The DCR is proposing three new biking-only trails in one of the most environmentally diverse areas in the entire Middlesex Reservation. Considering the damage bikes do to trails, and evidence I’ve shown regarding how irresponsible some bikers are at obeying park regulations, this is an incredibly bad idea. Closing down the Dark Hollow Nature Trail defies logic. DCR has chosen recreation over conservation and preservation. If any area in the Fells needs protection it is Dark Hollow. Please write to the DCR and tell them how wrong their plans are.
THE DARK HOLLOW POND NATURE TRAIL
Walter Kittredge, 2011
The Middlesex Fells Reservation provides a great diversity of topography, geology, wildlife and plants to explore, and the Dark Hollow Pond Trail is a great place to start. The trail is 3/4 of a mile long traveling north and south parallel to Rt. 93. Access is from parking on Fallon Road near gate 21 on the north side of Bear Hill. The trail skirts the east flank of Bear Hill, crosses a fire road and then the old trolley rail bed, finally hugging the west shore of Dark Hollow Pond, ending at gate 24. In its short course it passes through over a dozen different habitats. The red outline indicates the area proposed for an RMP Zone 1 Bear and Winthrop Hill Patch Reserve. The numbers correspond to the habitat descriptions which follow.
Habitat 1 – Roadside
A short walk from Fallon Road along the fire road to Bear Hill brings you to the trailhead. As is typical of many entry areas, the roadway is full of introduced and invasive plants, which results when native vegetation is removed and a permanent opening is created in the forest. Roadways fragment the forest by cutting into it and providing avenues for non-native plants to penetrate into the interior. Look for one of the most common invasives found along roadways which is mugwort with its silvery lobed leaves and allergy causing pollen. Many invasive plants produce prolific fruit at a young age that are widely spread by birds, such as multiflora rose, glossy buckthorn and the oriental bittersweet vine. Although birds consume these fruits they have been found to be less nutritious than native fruit. Fortunately there is a positive side to roadways as well, as these sunny open edges are also habitat for native plants like pussy willow that provides the first prolific pollen and nectar for bees. Black cherries bloom and fruit abundantly here. Look for tent caterpillar nests in their branches, which provide protein for birds to raise their young. Several kinds of blackberries grow here with berries that are enjoyed by birds and people alike. Look for the low arching bristly blackberry which has long soft bristles, the tall arching allegheny blackberry with its stout prickles, and the bluish canes of black raspberry.
Habitat 2 – White Pine-Oak-Beech Forest
As you start walking southward up the trail, just to the right (west) is a small cluster of beech mixed with white pine and oak. Note the large dead tree trunk with a ring of beech trees around it, and a second ring of saplings around them. Beech trees sprout from the root and this colonial expansion is much faster than can be accomplished by seedlings. Many of the stands of beech you see in the forest are derived from the roots of a single tree. Unlike oak, beech is very sensitive to fire, which probably killed the original tree here. The increase of beech in the Fells has been aided by the suppression of forest fires. Climate change may also be playing a part, as total rainfall for New England has increased 5% in the last thirty years. A third factor is that as the forest matures it makes a dense overhead canopy of shade, resulting in the forest becoming cooler and moister. All these factors together create a feedback loop of increasingly moist microclimates favoring beech and maple over oak and pine.
The trail begins in a forest of mixed oak trees at the base of the north side of Bear Hill, the highest hill in the Fells at 317 feet. Mature black birch with its shiny black bark is common among the oaks here, indicating there had been a fire in this area many years ago, as birches are a pioneer species whose seeds require bare soil for germination. Black birch is also called sweet birch because the twigs taste of wintergreen. Fire favors oaks which have fire-tolerant bark, and re-sprout from the base if the tops are killed. The oaks are mature with high crowns that create deep shade and a sparse open understory. Mapleleaf viburnum grows here with showy white flower clusters in May, and is one of the commonest woodland shrubs in the Fells. In the fall the leaves turn shades of purple, with dark blue berries that hang on into winter. In spring look for the white woodland flowers of wild sarsaparilla, solomon’s-seal, starflower and mayflower. In the fall the first two have blue berries, the twinflower’s are white, and the mayflower’s are red. Colonies of white wood asters add some late season color to the forest floor.
Habitat 4 – Hemlock-White Pine-Oak Forest
As the trail begins to climb up a steep slope there is a grove of witch-hazel shrubs with wide scalloped leaves. Their flowers are the last to bloom in the fall with four narrow wavy yellow petals. The number of evergreen trees increases quickly as the trail enters Hemlock-White Pine- Oak Forest. Hemlock forests are typical of steep cooler north and east slopes, and this one wraps around the hill following the trail along the east slope. Hemlocks are under attack from the invasive wooly adelgid which was introduced from Asia. These insects suck the sap from the tree reducing the food available to it until it dies. Look for the egg sacks which look like a cottony white mass on the branches. Control by spraying pesticides is impractical on a forest scale, but there may be hope from biological controls now being explored. As the hemlocks die off they are mostly succeeded by the pioneer tree black birch, and by sugar maple. The soft delicate sprays of fern here are the sweet-smelling hay-scented fern. Look for mats of small dark green evergreen leaves that are creeping partridgeberry. It has sweet-scented paired tubular white flowers in the summer, followed by red berries with two “eyes,” where the flowers grew.
Habitat 5 – Red Oak-Sugar Maple Transition Forest
As you continue along the level trail notice the increase in sugar maple trees signifying a shift in the forest composition. Sugar maples, like beeches, thrive in the absence of fire. There is a large wind-snapped white pine tree here that has fallen creating a gap in the forest. See how many rings you can count on the cut trunk to get an approximate age for it (1 ring = 1 year). As the tree trunk rots it will provide habitat for wood rotting fungi, mosses, insects and animals. The pile of brush it left provides cover for birds and chipmunks. This new sunny opening will allow the understory saplings of mostly sugar maple and a few red oaks to grow up rapidly, replacing the evergreen trees. As the trail climbs again there are poison ivy vines with their three shiny leaves. At the top of the hill the trail passes between allegheny blackberry with five leaflets, and red raspberry with three leaflets whitened below. Another thorny plant here is catbrier or greenbrier, a climbing vine with green branches and large round leaves. It often forms large thickets used by wildlife for cover under its spiny protection.
The trail now dips down into a hollow with a nice rock seat overlooking it. There is a forest seep in the cove here, the extra moisture encouraging a lush growth of ferns like the evergreen Christmas fern, which provides year-round greenery. Other ferns to look for are cinnamon fern with narrow erect cinnamon brown fertile fronds in the spring, and the graceful lady fern, which can be recognized by the deep groove on the upper side of its stem. There are thirty-four ferns and fern allies in the Fells, mostly found in shady moist areas, with the exception of bracken fern, which grows in dry woodlands. Moist habitats like this are a common place to find tall straight ash trees with their feathery compound leaves. Look for solomon’s-seal with greenish hanging paired flowers followed by blue berries, and false solomon’s-seal with a terminal bunch of white flowers followed by red berries. Climbing out of the seep the forest has a rich mix of large hemlock, white pine, red oak, shagbark hickory, white ash and sugar maple trees. Look for the lavender flowers of wild geranium with its palmately lobed leaves. The creeping vine with five leaflets is Virginia creeper, a relative of grapes which has small blue berries eaten by songbirds.
At the top of the next rise the trail passes to one side of a sunny habitat where the canopy thins out and the trees are much shorter. The dominant trees are pignut hickory with shiny compound leaves and tight blocky bark. Hop hornbeam growing with them as a small tree in the understory has thin curly strips of bark giving them a shaggy dog look. The grassy looking ground cover is Pennsylvania sedge, the most common sedge in the Fells. There are also evergreen trees and saplings of red cedar, which is a pioneer plant that requires the full sun of open areas. This habitat usually occurs on south and east upper slopes just below rock outcrops and summits.
Habitat 8 – Circumneutral Talus Slope
As the path descends into another cove there are sprawling plants of smooth bedstraw with eight leaves at each joint, and tiny white flowers. This invasive plant forms large mats that smother low-growing native herbs like hepatica. At the bottom of the slope the trail is joined by a bootleg trail and passes along the base of a Circumneutral Talus Slope. These illegal trails fragment the forest, reducing the size of undisturbed areas for wildlife to live in, and increasing the likelihood of introducing invasive plants. The rocks and soil of the steep slope are loose and still moving, making this a naturally disturbed habitat. The main woody plant growing on the slope is sugar maple. There are several interesting plants growing here including Bloodroot, Early Buttercup, and Early Saxifrage, and a small hackberry tree. Due to the natural disturbance there are also many invasive plants on the slope including garlic mustard, oriental bittersweet and black jetbead, a new invasive with large white flowers in the spring and black berries in the fall. Look for a large tree with long large strips of bark peeling off, this is a shagbark hickory.
At the bottom of the talus slope is a habitat that is dominated by sugar maple with bitternut hickory, basswood, elm, and white ash trees. This forest typically occurs in east-facing mid-slope coves like this, and have very deep rich topsoils, up to two feet deep here. Leaf litter is mostly absent as the soft maple leaves decompose rapidly. Look for the fern-like leaves and tiny white flowers of sweet cicely, and the stiff many-lobed leaves of the related sanicle. There are three springs beside the trail that create another ferny forest seep here. Look for the purple-hooded three-leaved Jack-in-the-pulpit in spring, and its dense spike of bright red berries in the fall. Just before the trail turns left there is an American elm tree with a fluted base and rough serrate leaves. Across the trail from it is a pagoda dogwood bush. Unlike all the other dogwoods this species has alternate leaves. A leaf slowly pulled apart will have silky sap threads connecting the veins. A short distance off the trail to the right up the fire road there is a giant bitternut hickory tree on the left side. It is over 90 feet tall, 8 feet around and probably about 200 years old. After over a century of growth without cutting, the Fells is now a complex ecosystem that is self- regulated and self-directed, rather than being managed by humans. As a result there are trees of all age classes with giant trees like this, large snags and downed logs, many mature trees, and even more saplings in gaps. This vertical complexity creates ideal habitat conditions for wildlife, which is very diverse in the Fells as a result.
Following the trail down the fire road there is a small Woodland Vernal Pool away to the left, which is fed by the streams that run down into it through the forest seep. Vernal pools are the only habitat that salamanders, wood frogs, and fairy shrimp breed in. The salamanders and frogs live in the woodlands surrounding the pool. There are over 100 vernal pools in the Fells making it one of the most important conservation areas for this habitat. In spring, look for the deep blue flowers of the marsh violet mingling with the bright yellow flowers of golden ragwort along the edge of the pool.
Habitat 11 – Red Maple Swamp Forest
The outlet stream from the vernal pool meanders through a red maple swamp. There is a very large American elm tree here with a large fluted base. This buttressing helps anchor the tree as its roots in the wetland are very shallow, staying near the surface to maximize the amount of air available to them. Elms growing on dry soils don’t exhibit this trait. Most elms succumb to Dutch elm disease before they get this large. This tree is either resistant to the disease, or is isolated enough to have escaped it. Poison ivy with its three shiny leaflets grows lushly here, both as a low shrub and a vine climbing the trees. Jewelweed, an herb with juicy stems and showy orange flowers also grows in the swamp, and is an antidote to the rash caused by poison ivy.
Habitat 12 – Oak Forests
Leaving the fire road the trail goes right (south) and enters a mosaic of Mixed Oak, Oak-Hickory and White Pine – Oak Forest habitats that grow from here to the trolley rail bed. Notice that the sugar maple starts to drop out as you move away from the Rich Mesic Forest. The distinction between these oak habitats is not large, mainly being a matter of the presence or absence of white pine and pignut or shagbark hickory growing with the oaks. Look for delicate drifts of windflower in the spring, with their large single white flowers above five-parted leaves. The trail now comes to the old rail bed of the trolley line, left from the days when a trolley ran through the Fells with a stop at the Sheepfold.
The trail crosses the end of the trolley rail bed and enters a small hollow on the north end of Dark Hollow Pond. The beech forest here is protected from fire by growing in this moist area. Beeches are very common along the cool east-facing slopes of the west shore. The pond itself is part of the Mystic River watershed, as is the entire Fells. Runoff from the highway has resulted in the water being a cloudy greenish color. With only a few intermittent streams feeding the pond and no outlet, there is no flushing of the water through the pond, and so the runoff pollutants become concentrated. Patches of white and yellow water lilies are common, as are the submersed strings of feathery-leaved milfoil. Look for black cormorants that fly in from the coast to fish here.
Habitat 14 – Shoreline Community
The shoreline is ringed with patches of the tall invasive giant reed grass which thrives in the saline water caused by road salt. Invasive plants of gray willow and yellow iris are also common on the shoreline, all of which crowd out the native shrubs of highbush blueberry, sweet pepperbush, Canadian shadbush, swamp azalea, fetterbush, and silky dogwood. These shrubs with their white flowers provide pollen and nectar for bees, leaves for high-protein caterpillars to eat, which birds use to raise their brood, cover for nests, and berries for mature birds to feed on. The invasive plants around the pond provide nothing in the way of food as no native insects eat them, and they make no edible fruit. Halfway along the trail there is a sunny rocky promontory with a very scenic view down the length of the pond. Beyond that the trail passes by the bottom of the trolley line Trestle Bridge, which is very impressive seen from below. The trail continues along the west shore, with scenic views of the pond all the way to its southern end at gate 24.
Middlesex Fells draft Resource Management Plan by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation submitted on Sept 14, 2011. These are links to other important pages on this site.
- Studies debunked - flaky studies do not support claim the hiking/biking impacts are similar or that biking hiking should be treated the same. new trails unjustified, DCR has no power to even issue tickets to offenders, no funding or staff to implement plan.
- illegal trail use - bikers on closed trail, reviews of closed trails from bike websites, Fellsbiker encourages illegal use.
- NEMBA/Gary Fisher illegal group ride video -New England Mountain Bike Association brazenly shows their disregard for the Fells.
- impacts can last for centuries - one of many before and after photos showing the enormous impacts recreation is having on the Fells
- nature trail replaced with bike trails - DCR wants to closed Dark Hollow nature trail, one of the most ecologically diverse and important sections of the Fells with 12 distinctly different plant communities. Photos and info on each area.
- Bike lobby: more trails equals more bike sales - bike industry sales stagnate during recession, lobby has opening over a thousand miles of new trails which helps dealers and manufacturers sell more bikes. Gives trail grants and other assistance to members like the New England Mountain Bike Association. Fells critically important to success elsewhere, if Boston accepts bikes will easy to get bike trails in countless other locations around the country. If Boston rejects bikes, just the opposite will happen. This is why it is so critical that the DCR make a decision based on facts about bikes, not flaky studies fed to them by NEMBA, IMBA, BikesBelong, and the mob of bikers who have attended every Resource Management Plan meeting.
- DCR says no complaints about bikes, dozens of letters show to DCR show this is not the case at all. Excerpts from just a few of the many letter written to the DCR complaining about bikes impacting the Fells experience, trail erosion, safety and other issues.
- Sierra club against bikes in the Fells - DCR plans go against Sierra Club policy
- Important Court Decision declares Mountain Biking is not a legal “right” - bikers complain about exclusion and elitism on the part of those trying to protect the Fells but the court says this is not a valid argument to justify biking.