As Old as the Hills
On Martha’s Vineyard, the path to tranquility runs through Menemsha Hills.
There’s a quiet place on Martha’s Vineyard. Away from the crowded beaches, away from day-trippers clutching guidebooks on Circuit Avenue. It’s a place to find the peace and quiet that everyone who comes to visit and live on an island seeks. Thousands come to this place each year, yet it remains a secret.
On the northwestern side of the island in the town of Chilmark, the secrecy of Menemsha Hills Reservation is only matched by its serenity. Through 211 acres, the topography of the reservation traces through one of the most varied habitats on the island, an environment comprised of wetlands, heathlands, and a beach that remains all but empty even at the height of summer. The Trustees of Reservations, the New England conservation organization that oversees Menemsha Hills as well as six other properties on the island, estimates up to 25,000 visitors come here each year. But ask any one of these travelers to recall the last time they saw more than a handful of passersby on the trails, and you might not get an answer.
The whole northern shore of Martha’s Vineyard is part of the terminal moraine, the section of a mile-high glacier that finished its southernmost reach roughly 10,000 years ago. The area encompassing Menemsha Hills is part of the habitat formed closest to the glacier, which deposited clay, rocks, and soil to form the jagged coastline and headlands. Many millennia later, this terrain spawned one of the Vineyard’s earliest industries. From the late 18th century through the 1930s, Menemsha Hills was home to the Brickyard. Workers mined red and white clay by hand and carted it to the kilns just a few hundred yards northeast of the reservation, firing the material with timber from trees growing in the area and compressing it into the bricks with the cool, fresh water from Roaring Brook. Shipping vessels anchored off the shoreline and delivered the goods to Boston, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island, among other destinations. By the 1930s, however, the supplies of timber and clay had been depleted, rendering the business unviable. Nathaniel and Catherine Harris, the last owners of the Brickyard, donated the adjacent Menemsha Hills property to the Trustees of Reservations in 1966, adding it to the conservation lands that today comprise a third of the island.
The signature trail through Menemsha Hills is named for these donors. The Harris Loop winds from the parking lot off of North Road and connects with the Nashawakemuck Loop further down the stretch, forming a route that runs six miles round-trip and takes an hour and a half to hike. The route was formerly a cart path used for the brickyard as well as the excavation of boulders—also known as erratics, vestiges of the glacial activity that created the island—that were used to construct the jetty at Oak Bluffs. These days, the trail needs a little help from the Trustees: Crews are now repairing sections of the trail where rainfall has weathered wide troughs on the steepest slopes.