Winter Walks: Altar Rock alternate route
Winter Walks - Altar Rock alternate route -
On this New Year's Day, I'm trying out on you one of the walks from growing collection of walks that I hope to include in my Walking Nantucket Vol. II (working title only), so let me know what you think.
Even if you’ve recently arrived on the island for the first time or are just beginning to learn the lay of the land, it’s likely that you’ve heard of Altar Rock, that knob of glacial till crowned with glacial erratics along the edge of Nantucket’s terminal moraine locally known as the purported highest natural spot on Nantucket. And so haven’t the thousands of others who regularly hike, bike, drive and horseback ride to its nose-bleeding peak of 109 feet about a half-mile south of Polpis Road in the Moors. Which is why you should take this infinitely quieter and more scenic route to the fourth and westernmost of Saul’s Hills.
A relatively new entrance to the Moors in the Shawkemo [shah-kee-moh] area makes this hike a treat. In April 2009, the Nantucket Islands Land Bank purchased 13.1 acres of the 16.1-acre 169 and 169R Polpis Road for $4 million from Lucy R. Eilert who bought it in 1983 for her year-round residence. After acquiring the property, the Land Bank subdivided the larger of the two parcels, a 10.3-acre lot, breaking off three acres for Eilert’s house for she and her three children to use. The rest of the land, about 13.1 acres that went into permanent conservation, abuts the upland meadows and scrub oak thickets in the Middle Moors to the south and contains two marshes, one just east of the house that was originally a cranberry bog and the 6.9-acre inland portion of salt marsh called Folgers Marsh to the west, which is owned by the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, and one of two natural springs in the area.
The Eilert house, although private, was built in the 1820s with a root cellar beneath it and is pretty much in its original condition. It was previously owned by Harry Gordon, who had a car repair garage in town.
What You’ll See
Folger’s Marsh is a haven for water birds including ducks, herons and egrets, and if you have a keen eye for such birds, the yellow rail. White-tailed deer can be seen sometimes drinking at the edges of this marsh.
Early in this walk, the first right is a deadend spur leading to one of the more spectacular views of Nantucket Harbor where you can see a good chunk of Coatue to the north, Great Point and its lighthouse to the northeast, Coskata south of there, Head of the Harbor, Pocomo Point and parts of Polpis Harbor. There is another such view at the second right off the dirt road you’ll be walking on, but the view is not as spectacular and frequently vehicles are parked there.
At the bottom of a long hill heading south where the road intersects Pout Ponds Road, you’ll get the chance to check out Donut Pond, now more bog than pond, to the right of this intersection. Find your way through an overgrown path to the pond’s edge and observe how there is vegetation growing out of the center of the pond, hence its name, Donut Pond. As with all ponds on Nantucket upland plant species are gradually filling this pond by continuing to grow on its shrinking edges. As the plants die, their litter slowly builds up soils that fill in the pond.
Donut is one of several on the island known as a perched wetland because its water content is held in place, separated from ground water below by layers of clay. Also known as a kettle hole, a pond created by the weight of an enormous piece of glacial ice denting the ground, Donut Pond is prized by post-glacial botanists because pollen grains and macrofossils including seeds, twigs and leaves are held in the soils beneath it because the clay layers below prevented ground water from washing them away.
As you get closer to Altar Rock heading east, notice the vast flat area on your right stretching east, south and west. This is the outwash plain. When the last glacier to cover most of North America known, as the Laurentide Ice Sheet, receded, it left behind its handiwork: a line of hills called Saul’s Hills, after an Indian sachem, stretching from east-west from Quarter Mile, Folger and Macy’s hills to Altar Rock, westward onto the Shawkemo Hills, the Popsquatchet Hills in town and onto Trotts Hills in Madaket and out to the high ground on Tuckernuck. This ridgeline, known as the terminal moraine in geology-speak, is where the glacier stopped its southward advance before receding. As it melted, water gushed to the ocean in torrents to the south and east gradually smoothing over the land you’re looking at to the right of this road.
As you approach Altar Rock, if you’re walking in mid-July, keep an out for low bush blueberries growing on the ground. Up on Altar Rock, the view on a clear day is stellar. ’Sconset is visible to southeast, Tom Nevers and glimpses of the ocean to the south, Sesachacha Pond to east, Great Point, the harbor and Coatue to the north and northeast, and parts of town to the west and Northwest.
When to Go
Not during hunting season. Not on cold, windy winter days, unless that’s your cup of tea. Although I avoid the moors during the summer, except at dusk, I do venture out to pick blueberries during July. Spring and fall are my favorite times to walk this look. In spring, the moors are bursting with birds getting busy with the business of making nests and families, plants are pushing out leaves and the newness of the landscape is exhilarating coming alive after the drudgery of a gray, chilly winter makes being in the moors a new experience every time. During the fall, the moors are beautiful with the island’s own shades of fall colors and they are less crowded, as the summer people have fled for their mainland realities.
From the grassy parking area, go through the split-rail fence gateway and walk up the meadow following the edge of the brush on your right and keeping the house on your left. As you gain a view of the marsh to the east and the house drops in behind you, you’ll eventually come to a bend in a dirt-and-sand road commonly found in the moors. Go right on this road, following it as it arcs up to the west.
While on this road, avoid taking any of the right turns running off of it. However, the first two offer staggeringly beautiful views of Nantucket Harbor and the east end of the island. Follow this road as it rises up and then drops down into a valley. When it intersects another road in sight of the second of the three Pout Ponds, go left, walking in an easterly direction.
You’re now on Pout Ponds Road. Walk this road for about one mile or until you come to an intersection of several roads all coming into one very wide one down which to the left, you’d end up on Polpis Road and to the right, on top of Altar Rock. Go to the right and follow the road up past a round building with a conical white antenna on top it that aircraft use to navigate by.
After walking down Altar Rock, follow its main road out to Polpis Road and go left, west, onto the Polpis Road bike path, following it back to the turn for the Eilert property.
From the Milestone Road end of Polpis Road, go about 2.5 miles, 6.0 miles from the village of ’Sconset on Sankaty Road and then Polpis Road to 169/169R Polpis Road. Those on bikes can use the bike path on Polpis Road to follow the same route.
Once on the driveway, take the first right down into the meadow, driving down a dip and up to a crest, and parking in grassy parking area marked by split rail fencing. If you’re traveling by NRTA bus, the NRTA stop is either the Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum or UMass Field Station on the Sconset via Polpis Road Route.
Happy New Year!