dropped 10 degrees and my wet shirt was cooling me rapidly. I removed my shirt and put my rain jacket on over nothing... that felt pretty clammy, so I'll need a better solution for next time. I also put on my rain pants and pack cover. The pants worked, but had no pockets or access to my shorts pockets so getting the map out was a hassle. The light nylon of the pants and pack cover didn't seem very waterproof, but I was dryer and warming up now that I wasn't in the rain. My feet were still very dry... new boots and a fresh coat of Nikwax sealer seemed to do the trick. I caught sight of a few more newts (red efts) on this trail, which was like rock steps, but very wet.

As I hiked along and joined Bicentennial Trail, I saw a huge oak tree blowdown. This seemed a shame because this thing had to be 200 years old and was well in excess of twelve feet around. Connecting to High Meadow Trail there were some apple trees with a few flowers still on them and they smelled sweet even in the rain. I caught a little froggy posing for me and he didn't hop away when I got close... he must have know he was going into the HikeNewEngland.com database. I also "caught" a picture of a little snake, who couldn't slither away because he was squished on the trail.

Echo Lake Trail winds across a small stream and through a pine wood down to the road; very different from the terrain and woods of the rest of the hike. Reaching Echo Lake – really a pond – was a bit of a disappointment. The woods across the waterway were nice but the pond itself was not particularly nice.

Overall, this was a great local hike. I got to cover 7.5 miles of rough terrain with a decent elevation change and test my gear in the rain. All this and get home before 9 a.m.

Gear Notes: Overall the new boots were comfortable – no problems. The pack was comfortable for the hike. Rain coat, pants and pack cover were light and seemed to keep out the moderately heavy rain. The pack cover was put on upside down so the small drain hole was exposed. The poncho needs to be secured on the bottoms, so I'll need a solution for that; it should still double as a tent footprint.
 
Wachusett Mountain Chair Lift (photo by Bill Mahony)
Wachusett Mountain Chair Lift (photo by Bill Mahony)



Red eft (photo by Bill Mahony)
Red eft (photo by Bill Mahony)

 


MA - Central North

  Driving Directions   

The trailhead for this hike is located on Westminster Road in Princeton, Massachusetts.

  • From the western junction of Routes 62 and 31 in Princeton, turn north onto Mountain Road.
  • Travel 1.4 miles, then turn left onto Westminster Road.
  • Drive on Westminster Road for 1.1 miles, then park on the left.
  • The trail (Harrington Trail / Midstate Trail) that you want to follow is on the right (opposite where you park).

Storm damage. Note the downed limbs on the left, and the broken-off trunks on the right. (photo by Bill Mahony)
Storm damage (photo by Bill Mahony) Storm damage (photo by Bill Mahony)
 
 
Midstate Trail logo (courtesy of Midstate Trail Committee)

  About Midstate Trail   

Midstate Trail map (courtesy of Midstate Trail Committee) The Midstate Trail is a 92-mile hiking trail traversing Massachusetts from Rhode Island to New Hampshire. It runs through Worcester County, 45 miles west of Boston. Although it is close to populated areas, it manages to wind through scenic and wild segments of the state, climbing gentle hills and mountains and encountering lakes, ponds, streams, meadows, and woods.

To the south, the trail connects with Rhode Island's North-South Trail which extends the hiking possibilities 75 miles all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. And to the north, it connects to the Wapack Trail in New Hampshire which covers an additional 21 miles and ends at North Pack Monadnock in Greenfield.

The Midstate Trail crosses the 2,006-foot peak of Wachusett Mountain which is the highest point on the route. On a clear day the Boston skyline is visible to the east, Mount Monadnock to the north, and the Berkshire Hills to the west.

Another notable peak is Mount Watatic which reaches 1,832 feet. This is the last undeveloped mountain in the state east of the Connecticut River. The peak provides views in all directions including Boston, central and western Massachusetts, the Green Mountains of Vermont, and the mountains of southern New Hampshire. Both Watatic and Wachusett are great spots to watch hawk migrations.

Mount Hunger offers gorgeous 360-degree views of surrounding lakes, ponds, hills and ridges. And the Crow Hill ledges in Leominster State Park provide great outlooks to Crow Hill Pond and Crocker Pond just below. The ledges themselves are a popular climbing spot.

Other interesting features along the route include Hodges Village Dam, Moose Hill, Sampson's Pebble (an enormous glacial erratic), Barre Falls Dam, historic Redemption Rock, and Muddy Pond (an attractive, remote, and undeveloped glacial pond). Abundant stone walls scattered through the woods are a reminder that the land was used as farmland back in the 1800's.

Along the way you will explore many forests and reserves including Douglas State Forest, Four Chimneys Wildlife Management Area, Spencer State Forest, Moose Hill Wildlife Management Area, Buck Hill Reserve, Oakham State Forest, Rutland State Park, Savage Hill Wildlife Management Area, Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary, Wachusett Mountain State Reservation, and Leominster State Forest.

The Midstate Trail is highly accessible and for the most part the hiking is easy with occasional steep and rugged sections. It is well blazed with yellow triangles. The route, as with any long-distance trail, follows roads for some (usually short) segments. The trail is also used for snowshoeing, mountain biking, and cross-country skiing. Several primitive lean-to's and campsites are available along the route; however, camping is prohibited in most areas.

The trail is maintained and managed by the Midstate Trail Committee under the guidance of the Worcester chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club. An annual end-to-end hike takes place over the summer with a patch awarded to those who complete the entire length. See the Midstate Trail's website for the hiking schedule or to purchase the latest version of the Midstate Trail Guidebook.

The southern terminus of the Midstate Trail is located on the Rhode Island border in Douglas, Massachusetts in Douglas State Forest. The northern end is on the New Hampshire border on the Ashburnham/Ashby, Massachusetts town line just north of the summit of Mount Watatic.
  Midstate Trail overview map (courtesy of Midstate Trail Committee)

Midstate Trail between Barre and Princeton (photo by Webmaster)

Stone wall along the Midstate Trail (photo by Webmaster)
 
  About Wachusett Mountain State Reservation   

Wachusett Mountain State Reservation is a 3000-acre parcel of land encompassing Wachusett Mountain and its ski slope. It is located in Princeton and Westminster, Massachusetts, about 50 miles west of Boston. With all its offerings it is a busy and popular place.

At 2,006 feet in elevation, Wachusett Mountain provides views to Boston's skyline, Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, and the Berkshires to the west. The summit may be reached by car or by hiking up the extensive trail network covering the reserve.

The reservation's natural resources include forests, alpine meadows, brooks, ponds, streams, fields, and an upland bog. It is also the location of the largest known area of old-growth forest in the state east of the Connecticut River, with trees dating over 350 years old. Deer and partridge inhabit the quiet woods as do pink-flowering azalea, clintonia, Canada mayflower, and bunchberry.

Evidence of the glacial activity which shaped the mountain can be seen at Balance Rock where two large boulders were stacked one on top of the other by moving glaciers thousands of years ago. The mountain itself is a monadnock which is a single mountain in the midst of a relatively flat landscape (as opposed to a range of mountains). It divides the watersheds of the Connecticut River to the west and the Merrimack River to the east.

The reservation is part of an extensive greenway area, including Leominster State Forest to the north, and Audubon's Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary and Minns Wildlife Sanctuary, both to the south.

Recreational opportunities abound at the Wachusett reservation including hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, running, nature study, watching hawk migrations, picnicking, visiting a windmill farm, downhill skiing, and restricted hunting.

There are 17 miles of hiking and walking trails, including 3.9 miles of the long-distance Midstate Trail which vertically bisects the state of Massachusetts. An annual footrace runs up the summit road to the peak.

Wachusett's ski area covers 450 acres of the northern slope of the mountain and consists of 22 trails serviced by seven lifts. It features 100% snowmaking and night skiing on 18 trails, as well as a terrain park and a 300-foot half-pipe. It is the largest ski area in eastern Massachusetts.

The mountain has a rich history. Three different hotels occupied the summit from 1874 to 1970. The first ski trail was cut in 1933 and more were soon added although lifts weren't implemented until about 20 years later. More history and other interesting facts about Wachusett can be found in the book, Into the Mountains, by Maggie Stier and Ron McAdow.

View the Wachusett Mountain State Reservation trail map in PDF format or pick up a free trail map at the John Hitchcock Visitor's Center near the main entrance to the reserve.

A daily parking fee of $2 is collected from mid-May through mid-October.

Wachusett Mountain State Reservation
Mountain Road, Princeton, MA
978.464.2987

Wachusett Reservation's Property Use Guidelines   

  • dogs must be leashed
  • no bikes allowed
  • no horses allowed
  • no camping allowed
  • no snowmobiles allowed

Driving Directions to Wachusett Reservation's Main Entrance   

From Route 2:
  • From Rt. 2, take exit 25 (Rt. 140 south).
  • Follow Rt. 140 south for 2 miles.
  • Turn right onto Mile Hill Road.
  • Follow Mile Hill Road for 0.5 mile to a split in the road.
  • Take the left fork onto Mountain Road.
  • Follow Mountain Road 1.2 miles to the top of hill.
  • The reservation entrance is on the right.
  • The visitor center entrance is immediately on the left after entering the reservation.

From Route 190:
  • From Rt. 190 take exit 5 (Rt. 140 north).
  • Follow Rt. 140 north for 9.5 miles.
  • Turn left onto Mile Hill Road.
  • Follow Mile Hill Road for 0.5 mile to a split in the road.
  • Take the left fork onto Mountain Road.
  • Follow Mountain Road 1.2 miles to the top of hill.
  • The reservation entrance is on the right.
  • The visitor center entrance is immediately on the left after entering the reservation.

More Wachusett Mountain Trail Reports   

 
 

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