One of the best campsites in Massachusetts just might be located on a trail known for its lack of overnight options.
The New England National Scenic Trail runs 215 miles through Connecticut and Massachusetts, and it offers some of the few backpacking opportunities in these states. But there are a limited number of designated campsites, and trail stewards recommend that thru-hikers string together a mix of backcountry sites and in-town accommodations.
There’s at least one gem of a site, though, on section 17 of the trail, which runs through Northfield and Warwick, Massachusetts. The Richardson Overlook is home to the Richardson-Zlogar Cabin, two tent platforms, space to pitch tents on the ground, a porta potty, and staggeringly beautiful views of nearby Mount Grace and, 40 miles to the north, New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock.
The overlook is named for Sam and Barbara Richardson, who bought the 38-acre parcel on Northfield’s Stratton Mountain in 2001. They agreed to a conservation restriction with the town, and in 2022 they sold the property to the Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust. Their work has guaranteed the land and this stretch of the New England Trail, surrounded by Northfield State Forest, will always be accessible to the public. The land trust has partnered with the Appalachian Mountain Club to help care for the site.
“I grew up going to the woods for adventure and solace, and I became a conservationist without thinking about it too much,” Sam Richardson—who said in a July 2021 interview archived by Storycorps. “My belief is that the way to persuade people to take care of and support wild areas is to provide safe and well-marked trails which will encourage them to get out into the woods, and hopefully develop an appreciation of and reverence for our natural environment.”
My first stay here was in May 2022, and I immediately knew I’d be back.
Set in a mountaintop clearing with a panoramic view to the north and east, the site makes for a comfortable stay and a rewarding backpacking opportunity outside the Northeast hiking meccas of the White Mountains and Adirondacks.
The platform I chose was toward the edge of the overlook, with a stunning view from inside my tent. The other platform is set farther back, near the treeline, and probably would have been a better choice given the wind that whipped through overnight and into the morning.
Despite it being a backcountry(ish) site, there are a quite a few amenities. There are several picnic tables, a grill, stainless steel tables for food prep, and steel boxes for food storage. Rough-hewn benches surround a large fire pit. I didn’t spot any obvious nearby water sources, so it’s worth carrying in as much water as you’ll need.
I peeked inside the cabin, built by Appalachian Mountain Club Western Massachusetts Chapter and Mike Zlogar, and it looked tidy and cozy. It has a lofted sleeping area with three twin mattresses, and it sleeps eight people. It’s free to stay here (there’s a suggested donation of $3), but you need to make a reservation for the cabin or tent platforms through the NET website. The cabin and platforms are reserved separately, so there’s no guarantee you’ll have the place to yourself.
The website showed a reservation for the cabin on the night I stayed, but nobody showed up.
I parked on Bass Road in Warwick, which made for a pleasant but short hike out to the site. The New England Trail follows a snowmobile path south of the road for about a half mile before veering off to become a primitive footpath as it climbs Stratton Mountain. The trail is very well blazed here, which is a good thing—the trail itself is not always easy to spot.
The scenery through this section is somewhat unremarkable, but I appreciate the unmistakable changes in the landscape as you near the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border and enter the region’s transitional hardwood forests. There are no views along the trail until you reach a transmission line corridor a short distance from the site. The power lines buzz and there’s an unmistakable loneliness in feeling connected to civilization in a place that feels remote.
Someday, I’d like to hike in from Gulf Road, which is about three miles and passes through lowlands by Great Swamp. One other option is to park at a trailhead on Alexander Hill Road, which is just a 10-minute walk to the site.
I expected this to be a fair-weather trip—maybe a little chilly around dawn, when lows would hit the mid-40s. I packed a 40°F quilt, as temperatures were forecast to hover in the mid- to upper-50s well after sunset. I could layer up with a fleece and down jack in the morning if needed.
What I didn’t count on was the wind, which kicked up around 2 a.m. and only got more fierce as dawn approached. I stayed plenty warm, though the cold felt biting when I took a walk around the site at sunrise to take pictures. I’d envisioned making a cup of coffee and sitting on the tent platform to enjoy the view. But with temperatures dropping into the 30s I crawled back into bed, pulled the quilt over my head and hoped the wind would die down.
My tent—the new version of Nemo’s Dagger—held up, and frankly I felt like anything with a less substantial pole structure would’ve been blown to pieces. In hindsight, I should’ve taken the time to fully guy out the tent for added stability. I also could have oriented it to make the head or foot end take the brunt of the gusts, but that would’ve meant losing the views. I guess that’s camping in a nutshell: you make tradeoffs and hope for the best.