Great blue heron standing in its nest (photo by Webmaster)

Heron Rookery and Rock Fire Pond
Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary

Destinations:  Heron Rookery (980'), Rock Fire Pond (1010')
Trails:  Midstate Trail, Fern Forest Trail, Pasture Trail, Heron Rookery Trail
Region:  MA - Central North  
Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary
Location:  Princeton, MA
Rating:  Easy  
Features:  Heron rookery, ponds
Distance:  1.6 miles  
Elevation Gain:  200 feet (cumulative)  
Hiking Time:  Actual: 0:40   Typical: 1:00  
Outing Duration:  Actual: 1:30   Typical: 2:00  
Season:  Spring
Hike Date:  06/01/2008 (Sunday)  
Weather:  About 70 degrees, sunny
Author:  Webmaster

Two chicks and an adult great blue heron (photo by Webmaster)

Route Summary   

This hike in Audubon's Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary takes you to the very small Rock Fire Pond and then to a large beaver pond which is host to about twenty great blue heron nests. Much of this hike follows a section of the long-distance Midstate Trail.

  • From Route 62, opposite Ball Hill Road, start up a dirt driveway and then turn left onto Midstate Trail which is blazed with yellow triangles (not to be confused with yellow circles).
  • After 0.1 mile, bear straight/right at a junction. This puts you on Fern Forest Trail which is also part of the Midstate Trail route. Be careful at this junction because Fern Forest Trail also goes to the left. Beyond this point the yellow triangles for the Midstate Trail are mostly only present near trail junctions with Audubon's markings taking precedence over those of the long-distance trail.
  • After 0.2 mile on Fern Forest Trail / Midstate Trail you will reach a junction where Fern Forest Trail ends and Pasture Trail goes in two directions. Turn right to follow Pasture Trail which is still also Midstate Trail.
  • After about 0.15 mile, you will see Rock Fire Pond on the left with a viewing bench on the right side of the trail.
  • Continue for another 0.15 on Pasture Trail / Midstate Trail. At the far end of a meadow, turn right onto Heron Rookery Trail.
  • Follow Heron Rookery Trail downhill for almost 0.2 mile on a narrow path which will bring you right to the edge of a large beaver swamp. There is a bench here with a view out to the section of pond that hosts about twenty active heron nests.
  • To return to your vehicle, retrace your footsteps:
    • Walk up Heron Rookery Trail for almost 0.2 mile until it ends.
    • Turn left onto Pasture Trail / Midstate Trail and follow it for 0.3 mile, passing Rock Fire Pond en route.
    • At the next junction turn left onto Fern Forest Trail / Midstate Trail and follow that for 0.2 mile.
    • At the next junction, keep straight/left on Midstate Trail and follow that for 0.1 mile back to Route 62.

Place         Split
Midstate Trailhead on Route 62 (961') 0.0 0.0 0:00
Rock Fire Pond (1010') 0.45 0.45
Heron Rookery at the beaver swamp (980') 0.35 0.8 0:20
Rock Fire Pond (1010') 0.35 1.15
Midstate Trailhead on Route 62 (961') 0.45 1.6 0:40

One-flowered cancer root (photo by Webmaster)

Immature great blue heron (photo by Webmaster)


Trail map of hike route to Rock Fire Pond and Heron Rookery at Audubon's Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary (map by Webmaster)

Trail Guide   

Audubon's Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary provides an interesting yet easy nature walk to a tranquil pond and then to a large beaver wetlands area bustling with the activity of great blue herons.

Great blue herons out on a limb (photo by Webmaster) This hike starts from Route 62 in Princeton Massachusetts on the Midstate Trail. Leaving the road on its north side, duck into the woods and follow the narrow path uphill. Go straight/right at the first trail junction, passing through a meadow and walking gently uphill.

At the next junction, turn right and you'll soon be walking through another meadow. Reentering the woods, you will shortly reach the tiny Rock Fire Pond on the left. You can sit on a bench here and enjoy the tranquility of this pond, thickly hemmed in by hardwoods on all sides except where the bench is. I encountered a fair number of mosquitoes here so use some kind of protection (clothes or repellant) to spare yourself from bites.

A bit after the pond, I emerged into another opening. There are often interesting wildflowers growing in these pastures. I saw some one-flowered cancer root (Orobanche uniflora) which is a low-stemmed plant topped by a single long whitish tubular flower with five lobes on its open end. These plants, also called ghost flower or naked broomrape are easy to miss because they are hidden by the grasses and taller plants. Like Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora), this plant has no green parts nor leaves and hence gets its nutrients by tapping into the roots of other nearby plants.

Beaver swamp and heron rookery (photo by Webmaster)

Just beyond this meadow, I turned right and descended on Heron Rookery Trail to the edge of an 80-acre beaver wetlands/pond. This was a beautiful spot. The vast wetlands were studded with a forest of tall, worn-looking snags and rimmed by low wooded hills. Abundant lily pads covered the water. There is a viewing bench which is surrounded by highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) bearing small white bell-shaped flowers and early azalea (Rhododendron roseum) sporting large pink flowers with long red stamens protruding from the blooms. Ironically, although mosquitoes were a bit of a problem along the trails, they didn't seem to be present at all here.

What a wonderful setting, what more could you ask for? How about twenty great blue heron nests active with both adults and their young! The chicks I saw were only about as tall as their parent's legs... which is not insignificant considering that herons have long legs yet still they were much smaller than the adults. It was fun to watch all the activity as the herons moved about their nests altering their stances to look either tall and thin or wide and short. They often fanned out their wings and also flew off a ways before returning. These takeoffs and landings were especially impressive. You can enjoy all these sights with the naked eye but for maximum viewing, be sure to bring a pair of binoculars.

Early azalea (photo by Webmaster)

The great blue heron (Ardea herodias) is a large wading bird that stands about four feet tall. Its long neck can be stretched out long or tucked into its shoulders, although it is always tucked in during flight with the legs trailing behind the body. Its wingspan is about 6.5 feet. The bird is mostly gray with two tones visible on its spread wings; its head is partially white. Here in the north, it is usually just a summer resident, migrating south in early autumn.

When the herons return in the spring, they immediately mate. The 2-6 eggs laid are incubated by both parents for 25-30 days. The chicks then remain in the nest or on adjacent branches for 2-3 months. Since herons' principal food is fish, the nests, built from branches, are located near water, typically high up in trees or snags. June is definitely a good time of year to watch the chicks at Wachusett Meadows. During May the young may be too small for you to be able to get a good look but with such an easy hike to the wetlands, it's worth visiting the rookery multiple times during a season to watch things develop.

Highbush blueberry flowers (photo by Webmaster)

Chicks and adult great blue herons at their nests (photo by Webmaster)

Common cinquefoil (photo by Webmaster)

Immature great blue heron (photo by Webmaster)

MA - Central North

  Driving Directions   

The trailhead for this hike is the Midstate Trail located in Princeton Massachusetts on Route 62, opposite Ball Hill Road.

Heading west on Rt. 62:
  • When heading west on Route 62, Ball Hill Road will be on the left 2.3 miles after the junction with Routes 62 and 31.
  • Park on Route 62, off the pavement, across the street from Ball Hill Road, being careful not to block access to the nearby driveway.
  • The trailhead is found by walking just a bit up the dirt driveway, and then turning left onto the Midstate Trail.

Heading east on Rt. 62:
  • When heading east on Route 62, Ball Hill Road will be on the right 2.0 miles from the junction of Routes 62 and 68.
  • Park on Route 62, off the pavement, across the street from Ball Hill Road (facing in the correct direction for that side of the road), being careful not to block access to the nearby driveway.
  • The trailhead is found by walking just a bit up the dirt driveway, and then turning left onto the Midstate Trail.
What is this?  It was lying on the ground. (photo by Webmaster)
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)


Beaver wetlands (photo by Webmaster)

About Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary   

Audubon's 1,200-acre Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary is located just south of the Wachusett Mountain State Reservation in Princeton, Massachusetts. The two properties are linked together via the long-distance Midstate Trail.

The sanctuary is a farm landscape complete with sheep, barns, pastures, and a hay field. There are also mature woodlands, scenic hilltop vistas, upland meadows, and an extensive red maple swamp. Highlights include an 80-acre active beaver pond, a heron rookery with nesting great blue herons, and the 300-year-old Crocker maple which is one of the largest sugar maples in the country boasting a trunk circumference of more than 15 feet.

Wildlife includes beaver, mink, otter, wood ducks, heron, woodchucks, and abundant songbirds. The 1,312-foot high Brown Hill with its 360-degree views offers a great prospect from which to observe hawk migrations.

The sanctuary may be explored via a serene 12-mile network of trails. Walking, hiking, snowshoeing and bird and wildlife watching are encouraged.

Many educational programs for all ages are offered at the sanctuary including evening outings in the spring to view woodcock courtship rituals, fall hawk watches, and processing wool from sheep shearing all the way through creating a finished woven product.

View the Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary trail map in PDF format or pick up a free trail map at the visitor information kiosk.

This sanctuary has universally accessible restrooms and a natural history center with exhibits. The Nature Center is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The trails are open Tuesday through Sunday, and Monday holidays, dawn to dusk. i.e. They are normally closed on Mondays.

  • $4 for nonmember adults
  • $3 for nonmember children (3-12) and seniors

Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary
113 Goodnow Road
Princeton, MA 01541

Rock Fire Pond (photo by Webmaster)

Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary Property Use Guidelines   

For Your Safety:
  • Do not feed any animals.
  • Stay on trails to avoid ticks and poison ivy.
  • Do not smoke anywhere on the sanctuary.
  • Do not pick or collect plants or crops without permission.

Avoid Conflicts with Wildlife:
  • Do not bring pets, leashed or unleashed, onto the site.
  • Picnic only in designated areas.
  • Do not bring motorized vehicles or bicycles onto the site.
  • Hunting, fishing, and trapping are not permitted.

Great blue heron rookery at the beaver swamp (photo by Webmaster)

Driving Directions to Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary   

From Rt. 2:
  • From Rt. 2 take exit 28 (Rt. 31, Fitchburg/Princeton).
  • Follow Rt. 31 south for 3.9 miles to a blinking red light.
  • Turn left at the light and follow Rt. 31 and Rt. 140 south for 1.8 miles to a blinking yellow light.
  • Great blue heron at its nest (photo by Webmaster)
  • Turn right and follow Rt. 31 south for 2.8 miles to a steep hill and a blinking yellow light (center of Princeton).
  • At the light, follow signs for Rt. 62 west by crossing the intersection and bearing right (follow the road as it curves right on the far side of the common after the light).
  • Follow Rt. 62 west for 0.6 mile, and you will see the sanctuary sign on the right at Goodnow Road.
  • Turn right on Goodnow Road, and the parking lot is 1 mile ahead on the left.

From Rt. I-190:
  • From Rt. 190, take exit 5 (Rt. 140, Sterling/W. Boylston).
  • Follow Rt. 140 north for 2.4 miles to the intersection of Rt. 62 (blinking yellow light).
  • Take a left onto Rt. 62 west and follow it for 4.2 miles to a stop sign.
  • Turn left on Rt. 31 and go up the hill to a flashing yellow light (center of Princeton).
  • At the light, follow signs for Rt. 62 west by crossing the intersection and bearing right (follow the road as it curves right on the far side of the common after the light).
  • Follow Rt. 62 west for 0.6 mile, and you will see the sanctuary sign on the right at Goodnow Road.
  • Turn right on Goodnow Road, and the parking lot is 1 mile ahead on the left.

More Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary Trail Reports   

Two adult great blue herons and one chick (photo by Webmaster)

  Great blue heron returning to its nest after a flight (photo by Webmaster)

Great blue heron spreading its wings (photo by Webmaster)

Great blue heron in flight with head tucked in and legs trailing behind (photo by Webmaster)

Great blue heron flying - note the two tones of gray on the upperside of its wings (photo by Webmaster)

Great blue heron on its nest (photo by Webmaster)

Meadow (photo by Webmaster)


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