Secretly combining education with entertainment, and scoring a sweet parenting win!
Sometimes we struggle to find things to do with teenagers, especially that you’d enjoy as grown-ups. “Family friendly” often means an event good for people with kids who are ten and under. Face paint or singalongs would be met with eye rolls and OMG’s. But when we had a beautiful, early spring afternoon, we tried something different: a creepy tunnel adjacent to a beautiful view of the Wachusett Reservoir and dam.
The Wachusett Reservoir was built at the beginning of the twentieth century, and forced changes upon the community. In this case, it also required that the Boston & Maine Railroad re-route its tracks. A 0.2-mile tunnel was created adjacent to the dam that now sits abandoned but open to the public.
who experience ghostly encounters report an accompanying temperature drop. As they yelled at me to shut up, I heard the fear in their voices over the sound of my own laughter.
Flashlights are a must, or at least an iPhone, and waterproof boots are ideal. As a parent, I did worry a little about whether there were any people in this tunnel who weren’t just there to explore. But we found we were alone and I felt more comfortable as we set off.
The girls checked out graffiti running the length of the tunnel, which had an optical illusion of being never-ending despite our progress. They freaked each other out, and had to step carefully amidst mud, puddles, and ice. I secretly added to it by making some occasional creepy sounds as I walked ahead, but didn’t admit to it as they tried to figure out what it could possibly be. The eastern end was too wet for us to continue outside, but we got close. Returning wasn’t as spooky, and was quicker. But they stayed on high alert for ghosts, creatures, and any odd sounds. Luckily, no spirits or monsters or clowns appeared, and we emerged about a half-hour after we started. All three declared this place to be a little unnerving, but fascinating.
We passed our car and spent some time at the Wachusett Reservoir to let them burn off their adrenaline. This beautiful location was also fun for them as well. It was built over a century ago, as Massachusetts faced an issue with its water supply for many of its eastern residents. Luckily, forcibly moving 1,700 people and demolishing their homes allowed the state to build this massive structure and avert a body odor crisis, as residents were then able to happily shower to their heart’s content.
The dam itself is impressive, and you start off at its highest point. It extends down 115 feet, and then underground another 115 feet. Random trivia to impress or bore people with: it’s the largest, hand-dug dam in the world, built in the early-1900s by African Americans and Italians who lived in squalor during its construction. You can picnic, admire the waters it holds back, or stroll either side of it. Or, like me, you can goad your youngest one into trying to roll all the way down the grassy slope. But be prepared for some dirt and grass stains… and for the 192 stairs you’ll have to climb back up afterwards.
If you pack a picnic to extend the time a little, this can be a great way to explore a creepy place, take in scenic views, get some casual exercise, and learn a little bit about your surroundings and its history. Tip: if your teens are taking photos and posting them to their social media, it’s not a sign of disengagement, it’s a sign that you scored a parenting win. Another tip: if you later acknowledge with a smile that you were the one making creepy sounds and they pretend to be furious with you, it’s considered bonus points.
What you need to know:
Making the most of a snowy day
In the central Massachusetts town of Shrewsbury lies Prospect Park. It was once a town jewel and is now slowly succumbing to time, with nature increasingly taking over the property.
In 1912, it was known as Juniper Hall, home to an international carpet manufacturer, complete with magnificent buildings, formal gardens, a reflecting pool, and views as far as Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. Its gardens were open to the public, who toured it often, and made this one of Worcester County's show places. President Calvin Coolidge even visited this renowned property.
After the owner passed away, his widow named the pergola "The Garden of Sweet Remembrance". She then deeded the property to the Masons, who operated it as a Masonic Hospital. Some 50 years later, it was in disrepair and sold to the town, which demolished the buildings.
The reflecting pool is now overgrown, as are much of the grounds. Some of the foundations and stone walls and steps still remain, providing hints of its former glory. But although The Garden of Sweet Remembrance is gradually falling apart, it still stands, providing a serene spot despite the graffiti. In season, wild wisteria remains and has grown enough that during its bloom, there is a beautiful aroma. But after a snowstorm, the silence is intimate and peaceful.
The whole place is a quick walk and a reminder of how many interesting places are around us when we seek them out. A visit would last under an hour, with an easy loop walk from the parking lot. So, this place is worth a visit but more so if you live nearby or you're in the area for other reasons and can incorporate this pit stop.
Killing four birds with one stone (history, exercise, food, and scenery)
The Fort Hill historic district in the Cape Cod town of Eastham is a small attraction. But it has several activities that can easily evolve into a full afternoon of enjoyment.
The area was originally settled by English colonists in 1644 amidst worries against an invasion by the Dutch. Over time, it developed an agricultural focus. Soon, the natural resources were over-consumed and scarce, leaving a largely barren landscape. Life was challenging, and drove many young men to the sea for work.
Now, the Fort Hill district offers one of its best attractions right from one of the two small parking lots. It’s perched on a rise, overlooking Nauset Marsh. The amazing, panoramic view includes inlets, marshes, the beach, and the ocean beyond, as well as fields of flowers sloping towards the water. Plenty of boats can be seen on the main waterways, with kayakers weaving through the marshes. Whether taking in the view at sunrise without even leaving your car, or picnicking with family in the small field next to the parking lot, the scenery is spectacular and easily accessible.
Fort Hill’s parking lot is also a trailhead. A sandy trail gently works its way down from the rise and weaves along the edge of the marsh. Views constantly change, giving a feeling of variety despite the easy hike. Several routes exist, allowing for shorter or longer walks. Despite choosing one of the lengthier routes, our walk was still under two miles, lasted about an hour, and was easily managed even by the younger children in our group. Markers and a brochure educated on some of the plant life and historical significance of the area. Also, the Red Maple Swamp Trail includes a long, meandering boardwalk through the swamp that created further diversity to the hike.
The district’s last attraction is the Edward Penniman House. Penniman, like many young men, was driven to the sea. He returned in 1868, a successful 35-year-old, and built an impressive house. He raised the land several feet to afford views of the ocean and bay. The house itself featured hot and cold water and an indoor bathroom – both rarities for the day, and was decadently furnished.
The house is routinely open to the public and the ranger and volunteer during our visit were very knowledgeable about the house, family, and time period during our visit. The barn behind the house is currently undergoing renovations. Once open, it will offer even more antiques and places to explore.
The combination of the views, hikes, and tour offer something for everyone: they can capture the imagination of children or the interest of a history buff or environmentalist; they can deliver a unique trail run for the athlete, a casual walk for a family, or a bench for those looking to sit and relax.
Wishing I could note my occupation as "cowboy" in the next census
Franconia Notch is a beautiful, rugged part of New Hampshire. The notch itself is lined with views and natural attractions, and Cannon Mountain and its ski trails loom large on the north end of it. But if visitors are willing to venture down some back roads, there’s more to be found. Franconia Notch Stables is one such place that, while off the beaten path, offers a chance to explore the area and enjoy the scenery in a different way.
Franconia Notch Stables, part of the Franconia Inn, is behind Cannon Mountain. It’s only a few minutes’ drive off of the highway. But it becomes quickly apparent that you’re in a more remote area. The Franconia Inn and adjacent stables are nestled in a little valley, surrounded by woods, mountains, and adjacent to a grass airfield. Everything has a more casual feel than the pleasant but more business-like places we sometimes run across in more hectic locales. This set things off on the right foot, as we prepared for our ride.
We’d lined up an hour-long trail ride at Franconia Notch Stables and were joining four other people. While we observed all of the horses to be well trained, each is still unique with its own personality. Accordingly, horses were matched with riders based on personalities, skills, and experience. However, prior riding experience isn’t necessary, and some riders had never been in the saddle. Also, these rides only proceed at a walking pace; no galloping to worry about for the newbie!
Setting out from the barn, the trails traversed fields, rivers, and woods. At times we were nestled in amongst the pines, and other points afforded us views of the surrounding mountains. The trails often include switchbacks, allowing the guide to easily observe the group and to offer helpful pointers.
Our guide, Abbott, was perfect for the ride. He was conversational and casual, but always observant and clearly experienced. His demeanor, obvious enjoyment of his work, and his watchful eye put some nervous riders at ease, while his conversation engaged the group.
The ride was also a great chance to allow all of us to fully engage with nature. Traveling at a slow pace, being in the woods on narrow trails, and seeing the world from atop a horse instead of in a car allowed people to see things differently. After settling into the ride, some began asking questions while others conversed with strangers, bonding over the ride. Sometimes people seemed alone with their thoughts while other times we were locked in on the task at hand, such as a river crossing. It seemed as if people’s work stress or any broader themes in their lives melted away and they could lose themselves in the trail ride, atop these beautiful animals, either proud in overcoming their nerves or happy in the purity of that moment.
We were sorry to see the ride end. But after taking a little extra time to walk through the Franconia Inn, we realized there’s plenty to enjoy with this property without having to leave: in addition to the horseback riding, there are tennis courts, a pool, Jacuzzi, restaurant, airplane rides, inviting chairs on the front porch, and in the winter the trails can be used for cross-country skiing. We resolved to come back and turn it into a weekend getaway, and are excited to have discovered a new place to explore further.
The Good Life...
can't exist alone. Places form the setting for your memories. People around us allow experiences to be shared, enriched, and leave us feeling connected and loved.