Midstate Trail: Thru-Hiker Trip Report

Midstate Trail: Thru-Hiker Trip Report

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Sunrise at the summit of Mt. Watatic on the Massachusetts Midstate Trail

“You should do the Midstate Trail,” my brother suggested. I’d been stewing about where to take my week-long backpacking vacation with my freshly (hopefully) healed sprained ankle. As a thru-hiker, I’ve been interested in backpacking the long-distance trails in my home state of Massachusetts, and I figured that a week would be just about the right amount of time for me to hike the 95-mile Midstate Trail.

“I could do that,” I nodded and before I knew it, the decision was made. My brother handed me his Midstate Trail Guidebook, showed me the pictures from his end-to-end hike of the Midstate Trail (April 2004) and I began to plan.

Midstate Trail South

Massachusetts Midstate Trail (MST): Trip Report Overview

  • Distance: 95 miles from the NH border to the RI border
  • Official Guidebook: Available for $15 at midstatetrail.org (Proceeds go to the MST)
  • Activity: Backpacking; Southbound (SOBO) on the MST
  • Dates: July 10 – July 16, 2019 (took one rest day in the middle)
  • Hazards: Poison Ivy!! Bugs (Mosquitoes, Gnats, Blister Beetles, Ticks et al) & Bears
  • Cell Phone App: Gaia GPS (“Outdoors” layer has the Midstate Trail)
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Poison ivy growing up the tree and over the trail marker (yellow triangle) of the Midstate Trail.

Planning:

Although a lot of good resources exist for people looking to day-hike or section-hike the Midstate Trail (The Midstate Trail Guidebook, the Section-Hiker Guide, and the Google Maps Tracks), I only found one resource for Thru-hiking the Midstate Trail, and the information in it seemed fairly sparse.  This is because the Midstate Trail is designed as a hiking trail and NOT a backpacking trail. As a result, planning a long-distance backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts, or on the Long Trail in Vermont is easier than planning a long-distance backpacking trip on the Midstate Trail.

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A lot of the MST is shared-use trails. In many sections horses seemed to be the primary users (lots of hoof prints and NO footprints). Other trail users are our allies in conserving public lands, please treat them with respect.

As an experienced thru-hiker, I decided to take on the challenge of a Midstate Trail thru-hike anyway. I ended up using Gaia GPS (web & cell phone app) in conjunction with the Midstate Trail Guidebook to figure out the logistics of my trip, plan my route, and estimate my daily mileage.

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I didn’t need water at the time, but I stopped and recorded the location of this stream to add it to my Thru-Hikers Cheat Sheet (2 miles South of Convenience Store in North Rutland).

Since the Thru-Hikers Cheat Sheet for the Midstate Trail that I wanted didn’t exist, I decided to take a little extra time during (and after) my hike to create it. For this project, I used Gaia GPS to record notes, waypoints, and photos along my route, and then compiled it all into a color-coded 2-page table of mileage, amenities (water, food, lodging), and landmarks along the Midstate Trail. There were things that I missed, and probably mislabeled because the bugs were driving me absolutely crazy and I didn’t stop long enough to enter the data, but it may help you get a better sense of things when used in conjunction with the official Guidebook:

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Muddy Pond Shelter (3-sided) on the MST in Westminster State Forest is situated on the shore of Muddy Pond in an area frequented by both day-hikers and backpackers.

Camping:

One of the biggest challenges associated with backpacking the Midstate Trail is the paucity of officially sanctioned campsites and shelters and their uneven dispersal along the route. These options can be supplemented with stays at private campgrounds and Inns (call for availability). Even still, distances between options occasionally exceeds 20 miles:

  • 8.4 miles: Watatic Parking Lot to Muddy Pond Shelter
  • 24.5 miles: Muddy Pond Shelter to Trout & Pout Campground (+1 mile detour)
  • 11.7 miles: Trout & Pout Campground (+1 mile detour) to Long Pond Shelter
  • 7.4 miles: Long Pond Shelter to Buck Hill Shelter
  • 2.8 miles: Buck Hill Shelter to Moose Hill Shelter
  • 2.9 miles: Moose Hill Shelter to Leicester Country Inn (0.1 mile detour)
  • 1.4 miles: Leicester Country Inn (0.1 mile detour) to Sibley Tent Sites (0.1 detour)
  • 21.5 miles: Sibley Tent Sites (0.1 detour) to Sutton Falls Campground (+1 mile detour)
  • 11.2 miles: Sutton Falls Campground (+1 mile detour) to Douglas Shelter (0.5 from terminus)

As a result, many thru-hikers end up “stealth camping” or “stealthing” in undeveloped wooded areas at unofficial and/or unsanctioned sites along the route. If you are going to camp at an unofficial site, you should contact the landowners for permission. Although Massachusetts doesn’t offer guidelines for how backpackers should go about figuring out who owns what land and how to ask permission, they do provide this information for hunters, and much of it applies to hikers as well (see the land user pledge to the land owners found on the Land User/Land Owner Agreement Cards and resources for figuring out land ownership at the Massgis Oliver site)

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An abandoned factory on the MST that is riddled with bullet holes, full of graffiti (some of the most racist I’ve seen). It also has a fire ring in the middle, empty beer bottles lying around, and other evidence of people camping/partying. Some land owners may think that this is what people “camping” on their land without their permission looks like.

If you decide to stealth, please, please, PLEASE respect posted signs and private property, and be mindful of fragile habitats by camping in previously impacted areas. The existence of the Midstate Trail depends on maintaining the goodwill of the landowners along the route. Poor attempts at stealth camping that disrespect landowners and/or damage fragile environments put the existence of the Midstate Trail at risk. If you are stealth camping, be stealthy:

  • SKIP THE CAMPFIRE
  • Wait until dusk to pitch your tent
  • Take your tent down at dawn
  • Leave NO trace (use previously impacted sites)
  • Dig your cat holes twice as deep and cover them up twice as well

If you are stealth camping and people see you camping, or can tell where you camped, you are doing it wrong!

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The beavers have flooded the MST at Sacrarrappa Pond in Oxford, MA (shown here) and in many other locations on the MST.

Water

The Midstate Trail could easily be renamed as the Massachusetts Wetlands Trail, and there is water almost everywhere. For backpacking, assume all water is contaminated unless it is tap water. Almost every single water source on the Midstate Trail can be traced upstream to a beaver dam (except where the beaver dam is the trail, or is on the trail). It’s a safe bet that all the water on the Midstate Trail is contaminated with Giardia. Luckily most filters and purification methods when used correctly provide protection from giardia. However, many backcountry water sources on the Midstate Trail contain run-off from roads, commercial areas, and suburban neighborhoods. This runoff may contain chemical contaminants that your filters and purification methods do not protect. Runoff contamination is worst within 3 days of heavy rains and may contain raw sewage.

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At the North End of the Barre Falls Dam backpackers can fill their water bottles from the spigot on the front of the building by the 2nd door (as approached from the North). Backpackers can use the spigot during the spring, summer, and fall.

I choose my water sources carefully and carry both Aquamira (chemical purification) and a Sawyer Mini Squeeze filter. Potential water sources are listed in the Cheat Sheet without consideration of potential contamination concerns; use at your own risk and think before you drink.

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A gorgeous dragonfly gracefully perched in the middle of the MST in the Burncoat Pond Wildlife Sanctuary (Audobon Society).

Bugs

The bugs are another challenge for hikers and backpackers on the MST. The MST crosses through a lot of wetlands where the mosquitoes, gnats, and black flies can be incredibly ferocious. Bug spray, bug nets, and permethrin-treated gear are all highly recommended.

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The bugs and poison ivy were driving me crazy, the heat was unbearable and inescapable, and I was generally feeling miserable when I discovered the cleanest, coolest, most awesome composting toilet ever at Sibley Tent Sites. I may or may not have refused to leave the awesomeness of it’s bug-free world for almost an hour.

Thru-hiking in July after a slew of big storms passed through meant that I was constantly inundated with Mosquitoes and gnats constantly buzzing around me. My permethrin treated pants and shirt mostly kept them at bay, but those dang gnats would fly into my eyes, up my nose, and into my throat given the tiniest of chances.

The MST also crosses through a lot of fields and grassy meadows which are prime tick habitat and where hiking through the tall grasses is 100% unavoidable. On my July thru-hike I didn’t have any trouble with ticks. This may have been due to my head-to-toe permethrin-treated outfit, but was likely also because the ticks are less ferocious on hot summer days than cool spring and fall days.

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A big fluid-filled blister caused by a beetle that got crushed between my pants and my gaitors.

On the MST, crossing through the fields in Sutton, I had an unpleasant encounter with a new-to-me type of bug: a blister beetle. Blister beetles cluster around the edges of hay fields from July to early September. Blister beetles are full of a chemical called cantharidin, and if they get crushed against your skin it causes massive blisters to form #learningthehardway.

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Northern Terminus of the Midstate Trail at the Massachusetts/New Hampshire Border

Northern Terminus

Parking: Parking at the Northern Terminus is at the Mt. Watatic Parking Lot on Rt. 119, about 1.4 miles West of the intersection of 119 and 101 in Ashburnham, MA. This lot is relatively large, and on holidays and weekends fills quickly with day-hikers. The Ashburnham police note that you should leave your car locked and valuables out of sight. For those with Verizon, cell service at this parking lot is iffy. Leave your pack in your car while you do the ~3.6 mile loop to the Northern Terminus of the Midstate Trail and the summit of Watatic (either SOBO or NOBO).

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Best Day Hike: 3.6 Mile loop to the Northern Terminus of the Midstate Trail and the summit of Mt. Watatic. Note that in addition to the Midstate Trail Monument at the border, there are two additional monuments along the stone wall marking the Massachusetts/New Hampshire Line: the A & A Monument from 1894 marking the MA/NH line and the Borden Geological Survey Monument from 1834 marking the NH border as well as the border between the towns of Ashby and Ashburnham.

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Early morning at the Overlook on Mt. Watatic (500 foot detour from Midstate Trail)

Best Overnight: Watatic Parking Lot to Mount Hunger to Muddy Pond Shelter (great views of pond); include Northern Terminus Day Hike Loop if time and energy allow.

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Muddy Pond Shelter (3-sided) on the MST in Westminster State Forest is situated on the shore of Muddy Pond in an area frequented by both day-hikers and backpackers.

Southern Terminus

Rhode Island (RI) Parking & MA/RI Terminus Access: Parking at the Southern Terminus (RI-side) is on the shoulder of the road near 445 Buck Hill Road, Burrillville, RI. I would not want to leave my car here for very long. The section hiker guide suggests parking directly opposite Buck Hill Tower (I didn’t check out this option). Bring your pack. The Southern Terminus of the Midstate Trail can be accessed from Rhode Island via an ~3.8 mile stretch of the 78-mile North-South Trail that extends from the border of Massachusetts to the Ocean. There is a cute pond and cool rock ledges in this section. For those that are backpacking and setting off on a NOBO thru-hike of the Midstate trail, let me warn you that this stretch is quite rocky; if I was NOBO I would try to access the Southern terminus from the MA side. (Bring your pack with you)

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Southern terminus of the Massachusetts Midstate Trail and Northern Terminus of the Rhode Island North-South Trail.

Massachusetts Parking and MA/RI Terminus Access Trail: Parking for the Southern Terminus (MA-side) is a choose your own adventure out-and-back. I would opt for the pull off/parking option for the trunkline trail at the corner of Southwest Main St and Gore Rd in Douglas, MA (near the Connecticut border; Note Gore Rd is called High St in CT).  From there hike ~0.4 miles West (past the Trunkline trail) to the Midstate trail and then ~1 mile South on the Midstate Trail to the southern terminus for a total of 1.4 miles each way. This is a much easier trail than the North-South Trail in Rhode Island. NOTE: I accessed the trail from RI so did not check out this parking option.

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Midstate Trail monument at the Southern Terminus on the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border.

Best Family Vacation: Douglas State Park has lots of opportunities for hiking, biking, boating, and swimming making it a great place to explore for a family vacation with additional recreation options available in RI in the Buck Hill Management Area.

  • Coffee House Loop Trail, Douglas State Park Day Hike; follow the Coffeehouse Loop Trail West 0.6 miles to the intersection with the Midstate Trail, follow Midstate Trail 1.4 miles South to Southern Terminus, return 1.4 miles to Coffeehouse Loop Trail,
  • Cedar Swamp Nature Trail, on my thru-hike I took the 0.5 mile detour East to hike the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp nature trail (0.5 mile) since it is a rare and unusual habitat in Massachusetts and wasn’t a huge detour. I enjoyed it, and would add it to any Douglas State Park Hiking Plan.
  • Douglas State Park Backpacking: The southernmost ~8 miles of the Midstate Trail are I Douglas State Park as is one of the officially sanctioned shelters. The park is beautiful and backpacking within the park is something I would happily do again. However, North of the park there is a lot of road walking, so it may not be ideal for casual backpacking.
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Taking a break at the Parking Pullout near the Reservoir in Leicester on the MST to dry out my sopping wet gear (from overnight thunderstorms) and to cook dinner on my alcohol stove (each bottle contains enough fuel/HEET to boil water for one dinner).

Cheat Sheet Images:

I recommend downloading the pdf (click here), but I’ve included screenshots for convenience below:

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Links

Long-Distance Hiking Trails in Massachusetts

  • the Appalachian Trail (2013 Thru-hike)
  • the New England Trail aka Metacomet – Monadnock Trail (Sections 2014)
  • the Midstate Trail (July 2019)
  • the Mahican – Mohawk Trail
  • the Taconic Crest Trail
  • the Warner Trail
  • the Bay Circuit Trail
  • the Mass Central Rail Trail.