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Cycle Touring: Cambridge to Pearl Hill State Park

Cambridge to Pearl Hill State Park
Bike Camping Trip
May 23-24, 2009

Trip Synopsis

After researching bike touring trips out from Boston, I found Nazmy Abaskharoun’s tour diary describing his trip from Boston to Montreal on the Crazy Guy On A Bike website:


I had never done a solo overnight bike camping trip before, so to minimize variables I decided to replicate Nazmy’s route and destination from Day 1 of his trip, from Somerville to Pearl Hill State Park in West Townsend:


The primary goal of the trip was to test my camping gear and to see how my bike and I would hold up over the distance of an all-day ride under the weight of the gear. My bike is a Cannondale R300 road bike to which I have added a rear bike rack and hand-built rear wheel from when I first bought it in 1999.

I am often probing at the mystique that only “proper” touring bikes are fit for touring. Can the thin wheels and caliper brakes of a road bike stand up to the extra weight and variable road conditions of touring? My only other bike touring trip on the Cannondale (nicknamed “Beatrice”) was three years ago on the Claire Saltonsall Bike Route from Boston to Cape Cod. This was a two-day (two-and-a-half day if you count the ferry ride from Provincetown to Boston on the third morning) bike camping trip with my friend Jen (on an Eddie Bauer hybrid, no less). While Jen’s rear wheel broke some spokes on the second day (older bike), my Cannondale made it without incident. Perhaps we could have had more troubles if we were loaded down for a week-long self-sufficient camping trip. Fortunately, we carried only small panniers and lightweight camping gear sufficient for a night of summer camping, and we bought our meals on the way.

For this trip, testing the camping gear meant 1) cooking all my meals (not stopping for food/water) and 2) trying out the new Hennessy Hammock (http://hennessyhammock.com/catalogue.html) that I had purchased in March of this year. I had decided to buy the hammock after reading the high recommendations on internet forums by other cycle tourists. The hammock is both a rainproof sleeping shelter and an open-air lounging hammock, and it minimized my gear load since it replaced my heavier one-person tent and ThermaRest mattress. My lightweight panniers were the same ones from the Cape Cod bike trip, only this time burdened down with more cooking gear: food, stove, mess kit, etc.

Would this set-up be enough or too much? Would I survive out there on my own? I am a fairly fit cyclist since I commute from Cambridge to Boston every day, but that is only 4 miles each way. The excitement of bike touring is undoubtedly being confronted with all the unknowns along the trip. I didn’t bring any bike tools outside of the tire-changing gear of hand pump, extra inner tube, levers and patches. Ultimately, I was prepared to use my cell phone and credit card if things got really bad. My trip information was gleaned from Nazmy’s diary and I used Rubel’s Eastern and Central Massachusetts Bike Maps for road and state park reference.

Day 1: Cambridge to Pearl Hill State Park

Weather: Overcast
Temperature: in the 60’s
Total Distance: 53.37 miles
Total Biking Time: 4 hours, 12 minutes

9:30 am: Depart North Cambridge with Jen

Jen had to drop off her modem at Comcast. Here I am next to the bikes.

10:30 am: Crosby’s grocery, Concord, MA. $8 for two turkey and cheese sandwiches and bananas – one for breakfast, the other for later.

Crosby’s grocery store on Sudbury Rd. in Concord, MA. Plenty of outdoor tables, chairs and space to hang out with bikes!

11:30 am: Depart Crosby’s. Jen to Walden Pond, Claire to Lowell Rd/Concord St to connect with Rte. 225.

1:00 pm: Littleton (Bruce Freeman Trail)

Rte. 225 crosses a completed portion of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail midway between Carlisle and Rte. 495. The path is fenced off behind me (not shown), but the woman who snapped this photo said that people regularly ride on this completed portion all the way to Lowell. This key bit of (mis) information would have bearing on my return trip.

1:30 pm: Groton center for banana and rest (38 miles)

Feeling pretty good so far, despite the helmet hair.

1:45 pm: Depart Groton

3:30 pm: Arrive Pearl Hill State Park.

Jay and Suzanne were the DCR rangers staffing the Park Office. The campground was full since it was Memorial Day weekend, and I hadn’t reserved a campsite ahead of time. Luckily, Jay took pity on me and offered me campsite #51 which was usually reserved for members of the Friends of Pearl Hill State Park group. His supervisor had given him permission to assign the campsite to someone “nice” who needed it over the weekend. Thanks, Jay! Camping fee for one night: $12.

Scored a camp site! Unfortunately it turned out to be really loud, with little privacy.

Site #51 is at the periphery of the camping area, but the campsites in this park are jammed so close together that I was searching for the right huddle of trees to set up the hammock and shield myself as much as possible from the large group of car-campers with their loud stereo, bonfire, and circle of beach chairs directly facing my site.

The large group of car campers are directly behind the hammock. Admittedly, a traditional tent would have provided a bit more privacy for myself, and I might consider adding an extra rain tarp in the future for this purpose.

Efficient set up: camping out of the bicycle panniers.

I abandoned the campsite’s picnic table to set up my cooking area closer to my bike and hammock. This arrangement turned out to be pretty efficient since I could reach for things out of my panniers without having to unpack everything and truck back and forth to the table. One log for sitting, the other upon which to place cooking items. The hammock is flattened on top to lounge upon afterwards in the open air.

NOTE: The hammock’s rain fly should not be anchored at an upward angle as seen in the picture. I did it this way for privacy, but during the brief rain storm that night/early morning, a huge pocket of water had collected in the fly over my head since the water was unable to drain over the top of the hammock. Despite this, to the hammock’s credit, I remained completely dry inside.

Dinner tonight was farfalle col pomodoro ed edamame (butterfly pasta with tomatoes and edamame.)

After dinner, I decided to explore one of the paths that led into the woods from the main road near the bathroom facility. It was a chance to relax and find some peace and quiet away from my loud camping neighbors. After only a couple minutes, the path connected to a road outside of the park boundary. I found a meadow on the other side of the road sheltered by trees and I reclined for a bit in the tall grass to watch the dwindling pink hues of the sunset and to hear the twilight songs of the birds. Ah, nirvana. I realized that if I ever made a second trip to this destination, I would probably set up the hammock in this meadow instead of camping in the State Park. It is close enough to make use of the Park’s bathroom, water faucet and trash facilities, while being isolated enough to actually enjoy nature.

Here is a map of the meadow’s location, for all you “stealth campers” out there:
[click for PDF version]

Base map topographic data courtesy of Lars Ahlzen.
Online version of the base data is found here:

Day 2: Pearl Hill State Park to Lowell

Weather: Overcast, then Sunny, followed by brief showers.
Temperature: in the 70’s, humid
Total Distance: 40.86 miles
Total Biking Time: 3 hours, 15 minutes

10:00 am: Depart Pearl Hill State Park

I slept pretty well in the hammock throughout the night, and despite the brief showers in the early morning and temperature dropping to 50 degrees, I was comfortably warm and dry. I had originally planned to ride back to Cambridge on the same roads that I had come out on (Rte. 119 to Rte. 225 to the Minuteman) but the unexpected high volume of traffic on routes 119 & 225 were too stressful to consider taking again. I decided to take the northerly Rte. 113 into Pepperell and over to Lowell, where I would locate the start of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail that would take me to Chelmsford. From there I would take the familiar roads into Concord and home to Cambridge. The biggest draw of this plan was the chance to cycle the paved portion of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, that has not yet been officially opened. More information on the trail’s status can be found here: http://www.brucefreemanrailtrail.org/trail_plans/present_trail.html

12:00 pm: Arrive Tyngsborough State Forest

Alhough I had eaten a large bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, by noon I was hungry for lunch and even a brief nap if I could find a suitable spot. I located Tyngsborough State Forest just north of Lowell on the bike map, and the vision of a green meadow filled with chirping crickets like the one I had lounged in the previous evening pulled me onward. The roads to the State Forest were hilly and difficult to locate, and when I found a trail head at the end of a dead-end road, the only terrain that greeted me was a dense thicket of mosquito-infested pine trees. I rambled the Cannondale over the stumps and mud holes of the pine needle-carpeted path, and headed over to a clearing which turned out to be a scummy beaver pond with a few croaking bull frogs and two Canadian geese with their goslings.

The bull frog is located in the clump of reeds between the beaver lodge and the shore.
Note the tree trunk gnawed away by beavers.

Camp set up for lunch.

View from the hammock. I’m being ravished by mosquitoes, BTW.

2:00 pm: Depart Tyngsborough State Forest

I set up the hammock and started the water to boil for ramen. After cooking, eating, and a very short rest in the hammock, it was already 2 pm and I was behind schedule.

3:00 pm: Arrive at Head of Bruce Freeman Rail Trail in Lowell

I followed Lakeview Ave from Tyngsborough State Forest over the Merrimack River and into Lowell. Once in Lowell, it was a bit of work to find Lincoln Rd., the start of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail. To my dismay, all I found was an abandoned rail line littered with weeds and trash. There was a mountain of crushed rock spilling over the tracks in one spot, so the project looked promising, but the trail was clearly unsuitable for riding. Because I was worn-out from the lunch detour to Tyngsborough State Forest, I decided to head back to the Lowell Rapid Transit Center, where I caught the 5:00 pm commuter train to West Medford.

5:00 pm: Depart on Commuter Train from Lowell

Journey’s End: on the train from Lowell. Exhausted, but alive!

5:45 pm: Arrive West Medford

6:00 pm: Arrive North Cambridge

Total Trip Distance: 97.33 miles
Average Speed: 12.56 mph
Max Speed: 27.56 mph

Total Trip Cost: $28.75
$8 Crosby’s
$12 Camping
$2 Candy
$6.75 Train fare

Trip Summary

Although the trip was not flawless, I would still deem it a success. The Cannondale held up under the rugged dirt trail of Tyngsborough SF (nothing broke or got flat!) and the camping/cooking gear worked out fine. If anything, I learned how to better read a map (!) where the “red” color roads mean high volume (!) and where it would have paid off to check the State Park facilities legend before “spontaneously” altering my route. The Tyngsborough SF stop took me too much out of my way and I should have been better informed about the condition of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail. In the future, I decided that I would only cook my meals when already settled at a campsite and not on the road (takes too much energy and time to set up.) I was fortunate that the Commuter Rail network has a stop in Lowell, or else I would have returned to Cambridge either after dark or I would have had to use the credit card. In the future, I will research better roads for cycling (those with a lower volume of cars) and I will stick to my route!