A boardwalk at Nelson Memorial Forest in Marshfield.

Toward the middle of last month’s snowstorm, around midnight, I went for a short walk in the woods behind my house. The brightness of the snow-covered ground made it possible for me to hike quite deep into the forest without the aid of a flashlight.

Once I began to lose sight of the trail, I stopped and stood still. Just ahead, fresh deer tracks bisected my path. Pine boughs sagged under the weight of the wet snow. Steady winds muffled the traffic noise to near inaudibility. I’d gone far enough into the woods that I could barely see the lights of home.

There was a calmness about the forest, about the night itself, that made me feel both sheltered and a little anxious. The woods had a protecting quality, but also an element of unpredictability. While I knew the forest quite well by daylight, at night, under a cover of fresh snow, it was a completely different place. But my uneasiness was tempered by the satisfaction of being able to travel such a short distance — it was really only a few hundred feet — to escape the hum and hustle of my accustomed fast paced world.

Not everyone has a forest in his or her backyard, but nearly all of us have access to conservation areas and other open space lands, which offer temporary respite from our busy lives. One of my favorites, and one of the least-known open space parcels around, is the Nelson Memorial Forest in North Marshfield.

Almost every person to whom I’ve introduced Nelson Forest responds with an exclamation somewhere along the lines of “This place is great. . . and I never would have known it was here!” There are no signs directing you to the property, and being relatively young as far as conservation areas go, it has not quite been absorbed into local knowledge the way that the more popular places like World’s End or the Norris Reservation have.

Part of reason for the parcel’s low profile stems from the fact that it is managed neither by a town conservation commission nor a well-known non-profit environmental group like Mass. Audubon or the Wildlands Trust. Nelson Forest falls under the jurisdiction of the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF), which — as you might ascertain by its name — takes a more proactive approach to maintaining woodlands than your average town board. Forestry is about creating the most healthy woodland possible, and to the chagrin of many a weekend walker, that means that trees often have to come down.

The main trail at Nelson Forest was cut for just that purpose — it had to be wide enough to accommodate trucks to haul felled trees. But a number of narrower trails have since been constructed, providing the general public a means to explore these 130 acres. If you’re concerned that Nelson Forest is nothing but a glorified logging camp, rest assured that actually witnessing NEFF staffers at work is more the exception than the rule. In the eight years I’ve traversed the trails of this property, only once have I crossed paths with a forester at work — and he wasn’t cutting anything down . . . he was leading a nature walk.

Your biggest challenge in visiting Nelson Forest will be finding it, so follow these directions carefully. The simplest way to access the property is from its small parking area off Highland Street. From the North Marshfield Post Office, drive uphill, away from Union Street. Almost all of the houses in this part of town are white and antique. Toward the crest of the hill you will see two more modern structures on the left — one blue, one brick. Immediately after the brick house is a small unpaved drive. Turn left here, and before you get to the large white barn you will see a sometimes grassy, sometimes muddy area marked by a small “Nelson Forest Parking” sign.

Setting off on foot, you will have the choice of two trails — one across a meadow, one through the woods. Take the wooded trail for starters. At the end of the trail, you will see a sign announcing your arrival at Nelson Forest, along with a box where you can sign in and sometimes even obtain a map of the property.

There are all sorts of trails criss-crossing Nelson Forest. For a 1-2 hour introduction, I recommend that you follow the following route.

Continue straight ahead to the River Pasture Road, which will lead you through a magnificent hemlock grove. When the path forks, bear left, continuing on River Pasture. At the next intersection, bear left again. A mossy stone wall stands to the right of the trail.

Continue until you see a path that drops sharply downhill. As the sign indicates, this leads to Packet Landing. Follow this short trail to a small wooden bench and a great view of the North River.

When you’re ready to move on, retrace your steps to the River Pasture Road, and continue uphill, over a ridge. The river will be visible through the trees, far below you. Continue through the Orchard Loop, from which — at this time of year — you can observe how beech trees hold onto their orangey-brown leaves throughout the winter.

Bear left again off Orchard Loop, still following the river. For another good view, you might take the next left; this brief downhill detour will bring you to a wide salt marsh vista.

Press on, up a long hill. Toward the top of the hill, choose either to bear left onto Rock Road, or continue ahead. Rock Road will lead you down the other side of the hill, along the banks of Cove Creek. You’ll pass an old cistern, traverse a wetland by means of a split-log boardwalk, and eventually arrive at the bottom of Highland Hill; you can follow the road back to the parking lot.

If, on the other hand, you continue ahead, bear right at the next fork. This will bring you back to the sign-in box, where you can record a few comments or observations from your visit. In that case, you can take the meadow trail back to your car. Walk about twenty feet into the field, and the trailhead will become evident.

One of Nelson Forest’s greatest qualities its versatility. No doubt you’ll want to return to this woodland haven, and when you do, be sure to try a different trail.

by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
March 2000

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.