Winter Wonderlands in Central Massachusetts
This article was featured in the Winter 2020 issue of Explore, our quarterly magazine for members.
As the cold sets in and winter descends on New England, the natural world can seem like a pretty quiet place—trees have shed their leaves and many birds have migrated to warmer climates, while various other creatures have hunkered down for a long sleep to wait out the spring. Even the hush that follows a snowfall seems to suggest that winter is a time for rest and quiet.
But just because much of nature is dialing back its activity doesn't mean you have to! With 13 Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries boasting an impressive array of terrain and habitats spreading across Central Massachusetts, there are plenty of opportunities for outdoor exploration.
Start at the Center
At Wachusett Meadow in Princeton and Broad Meadow Brook in Worcester, warm up in the Nature Centers and check in with the welcoming staff and volunteers who will help you get equipped, answer your questions, and keep tabs on any exciting wildlife sightings.
Here you can traverse 13 and 5 miles of trails (respectively) by foot. Or when the snow flies, rent snowshoes or join a "pop-up" snowshoeing program complete with hot cocoa at the end.
Wachusett Meadow and Broad Meadow Brook also host a variety of programs throughout winter including wildlife tracking, moonlight walks, owl prowls, and birding trips that give new meaning to the moniker "snowbirds."
Discover Someplace New
At the other 11 Central Massachusetts sanctuaries, it’s just you and nature—there are no staff or facilities, but parking is available at most sites in winter. Pick up a trail map at the sign in the parking lot or trailhead, or download one from our website. Get there early enough and you may be the first to break trail after a fresh snowfall. Each site is unique and no two visits will ever be the same.
Here are five great ones to start your adventure:
Pierpont Meadow in Dudley features a farm road, fields, and woodlands, snowshoeing on 211 acres that were once entirely cleared for agricultural purposes. Stone walls still stand amidst pine groves and along the edges of meadows, offering a glimpse into the land’s past and providing excellent shelter for chipmunks, weasels, and other wildlife. If you want to squeeze in a quick hike or are a snowshoeing beginner, this is a good place to test your abilities.
Take the Flat Rock Trail to Richard’s Overlook at Burncoat Pond in Spencer for a northerly view into the sanctuary’s namesake pond. There you may be lucky enough to spot deer, fox, beaver, muskrat, and otter. You can easily extend your walk or snowshoe by visiting the neighboring Greater Worcester Land Trust and Sibley Farm Conservation Area. Numerous woodland trails, a long slope to the top of a drumlin (a teardrop-shaped hill formed by glaciers), and access to the Midstate Trail give you plenty of options and difficulty levels.
Since Lake Wampanoag in Gardner is one of the lesser-visited wildlife sanctuaries in our network, it’s easy to get away from the crowds there. That is, of course, if you don’t count the resident wildlife, including moose, bear, deer, bobcats, and coyotes, among others. Look for bark that moose have stripped from young red maples and tamped-down "deer beds" where tired travelers settle in to catch some Z’s. Expect colder temperatures here in northern Worcester County and dress in layers. The Moosewood Trail passes through a section of Spruce-Fir forest that gives you the impression you are much farther north and loops around to the top of an extensive field with a gentle downward slope back to the parking lot.
If you're looking for a hidden gem in a city center, Flat Rock's extensive trail network is just minutes from downtown Fitchburg. The bustling noise of the city fades into the softer sounds of winter songbirds and rustling leaves. Flat Rock provides habitat for species that require relatively large territories, like fisher, coyote, and red fox, occasionally welcoming visitors such as bobcats and black bears.
Located on the Groton–Ayer town line, Rocky Hill is a landscape of impressive ledges, large glacial erratic boulders, beaver ponds, vernal pools, and extensive, uninterrupted woodlands. Rocky outcrops and exposed granite ridges provide protective cover for porcupines, which remain active throughout winter; look for large piles of droppings outside their den entrances and dropped quills along the trails they plow through the snow to their favorite feeding sites.
Whether you choose to explore the Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries of Central Massachusetts on your own or with a guide, there is no shortage of places to see, adventures to choose from, or wildlife to spot in this abundantly rich region of the state.
Visit massaudubon.org/central-ma for upcoming programs, trail maps, and more information on how to get out and enjoy nature in all its wintry glory.