Get out on the Serengeti where the plywood animals play!
The light is changing. Well, it's constantly changing, but we're getting into the time of year when the air becomes clearer as the prevailing winds start shifting from the southwest of the summer to the north, northwest, northeast and east of autumn and winter. So, instead of getting all of haze of humid air combined with the rest of the country's pollution brought to us by the east-moving jet stream, we get air from Canada and from the ocean.
With this renewed clarity of air comes the rich colors of sunlight on our island's trees, beaches and open lands. If you're a photographer, you shouldn't miss shooting this time of year, especially out in the moors and especially the last two or three hours of the day leading up to and through sunset. I've found that one of the more spectacular places to be during this time is out on the Serengeti, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation's property right along Milestone Road that's wide open and gives one the feeling of being on an open plain in Africa.
When I finally do publish my second volume of walks, the walk below is definitely going to be in it, as the route is another essential hike into a part of the maritime heathlands that all Nantucketers and our visitors should see.
So, get out there!
Time: 60-90 minutes
Difficulty Rating: Moderate
Children: At your discretion
No, you are not going on guided safari by Land Rover over the grassy and wooded plains of the actual Serengeti on the African continent bounded by the countries of Tanzania to the south and Kenya to the north. But you will be exploring Nantucket’s version on approximately 100 acres of the Middle Moors off Milestone Road.
Owners, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, borrowed the name Serengeti when a clandestine group of island carpenters began erecting plywood zoo animals starting with a giraffe and an elephant in view of Milestone Road the Friday night of Daffodil Weekend at the end of April 2001.
Each year since, new African animals appear each April including zebras, gazelles, lions, elephants and rhinoceroses. Now the name Serengeti is used to describe an area listed on the Foundation’s Middle Moors map that it regularly brush cuts to enhance habitat for the rare flowers and grasses, and for the Northern harrier. The cutting and maintenance of the Serengeti along with 900 more acres elsewhere on the island is funded by the Nantucket Golf Club as part of a condition of the Planning Board’s 1996 issuance of a Major Commercial Development special permit for the club and the Foundation’s request that it somehow soften its impact on the island environment.
Bounded by Turner Road to the west, Milestone Road to the south, the Milestone Cranberry Bogs to east and the rest of the moors to the north, the Serengeti is a former grassland taken over by bayberry and invasive species including scrub oak and Japanese pitch pine. It is an open land sparsely dotted with a mix of trees including Eastern red cedar, sassafras — whose bark can treat syphilis — some black tupelo, and blanketed in scrub oak saplings and low bush blueberries that are ripe in early July and perfect for blueberry scones that I love to make.
What You’ll See
A hike through the Serengeti and around the rest of this loop gives one the feeling of what it must have been like when most of Nantucket’s rolling hills and meadows that are now known as The Moors were blanketed with grasses that fed the island’s collective herd of sheep numbering at one time in the tens of thousands. Like the sheep that were shorn for their wool, the Foundation keeps its Serengeti property leveled to within one or two feet of the ground.
This serves a dual purpose. First, it keeps invasive plant species, namely the scrub oak shoots, at bay, allowing rare and endangered plants including bushy rockrose and St. Andrew’s Cross to thrive. Second, the regular brushcutting clears a rodent killing zone for Northern harriers — formerly known as the marsh hawk — a member of the raptor family, which can hover over the ground with just the slightest of breezes, so it can catch its food. Spot them by their white ring of feathers at the top of their shoulders and their airborne roly-poly hovering movements just off the ground.
Red-tailed hawks, marked with reddish brown tail feathers and brown-flecked white bellies, also benefit from this human-restored habitat, soaring above these plains and sitting silent and motionless in trees out in the open or on telephone poles along Polpis Road. On the ground and just hidden from view, jittery enough to be flushed at the slightest human sound or odor, are whitetail deer, which typically go bounding away for cover, white tails flipping as they leap over bushes and small trees.
Because of the brushcutting, you can see for miles and miles in all directions and with almost nothing in your way, you can walk pretty much wherever your curiosity takes you. Inevitably, island hikers do find their way up to Altar Rock, the tall hill to north of the highest point on the Serengeti, a much ballyhooed, and overcrowded, scenic vista from which much of the island and its waters are visible.
But I’ve found the views from the Serengeti’s high place to be equally as breathtaking as those from Altar Rock and, much less crowded. The steeples of the First Congregational and Unitarian churches, and parts of town to the west are easily visible. To the east, the Milestone Cranberry Bogs, Sankaty Head Lighthouse, the village of ’Sconset and its silvery original water tower and its bulbous, top-heavy new one and, between there and Tom Nevers, glimpses of the ocean to the south. Do an about face and you’ll know you’re staring at Altar Rock by the S-shaped dirt road heading up it just to the right of the white omnibeacon, and below it, Gibbs Pond. On a clear day, you should be able to see Great Point and slivers of Nantucket Harbor.
When to Go
About 30 minutes before sunset one day after the autumnal equinox in early fall of 2008 at the end of one of those crystal clear, brilliant sunshiny days when the sky is its deepest blue, I was nearly down to the Turner Road end of the Serengeti and getting bathed in that ultra-bright fading sunlight that makes late September so glorious for sunset walks. Grass, leaves, trunks, stems and branches blanched by a full season of blazing sun, salty fog and drenching rains otherwise muted and dust-covered during the daylight were now lighting up in an earth tone spectrum of colors against a darkening backdrop of the eastern horizon going steadily into night.
Sparkling out among the sea of scrub oak and other brush were the only two flowering plants I could find; purple asters and goldenrod, and the nearly omnipresent reddish little bluestem grass. They were everywhere along Turner Road on either side as if screaming out against the dying of their bodies.
Although Nantucket is not known as a leaf-peeping destination in the fall, those with a penchant for subtle vegetation changes including the aforementioned flowers, poison ivy and black tupelo, which turn neon red and the rustic browning of scrub oak, can find all the fall colors they desire out in moors on Nantucket.
This, next to springtime, is the best time to do this walk. During the summer, the Serengeti, although not nearly as stifling as its namesake, is not the place to be during the day. If you need to get out there during mid-June, July and August, early morning or an hour or so before sunset works best.
From late fall through early spring, you’ll find this loop to be quite inhospitable whenever there is moderate to windy conditions and chilly temperatures with little or now sunshine. However, given sufficient snowfall, this is a great area to cross-country ski or snowshoe across on calm sunny days.
In the fall of 2008, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation closed off its parking area perched over its cranberry bogs and opened a new lot closer to Milestone Road. This parking area on the north of side of Milestone Road, near the top of Bean Hill just after Tom Nevers Road heading east and just after the scenic turnout at the top of Bean Hill heading west, is marked with is ubiquitous red and white concrete stanchion capped its sign and logo, and mile marker five with a black 5 on a white rock surrounded by split-rail fencing.
The walking begins at the opening in the split-rail fence. Grab a copy of NCF’s Middle Moors map in the box on a post at the trailhead. Now, walking north, follow the wide-mown path as it skirts the northern boundary of the Serengeti close to the edge of the brush, following it left as it goes up a small rise. Once cresting that rise and then dropping down into a dell, continue on this perimeter trail. Do not take the left or right turn here, and do not take the right at the bottom of the next hill.
Around 100 yards ahead, you’ll encounter a fork. Go right and continue around the brush boundary of the Serengeti or go left and find the center trail. I prefer going left to the center trail. When you reach it, go right onto this grass road opposite a section of white PVC pipe stuck on a green metal fence post that bisects this property running east-west. From here, follow the grassy, dirt road continuing west and follow it over several rises and dips, down to a T-intersection with Turner Road.
At this dirt road, go right and at the next intersection, go right again. You’re now walking parallel to the Serengeti trail heading east back toward the cranberry bogs. When you reach a fork in the road, go right and right again at the next fork where another track, Larsen Road, named for Roy E. Larsen, one of the founding members of NCF, merges with the one you’re on and takes you back to the parking area up on Milestone Road.
At this junction, however, looking north, Altar Rock is visible and identified by several large boulders on its summit just to the right of the omnibeacon. If you have the time and desire, you can follow Larsen Road north through two intersections and, going right at the first fork, take this new road right up to Altar Rock.
To find your way back to the parking lot, walk south away from Altar Rock, counting four entrances to the Serengeti with cables across them on the right side of the road marked as service roads. Take a right onto the fourth one in sight of the cranberry bogs. Take a right at the first fork you come to and then a left at the second fork. This trail leads up to the parking lot.
Drive out to the top of Bean Hill, the rise after the turn for Tom Nevers Road. If coming from town, take the first left after Tom Nevers Road. If coming from ’Sconset, take the first right after the scenic vista pull-over spot on the south side of Milestone Road. Parking is a gravel parking area