April in Connecticut

I neglected to post in April, as per my goal at the start of the year, but I’ll write up April quickly now that we’re halfway through May…

We like to go camping (or, perhaps, “stay in a cabin”) for Mother’s Day each year, but this year we couldn’t, so we scheduled a trip around April vacation instead.  We rented a cabin for two nights in KOA Mystic CT, which used to be called Highland Orchards RV Park. Jess and her family used to camp there when they went to nearby Misquamicut beach. Jess and I camped there when we had only been married a month. We celebrated my thirtieth birthday there, with friends and family and fun.  It’s in a nice spot, easy to get to without a long drive, and near interesting destinations for short trips (spend a day in Mystic, spend a day at the beach, etc).  There’s a great playground for Evie and a giant bounce pillow, and in season you have a nice pool tool.

As tends to happen to us, it rained for much of our time away (which made us glad we had a cabin and not a tent). We visited Mystic Aquarium our first day down, which is always fun, but due to it being school vacation there was quite a crowd which frustrated Evie. She likes having time to chill out and interact with the beluga whales but with the big crowd they weren’t really that interactive.  Still, it was nice to see the various marine animals and the signs of early spring.

That night, we explored the tiny shops in the immediate area of the aquarium.

The next day, we visited Mystic and visited yet more shops, including the always delightful Bank Square Books.  We had a delicious lunch at Mezza, a Lebanese restaurant in Mystic which used to be called The Pita Spot and which deserves all the praise it gets on Tripadvisor and Yelp.  The food was incredible and the atmosphere unreal. We’re already planning our next trip there.

Our last night, even with it sprinkling a bit, I managed to get a campfire going. As usual, Evie got bored of the campfire after a half hour or so, and eventually even Jess wandered away, leaving me with a peaceful pause before getting back to reality the next day.  And that, of course, is why we travel.

PAX East 2017

At the start of this year, I said I wanted to write more about general experiences with less focus on just the outdoors. In early March, I went on my annual retreat into gaming culture, and I wanted to share some of it here. It’s not fishing or hiking in the mountain air, but it’s something that gives me a break from “real life” and fuels me in much the same way.

I won’t spend time with background about Penny Arcade and PAX; you can easily google it if you’re curious.  PAX is a unique convention in that it celebrates all aspects of gaming: board, dice, cards, role-playing, console, retro, PC — everything. It’s loaded with chances to play games, a massive expo hall with every game-related thing you can imagine, panels which discuss game topics, game-themed concerts, and more.  PAX East is their east coast convention and I’ve gone to every one since 2011. It’s a chance to reconnect with old friends, try out new games, and generally feel embedded in a culture which was once a major part of my life but which is now more of a footnote.  While many people go there to play new titles before they come out, or to listen to famous speakers, my focus is more simple: I want to play board games with my friends, something that used to be a weekly thing, that turned into a monthly thing, that turned into a very rare thing. Life has a way of doing that to you.

This year, as is tradition, I made the trip to Boston mid-day Thursday, the day before PAX began. My friend Clint joined me later in the day, and we grabbed a mediocre dinner at the Whiskey Priest and caught up.  Usually, we have a few drinks and play a few games the night before.  This year, we stayed at the excellent Seaport Hotel, which had a desk which wasn’t anchored to the floor or wall, and which doubled as a fine gaming table.  So, we were able to set up a game of Mage Knight: The Board Game, a massive game which we’ve only played a few times due to its huge time and space investment.  Over the course of probably 8 hours that weekend, though, we managed to complete a game.

In the Mage Knight board game, players explore the countryside, revealing a semi-random map as they go. They defeat monsters, take over fortified keeps, hire companions, and learn new abilities which are acquired as cards. These go into the decks from which players’ hands are drawn. Playing the cards in your hand represents a single turn, and a game “day” ends when a player’s deck has been cycled.

We play a co-operative variant where the objective is to explore far enough to reveal three powerful cities and conquer (liberate?) them before three full day/night cycles are played. It requires aggressive exploration so you don’t run out of time.  But that leads to injuries (in the form of “dead” cards which accumulate in your deck) and passing up opportunities to increase in power. It’s a tough balance, racing against the clock, and we’d never “won” the game before. We managed it this time, and I’m not sure if the bottle of Irish Whiskey we consumed over the course of the game was a help or a hindrance.

I’ll play Mage Knight every chance I get, but it’s gigantic, complex, and requires a time investment that scales with player count.  But it’s well suited to a two-player cooperative game. Since it takes a good chunk of a day to play, times like this are when I get a shot at it.  Prior to this PAX, I hadn’t seen the game in two years.

Friday morning, we followed our usual plan of skipping as much of the lines outside the convention as possible. Life is short, and we’d rather play games at the hotel and arrive late than arrive early and stand around in the cold. We immediately made our way to the “tabletop freeplay” area, where we snagged a table and met up with a handful of friends.

While others settled in, Clint and I played a few rounds of 7 Wonders Duel, a two-player game based on the successful 7 Wonders franchise of board games.  7 Wonders is a ton of fun with between three and seven players, but plays awkwardly with only two.  Duel captures much of the same fun mechanics of 7 Wonders but was designed from the ground up with a duel in mind. This was my first time playing it and I’ll be looking for excuses to play again; it’s fun, quick, and tightly focused.  Choices are important, and randomness is limited to the initial card layout.

While our friends played Space Trucker (a stupidly fun game where you build a spaceship out of tiles in a real-time frenzy of tile-grabbing, then “race” through random events which will likely cause your spaceship to be destroyed due to your poor design choices) we also tried out Hero Realms, a thinly-veiled fantasy reskin of Star Realms.  It’s a fairly simple deck-building game with a shared market mechanic.  It plays quickly but seems to have a high “swing” factor, i.e. games can quickly get out of hand with one player shifting the advantage quickly and earning a decisive victory in only a couple turns.  I like Hero Realms, and Star Realms as well, but I don’t usually seek them out.  Still, they’re a great way to introduce players to deckbuilding games with some fun flavor atop them.

After that … time for lunch!  We abandoned the overpriced long lines for convention center food in favor of the overpriced long lines for food truck food. The staff in this truck were listening to chiptunes covers and dancing while they served us — they definitely knew their audience.

After lunch, we played some games from the lending library.  The lending library is one of my big reasons for coming to PAX — hundreds of games available to borrow, play, and return for free.  They list them all online so you can plan a little ahead of time. I had a list of a dozen games I wanted to try and borrow — we didn’t get to all of them, but the initial research meant the ones we did play were great games.

The first one we borrowed was my favorite of the convention, Istanbul.  A “board” of 16 cards is laid out, with unique actions available at each card. Players move their merchant (and his assistants) around this board, trading for goods and trying to earn rubies. It looks very complex, but the play is simple and fast-paced, and your options are limited so your turns can’t drag on.  The moving mechanic is innovative — you leave a trail of assistants behind you as you go, conducting business in your name.  To take an action in a space, you either have to leave an assistant or pick one up.  So you have to plan out how to move around such that you are not wasting movements, but constantly dropping off and picking up assistants to get your work done.  It played great with either four or five players, and I hope to play it again sometime.

But we weren’t done gaming yet! The next game we borrowed was Clank!, a lightweight deckbuilding dungeon exploring game.  Navigate the dungeon, steal treasures, buy ability cards for your deck, and avoid making too much noise — because if you wake the dragon, you might not make it out alive.  I loved the mood of this game and it captured several mechanics I really like in a single game.  Unfortunately, we made a critical mistake in the rules that made it much too easy, and destroyed the inherent tension in the dragon attack mechanic.  As such I can’t give it a really good review.  I hope to play it again and correct my rules understanding.

It was getting late by this time, but we found time to play one more game, which my friend Chris had brought to the convention.  Lords of Scotland is a card game that feels very card-gamey, for lack of a better description.  You pick up cards (that might be either face-up for face-down), play cards (again, either face-up or -down) to attempt to have the strongest play at the end of each round.  You win rounds, accumulate points, and a winner is decided after several rounds.  You can decide not to try and win a round but instead to play the lowest card and earn some bonus, you get bonuses for matching cards, and so on.  It was fun and not overly complex and had a similar feel to playing a few hands of canasta or rummy, but with a cool Braveheart skin.

I won’t bother with play-by-plays of the entire weekend.  That was Friday, and Saturday and Sunday followed with similar schedules.  We met with other friends (some only able to come for one or two days of the convention) and played plenty of games.  Some of the others:

Orleans is a fantastic “bag building” game where you acquire follower tokens which get placed in a bag, and drawn out randomly to determine what you can do each round.  It’s big and visually impressive but isn’t that complex to play.  It makes me happy in the same way solving a puzzle makes me happy.  Just something about figuring out what you can afford to buy each round with your followers “works” for me.  I own the deluxe edition with beautiful wooden pieces and I’m always pleased to see it in play.

Imhoptep is a game where players compete to score the most points building structures in ancient Egypt. It’s a game where you can really mess with other players and a strong mix of planning, risk assessment, and knowing when to attack and when to defend are important.

Citadels is a card game where each round you have a different role, chosen in a drafting fashion.  You attempt to build up a city by playing cards, but the game play is different every round because the thief might steal all your gold, the assassin make you skip your turn, or the magician might steal your hand. There’s a lot of bluffing and social deduction but it feels more game-like than strict bluffing games like Resistance or Coup.  The copy we played (from the library) was well-worn and obviously well-loved, and for good reason.

Kingdom Builder is deceptively simple area-control / route-building game where each round you play 3 tokens according to very strict rules, and accumulate abilities that let you bend those rules in interesting ways.  Your choices become important early on, and the strategy gets deep very quickly.  It blew us all away, about halfway through the game. “Oh, this is why everyone loves this game!”  I wanted to play it again almost immediately, but we didn’t get a chance to.

Sushi Go is a fun, lightweight set-collection/drafting game where you pass around the same hands of cards and try to accumulate the most points in 3 rounds of play.  It’s simple and doesn’t hide much depth, which makes it perfect for introducing drafting mechanics to new players.  I picked it up recently and everybody I’ve played it with has enjoyed it.

Codenames is always fun; it was a big hit at last year’s con and I brought it again this year.  In Codenames, you split into teams and one clue-giver tries to get the guessers to identify which words on the table are indicated by the clues that are given.  You try to give a clue that matches multiple words — so you might give “green” for Mint, Bank, and Leprechaun.  But you have to be careful — maybe they’ll also guess “House” which is the other team’s word….  It’s easy to teach and encourages creative thought. You always want to play one more round….

… And that was three days of gaming goodness!  Mix in some walking around the expo hall looking at some new independent games coming out, eating questionable con food and drinking $3.50 sodas, and having a ton of fun catching up with old friends, and you’ve got my “Christmas” weekend.  I begin looking forward to next year’s on the ride back home from Boston.

South Carolina and Florida, January 2017

Like I said, my goal here is to update the blog regularly with travel or other “new” experiences, regardless of whether I’m hiking or what.  So I’ll start with a short writeup of our trip to the Southeast earlier this month.

My nephew, who just turned 18 on Christmas, was graduating from the USMC Training Depot on Parris Island, in South Carolina. Last time we were in SC, my brother-in-law was the one graduating. It was nice to get a chance to see his youngest son follow in his footsteps.

We flew into Charleston which I hear is a very nice city (we didn’t have a chance to see), and drove about on hour to Beaufort. The drive itself was mostly nice — all the shallow flats made me wish for my fishing kayak, that’s for sure. Beaufort, like any city, has its ups and downs. We stayed in a “down” spot, unfortunately.  I’ve been told if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything — so I’ll say nothing more about that!

My brother-in-law also traveled down there, and took a different housing approach. They crammed a huge van full of people into a house on a dirt road on Saint Helena Island, immediately adjacent to Fort Fremont, a military installation built in 1899.  We spent most of our time (when we weren’t at Parris Island) there, sitting around their campfire, having dinner with family at the huge table, or going for walks over to Fort Fremont and exploring the ruined old site on the water.

After two days there, we took our rental car on a long drive south, through Georgia and ending up in Ocala, Florida.  There, we visited my grandfather, who turned 90 last year.  We were supposed to be taking him out for lunch but he insisted on cooking us a steak dinner.  I’m sure he spent his food budget for the week on us, but he’s been making us steak since I was a little kid and some habits die hard.  We took him to Bob Evans the next day.

In the evenings we slept in a home in Leesburg, about an hour south of Ocala.  The home is owned by extended family and we enjoyed the chance to relax in a home instead of a hotel.  Of course, relaxation is relative — tornado warnings and severe hail had us hiding in a closet while we were supposed to be watching the AFC championship game!

It was a busy trip, with a lot of driving. As a whole, it wasn’t a “vacation” or “relaxing,” but there were some great moments spent with family.  Smoking a cigar (the second I’ve smoked in my 43 years) and sipping a beer around a campfire with family and friends, all celebrating my nephew’s achievements — that was a great time.  Listening to my grandfather strum his guitar, sharing stories about his youth in Canada?  Priceless. There’s a reason you don’t just stay at home all the time — sometimes the good stuff happens elsewhere!

 

An idle year?

I was working on some content for my professional blog and realized I hadn’t posted on this blog in almost a year.

Our “Saturdate” hikes were certainly less interesting in 2016.  We often found ourselves with other obligations, and spent some of our free time getting errands done and sharing a fine lunch at Sturbridge Seafood instead of exploring new hiking trails. Our hikes, when we went, revisited familiar trails and didn’t yield the kind of experiences I felt deserved blog posts.

And, once you get out of the habit of updating something like this, it’s tough to get going again. So while summer 2016 brought a new kayak for me, I didn’t write up any of my experiences on it — exploring nearby rivers and ponds, catching fish (or complaining about not catching any).  I also didn’t write about the awesome hike we took in Vermont with some friends, down to a small swimming hole by a waterfall, one of the toughest hikes I’ve done, scrambling over steep wet rocks with our kids and trying to wrap up the trip before it got dark.

So while I’m not one for New Years Resolutions, it’s time to remember that I enjoy taking (and posting) pictures and publishing my thoughts here.  Maybe I’ll broaden the focus here — new experiences of all kinds, not just cool hikes.

Either way, my goal (see, not a resolution) is to post here monthly.  We’ll see.

Midstate Trail – Spencer (Solo)

On the first Sunday of the New Year, Evie and Jess made a last-minute decision to cheer on a friend at a gymnastics event in Western MA, and I made a last-minute decision to revisit the Sibley Farm / Burncoat Pond property with the intent of walking a portion of the Midstate Trail.  I’d hiked here with Jess twice before (1, 2) and both times we had mostly ignored the Midstate Trail.  Looking at the map, I realized I probably had enough time to hike the trail from the parking area up to Route 9 and back.

First off, let me again say how much I love this property.  Miles of trails on different terrain, fairly close to home and major roads, yet quiet once you’re out there, with wildlife and ponds to admire.  Take a look at the awesome map they have at the trailhead.

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My route this day would follow the bottom trail until it reached the White Oak Trail, which I would take up to the Midstate, which I would follow up to Route 9.  On my trip back, I would stay on the Midstate back to the parking area.

Our first real snow of the season was still fresh on the ground, and was coated in a bit of ice.  I was glad for my walking stick (and in fact wished I had two at times), and I often had to tread carefully to avoid falling.

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At first, the trails showed recent activity; boot treads and dog footprints mostly.  But the woods were quiet; I only met a couple other people despite a parking lot full of cars (again, the benefit of a large property with many trails).  In the pictures below you can see the “tags” they use for trail markers on this property, which nicely stand out in ways painted blazes sometimes don’t.

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I finally found my way onto the Midstate trail, and headed North.  It was only a bit more than a mile to the road but it was not easy going due to the snow and ice.  My legs were already feeling the pressure.

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The trail overlaps with the trails on this property at a few points, but still maintains its yellow triangle blazes.  Finding the trail was never difficult. Below you can see two yellow blazes and a blue one, for the same trail.  By this point, as you can see, the signs of human traffic had lessened significantly.

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Part of what I like so much about this property is Burncoat Pond, and the beaver ponds and marsh areas that surround it.  There are numerous viewing points out to the water.  It was nice to see the water starting to freeze as the property transitioned to winter.

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As the trail winds through the wetlands, there are a few areas where you have to travel on bridges to keep out of the muck (or the ice, in this case).  These were in excellent shape, having only recently been replaced (according to the fine folks on the Midstate Trail Facebook Group).

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Again, human traffic on the trail was significantly less in this area as compared to closer to the trailhead.

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However, animal footprints were becoming more common.  I saw several sets of deer and turkey tracks as well as the usual squirrel tracks. Below you can see some prints as well as what may be like prints from someone wearing crampons (or snowshoes?).

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For a while the trail here passes by some private property with many No Trespassing signs on it.  It includes a massive field with No Hunting signs posted periodically — I saw many deer trails headed into this field as well as the property owner’s tree stand in one corner.  I imagine this family has a full freezer every year.

I was quickly approaching Route 9, though.  The trail here overlaps with Polar Springs Rd, and there is some roadside parking for those who want to hit the trail starting here.  There was a bench here and an old mostly ruined structure.

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I walked out to Polar Springs Rd and out to Route 9, before turning around.

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The trip back was mostly the same as the trip out, though my legs were much more tired.  I hadn’t been on a serious hike in months and I was feeling it.

There were a couple different spots to see as I took a slightly different path back than I had out.

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At the end, I had done four miles in two hours, and my legs were complaining loudly.  But it was a great hike and covered a piece of trail I’ve always wanted to explore.

Some day I want to cover the entire Midstate Trail.  Perhaps some more point explorations of it are in order.

Grand Trunk Trail to East Brimfield Dam – Sturbridge

It seems a recurring theme that we don’t have as much time to explore the trails on our Saturdays as we used to. Real life conspires to sap away even our protected time.  And so last weekend we again found ourselves looking for a close hike which wouldn’t take up too much of our time.

We ended up driving towards one trail and stopping at another; we saw a parking area on Holland Road in Sturbridge with a Friends of Sturbridge Trails sign on it, and decided to see what it was.  It turns out, it’s a somewhat new extension of the existing Grand Trunk Trail.  This section walks along the Quineboag River to the East Brimfield Dam, and will eventually connect into the Brimfield section of the trail.

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The trail is also labeled as the Trolley Line trail, or similar wordings.  There were two different rail lines through this section, the uncompleted “Grand Trunk” line and a functional trolley line.

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The trail goes along the river quite a bit and might provide a nice way down to do some fly fishing (in fact, we saw an angler with waders on close to the trailhead).

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We paused at a lookout and posed for a snapshot (as we often do).020

The trail continued along the river for a ways and eventually exited on the Army Corps of Engineers property for the East Brimfield Lake.  We’ve explored this dam area many times, including a couple fishing trips, so it wasn’t overall new to us.

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However, standing atop the dam, we saw a path down below which crossed the river and clearly explored a little bit of the property we hadn’t been to before.

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We walked down this way and were rewarded by the sight of a blue heron perched at the water’s edge looking for a meal.

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We walked a bit more along the water on this little path, and took in the fall landscape with the soothing sound of the water nearby.035

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It was a shorter walk than we had planned, because the map showed trail portions that weren’t yet complete.  Once the trail connects fully it’ll be a great showpiece for this section of the state.  For now, we can explore it bit by bit.

Rock House Reservation – West Brookfield

I last wrote about Rock House in November of 2014.  On that day, we went for a long hike in the rain.  This time around, it was a shorter hike, but the weather was much more pleasant.

I started the day by pitching in at a town cleanup of a vacant lot, and spent several hours doing the kind of physical labor I went into engineering explicitly to avoid.  So while we still wanted to hike, I wanted something a little less taxing.  We picked Rock House because we know the trails well (map here), it was close, and we knew we could do a shorter loop and still get some fall scenery in.

We started by hiking up the hill on the red “inner loop” trail towards Carter Pond.

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There we paused and took pictures of the stunning foliage reflected in the still water.

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From there, we picked up the Outer Loop trail and took it around the property.  We’ve done these trails several times in the past so it was a relaxing hike, with frequent pauses to admire the foliage.  As is always the case on our Saturdate hikes, it gave us a chance to catch up on topics both serious and frivolous without the impatient ears of a seven-year-old.

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It was a short walk in the woods, but a much-needed escape from the hectic pace of life.

Getting back into the swing of it

Over the summer, our hikes were tough to manage.  Without gymnastics blocking out the time, we either had to hike as a family, or hike when Evie was otherwise occupied, which wasn’t often.  Given the heat and the bugs, we didn’t get out nearly as often as we had hoped.

But Fall is here, and with it comes cooler temperatures, fewer bugs, and a renewed presence in gymnastics for our little bundle of energy.

So we’re getting back out there.  Over the last few weeks, when we’ve been able to, we’ve made it onto trails.  We visited Heins Farm again (just about a year after the last time) as well as the South Spencer Rail Trail (which I last visited in December).  We didn’t snap a lot of pictures, and I don’t really have much to describe in terms of a blow-by-blow, but it was good to get back on the trail.

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(Family) Wells State Park – Sturbridge

Summer vacation means more family time, and we used that time at the start of July for a hike at Wells State Park in Sturbridge.

I’ve written a few posts in the past about hiking here; it’s a massive property with fairly long trails, and it’s possible to get over 6 miles of hiking in a day fairly easily as I demonstrated in a prior post.  But this hike was a shorter journey, with our daughter dragging her feet a bit (perhaps because nothing is quite as fun as exploring Purgatory Chasm!).

Once again using our State Parks Pass, we parked at the front entrance and made our way on foot around the paved path.  We exited the path to explore Mill Pond Trail, which I think in the summer probably should be renamed Mosquito Trail.  It almost soured us from the trip; even with bug spray it was a constant battle to keep mosquitoes and other insects off of us.

Eager to rescue the expedition, we promised Evie some interesting “climbing” and turned our attention to trying to reach Carpenter’s Rock.  Away from the Pond Trail the bug situation decreased to something livable (though it was still a bit painful at times).

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Evie found a toad along the way, which kept her entertained for quite a bit.

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We reached the top of the rocks and paused for snacks and refreshments.  With the toad, the snacks, the lack of bugs, and the view, Evie’s mood improved drastically.

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It helped that Jess found a snake!

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We paused for a couple selfie (Evie refused to pose with us!).

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But Evie was fine posing with her toad….

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We departed the cliff and returned back the way we came, but then took the long way around (via the paved road) so we could check out the camp sites.  In the end we put in a bit over 3.5 miles.

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It’s a beautiful park and I look forward to many more visits here, though I think we’ll stay off the Pond Trail in the summer.

Purgatory Chasm – Sutton

Our family feet have been eagerly dashing around, but not anywhere that was worth blogging about.  This weekend, summer officially began in our household as Evie’s gymnastics schedule changed and Saturdays are officially free for the whole family. We celebrated by heading somewhere where Evie could explore and adventure – Purgatory Chasm State Reservation.

This was not a hiking trip, it was an exploring trip.  Our goal was to let Evie climb rocks, wriggle through caves, and feel the freedom of summer.  It was a clear success.

Parking at the reservation is $5, and we saw plenty of cars being ticketed. We have a state parks pass, which covered us for the day — very nice.  We had to drive around for a few laps to find an empty parking spot; evidently nice summer days are a good time to visit one of the state’s most popular properties.

We started exploring some of the rocks around the entrance, including this massive one which Evie compared to the famous “Warped Wall” of Ninja Warrior fame.

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But, Evie quickly dashed into the chasm itself.

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We explored the chasm for a while, venturing off on side paths and climbing over and under a great many rocks.

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At the end of the chasm, we continued straight along the Little Purgatory trail, which covers some wet woodlands before reaching another rocky area.

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After exploring the rocky area near the end of the trail, we followed it back to the chasm.

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From there, we followed the Chasm Loop Trail which climbed up some rocks and then hugged the southern rim of the chasm, providing some intense views down.

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Along this part of the trail is “Fat Man’s Misery”, a crack in the rock which our brave daughter had no trouble traversing.  I didn’t try it, myself.

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Not far from there, we stumbled onto some wild blueberry bushes.  Someone is in for a treat in a couple weeks…

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After finishing the exploration, we headed back to the entry of the chasm and bought popsicles from the ice cream cart.  Not a bad way to finish the day!

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Before we had even gotten home, Evie was asking when we could go back….