By Dave Small
On the Trail: South Athol Conservation Area
Nestled between White Pond and South Athol Pond, the South Athol Conservation Area (SACA) consists of 210 acres originally owned by the Stoddard and Leblanc families with an additional 11-acre parcel donated by E. W. Sykes, Inc. Wanting to keep the land open as a tribute to their family legacies, these families worked with Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust (MGLCT) and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to convey their lands to the Town of Athol Conservation Commission.
There are several options for a hike and lots of trails to explore whether you’re looking for a short or long visit. There is a network of trails, so looking at a map before you go is helpful. Kiosks are at each of the two trailheads, with rules and maps. The Town of Athol’s website also has a map and additional information: https://www.athol-ma.gov/parks-trails/pages/south-athol-conservation-area
Perhaps most intriguing is the opportunity to walk on the rail bed of the former Rabbit Run Railroad. An array of wildlife lives on this mostly forested land. Some common wildlife seen in the area include Barred Owls, songbirds, porcupines, white-tail deer, turkey, black bears, amphibians, reptiles, plus many dragonflies and butterflies.
The Rabbit Run Trail itself is a flat and easy hike. Many of the trails are old cart roads which are easily followed. The trails are generally gentle rolling hills or flat, except for the Rice Hill Trail which is a moderate climb. Most are well marked.
The protection of this area complements the rich, natural, and cultural history of Athol. The area abuts 330-acres of the former Morgan Memorial Fresh Air Camps protected by DCR and MGLCT, with additional trails open to the public.
Two entrances to the SACA are available -- the Leblanc trailhead and the Stoddard Trailhead.
The Leblanc Trailhead is at 3800 South Athol Road. Travel south on South Athol Road from Athol Center, look for a driveway on the right 1.1 miles south of the Route 2 overpass. A green Conservation Area sign at the driveway will point you down the dirt roadway to a small parking area on the right before the gate (private residence).
Enjoy a leisurely stroll along the property's original cart road passing beaver dams and vernal pools through oak/pine forest. The gently rolling trail is a relatively easy walk. Within a half mile you will encounter the rail bed of the former Rabbit Run Railroad that once traveled from downtown Athol to Springfield.
Hiking to the left (south) on this flat improved part of the trail brings you to the SACA boundary at Thrower Brook.
A right turn (north) takes you across a section of private rail bed to Ellinwood Brook. All along this section of rail bed you encounter wetlands including bogs, vernal pools, and beaver ponds. Wildlife is abundant including some interesting dragonflies.
Going straight across the rail bed (west), you start up the slope to Rice Hill. This moderately steep climb features a mature oak forest and connects with the western sections of the conservation area. From here you can hike all the way to the Stoddard Trailhead on the western side of the SACA.
The Stoddard Trailhead between 2106 and 2130 White Pond Road. A small parking area and kiosk is nestled between houses on the east side of the road. The trail starts down a gentle slope to the western section of the SACA. Trails entering from the right belong to the Morgan Memorial Forest Legacy Project and are open to public use.
Crossing a small brook at the outflow of a small beaver dam, views of South Athol Pond appear. Ducks, geese, kingfishers, otter, and beaver may be found along this section of the trail. A yellow gate to deter all-terrain vehicle use brings you to the Barrens Loop. This quarter-mile loop over the deep sands left by glacial Lake Orange provides a unique habitat of pitch pines, scrub oaks, and low bush blueberry. Staying to the right brings you to trail connections to the Rabbit Run, Leblanc Trailhead, and Thrower Brook. The Rice Hill trail can also be accessed from this area.
You can find out more about the many Athol parks and conservation areas at https://www.athol-ma.gov/parks-trails.
Dave Small, a former member of the Mount Grace Board of Directors, grew up in Royalston, living at Tully Dam in West Royalston, attending Raymond School and Whitney Hall. For many years, Dave has been president of the 250-member Athol Bird and Nature Club and director of the Millers River Environmental Center. Dave shares his passion for birds, butterflies, dragonflies and most recently moths through workshops, lectures, and field trips around New England.
He volunteers for several non-profits including Millers River Watershed Council, Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, National Moth Week Science Advisory Board, and the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program Advisory Committee. Working for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for 35 years, Dave served as Assistant Regional Director at the DCR Quabbin Reservoir, retiring in 2013.