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Get lost in Saul's Hills!

Winter Walks: Stalking tall trees in the moors


Winter Walks: Stalking tall trees in the moors


For most of last week, I worked on a multi-route walk for Walking Nantucket Vol. II (working title only). I walked four out of the five routes in the vicinity of Saul's Hills in the Middle Moors and then wrote first drafts for each of them.

For the Jan. 8 walk, I shared one of those routes, which follows mountain bike trails and then loops back for a walk up Folger's Hill and then back down to continue the loop. This week's walk starts by following the first half of that route, but then careens off toward the southwest in view of the Milestone Cranberry Bog over to the south side of a scrub-oak-encrusted hill and then down onto a trail that leads up onto the lower western end of Folger's Hill. Bear in mind that this is a first draft that will most certainly change through the editing process and, depending on who publishes this book, may or may not be in the book.

Either way, enjoy this week's hike!

Extended MTB Trail Loop w/Folger’s Hill or cutoff as options (Longer Loop)

Length: 4.0 miles

Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

Difficulty Rating: Moderate

Dogs: Yes

Children: Yes

Wild Food: None, it being winter and all!

The Area

High spots in the Middle Moors equate what qualifies as a mountain range on Nantucket. Specifically, Saul’s Hills, which include Quarter Mile, Macy’s and Folger’s hills, Altar Rock, the second highest spot on Nantucket 109 feet behind Folger’s Hill at 112, and all the unnamed hills in this part of the moors, are the most prominent peaks out in the moors.

This mini-range of island mounts is named for Old Saul, a Wamponoag Native American chief who lived on Nantucket during the 1600s. Old Saul’s name is also shared with a few ponds near Crooked Lane west of town. Although Saul presided over partially forested and meadow covered topography during his reign and later, the appetite of European settlers’ collective herd of roughly 15,000 sheep maintained this land as grassland, a scrub oak jungle is what you’re getting yourself into if you’ve chosen these walks in Saul’s Hills.

These hills exist on the eastern edges of the north central part of Nantucket known as the Middle Moors, which is the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s name for this section of the island that it owns among more than 9,000 acres of the island. Exploration of this island wilderness can be undertaken on scores of trails, dirt-and-sand roads, and from multiple trailheads from either Milestone or Polpis roads. And all of this area of Nantucket is part of the terminal moraine or, glacial debris that the last glacier to blanket much of the Northern Hemisphere pushed down onto the coastal plain 21,000 years ago.

At that time, the latter portion of the Wisconsinan Glacial Stage of the Pleistocene Epoch, the glacier began melting, leaving Nantucket ice-free around 18,000 years ago. This landmass, the glacial debris, a low ridge of sand, gravel, larger rocks and boulders, called glacial erratics, bulldozed from as far north as the St. Lawrence region of Canada where this glacier, known as the Laurentide ice sheet, originated and all the way down through Northern New England out onto the then dry coastal plain, would eventually become Nantucket. Remnants of this terminal moraine, so named because it’s a pile of debris left at the end of the glacier’s southerly advance appear in the Middle Moors as Saul’s Hills and Shawkemo Hills just west of Altar Road.

To enter this unique and beautiful part of Nantucket, you’ll walk through Windswept Cranberry Bog, a certified organic Early Black cranberry bog created in the early 1900s and past Stump Pond and its shrub swamp.

What You’ll See

Scrub oak and more scrub oak. But don’t write off this invasive tree species that supplanted the sea of tall grasses when the whaling industry thinned Nantucket’s sheep herd numbering in the tens of thousands that ate all vegetation in sight, keeping it shorn close to the ground.

A survivor in challenging growing conditions, scrub oak’s base resides just below ground and produces hundreds of dormant buds awaiting germination should the trees branches be decimated by fire, brushcutting, disease or hungry sheep. If calamity does strike the tree topside, these buds shoot up many new sprouts that can grow three to four feet a year and produce acorns in three years.

Attaining full height of around 15 feet tall in five to seven years, scrub oaks then die back and actually thrive horizontally when its branches are damaged, starting the whole process over again.

But there is a great deal more vegetation to see out in the moors than the scrub oak, a non-native species on Nantucket classified as a shrub, that thrives in these sandy albeit, drought-plagued soils lacking nutrients. Using a guidebook such as Peter Alden’s “Field Guide to New England” or Peter W. Dunwiddie’s “Wildflowers of Nantucket,” you should be able to find other plants species hardy enough to grow in this barren terra firma including Eastern red cedar, pitch pine, black pine, ‘low-bush blueberry, Northern arrowwood, bayberry, huckleberry, dwarf chestnut oak, sweet fern, blueberry, sickle-leaved yellow aster, stiff-leaved aster, beach plum, broom crowberry and bearberry.

As these books inform, the maritime heath or coastal heathlands, colloquially dubbed “the moors”, is a shrub-dominated habitat with grasses and wildflowers mixed in grounded in gravelly, rocky, nutrient-poor soil…

Here and there, you’ll find lone pitch pine trees uncommonly tall with unusually thick trunks. Because they were able to survive to grow beyond the shading of the scrub oaks, these pines, which also do well in the poor soil of the moors, are a delight to discover. Also on their own in a handful of spots with enough sunlight are holly trees just off Almanack Pond Road and in the forested area around Stump Swamp, likely volunteers from the nearby former holly farm, Holly Tree Farm at ---- Polpis Road opposite Almanack Pond Road.

When the bog was built, then bog owned Fred Maglathlin built the dike around parts of the north side of Stump Swamp to contain the water and form Stump Pond for use in flooding Windswept’s bogs during the October harvest.

Using the scrub oak thicket for cover, you can spot many migratory and year-round birds including Eastern towees, gray catbirds, yellow warblers and chickadees. Soaring above, Northern harriers, American crows, red-tail hawks and turkey vultures. In Stump Pond and its swamp, ducks of several varieties take refuge along with Canada geese. During warmer seasons, great, little and a few cattle egrets, black-crowned night herons, great blue herons and double-crested cormorants roost at night in the trees along the edge of the pond and swamp just a few minutes’ flight to Polpis Harbor where they’ll feed during the day.

Some ducks and a great blue heron or two can occasionally be found in Almanack Pond, shallow a kettle hole or kettle pond. Formed by a massive chunk of stranded glacial ice around which sediments flowing from the retreating glacier built up. When the iceberg melted, the resulting depression left behind became a collector of water mirroring groundwater level and serving as an almanac based on its appearance and water level through the year.

The Walk

From the Windswept Cranberry Bog parking area, walk to the right of the maroon map kiosk after grabbing the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Middle Moors map and then go around the steel cable blocking vehicles from the bogs and down through the tree-lined path leading to the bogs. Take your first right and, walking toward the bog in front of you, walk along its dike with the bog on your left to its far side. At the forest with the trail heading into it, go left so that you’re between the trees and the bog. When you reach a t-intersection on the dike, go right and walk along the trees a bit more, ignoring the hard left.

Walk through the opening in front of you and then along the dike so that there is bog on your right and brush on your left. Follow this dike to a dirt road (Almanac Pond Road) and go left onto this road.

Continue on Almanack Pond past three private properties and their driveways, the first on the left immediately after exiting the cranberry bogs and the next two further down the road on the right. You’ll eventually pass the Land Bank parking area marked with one of their blue, white and green posts. Just beyond the Land Bank parking area you’ll find Almanack Pond at the intersection of Almanack Pond Road and another a dirt road called North Road. Go past this road, keeping the pond on your right and walk up the slight rise. When the road splits, go right.

After a brief s-turn up this rise, find the right turn that descends down into the ocean of scrub oak. Because of certain intrepid and curious island mountain bikers, there exists now a labyrinth of hiking/biking trails in the Middle Moors between the centuries old dirt roads that also make great hiking trails.

There are no turns off this trail, so follow it down and then up to the next dirt road. Along the way, you’ll pass a pair of those larger pitch pines I mentioned earlier. The trail runs into a dirt road right before it crests a high spot. Go left onto this road and walk up to catch a great view. To the east is Sesachacha Pond and the ocean just beyond. Look at little further south to spy Sankaty Head Lighthouse. Panning further southward is ’Sconset, its water tower and the ocean beyond. Do an about face and look north to see Nantucket Harbor, Coatue and Nantucket Sound.

To keep moving, find the trail on the south side of the hill and follow it down into the brush. As with the previous trail, it too runs down into a shallow ravine and then back up over a ridge. Walking down the other side, you’ll find Folger’s Hill Road where you’ll go right.

On Folger’s Hill Road, walk about 100 feet where, on your left, you'll find another way to explore this area and get some great views of the Milestone Cranberry Bogs and fleeting glimpses of the harbor during winter when all the leaves are off of the trees, the connecting trail that mountain bikers use to get down to Barnard Valley Road and the trail leading to the Wigwam Ponds and Altar Rock. Little more than a deer trail originally, this is another way to make the Folger’s Road Loop even longer.

The trail immediately runs upward, but nothing too serious, for Nantucket boasts hardly any such steep inclines as the mountainous regions of New England. Cut on the south side of this ridge for this first section, you’ll get views of the cranberry bogs for a bit before the trail moves over to the top and north side of the ridge from which Nantucket Harbor is briefly visible.

Eventually, a stand of tall pitch pines will be visible off this north side as the trail dips down and then starts climbing again. Nearing the end of this connector trail just as you crest the last rise, be on the lookout for a short faint trail on your right that winds through the brush to a glacial erratic, a boulder that the last glacier left on Nantucket. From here, you’ll get a great view of the Milestone Cranberry Bogs and to your left, you can see ocean and part of ’Sconset with its water tower poking up on the horizon.

Once back out on the connector trail, keep walking in the direction that brought you to the boulder path, crossing a narrow bridge over a ditch and stopping when you reach an intersection. In the next walk, I’ll lead you across this intersection to continue on down the mountain bike trail, but for this walk, take a right here and ignore all left turns, except as landmarks.

You’re looking for the first right after the second left on this trail. After the first left, you’ll encounter one of my most favorite trees on Nantucket. With its thick trunk and tall crown all by itself as an evergreen beacon standing well above an ocean of scrub oak, this pine must be at least 60 to 70 years old. Having had no competition for sunlight once it reached about 15 feet in height and being a plant that does well in the nutrient-poor soil of the terminal moraine on Nantucket, this tree is great for shade on a hot day and the whispering sound it makes when the wind blows through its needles

After this magnificent tree, the next thing to see is a ginormous glacial erratic on the right side of the trail. Shortly after that is the second left turn and just past that turn is the right turn you’re looking for.

Follow this new trail as it rises up a slope, which quickly gets steeper before reaching the western end of the Folger’s Hill ridge trail. At this point, you have two choices: follow the ridge trail up to Folger’s Hill a 10-minute detour, tops, or take the trail on your left.

This walk continues by going left down another mountain bike trail that eventually deposits you in what is surely a deer hideout with a tiny pond surrounded by red maples and white oaks. Once down there with the water in front of you, follow the trail to the left of the water and then around it to the right. Keep walking and you'll find a more pronounced trail that runs up to Folger's Hill Road. Go left when you reach the road and then at t-intersection with North Road, go right. Follow this road back to the t-intersection with Almanack Pond Road.

With the pond on your right, go left to walk back to the Windswept Cranberry Bog parking area.

Getting there

Find the Windswept Cranberry Bog parking area on the south side of Polpis Road between Wauwinet and Quidnet Roads. Start your walking here as detailed in The Walk.

If you want to see the Nantucket wilderness through my eyes, in my alternate universe I run a business called Nantucket Walkabout offering guided natural history hikes on the island's protected lands. Click here to check out my website and while there, click on Hike Calendar to see where I'm going on what days.