Plenty to do at Harold Parker State Forest!

By Jim Humphrey

One of Boston’s North Shore’s best recreation areas is tucked between Routes 114 and 125, spreading across the southern boundaries of Andover and North Andover, and northern ends of Middleton and North Reading. This local jewel is Harold Parker State Forest, and its 3,000-plus acres provide a wealth of natural entertainment possibilities.


“HP” is bisected by Jenkins Road into 2 distinct entities (see the Harold Parker State Forest Trail Map);  west of Jenkins is home to the largest body of  water, Field Pond; the Lorraine Campground; and some of the most interesting historical sites. East of Jenkins Road is where the main picnicking, swimming and (in-season) hunting take place. Both sides are laced with multi-use trails. Maps can found at the campground and the Forest Headquarters.


Summer escapes


Relief from the hot and humid days of summer can be found at Berry Pond, a daily-fee area which has swimming and a sandy beach, nearby picnic sites, and new bathrooms and changing facilities. A pavilion near the bathrooms can be used for group functions. Some larger picnic sites feature roofed structures with built-in fireplaces. Access is from Middleton Road only; there are two gates which ensure that most of Berry Pond road is auto-free.


If you want trails for walking, hiking, biking or horseback riding, HP has them in abundance. A good place for walkers to start may be the smooth, flat trail of fine crushed gray stone which goes around Berry Pond, culminating in an overlook of the whole pond from a rocky promontory reminiscent of some peak you might find in the White Mountains. This path is one of the “universal access” trails that Massachusetts’ Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which maintains state parks, has built in order to make the hiking experience available to people with physical disabilities. From the parking lot near the pavilion, go down Berry Pond Road, around the gate at the end of the lot, and look for the gray dirt on your left.


Walkers, hikers, bikers and riders looking for tougher terrain can start down any of the broad dirt roads which meander through the park. On the Route. 125 side of HP, Walker Road goes around Brackett and Collins Ponds, affording a view of one of the dams created by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s (the CCC, a depression-era work program for out-of-work men and boys, helped build many of the roads, dams, and facilities the park uses today, in addition to replanting trees in the forest and helping to create nine man-made ponds). Take Walker Road north towards Salem Street until you see a narrower path intersecting it sharply on your right. This trail will lead to the Andover Village Improvement Society’s (AVIS) Skug River Reservation; just go left where you see the first white-blazed tree. If instead you continue past the Skug trail, then take the next left (there is a white arrow pointing left), you will come to the location of the Jenkins mill and quarry (more on its history below).


Cross the wooden bridge where the Skug River meets the wetlands, and go left to get a closer look at the dam and quarry area. Alternatively, go straight over the wooden bridge and follow the Bay Circuit trail past the Jenkins quarry area, navigating a winding path along the wetlands, and you will come to an enormous glacial erratic (“big stone” for you non-geologists). From here you can go right across Jenkins Road to the other side of the park (though there is a steep, tricky descent here).


The “east of Jenkins” section of the park is larger, and features trails especially enjoyable for longer mountain bike and horseback rides. The dirt Harold Parker Road ( as opposed to the Harold Parker which runs between Route 125 and Jenkins Road, or the one that connects Route 114 to Middleton Road) starts in a small parking lot where Berry Pond Road meets Jenkins Road. It’s like a boulevard leading to all other areas of the park right over to Route 114. Just head south of the parking lot across a small field, through the two gateposts into the woods, and you are on your way. Check out the new path that has just been built by the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA); it’s the second trail on the right after the gateposts, and will you bring you to Bradford Pond Road. Just keep an eye on your map – a wrong turn can leave you on the pavement in Middleton or North Reading!


If you have planned ahead, you can camp in the Lorraine Campground, in one of the 90 sites embedded in the pine forest. Each site has its own grill, picnic table, and fireplace; flush toilets and hot showers are available at four stations located throughout the camp. It also has its own swimming beach, on Frye Pond. This is also where you will find the Nature Center.


Field Pond, south of Harold Parker Road between Route 125 and Jenkins Road, is a prime spot for fishing and canoeing or kayaking. The south side of Harold Parker Road is dotted with trailheads which take you down to Field Pond’s shoreline, providing good fishing access as well as twisty trails for hiking and biking.


Check HP’s summer events calendar!


Summertime also finds special events at HP, including a fishing festival in August; and regular nature walks and interpretive programs. A very helpful online event calendar allows you to see what is happening at any state park on any given day; just put in the appropriate day. You can verify an event’s status by calling Forest Headquarters at 978-686-3391


Fall and winter fun, too


Fall and spring are generally times when the Berry Pond facility can be reserved for use by groups for specific events. About 200 mountain bikers attend NEMBA’s annual “Wicked Ride of the East” around Halloween. Riders check in at the pavilion to sign up for led rides at various skill levels, or just go off on their own to follow well-marked trail loops. Call Forest Supervisor Richard Scott about organizing events at HP.


Hunting is in season during the fall as well – check with the forest headquarters for rules and regulations. Note that summer gunshots can be heard near Berry Pond, but they are occurring safely within a private hunting club across the street.


Winter turns the paths and roads into excellent, if ungroomed, cross-country ski trails. Park carefully by the side of the road, and just ski into the woods.


How HP came to be


It’s important to understand that this cornucopia of natural attractions and recreation facilities was once considered “waste land”, a place where most of the trees had been burnt or cut down. Supervisor Richard Scott’s excellent “Harold Parker State Forest – From Past to Present”, from which the following history was drawn, notes that the area was inhabited by native peoples until the early 1600s when a tragic plague decimated their population. It was then cleared for agricultural use by European farmers settling in the region in the middle 1600s .


In the 1800s, the area of the forest near the intersection of what is now Salem Street and Jenkins Road provided local entrepreneur William with resources for two of his businesses. One was probably a sawmill – the remainders of its rock walls can be seen on the Skug River, off the Bay Circuit trail – though it may also have been used in his other enterprise, which was a quarry for blue soapstone. This soft stone was taken out of the forest from 1836 until the 1840s, and used in Andover’s West Parish Cemetery as well as buildings on Boston’s Summer Street, before the company’s treasurer made off with the funds and operations ceased.


Jenkins was also an abolitionist, and his house, erected by his grandfather Samuel Jenkins in 1765 (and still occupied today), was host to several famous anti-slavery activists, including William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe.


During the later 1800s, much of the cleared farmland was abandoned, as better soil could be found further west. In 1895, much of the area was destroyed by forest fire, probably sparked by coal- and wood-burning steam engines. The trees that remained were cut down, leaving nothing but “waste land” behind.


Fortunately, land preservation began to be taken seriously in the early 1900s, when Massachusetts established the State Forest Commission. The mission of the Commission was to buy “burnt and cutover land” for improvement and reforestation, and its first Chairman was Harold Parker, a civil engineer whose background was in railroad construction and administration. Parker envisioned lake and forest reservations being established across the state on this kind of land. On his unexpected death in 1916, the lands then being purchased for this program – much of the current Harold Parker State Forest – were named in his honor.


As noted, many improvements to the property were made by the CCC in the 1930s. These days, a number of groups volunteer time and materials to help the DCR maintain the trails and build new ones, including NEMBA, Americorps, and the Boy Scouts.


Make a day of it at HP!


Harold Parker’s beautiful, rocky forests and numerous ponds should keep you and your family busy with outside activities throughout the year. Plan to make a day of it soon!


More about Harold Parker State Forest….


DCR website for Harold Parker -