As Old as the Hills
Cape Cod Life / August 2011 / History, Nature, People & Businesses
Writer: Jeff Harder / Photographer: Alison Shaw
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.
Erosion aside, the loop through Menemsha Hills possesses scenery that is the stuff of imagination. Canopies of oak and maple cast thick shadows on the trail. The rare sunlight shimmers off of the occasional small ponds that flank the path. Boulders teem with lichen, a mosaic of lime-green that reflects the purity of the air. It’s rare to get a glimpse of a rooftop through the thickets, and it appears then only if the eyes are trained to look for one. Passersby are few and far between. Aside from the prodigious numbers of ticks—those useless creatures—there’s not much that could be improved upon. “Even the poison ivy looks pretty—as long as you don’t touch it,” says Chris Kennedy, the Martha’s Vineyard Superintendent for the Trustees of Reservations.
The first point of interest is Prospect Hill. At 308 feet above sea level, it is the second-highest point on the island. (A few record-seeking neighbors hauled a heap of stones and stacked them four feet high to steal first place from the 311-foot Peaked Hill, though that effort had no impact on the actual elevation.) The hill provides a panorama to reward the effort required to get here: the outposts of the Elizabeth Islands, the flash of a beacon from Gayhead Light, the former military installation at Noman’s Land, the white sands of Lobsterville Beach, the deep blue of Vineyard Sound. For bird watchers, Prospect Hill is also a great vantage point to see Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, and other species that pass through in late summer.
The descent from Prospect Hill leads to a private, dirt road that divides the property. The soil underneath turns to sand, and the trees—now hollies and scrub oak—turn shorter and barer. On the approach to the shoreline at Great Sand Bank Overlook, the trees retreat from sunshine that’s easily 10 degrees warmer than the shade. It’s a short stroll through the valley and dune grass to reach the end of the trail, the sounds of footsteps turning from the quiet crush of sand to a thump over a wooden staircase during the descent.
The loose cobblestones of the beach below stretch for three-quarters of a mile. Crumbling cliff faces rise from the shoreline and expose shades of white and red from the clay underneath. Offshore, the cool blue of Vineyard Sound ripples against a cluster of submerged boulders. It’s a sport fishermen’s paradise—lobsters wash ashore after storms, trout are just a short walk to Roaring Brook, and it’s easy to land stripers in the autumn. This beach is also the most elusive summer rarity on the Vineyard: waterfront real estate, free and open to the public, virtually absent of crowds.
Of the many thousands that visit Menemsha Hills each year, most come in the fall. Typically, Kennedy says, these are year-rounders drawn to the foliage, the droves of monarch butterflies that flutter through, and the chance to take a deep breath after another summer season. In other words, autumn is for those familiar with the secrets of Menemsha Hills. For the uninitiated, there’s no better time to get acquainted than the present.
Jeff Harder is managing editor at Cape Cod Life Publications.
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