Ribbon ice crunches underfoot as we make our way over bog bridges along the Kennard Trail.
“How long has it been since we hiked,” Janelle asks. Christmas was good to her. She’s testing new gear; hiking poles, boots, a water bottle and most important of all, her first adult digital camera.
“About six weeks,” I say.
“Really? Feels like longer.”
Understatement of the year! The girl and I have been searching for a window to get to the woods and we finally found a couple of hours the day after Christmas to explore Pulpit Rock Conservation Area, a few hundred acres of trail-saturated woods in Bedford made famous for its natural amphitheater and gorge.
After the bridges, the trail swings west and passes by a campground just of the trail. We check it out, but the site is only one large, dirty platform. Garbage is strewn around the site, and graffiti marks some trees. We don’t stay long. But we are thrilled to find an enormous teepee, fashioned out of long thin tree trunks and insulated with tree boughs. It’s a perfect opportunity for Janelle to use her camera, so I lean back and breath deep and I can taste the cool moisture of the oncoming storm. I suspect this will be the last non-snow hike of the season.
Once satisfied that she has captured every angle of the teepee, we move on, up a small ridge and past a spur path that leads to a swampy overlook of Pulpit Brook. The gorge is formed out of this brook, but we turn left at a junction onto the Campbell Trail and swing around the east side of the gorge and down to a beautiful area of the brook where a series of low waterfalls cascade through the ruins of an old mill site.
Figuring out the layout of what used to be here is difficult. All that appears to remain are two, high, stone retaining walls. The brook cuts through the middle of the walls. It’s a fine place to relax as the brook veers wildly through the area forming various channels here and there. There’s ice underfoot everywhere though. The kid’s curious about the history of this place, but I’m uncertain what this mill was, perhaps a lumber mill?
After a bit, we head back up the valley, but hang a sharp left and begin our approach to the gorge from the Ravine Trail. We stop often, sometimes for pictures, sometimes to check out the icicles that swoop and droop over every rock surface.
“This is excellent,” Janelle says, running her hand over an enormous icicle that seeps out of a tiny crack in an overhanging rock and ends in a sharp point a couple of inches from the ground.
“Careful,” I say, but there’s no need to worry. She doesn’t want that one. Instead she grabs a smaller one, brushes off the snow and eats it like a popsicle. I almost tell her not too, but remember that I used to eat icicles as well as a kid. The girl loves anything to do with water, in any form, so I let her go her happy way and figure a little rock fungus can’t do too much harm.
Soon, the gorge walls begin to close in around us and a series of slippery bridges leads us into the main amphitheater of Pulpit Rock. Rock walls, smoothed by the water that must accumulate here in the spring, surround us. At this time of year, Pulpit Brook tips into the gorge as a small ribbon of falls, pools at the bottom and worms its way downstream.
“Whoa,” Janelle says and her voice echos in the rock chamber.
“See up there,” I say pointing up to the rock that gives this area its name. “People would stand up there and talk to hikers and picnickers and give speeches.”
I shrug. “Whatever was on their minds. Religion, politics, topics of the day.”
“Did those people want to hear speeches while hiking?” Before I can think of how to answer that, she says, “I wouldn’t.”
There are a variety of ways to scramble to the top and we pick a steep, but stepped section of rock that leads us up to a picnic table and over to the flat overhang that is Pulpit Rock. We break out the tea and trail mix and the girl and I sit on the “pulpit” and watch as a large group of adults, kids and dogs scramble down into the amphitheater below us.
“Sometimes, it’s nice to just people watch,” Janelle says.
And so we do, there in a place where countless others have come to speak, to picnic and to escape. Amid the suburban cul-de-sacs and only ten minutes from Manchester, Janelle and I enjoy a little slice of rugged forest and listen to the voices of kids echoing off the walls below us.
If you go: The trailhead parking lot for Pulpit Rock Recreation Area is located in Bedford on New Boston Road, about 5.5 miles west of Route 114. It’s accessible during winter and would make for some great snowshoeing. Take the Kennard Trail directly to Pulpit Rock (about .6 miles) or take the Campbell / Red Tail to the old mill site. (Warning: Watch kids closely as the drop-offs around the rock are steep and happen suddenly.)
Our hike: Kennard Trail to Campbell Trail to Red Trail to Mill spur, back on Ravine Tail to Kennard Trail.
Our miles: About 2.5
Pictures link: Pulpit Rock Conservation Area