Runners and joggers are heading off-road for the same reason cyclists are — traffic.
Or lack thereof.
For fitness buffs, trails offer an escape from narrow roads better suited to Smart Cars than your basic SUV. Add the concern of drivers possibly compromised by texting or cellphone chatter, and it’s no surprise that runners are reconsidering their options.
“It really gets you off the roads, away from the cars and the pollution,” said Melissa Whitten, a 39-year-old mother of three from Essex who organizes several local trail runs through her work with TriLife Coaching. “We’re so lucky to live in an area where we have so much. There are so many reservations around here. It would be foolish not to explore them. And it’s really so much fun.
“There are so many different ways to run the trails,” she added. “It never gets old. There’s constantly a new trail to find.”
Trail running might provide a sense of solitude, freeing your mind of any potential internal-combustion menace, but it certainly has its own challenges and rewards.
“The ground is so much easier on your body,” said Whitten. “And it’s much more of an overall workout, because you do have to adjust to the terrain and pick your lines. It’s like mountain biking. There’s a lot more lateral movement. It really is more of an overall workout than just pounding the pavement.”
Road runners must be aware of hazards, from cracks in the pavement to narrow shoulders. In the woods, roots, rocks, mud can all conspire to turn an ankle, or worse. “You have to be present when you’re trail running,” said Whitten.
Predictably, trail runners and mountain bikers are drawn to many of the same locations. For that reason alone, check out “Six places to go off-road bicycling north of Boston,” from May 9.
All these fat-tire hot spots — Lynn Woods Reservation, Middlesex Fells Reservation in Stoneham, Harold Parker State Forest in Andover, Bradley Palmer State Park/Willowdale State Forest in Hamilton and Ipswich, Maudslay State Park in Newburyport, and Ravenswood Park in Gloucester — are terrific trail-running destinations as well.
For variety’s sake, though, here are a few more off-road gems north of Boston.
Bay Circuit Trail
This is for trail runners who like the big picture. The Bay Circuit Trail is the culmination of an 84-year effort to ring Boston with a permanent public recreational greenway, linking parks and open spaces in more than 50 communities. Alternately known as the Bay Circuit Greenway, it features some 200 miles of trail from Plum Island and Ipswich to the South Shore. The northern arch is a study in diversity, a complex tapestry of trails running through parcels large and small, from salt marshes and beaches to hardwood forests. It stretches through a number of northern communities, including Newburyport, Georgetown, Boxford, Ipswich, North Andover, Andover, and Chelmsford.
Breakheart Reservation, Saugus
This urban oasis just west of Route 1, tucked behind the Kasabuski Arena, is a multi-use jewel. Managed by the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, the 640-acre hardwood forest offers an extensive but well-mapped trail system, two freshwater lakes (swimming is supervised at Pearce Lake), and tremendous views of Boston from several rocky outcroppings. Consider it the perfect antidote to the well-documented and oft-repeated traffic woes on Route 1.
Appleton Farms Grass Rides, Hamilton/Ipswich
A spectacular parcel managed by the Trustees of Reservations, abutting the Appleton Farms just off Route 1A, is a runner’s delight, with more than 5 miles of wide, smooth alleys that sprout single-track trails like tree limbs. You’ll find forest, grasslands, and wetlands, all neatly contained by four easily accessible roads. You’ll also encounter horses, so keep your head up. Highlights include the Great Pasture Trail, and Pigeon Hill overlook, which offers a wonderful glimpse of classic New England pastureland. Dogs are allowed, but that requires a pass issued by the trustees.
Chebacco Woods/Gordon College, Hamilton/Manchester/
You might recognize Chebacco Lake from the Adam Sandler comedy “Grown Ups.” Chebacco Woods, located across the street from the southern rim of the lake, is a wonderful example of what can be accomplished when grown-ups work together. The parcel was purchased by Hamilton and Manchester-by-the-Sea from the college in 1997, preserving an exceptional suburban escape (especially when combined with the adjacent Gordon Woods) for residents from Salem to Gloucester. The routes have been meticulously maintained, offering a smooth transition off-road for runners of every ability. Keep in mind that Gordon College strictly enforces its policy of requiring that dogs be leashed.
Pipestave Hill Recreation Area, West Newbury
Convenient to both Newburyport and Haverhill, the Pipestave Hill Recreation Area off Main Street (Route 113) in West Newbury is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg for trail runners. The Pipestave Hill trails, featuring open space and forest, link to Archelaus Hill (248 feet), the Mill Pond, and Dunn Field areas, as well as across the road to Riverbend Conservation Area along the mighty Merrimack River. “I love it there,” said Whitten. “There’s a lot of diversity in the trail. You can run through fields, but there’s more technical stuff if you want it. There’s really something for everybody.” Maps can be found at a kiosk at the parking area.
Landlocked Forest, Burlington
A favorite of birders, mountain bikers, hikers, and trail runners, this 250-acre parcel is a hidden bounty squeezed between Routes 3, 62, and 128/Interstate 95. Acquired by Burlington in 1985, it also incorporates conservation land in Bedford and Lexington (where the main trailhead can be found). Roughly 13 miles of well-marked backroads and paths wind through the forest, giving runners a nice variety of surfaces and exceptional views of wildlife year round (the forest is also a popular cross-country and snowshoeing spot). Dogs are also permitted.
Lowell-Dracut-Tyngsborough State Forest, Lowell
Overlapping the meeting point of these three communities, just south of the New Hampshire border, this 1,140-acre park is best known as a site of a Native American village. Runners know the forest for its 6 miles of smooth fire roads and rolling double-track. There’s also an expanding labyrinth of single-track trails, which are a bit more challenging. Be aware that hunting is permitted in season, except for Sundays. Runners and other visitors are also asked to be respectful of the ceremonies that are held occasionally at the forest’s Greater Lowell Indian Cultural Association area.
Crane Beach, Ipswich
Though not a “trail” by most definitions, the network of sandy routes that winds through the dunes behind the beach offers a unique contrast to the typical running experience. “It’s another way to get off the road, or off the pavement,” said Whitten. Go early to avoid the crowds and the heat. Parking is free for Ipswich residents and supporting members of the Trustees of Reservations.Brion O’Connor is a freelance writer based north of Boston. He can be reached at email@example.com.