Bay Circuit Trail: Thru-Hiking Boston’s Emerald Necklace
I found myself in a strange headspace when I got home from my recent thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I planned a month and a half long break from thru-hiking until starting the Arizona Trail in October. After warm reunions with my friends and community, I felt the hiking “itch” sneak back in…my body was demanding to be put to work. Living in Salem MA, I’m familiar with the Bay Circuit Trail. I’d hiked nearly all of the trail via day hikes in previous years, but I’ve always wanted to thru-hike it. Since I still had my trail legs from the AT and some time to kill, I figured why not now?
In writing this, I want to increase awareness of the trail’s existence in the thru-hiking community and give you some info on what it’s like to thru-hike the BCT in hopes that more people will see it as a viable thru-hiking option for folks in New England and beyond. Enjoy!
Basic Trail Info and History
- Consists of 230 miles of trail from Plum Island in Newburyport MA to Kingston Bay in Kingston MA with multiple routes possible.
- The idea for the Bay Circuit Trail & Greenway first arose in 1929. It would be an “outer Emerald Necklace,” around Boston proponents said… and would provide open space for the metropolitan area’s quickly expanding population. Over the next several decades, various public and private parks and reservations were established in the area… but they failed to keep pace with commercial and residential development. In the 1980s, interest in the project was renewed, and in 1990 the Bay Circuit Alliance formed to make the trail and greenway a reality.
- Since 2012, the Appalachian Mountain Club has led the Bay Circuit Alliance.
- The trail goes through 37 towns/cities in eastern MA, stringing together town forests, wilderness management areas, state parks and forests, and one national park (Minuteman NP).
- Source: https://www.baycircuit.org/about/
Positives of the BCT
Lots of “town food”
I came across a place to buy food right on or near trail at least once day.
I never carried more than a day or so of food. You can usually refill water for free and find places to charge electronics when you’re in towns too. (Cumberland Farms staff are cool as hell, love y’all <3)
Access to Lyft and public transportation
The trail is Lyft accessible at many points, making transportation easy. I got to the trail’s Southern Terminus in Kingston by taking the MBTA Commuter Rail and then walking from the station to the terminus.
There is never much elevation gain/loss and much of the trail is well cared for. That being said, there are some notable sections that are completely overgrown, such as along the Merrimack River heading north from Lowell.
You’ll cross cranberry bogs, swamps, sandy flats, thick pine woods, flowering meadows, salt marshes teeming with life, bird sanctuaries, and of course ponds, lakes, and the Atlantic Ocean.
Many spots along town have deep history. For example, Hockomock Swamp served as the strategic base of operations for Metacomet (aka King Philip) of the Wampanoag people during King Philip’s war. He chose this spot because the English settlers believed it to be haunted and they had difficulty navigating the swamp. Another example is the Old North Bridge where the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” was fired, officially beginning the Revolutionary War. Also of note, is Walden Pond, home to author Henry David Thoreau’s cabin and subject of his writing.
Challenges of the BCT
Lack of official/established campsites
There are private camping options listed on the BCT’s interactive map but I found it easier to stealth camp most nights, and there are relatively cheap hotels available in the bigger towns.
Lack of good natural water sources
Mostly in the southern half of the trail. Water is sometimes swampy and/or has road runoff, so be aware. Carry a couple of liters in case you hit a bad water stretch in the southern sections. I never carried more than 1.5 liters and I didn’t run into any issues but YMMV.
Road walks make up a decent portion of the trail so make sure you have comfy hiking shoes. I think road walks can be nice though, there were some beautiful secluded and wooded neighborhoods that I enjoyed.
No trail culture
Folks are often unaware of the BCT’s existence, even if they live right by it. Expect to be hiking the trail alone. People are also more likely to give you the side-eye when you walk through their neighborhood or walk into a restaurant. On the AT, when stinky thru-hikers sprawl out in a gas station parking lot it’s tolerated and may be seen as charming… no such luck here.
Occasional lack of trail markers
This trail is still a work-in-progress. There are some sections that have sparse or no trail markers. You’ll have to rely on BCT maps and section narratives instead.
I completed the trail NOBO between August 28th and September 3rd, 2021 for a total of 6 days, 7 hours and 7 minutes. Take a look at my Strava profile for day-by-day breakdowns: https://www.strava.com/athletes/91335331
I encountered good weather overall, with the exception of the night that Hurricane Ida blew through, and I stayed in a hotel that night because of the flash flood warnings in place in my area.
I found my feet were really hurting after the second day and that lasted until days after I finished the trail. The big miles and substantial road walks in the southern portion of the trail left me sore. I had steady diet of Advil and Tylenol and kept on pushing.
As you may expect for someone with the trail name “Sugar”, I ate like crap. My diet consisted of protein bars, Hostess snack cakes, whoopie pies, Goldfish and Kind Bars. I also supplemented with town food like burgers and ice cream, a steak and cheese sub, and even some KFC. I didn’t weigh myself before and after the hike but I think I more or less broke even as I took in tons of calories to offset the big miles. A friend suggested I see if GrubHub would deliver to me at directly at a road crossing, but I didn’t try that. I feel like it would have worked though.
For me, running into animals of all types is a treat. Even coming across dogs and cats in suburban neighborhoods is fun for me… I’m easy to please. For wild animals I saw fish, frogs, woodchucks, deer, hawks, snakes, a coyote, herons, beaver lodges (no beavers, sadly). For domesticated animals I saw lots of dogs and cats, horses, ponies, pigs and goats.
Contact Info for the Bay Circuit Trail
After reaching out to the BCT folks through their instagram (@baycircuit) I heard from Kristen Sykes, the AMC’s Director of Southern NE Conservation Projects and Partnerships. She was very supportive of my thru-hike, and was helpful with all of my questions. Kristen even checked in with me while I was on trail to see how I was doing… what other trail does that happen on, huh? If you have questions about the BCT you can contact her directly at [email protected].
Fastest Known Time
My hike is currently the fastest recorded self-supported thru-hike of the BCT at six days, seven hours and seven minutes. This FKT is obviously super beatable, but I hope it serves as a benchmark to encourage other thru-hikers to get out there and shatter this record!
As always, thanks for reading. All I can speak for are my own experiences, so I’d love to hear what people have to add as far as tips and stories. Follow me on Instagram @seltzerskelter and subscribe to future posts on The Trek by visiting my author page!
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Congratulations on all your achievements.
A friend and I did the BCT in days hikes sporadically starting in 2012 and finished during the year-of-covid.
We could claim Slowest Known Time (SKT) but no one would notice. No glory there!
I found the trail is a good place to reset ones thoughts. We saw something noteworthy on every hike.
Good luck in Arizona.
This is great! I live in a Mass. town that the BCT goes through, and have hiked bits of it where it is part of local trail systems. The thought of doing a continuous through hike of it had creeped into my consciousness now and then, but i never followed through on the idea. Nice to see this report. I’ll have to do some more research.