Cool Places to Run -- Massachusetts
It could be successfully argued that Massachusetts is the center of running—that Boston is the Capital of the World of Running. It is a fact that there are more races on the calendar in the Bay State than in any other.
Posted Tuesday, 21 February, 2006
There are hundreds of races of all sizes and shapes, some with very long history and deep traditions. And of Course, there is the Boston Marathon, which in many ways is responsible for tremendous running traditions throughout New England.
But Massachusetts running is more than Boston. There are strong traditions on Cape Cod, the Connecticut Valley, the seacoast, and especially in the Merrimack Valley. There is simply nothing in the world like Massachusetts running traditions.
From these traditions grow running clubs, new races, fun runs, and an entire community based on the sport. There are thousands of wonderfully enjoyable, fulfilling, and inspiring places to run in the Bay State. Here are a few.
Running along the Charles River in Boston and Cambridge, as well as adjacent towns, has become a real tradition. Providing a variety of distance options, from a 1.7-mile loop using the Longfellow Bridge, to an 18-mile loop. Runs along the Charles can be different, with many options for river crossings—clockwise, counterclockwise, figure eights, and double figure eights. The Charles River Basin and river shoreline are very scenic, with boathouses and yacht clubs, playgrounds, swimming pools, bathhouses, performing arts locations, picnic areas, athletic fields, parks, benches, boat launching ramps, statues, bridges, fish ladders, and monuments. There are also a few prestigious Universities along the way.
Oh yes, there are miles and miles of running and bike paths, all accessible by walkways and 12 pedestrian bridges. There are 11 rowing boat houses, and four for sailing. There is public access to rowing and sailing facilities, canoes and kayaks—and lessons—highly unusual in other regions. But it seems natural here. Up river from Watertown is another four miles of river greenway and protected wetlands. However, the vast majority of runners stay on the lower Charles—the nine miles between the Charles River Dam or the Museum of Science and the Watertown Footbridge. There are 11 bridge crossings between the two, providing hundreds of possible combinations with footpaths on both shores.
The Charles River Basin is an exciting multi cultural region with visitors from around the world. Thousands of them run along the Charles, making it a really cool place to run. There are over 50 colleges and universities, and more than 740 high tech companies in the immediate area. Many area students and employees run, and often along the Charles. There is an intriguing diversity in this Basin—runners everywhere.
How did the Charles become what it is today?
There is an impressive history behind what we see and enjoy today. The Charles River was home to Native Americans for at least 9,000 years before European contact. The last tribes were Algonquin. There are at least 16 archeological sites along the Basin where evidence has been found. The most extensive and continuous of them was at the present day location of the Arsenal in Watertown and the Perkins School.
The region was still tundra after the retreat of the glaciers, but the people came for the abundant fish and waterfowl in and along the river. Ocean levels rose gradually until reaching near present day levels about 3,700 years ago. Then forests eventually covered the land when the climate became milder. There is a myth that Leif Erickson or other Vikings—who were definitely in Newfoundland--sailed longboats into the harbor and the river several hundred years before the English and French came calling in the early 1500’s. The English settled Boston and several surrounding towns in 1630, and found the Charles both a highway and an obstacle to movement.
The headwaters of the Charles are near Exit 18 of I495 in the area where Bellingham, Milford, and Franklin come together. It winds some 73 miles before reaching Boston Harbor, and has become a tremendously valuable recreational resource. It was not always so.
A little over a century ago the community leaders of the bordering towns determined to convert polluted tidal mud flats, which were contaminated with industrial and human wastes, into a water park to serve the region. Industry along the river was widespread and heavily polluting. The Brighton Abattoir had exclusive right to slaughter all cattle within a six-mile radius, creating a stench on the water and the flats. The tremendously successful cleanup effort resulted in the Charles River Basin. For nearly a hundred years efforts were made to fill and reclaim the tidal mud flats, and the land area of Boston and Cambridge grew.
The most significant change came with the building of the Charles River Dam under what is now the Museum of Science (built on the park atop the dam in 1951). With that dam, water levels became controlled and constant, and the salt water and tides were eliminated. Nine miles of shoreline, on both the north and south edges of the river, were slowly converted into the Charles River Basin and esplanade of today.
Touring Cape Ann, running the Gloucester to Rockport loop is scenic, challenging, and quintessential New England. Harbors, boats, and ocean vistas abound when running along this route, using Route 127A out of Gloucester to Rockport, and Route 127 back to Gloucester. Gloucester is easily accessible from Route 128 (off I-95) directly into town. An equally enjoyable run can be had from Gloucester to Manchester, although this is an out and back of 15 miles, whereas the Rockport is a loop of 10 miles.
You will want to try this one in early spring or after Labor Day, because the tourist traffic gets very heavy. And heavy tourists are seldom friendly to runners. But it is a beautiful spot. Cape Ann has been a fishing village since the early 1600’s. There is a lot to see, and a growing number of tourist attractions, but the history and the natural beauty shine through.
Northfield Mountain Recreation Area is as different from Gloucester and Rockport as night and day. It is an environmental center and a hydroelectric facility, with a 320-acre reservoir near the recreation area. There are excellent, but challenging running trails on the mountain. The main trail is a four-mile loop to the top and back, with considerable elevation change. It is mostly quiet and peaceful, and most of the trail is wooded—a true nature trail worth close attention. The area is especially beautiful in the fall, but well worth the drive at any time.
It is located on Route 63, about two miles north of Route 2, and eight miles south of the New Hampshire Border. It is near the Connecticut River, the source for the hydroelectric power.
Lowell is a Renaissance City. And there are many loops along the Majestic Merrimack River and the intriguing canals, between proud mill buildings and along cobblestone streets. Lowell has pubs, and restaurants, and state and national parks to explain to all the history of this amazing city. This is where the Industrial Revolution began in America. Francis Cabot Lowell, the founder, and Jack Kerouac, one of its most famous citizens, would be proud of the revitalized city at the confluence of the Merrimack and Concord Rivers.
Water has always been the name of the game in Lowell. And today, some of the most interesting running loops are along the water. There is a River Walk on the south side of the Merrimack, which begins at the Boott Mill Museum, and heads west or upstream past the Tsongas Arena, and LeLacheur Park. Bridges offer a good combination of distances. For example, the River Walk and Pawtucket Street to the bridge at Pawtucket Dam provides excellent views of the river. Crossing that bridge to the north side brings you to Pawtucket Boulevard. A right turn on the boulevard and a half right on VFW Highway keeps you immediately alongside the river.
The VFW Highway takes you past the University of Lowell Bridge, and then makes a wide sweeping bend and passes the Ouellette Bridge. Another 8/10 mile brings you to the Central Bridge, where a right turn across the river takes you back to the Boott Mill on French Street. This is a 4.3-mile tour.
Lace Them Up and Go. We could list hundreds of other locations, and they could be emphasized by seasons. Even the same locations take on a different, inspiring character in fall and winter. Some of my favorites include running the long and isolated beaches of Plum Island, and the rail trails, dunes, and villages of Cape Cod. Historical locations such as Plymouth, Minuteman National Park, Concord, and Sturbridge are places where a run brings perspective and appreciation for the past. The Connecticut River Valley beckons, along with the privacy of the trails in the Berkshire Mountains, or the Blue Hills Reservation. There is a terrific 17-mile rail trail that runs from Hollis, New Hampshire to Ayer, Massachusetts. And the Minuteman Bike Trail from Cambridge to Concord is convenient for many. Trails along the Merrimack have tremendous appeal.
The running traditions run deep throughout the state and the region. There are so many areas for running, so many opportunities, and so much diversity for a relatively small state; it is no wonder Massachusetts is such a running hotbed. There are so many enjoyable miles to run, it is difficult to pick and plan. Running in Massachusetts has special appeal and long traditions. All running is local, and never more so than in the Baystate.