SAXTONS RIVER—For years, outdoor enthusiasts in the Bellows Falls area have longed for a scenic hiking/biking trail to connect Bellows Falls and Saxtons River to both the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association trails at Bald Hill and the larger Pinnacle ridgeline trail network.
In 2015, that desire became more focused and culminated in a collaboration by the Bellows Falls Historical Society, Rockingham Conservation Commission, and Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association that was named the Saxtons River Valley Trails Initiative.
Growing interest in that project and its importance have now been recognized and encouraged by a technical assistance grant awarded by the National Park Service.
In 2017, momentum greatly increased after the Saxtons River Valley Trails Initiative hosted a highly successful public forum at the Rockingham Free Public Library that discussed the benefits of potential hiking and biking trails from Bellows Falls to Saxtons River and sought input and assistance from area residents and landowners in determining the best route for those trails.
As a result of an enthusiastic response to the forum, organizational meetings and both committee and public walks along parts of the potential route have taken place, and several local citizens have jumped on board to support this regional opportunity.
Determined to move forward with this ambitious project, the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association, with assistance from partners in the Trails Initiative, successfully applied for a planning grant from the National Park Service in June 2017.
The Saxtons River Valley Trails Initiative was selected for a technical assistance grant by the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program for Fiscal Year 2018.
Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance is a nationwide program that helps community groups meet their goals of creating trails, protecting rivers, and enhancing natural areas. The Vermont program is based at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock.
The grant will provide staff time to support the goals of this multi-partner project that envisions a regional, east-west trail system along the Saxtons River Valley — starting in Bellows Falls at the Riverfront Park, linking to the Bald Hill Reserve in Westminster, heading west through Basin Farm and other trails, and thence through Rockingham to Saxtons River and Athens, where it can connect with the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association’s 25-mile north-south trail system that runs from Putney Mountain to Grafton.
The Bald Hill Reserve, owned by the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association, lies adjacent to Bellows Falls Union High School Forest lands, and together they offer more than 7 miles of trails readily accessible to hikers.
The combined trail system on the Rockingham/Westminster lands of the 50-acre Pinnacle Association’s Bald Hill Reserve and the 200 acres of the Bellows Falls Union High School, which controls more land than any other public high school in Vermont, provide a major middle corridor westward.
Although a number of easements along the Connecticut River have been secured, one important step in the project is to complete safe access from the Bellows Falls Riverfront Park to the High School and Bald Hill Reserve.
Stewart Read, treasurer for the Bellows Falls Historical Society and representative/coordinator to the project, as well as treasurer of the Bald Hill Conservation Committee, has been instrumental in getting easements radiating from the park, which is near the Society’s headquarters.
The Historical Society, which has been working on the Historic Riverfront Park and trail system for over 12 years, is offering practical help for the project by providing meeting space, historic resources, printing, and publicity.
Speaking about the broad vision of the project, Pinnacle Association Trustee and Bald Hill Conservation Committee Chair Vanessa Stern said in a news release: “If we are successful, we will provide miles of woodland and riverfront trails between a number of quintessential Vermont villages, creating the opportunity for a variety of day-long destination hikes.
“Nature enthusiasts will be able to hike, snowshoe, cross-country ski, and mountain bike on pristine trials, while enjoying a variety of amenities in local villages at the end of their outings.”