Sitting in the food court at the South Shore Plaza in Braintree, I'm surrounded by the hurly-burly of life. Shoppers schlep their bags around, teens yammer away on cellphones, and overburdened mothers try to get their mewling offspring to ingest some fast food.
My gaze drifts through the glass wall and westward over the clogged parking lot below and busy Route 128 just beyond. My eyes fix on the low, wooded hills dotted with rock outcroppings that rise above the commercial buildings on the far side of the highway.
The Blue Hills.
For 10 years, they have been my refuge, a place to escape to while staying close to home. For me, the 7,000 acres of the Blue Hills Reservation -- one of the truly great natural resources of Greater Boston -- have been filled with solace, discovery, and surprise.
And, boy, do I wish I was there now.
For those who have not had the pleasure, or whose acquaintance has been more passing, I offer an introduction to the Blue Hills that goes beyond the obvious highlights. Most area commuters, local skiers, and many day hikers are familiar with the looming presence of 635-foot Great Blue Hill. The Trailside Museum on Route 138 in Milton attracts school groups from across the region, and the swimming area at Houghton's Pond is popular throughout the summer.
But the reservation is vast and holds many delights. It stretches from Dedham on the west to Quincy on the east and is bounded on three sides by highways. It was acquired by the state in 1893 as part of the Metropolitan Park System envisioned by landscape architect Charles Eliot.
The idea was to preserve the Blue Hills in their natural state, and although the area is crisscrossed by 125 miles of hiking trails, and pressed on all sides by human development, nature still rules there. Today, the area is maintained by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.
The first step to exploring the Blue Hills is simple: Get a map. It costs $2 and is available at the Trailside Museum (which the proceeds benefit), and at reservation headquarters, off Hillside Street in Milton.
The map is detailed and reflects the color coding used to mark the main trails in the reservation. It also records intersection markers, which are key to keeping your bearings in the woods.
Look for the small, white wooden blocks with black numerals nailed high on trees where trails come together.
Sturdy, comfortable hiking boots are also important, though some paths can be navigated in sneakers. Bottled water is a must because drinking from any of the reservation's streams or ponds could pose a health risk.
A cellphone is handy for emergencies, but be forewarned: Cellular service is very spotty in the Blue Hills. Be sure to park in designated areas.
For provisions, I highly recommend Bent's Cookie Factory on Pleasant Street in Milton. Their sandwich menu includes a veggie special appropriately called the Blue Hills, and the Big Blue with turkey, Havarti, and cranberry conserve. The lemon gingersnap cookies are not to be missed.
So now you're set. With map in hand, knapsack filled, and boots laced tight, take a hike to my Top 10 sites in the Blue Hills.
<1. FOWL MEADOW
This wetland area, which was almost paved over in 1967 in an attempt to run Interstate 95 straight into Boston, is home to a host of wildlife and offers easy biking along 2-mile Burma Road. The Fowl Meadow Path takes you down to the banks of the Neponset River at one end and into a swamp on the other. In high summer, when the marsh reeds rise overhead, the air is intoxicatingly thick with the scent of wild grapes, and dragonflies shimmer in the sultry air. (Tip: Paul's Bridge, a stone span that dates from the 19th century, is located at the northern end of Fowl Meadow and is a great spot to put in to the Neponset for canoeing or kayaking.)
2 PONKAPOAG BOG BOARDWALK.
The massive slabs of wood chained together in a zigzagging pattern buck and bounce (and sometimes sink) under your feet. But the boardwalk takes you into a fascinating area -- an Atlantic white cedar bog. Carved out by a glacier, this is as close as you get to ''Swamp Thing" territory around these parts. Green moss glows unnaturally in the undergrowth and if you're lucky, you might spot a carnivorous pitcher, sundew, or bladderwort plant. You indeed will get a sinking feeling if you stray from the boardwalk, but if you make it to the end, you are rewarded with a view of Ponkapoag Pond. (Tip: The Appalachian Mountain Club has 20 cabins for rent on the east side of the pond. Very rustic.)
3. JEFFRIES TRAIL
The nearly twin peaks of Hancock and Hemenway hills can be reached quickly in short hikes from Unquity Road or reservation headquarters. Both hills offer nice views to the north. But branching off from the Hemenway Hill Path is one of my favorite walks in the entire park. Jeffries Trail is small, but it leads through open pine woods on the shoulder of Hemenway Hill and is one of the few places in the Blue Hills where the hum of the highway is not heard. Step off the path, lie back on the sloping pine needle forest floor, gaze up at the tall trees, and contemplate the silence. (Tip: At the bottom of Jeffries Trail, near where it joins the Base Path, you find an old well ineffectively fenced off from curious passersby. Its origin is a mystery to park rangers.)
4. OLD ROUTE 128
Mother Nature is slowly reclaiming the works of man at various locations throughout the reservation, but the one still being put to greatest use by humans is this portion of what used to be Route 128. Abandoned in the mid-1950s when the highway was expanded and moved a few hundred yards to the south, the road is now canopied by trees and has been narrowed on both sides by encroaching plant life. It has also apparently been used for practice by highway line painters. Today, it is frequented mostly by joggers and cyclists who set a slower pace and pass each other without honking or hand gestures, which seems to suit the old road just fine. (Tip: Youngsters love to play on and around a big hunk of conglomerate rock on the left side of the road as you head east, just before the 2085 trail marker.)
5. HORSE BRIDGE OVER ROUTE 24
Park near the Margaret L. Donovan Elementary School in Randolph, hike up Meadow Road, and suddenly you're in horse country. The wide path, which is actually the start of the 6-mile-long Massachuseuck Trail, leads right by the back gate of Harmony Hill Farm and on to the horse bridge over busy Route 24. There is something strangely empowering about watching all those frazzled commuters whiz by while you stand under the open sky on a bridge that basically leads nowhere. What is it you know that they don't? (Tip: The bridge does lead to the east side of the Ponkapoag area, where you can find a pretty cool little duck pool not far away.)
For my money, Buck Hill has the best views in the entire Blue Hills. Sure, Great Blue is 139 feet taller and has the Eliot Tower on top of that. But Buck Hill is a shorter climb, partly up a steep granite staircase on the east side, and at the summit it offers panoramic vistas that take in all of Boston, the Harbor Islands, and the South Shore Plaza. This is the place to stop for lunch after a morning hike, and there are plenty of blueberries to be found in season. Just remember to keep your head down, because when the wind is right, the planes come in pretty low on their way to Logan. (Tip: There is a pretty good little rock climb coming up the south side of Buck Hill near the 2162 trail marker on the Massachuseuck Trail.)
7. CCC CAMP
Pull into a little parking area off busy Route 28 in Milton and walk a little way into the woods on the Sawcut Notch Path. Take your first right, then a left, and you find yourself at what is, for me, the most somber place in the reservation. There's not a lot to see, time and nature having taken their toll, but from 1933 to 1937 thousands of unemployed men lived in the Civilian Conservation Corps camp that stood here. These men, among 100,000 who worked and lived in 28 camps across the state during the Great Depression, built the two stone observation towers in the reservation, carved out trails, and planted trees. Some old cement foundations in the woods, recently cleared by a scout group, and a stone marker by the side of the trail are all that remain of the place where they lived. (Tip: Watch your step; it's easy to fall into or trip over parts of the former structures.)
8. HAWK HILL
A sentimental favorite because my 9-year-old son, Jackson, likes to join me on hikes to Hawk Hill. We leave the Bouncing Brook Path on a narrow trail that leads to a pretty steep rock slide. A little climbing brings us to the shoulder of Hawk Hill, where, on a good day, we sit and eat lunch on a rock outcropping and watch the red-tail hawks soar on the rising air currents in the valley between our perch and Buck Hill. Conversation can be slow, but talk about quality time. (Tip: The narrow trail that leads from Bouncing Brook Path to Hawk Hill is hard to spot. Look for a stand of six small birch trees.)
9. LAUREL PATH
This is a remote area of the reservation and takes a fair amount of hiking from almost anywhere. But the Laurel Path is aptly named because mountain laurels dot the hillside on your left as you travel to the northwest. To your right is the Great Cedar Swamp, a somewhat forbidding place, particularly in the late afternoon, when the shadows start to lengthen and your legs start to remind you that you still have a long walk back. (Tip: Deer in the reservation, and there are many, seem to know this is a remote area, too. I rarely have been there without seeing at least one.)
10. QUINCY QUARRIES
Rising up out of countless tons of Big Dig fill, the remains of the Quincy granite quarries resemble the prows of mighty ships tipping straight up one last time before sinking to the bottom. Almost incomprehensibly, hard-working men harvested rock here that was used to build the Bunker Hill Monument and many other famous edifices. Years later, hard-partying people died taking ill-advised leaps into the flooded quarries before they were filled. There are spirits here. There are also many rock climbers taking advantage of the graffiti-scarred granite walls that remain. Take a minute to walk to the northern end of the quarry site to inspect what remains of the Granite Railway Incline. In 1826, this ingenious device was part of the country's first commercial railroad and was used to ship granite to Charlestown for the Bunker Hill Monument. (Tip: Across Ricciuti Drive from the parking lot, you find the Quarries Foot Path, a faintly marked and winding trail, that takes you to the picturesque waters of the St. Moritz Ponds.)
Contact Doug Warren at email@example.com.