Hidden Gems: Mass Audubon’s Best-Kept Secrets

Pondshore Trail at Lake Wampanoag
Pondshore Trail at Lake Wampanoag

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This article was featured in the Summer 2018 issue of Explore, our quarterly magazine for members.
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Mass Audubon’s wildlife sanctuaries welcome more than 500,000 visitors per year, who come to explore the diverse habitats each sanctuary protects, watch for wildlife, take a guided program, unplug, and reconnect with nature. The vast majority of these folks will visit one of 20 sanctuaries with a nature center, staff, and volunteers, but did you know that we have dozens of other, less-frequented sanctuaries that welcome the public?

We like to think of these sites as Mass Audubon’s “hidden gems,” and they are just waiting for you to experience their miles of trails, scenic waterways, and unparalleled beauty. Best of all, they offer an even better chance to get away from the crowds and find some room to breathe the fresh air.

Here are 10 of our favorite best-kept secrets. To see the full list of 58 wildlife sanctuaries across Massachusetts, visit the Places to Explore page.


Berkshires

Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly at Lime Kiln Farm
Great Spangled Fritillary at Lime Kiln Farm Wildlife Sanctuary

At Lime Kiln Farm in Sheffield, the gentle terrain is great for walking or hiking and enjoying terrific views of the Berkshires, including Mount Everett. Take a short trip along Lime Kiln Loop Trail to a historic old lime kiln, or opt for a longer trek out to the aptly named Taconic Vista Trail. The sanctuary attracts a stunning variety of butterflies, including Great Spangled Fritillary, Pearl Crescent, Monarch, Mourning Cloak, and Viceroy, to name a few of the more than 50 species recorded there.


Connecticut River Valley

View from Mohawk Trail at High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary
High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary

At High Ledges in Shelburne, a one-mile trek to the end of the road brings you to the sanctuary’s eponymous ledges overlooking the Deerfield River Valley. From this spot, there is a fabulous view up the Mohawk Trail to Mount Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts. The sanctuary offers four to five additional miles of trails to explore.

The four miles of trails at Laughing Brook in Hampden are packed with hidden gems. Pause to snap a few photos of the historic home of children’s author Thornton W. Burgess before embarking on the sanctuary proper. A short walk on the Mort and Helen Bates Trail brings you to a pavilion overlooking a small pond, a beautiful spot for a summer picnic as you watch for Belted Kingfishers and Red-winged Blackbirds. Venture farther out on the East Brook Trail to see a cool split rock. Just under two miles, the Neff Loop rewards the adventurous with a trek past babbling brooks through a serene hemlock forest.

A former dairy farm, Graves Farm in Williamsburg and Whately is regularly visited by large mammals, such as bears, deer, fishers, coyotes, bobcats, and moose, thanks to the thousands of acres of surrounding forestlands. A beaver pond, a pristine cold-water brook, pastoral meadows, and two miles of trails (including one that passes through a perfectly halved rock) round out the offerings at this lesser-known but lovely wildlife sanctuary.


Central Massachusetts

Rutland Brook view from pine forest
Rutland Brook Wildlife Sanctuary

Visit Rutland Brook in Petersham to walk through a cathedral of old hemlocks and white pines along moss-covered, rocky Rutland Brook. The power and sound of the brook are most intense in the spring or after heavy rains. Continue up to Sherman Hill where, at the base of vertical, lichen-covered cliffs, you can easily locate a porcupine den that has been used for decades. 

In early summer look for the grass-loving Bobolinks at Lake Wampanoag in Gardner. Later the fields are covered with aster, goldenrods, and milkweeds that attract many species of butterflies including Monarchs. At the same time, look for the numerous and various species of dragonflies as they cruise and hunt over the flowers. A walk in the woods will bring you to a Balsam Fir and Red Spruce forest, an uncommon habitat in Worcester County. Keep your eyes peeled for old or current signs of moose. 


North Shore

Salt marsh at Rough Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary
Salt marsh at Rough Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary

For a taste of the salty ocean air, head to Rough Meadows in Rowley, where five well-marked trails lead you through magnificent coastal woodlands to several observation points with panoramas of the Great Marsh. Pause for a rest or a snack on one of the sanctuary’s granite benches before venturing out to take in more of the site’s spectacular salt marshes, tidal creeks, and salt pannes (shallow depressions found in salt marshes).


Greater Boston

Pond trail at Waseeka Wildlife Sanctuary
Pond trail at Waseeka Wildlife Sanctuary

Grab your camera and head to Waseeka in Hopkinton. A photographer’s dream, this small sanctuary has one main trail to a dike overlooking a pond formed by Chicken Brook, where standing dead trees and snags provide nesting sites for Bluebirds, Pileated Woodpeckers, and Great Blue Herons. Additional highlights include nesting Osprey, Wood Ducks, and Hooded Mergansers. Early morning light is perfect for photographers looking across the pond, especially when the pond lilies are in bloom.


South of Boston

Pond at North Hill Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary
North Hill Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary

Five miles of trails, cooperatively managed by both Mass Audubon and the town of Duxbury, thread their way through diverse woodlands and rich wetlands around the namesake pond at North Hill Marsh. The sanctuary is a great destination for easy-to-moderate walks. Look for Snapping and Painted turtles, minks, muskrats, and otters in and around the edges of the pond, along with a variety of migratory waterfowl, including Ring-necked and Black ducks, Hooded Mergansers, kingfishers, herons, and more.


Cape Cod & the Islands

Trail at Skunknett River Wildlife Sanctuary
Trail at Skunknett River Wildlife Sanctuary

Witness nature reclaiming former mill sites and abandoned cranberry bogs at Skunknett River in Barnstable. Breathe in the fragrant scent of Atlantic White Cedar and keep an eye out for Black-crowned Night-Herons, Ospreys, and migrating ducks around West Pond.