Located on the edge of the Monadnock Region, for hikers, Stratton Mountain in Northfield, Massachusetts, is well worth the short drive.
Most people associate Stratton Mountain with the popular ski area in Vermont.
But in Northfield, Massachusetts, there is another mountain by that name.
Earlier this summer, my long-time hiking buddy, Curtis Carroll, and I made the short drive from Keene to check out this lesser-known peak on the edge of the Monadnock Region.
Most people associate Northfield - settled in 1673 - with a distinguished old New England town known for its wide, two-mile Main Street, handsome houses, and history.
But this small town that borders Winchester (NH) to the south also provides many hiking opportunities.
The topography of Northfield is one of sharp contrast. The western part of the town is on the rich, alluvial floodplain of the Connecticut River. But to the east the landscape rises sharply to forested hills.
Thousands of acres and 17 miles of trails are open to the public.
At 1,289 feet, Stratton Mountain is the high point of this chain of rolling hills.
We started our hike from the kiosk on Gulf Road following a one-way, 3.3-mile section of the New England Trail (NET) - formerly the Monadnock-Metacomet Trail.
The New England Trail, 125 miles, is a long-distance hiking trail that runs from the Long Island Sound in Connecticut to the New Hampshire/Massachusetts border.
The trail moved uphill into a woods of tall pine, maple, beech, and birch with striped maple (sometimes called Goosefoot Maple because the leaves of the small tree look like the shape of a goosefoot) growing underneath. Striped maple and hobblebush shrubs (which we would see lots of later) are typical in the understory of a northern hardwood-conifer forest.
Although we would experience no open views until the very end of the hike, the tall trees that offered shade throughout long wooded stretches, both hardwood and hemlock stands, were much appreciated.
Several minutes into the hike we came to the western junction for the blue-blazed Bald Hills Loop, an optional side path that crosses the top of the ridge above Gulf Road and rejoins the NET at the eastern junction.
We opted to bypass the loop and stick to the NET, which continued over gently rolling terrain and past a variety of ground cover that included wild lily-of-the valley, starflower - a low growing wildflower with 5 lance-shaped leaves arranged in a single whorl near the top of the stem - Princess pine and partridgeberry.
The tattoo of a hairy woodpecker - short, with loud, deliberate, well-spaced taps - and the “chip” of chipmunks provided familiar nature sounds. The name chipmunk derives from the chipping call these small, chunky rodents make when startled.
Curtis, a geology buff, stopped to dig out a flat layered stone of garnet schist and inserted it into a side pocket of his backpack.
“There are garnet chips mixed in. They polish and use it for counter tops,” he said.
Ten minutes from the start, the trail began a long steady drop down into a deep valley.
We knew the hike required a moderately steep ascent on both the outbound and return trip.
“It’s going to be a steep climb back,” said Curtis.
After passing an impressive bed of ferns, ledgy area and huge oak and white birch trees, we came to the eastern junction (left) for the Bald Hills Loop. We continued on the NET which moved steadily downhill.
An interesting stone wall rambling down the hillside caught our attention. This ancient barrier, like many old stone walls in the woods, was “dry stacked” (assembled without mortar). A stone wall assembled in this fashion has lots of cracks. But don’t let the dry stacked method of building a stone wall deceive you about its strength. Dry stone walls last for hundreds of years. Should any movement in the ground occur they can flex, move and settle.
The trail dropped down into a hemlock ravine.
Here we saw thick clusters of hobblebush. The straggly shrub seemed to tag alongside us for the next portion of our hike. Hobblebush has pendulous branches that can trip or “hobble” walkers, hence its name. It thrives in wet, moist woods and often forms an understory in hemlock forest.
The trail moved past two massive boulders (left) matted with papery-looking rock tripe - large lichen resembling a leathery, curled-up lettuce leaf attached at its lower middle to the rock. It sort of resembled peeling paint on the side of an old house.
Unless the day is wet, rock tripe is apt to be rather dry and brown.
We continued through the hemlock forest along the western side of Hidden Pond past more boulders and hobblebush. Soon the trail moved slightly uphill on a drier, matted oak and beech leafed surface.
A sudden movement on the forest floor, a flash of emerald, caught my eye. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be an Emerald Ash borer. Although only one-half inch long, this bright metallic green beetle is capable of taking down ash trees thousands of times its size, boring into the tree, feeding on tissues beneath the bark, and ultimately killing it. Originally from Asia, the tiny beetle is believed to have entered this country hidden in wood packing materials. How can something so beautiful be so bad?
An hour and 20 minutes into the hike we reached the junction with the Collier Cemetery trails.
Turning left, we followed the NET uphill on a wide path. “This is probably an old (woods) road because there is a cemetery nearby,” said Curtis.
Minutes later we turned right and exited the old woods road. After moving past an impressive flat horizontal ledge (left), we glimpsed a patch of blue through the trees indicating we were nearing our destination.
Minutes later we arrived at the summit (East View).
Here we found an AMC shelter and a magnificent 180-degree view.
Mount Grace in Warwick, Massachusetts, dominated the foreground with Mount Monadnock prominently affixed on the horizon to the northwest. Mount Ascutney was visible on the distant horizon to the far left.
After picking a few blueberries that were beginning to ripen, watching cloud shadows drift over the rolling hills, and checking out the Richardson-Zlogar cabin built by AMC volunteers in 2001, we headed home - refreshed and ready for the “steep climb” back.
To get to Stratton Mountain, from Keene drive on Route 10 south to Winchester. At the Routes 119,78/10 junction, continue on Route 10 south for 7.2 miles to Northfield. Turn left onto Maple Street, which turns into Gulf Road, and continue for 3.2 miles to the trailhead (right).
To learn more about the Richardson-Zlogar cabin, go to newenglandtrail.org. Overnight sites.