Scrambling up the rocks in Purgatory Chasm.

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I really didn’t know what to expect. When a friend suggested a day trip with our children to Purgatory Chasm, nearly 90 minutes away in remote Sutton, Massachusetts (southeast of Worcester), I was skeptical. I knew that the park’s primary feature was a quarter-mile rocky chasm where we could hike and climb – appealing for the adults as well as the kids in our group — but would it be worth the trip? Indeed it was.
Local nature enthusiasts, I recommend that you add Purgatory Chasm State Reservation to your list. There’s a reason why this spot has been in the state park system since 1919.
The park itself is unassuming. Exiting Route 146, you drive along Purgatory Road and then suddenly you’re there. The sizable parking areas offer a clue to Purgatory Chasm’s popularity. The cost for admission is simply a $5 fee ($6 for out-of-state) per car, payable at self-serve kiosks (our was credit-cards-only). Trail maps are available at various points.
Other than the trails, there isn’t much to see. There is a visitor center with restrooms and a small exhibit about local wildlife. There’s also an adventure-themed playground, a grassy playing field, and a covered picnic pavilion, plus lots and lots of scattered picnic tables. Naturally, the trails are the main feature.
Purgatory Chasm probably formed as a result of melting glaciers, about 14,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. In essence, it’s a 70-foot deep gorge filled with varying-sized granite boulders, extending about a quarter of a mile through the woods. Within it are caves, precipices, and ledges. You have to pay attention as you make your way through, but for anyone who’s reasonably fit (including our group of four adults in their 40s, and 7 children ranging in age from 5 to 9) it might be ranked on the mild side of “moderately challenging.” It was also quite captivating — and fun!
The park is open seasonally, from sunrise to sunset every day. (It’s closed in the winter, when the rocks get too slippery.) We arrived around 8:30am, and pretty much had the chasm to ourselves. A large sign marks the trailhead and offers some general cautions about traversing the gorge. The most accessible hiking trail is marked with blue blazes, but there are no restrictions in terms of route, so visitors can explore as they see fit. (Except rock climbers – the rope-and -carabiner set must obtain special permits to scale the high ledges.)
We took our time scrambling through the chasm, following the blazes and figuring out the best way down the steeper drops. Even so, it probably took us less than a half hour to reach the other end. At the far end of the chasm, you’ll find easy access to a few different hiking trails. The kids chose the one to Little Purgatory, which turned out to be another, much smaller, rocky chasm, well worth the time and effort. We followed a trail through the woods and then scratched our heads for a moment when it dissolved into a field of scattered rocks. Continuing along the rocks, we found a collection of large boulders and the ideal location for a snack. (When you pull kids out of bed at 6am, and then set them free to climb on boulders, they are “starving” by 10.)
By the time we’d returned to Purgatory Chasm, the park was getting busy. We passed through the chasm in reverse, meeting a number of other hikers. It was mostly families, with children ranging from toddler to teen. (My recommendation is to wait until your kids are at least 5 years old before visiting.) After spending some time at Sliding Rock — a massive, smooth granite slope that some scoot down without the aid of a sled — we set ourselves up at a shady picnic spot for lunch.
The park is dotted with other rock formations – outcroppings and glacial erratics poking up from the forest floor. Even when we weren’t on the trails, the kids found places to climb, jump, and occupy “King of the Mountain” style.
After our meal, we were eager to explore some more, so we headed up the Charley’s Loop trail, which runs along the top of the chasm. Instead of scrambling over and among rocks, we were looking down upon them. The view was impressive, but be forewarned: there are no barriers or guard rails. This isn’t the place for little feet to trot off on their own.
Reaching the midpoint of Charley’s Loop, our options were to continue on up the other side of the gorge, or return to the chasm for one more pass through. We chose the latter, this time exploring some side trails and other, more challenging routes.
We ended our visit at the playground, so the kids could blow off any remaining steam before the long drive home. Would we return? Absolutely! A visit to Purgatory Chasm is a great way to spend the day. Next time I’d like to check out the other trails (there are a few more – Forest Road, Old Purgatory, and Spring Path – plus we have yet to see the other side of Charley’s Loop).
Purgatory Chasm State Reservation is located at 198 Purgatory Road, Sutton, MA, and managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. If you go, be sure to wear sturdy rubber-soled shoes or hiking boots. For information, call 508 234-3733 or visit http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/dcr/massparks/region-central/purgatory-chasm-state-reservation.html
by Kezia Bacon
August 2015
Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 19 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com