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Skyfields: Willis Woods Loop Trail and Arboretum (Athol)

Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust
Gift From: 
Margaret "Peggy" Power-Biggs (1999)

From downtown Athol take Route 32 north. Cross the bridge over the Millers River and bear right onto Chestnut Hill Avenue. After less than .3 miles, bear left at a fork onto Old Keene Road (there is a fire hydrant at fork). Skyfields is about 1.5 miles north on right side.

The 40 acres of bucolic meadows and mixed-deciduous forest surrounding the headquarters of Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust are a pleasure to wander. You can take a leisurely walk around the arboretum, where signs will help you identify and learn about native trees of our region. Heading west across Old Keene Road, you can walk around the gently sloping hills of Willis Woods on a loop trail created in 2006. You can circumnavigate both the arboretum and Willis Woods trails in about an hour, but take your time!

From the parking area just north of the Skyfields building, head east and uphill slightly into the extensive meadow. A mown loop trail will take you through grassy fields, which come alive with tiny sparkles of blue-eyed “grass” (actually a lily) in early spring, burst with colorful blooms of common milkweed and black-eyed susans in mid-summer, and are burnished with the deep yellows of goldenrod in the fall. Peer among the milkweed flowers, and you’ll soon discover a rich world of interesting insects that make their living only on this species. Most famous and flamboyant among these insects is the bright orange monarch butterfly; you can hardly miss them flitting around Skyfields in July. The adult butterflies cruise the meadow, then begin to congregate for their astonishing, 3,000-mile-long migratory flights to Mexico, where they will spend the winter. Take time along the trail to enjoy and learn about the dozens of diverse trees and shrubs planted around the arboretum, including balsam fir, New Jersey tea, highbush cranberry, shagbark hickory, and summersweet.

West of Old Keene Road is the Willis Woods Trail. Follow the arrows through a field that skirts a wetland area. Small clumps of planted, bright-orange day lilies are reminders that a barn once occupied this ground. The trail skirts the western edge of the field, then heads south over a stone wall next to an enormous “witness pine.” This giant tree and others like it in these woods date from the 1800’s. They were originally spared from felling by farmers who kept them to mark the boundaries of their properties. These woods were selectively logged only 4 years ago, and 10 years before that. A few former clearings are good places to pick a wild strawberry or blueberry on your walk. Head back uphill and across another stone wall. The trail will wind you gently through the field and back to the parking area.

Skyfields is open to the public for non-motorized outdoor recreation including hiking, bird watching, nature study, and hunting.

Skyfields Arboretum Brochure