For years outdoor enthusiasts in the Bellows Falls area have longed for a scenic hiking/biking trail to connect Bellows Falls and Saxtons River to both the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association trails at Bald Hill and the larger Pinnacle ridgeline trail network. Such a broad system would offer needed recreational opportunities and capitalize upon the region’s natural assets of rivers, fields, and woodlands. In 2015 that desire became more focused and culminated in a collaboration by the Bellows Falls Historical Society, Rockingham Conservation Commission, and Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association that was named the Saxtons River Valley Trails Initiative (SRVTI). Growing interest in SRVTI’s project and its importance have now been recognized and encouraged by a technical assistance grant awarded by the National Park Service.
In 2017 momentum for the area project greatly increased after the Saxtons River Valley Trails Initiative hosted a highly successful public forum at the Rockingham Library that discussed the benefits of potential hiking and biking trails from Bellows Falls to Saxtons River and sought input and assistance from area residents and landowners in determining the best route for those trails. As a result of enthusiastic response to the forum, organizational meetings and both committee and public walks along parts of the potential route have taken place, and several local citizens have jumped on board to support this regional opportunity. Determined to move forward with this ambitious project, the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association (WHPA), with assistance from partners in the Trails Initiative, successfully applied for a planning grant from the National Park Service (NPS) in June of last year. (continued next column)
The Saxtons River Valley Trails Initiative is most pleased to announce its selection for a technical assistance grant by the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program (RTCA) for the 2018 fiscal year. RTCA is a nationwide NPS program that provides assistance to community groups to help them meet their goals of creating trails, protecting rivers, and enhancing natural areas. The Vermont program is based at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, Vermont.
The RTCA grant will provide staff time to support the goals of this multi-partner project that envisions a regional, east-west trail system along the Saxtons River Valley – starting in Bellows Falls at the Riverfront Park, linking to the Bald Hill Reserve in Westminster, heading west through Basin Farm and other trails, and thence through Rockingham to Saxtons River and Athens, where it can connect with the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association's 25-mile north-south trail system that runs from Putney Mountain to Grafton.
The Bald Hill Reserve, owned by the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association, lies adjacent to Bellows Falls High School Forest lands, and together they presently offer over seven miles of trails readily accessible to hikers. The combined trail system on the Rockingham/Westminster lands of the 50-acre WHPA Bald Hill Reserve and the 200 acres of the Bellows Falls Union High School, which controls more land than any other public high school in Vermont, provide a major middle corridor westward. Although a number of easements along the Connecticut River have been secured, one important step in the project is to complete safe access from the Bellows Falls Riverfront Park to the High School and Bald Hill Reserve.
Stewart Read, Bellows Falls Historical Society (BFHS) Treasurer and representative/coordinator to the project, as well as Treasurer of the Bald Hill Conservation Committee, has been instrumental in getting easements radiating from the park, which is near the Society's headquarters. BFHS, which has been working on the Historic Riverfront Park and trail system for over 12 years, is offering practical help for the project by providing meeting space, historic resources, printing, and publicity.
Speaking about the broad vision of the project, WHPA Trustee and Bald Hill Conservation Committee Chair Vanessa Stern said, "If we are successful, we will provide miles of woodland and riverfront trails between a number of quintessential Vermont villages, creating the opportunity for a variety of day-long destination hikes. Nature enthusiasts will be able to hike, snowshoe, cross-country ski, and mountain bike on pristine trials, while enjoying a variety of amenities in local villages at the end of their outings."
Mike Ghia, Chair of the Rockingham Conservation Commission, pointed out the need for this recreational opportunity. "Building connections between the trail networks we do have and developing new trails, as well as publicizing them, will enhance the quality of life for local citizens as increased opportunities for hiking and biking are created. The village-to-village trail system should also give a lift to local economies, as visitors from near and far venture here to take advantage of this expanded outdoor experience."
After meeting with representatives from the cooperating organizations and walking some of the proposed trail route with them to detail needs and problem areas, National Park Service RTCA project manager Jennifer Waite stated, "The Saxtons River Valley Trails project is a terrific partnership of a wide variety of community groups and non-profits. Their energy and focus will surely pay off with significant benefit to the region. RTCA is looking forward to working with this group and doing what we can to help them achieve their goals."
Support for the project has already been received from a variety of governmental and private organizations, including the Vermont Department of Health, Westminster Selectboard, Village of Saxtons River, Rockingham and Bellows Falls Development Director, Bellows Falls Community Bike Project, and Compass School.
For further information about the Initiative and ways to participate, contact Vanessa Stern, WHPA Trustee and Bald Hill Conservation Committee Chair, 802-463-4948.