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Hiking in the Fannie Stebbins Memorial Wildlife Refuge: Longmeadow, Massachusetts
Situated in one of the more improbable locations just south of Springfield, Massachusetts, along the meandering Connecticut River is the Fannie Stebbins Memorial Wildlife Refuge. Covering over 330 acres of pristine floodplain between the river and Interstate 91, this jewel of western Massachusetts provides the perfect habitat for a wide variety of local animal and plant species. The refuge abuts conservation land owned by the Town of Longmeadow and combined creates an area of over 1,100 acres of floodplain forest, ponds, marshes and meadows. It makes for one of the best hiking and birding locations in the greater Springfield area.
Known locally as the Longmeadow Flats, or simply as the Meadows, there are a number of trails that take hikers and bird enthusiasts around and through the refuge. Established back in 1951 and managed by the Allen Bird Club of Springfield, the refuge has recently come under the protective umbrella of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Specifically, the land is now a part of the Silvio Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, which manages over 7-million acres of Connecticut River watershed land in Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
The trails in the refuge make for an easy hike and will take you across scenic meadows, forest, and floodplains that depending on the season can be somewhat wet and muddy in places.
Thanks to the local Boy Scout Troop of Longmeadow there are a number of elevated boardwalk sections and bridges to get you over the more difficult areas. This is a floodplain and wetlands area, so expect to come across a number of ponds and marshy areas.
It all makes for the perfect habitat for a wide variety of waterfowl, hawks, owls, local and migrating birds, an occasional bald eagle, and an interesting assortment of animals including deer, coyote, fox, beaver, squirrel, turtles, snakes and numerous other species.
The ideal launching point for a hike in the refuge starts at the corner of Bark Haul Road and Pondside Road. Bark Haul Road is accessible from Route 5, otherwise known as Longmeadow Street. You can also access the refuge by taking Emerson Road off of Route 5 and then taking a left onto Pondside Road. At the corner simply park on the side of the street and head to the giant map that shows the various trails (photo at top of article). There is also an interesting water level marker here that shows the high water level during some of the more notorious hurricanes to strike southern New England.
From this starting point you basically have three options; you can head south on the Meadow Trail through the Henry Burt Field, head west on the Bark Haul Trail, or you can walk north on Pondside Road toward the ponds and flood overflow areas where there will be a number of ducks, birds, swans, and a rather large beaver den. I usually head toward the Meadow Trail, which after following for a few hundred meters presents you with a few options. You can take the Perimeter Trail, the Elm Trail, or continue to follow the Meadow Trail. All options offer an easy hike with scenic views and many photos opportunities. If you follow the Meadow Trail to the West Trail then to the Bark Haul Trail you will have completed a loop of approximately two miles and this is the route that most visitors take.
Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.— Frank Lloyd Wright
Should you opt for the longer Perimeter Trail it will eventually take you back to where the Meadow Trail meets the West Trail in a part of the refuge called the Elliot Section. Once back on the West Trail there are a few short side trails that veer off the main trail and end at brooks, swamps or the Connecticut River. Don’t worry about getting lost as the trails are marked and they will all eventually lead you back to the main trail. When I came down here for the first time years ago I simply took a picture of the giant map so I had something to refer back to if I ever felt lost, which has never happened.
One note of caution as you make your way through the refuge, there are railroad tracks that run through here so be careful when crossing and do not be tempted to walk along the tracks.
If attempting to hike the longer Perimeter trail please be aware that during the spring wet season the trail may become unpassable due to water. On more than one occasion I have had to turn around due to the trail being under water with no way around. It’s also a good idea to wear the appropriate footwear. During the dry summer season this won’t be as critical but it’s best to always wear the right footwear while hiking.
On most of my visits to the Fannie Stebbins Refuge I travel very lightly with just my camera, small binoculars, water and cell phone. You can easily spend a couple of hours hiking here, much longer if you want to do some birdwatching or are adventurous enough to explore every nook and corner of the refuge. When done hiking I always make it a point to head down Pondside Road and stop at a few of the ponds, which are usually teeming with wildlife.
If you’re looking for an easy and scenic couple hours of hiking and bird watching check out the Fannie Stebbins Memorial Wildlife Refuge in Longmeadow. And if winter outdoor activities are your thing the refuge is also a popular spot for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. No matter the season it still amazes me that such a pristine and remote area can be found this close to a busy urban area and the city of Springfield.
© 2016 Bill De Giulio