Before The Trustees of Reservations carved a trail to the beach at their Menemsha Hills property in Chilmark 20 years ago, the public took matters into their own hands.
They carved an unofficial path and began sliding down a steep embankment, through thickets of beach plums and bayberries, to get down to the beach. The Trustees took notice, and cut a more reasonable trail between the lower loop and the ocean.
This summer, they’ve added a second beach trail on the opposite side of the property.
Tucked away off North Road, Menemsha Hills specializes in woodlands and rocky beach, and features a hike to the second highest point on the Island — Prospect Hill, which is 308 feet in elevation. (Chilmark’s Peaked Hill is 311 feet.)
It’s one of the longest walks on the Vineyard, and the new trail open this summer makes it even longer.
The trail, which was 10 years in the making, is 1,000 feet long and creates a new loop along the property’s shoreline.
It affords new views of the Elizabeth Islands and the coast of Aquinnah, and provides a broader introduction to the natural history of the north shore. The new trail departs from the existing Nashawakemuck, or lower loop trail, at a shady fern-carpeted Beetlebung grove, in the southwestern part of the 229-acre property.
Easing downwards toward the shore, the trail meanders through the forest under a sun-filtered canopy, ultimately culminating at the rocky shore.
The way Christopher Kennedy, Vineyard superintendent for the Trustees describes it, the process of designing a new trail is something like an architectural project, one that involves topographical and aesthetic considerations.
“It’s not just making the trail go from A to B,” he said, stopping to contemplate the view his staff shaped through a frame of plants and trees. What was already a natural gap in the vegetation has now become an intentional lookout. In winter, when the leaves fall away, there will be a different window through the understory.
For the Trustees, creating a new trail also involves educational considerations. Before the trail was cut, Mr. Kennedy said staff passed studying the environment through an interpretative lens, asking, “What is the story we can tell here?”
Stopping along the trail, Mr. Kennedy stoops to reveal evidence that, in the past, the property was cleared and animals, maybe sheep or cattle, browsed the low-lying vegetation. It’s an oak that grew up with three trunks to better ensure its survival. In the 19th century, an adjacent property was home to a clay mining operation, and trees were harvested from the property to feed the brick ovens.
Part of the drama of Menemsha Hills lies in the rich geology of the region.
Large erratic boulders that populate the trail and shoreline rode in on a glacier from the Taunton area, Mr. Kennedy said. Cliffs overlooking the beach hold clay deposits of many colors and textures, some of which date back 110 to 140 million years. When the grayish clay is baked in the oven, it turns red, almost like a lobster, Mr. Kennedy said. At one time, the brickyard produced some 800,000 bricks a year and employed 75 workers, according to Gazette archives. The bricks were shipped by schooner to Boston, Providence and Fall River.
The wooded part of the trail ends in a wide overlook, where the Trustees will soon install a memorial bench, Mr. Kennedy said. He paused to indicate a red-tailed hawk gliding above the lightly crashing waves.
A steep descent follows, along a trail flanked by huckleberry, bayberry and the occasional white oak saplings. Walkers take their final steps to the shore on a new cedar and fir stairway built to last at least 20 years.
The beach is mostly cluttered with smooth, round stones which make for unstable footing, though there are some patches of fine sand.
The idea of making more of the beach open to the public galvanized the property management plan when it was drafted 10 years ago, Mr. Kennedy said. It seemed important to make the trail a loop, because “people hate dead ends,” Mr. Kennedy said. A lengthy process to cut the trail ensued, which involved raising the funds and securing permitting from multiple agencies.
It cost the Trustees about $21,000 to install stairs and water bars along the trail to prevent erosion. Trail cutting was performed by Trustees employees. Meanwhile, the Trustees also cleared 53 acres of woodland nearby, restoring it to its original maritime shrubland. This habitat is home to rare moths and the eastern box turtle, a species of special concern.
The Trustees first came to the Island in 1959 to manage Cape Pogue, a property on Chappaquiddick. Menemsha Hills came in 1966, and has now grown to an area of 229 acres with the recent gift of the former brickyard property.
When Charles Eliot founded The Trustees of Reservations in 1891, he hoped to put land aside so that ordinary people could refresh themselves, Mr. Kennedy said. Looking along the beach toward Dogfish Bar at Aquinnah, Mr. Kennedy reflected on that legacy, which he said has made his organization’s work on the Island possible.
“This is their land,” he said. “This is the public’s property.”
Still, Menemsha Hills isn’t the most popular of the Trustees properties.
The estimated 15,000 visitors it attracts to the north shore each year pale in comparison to the 75,000 who flock to each of the wildlife refuge areas at Cape Pogue and Long Point, both properties with fine sand and wide beaches.
But now that more beach is included in the trail system, perhaps more people will check it out.
And with the First Family staying nearby at a private residence, perhaps this month the trail will get a presidential inauguration of its own.