The Portland Reservoir has always served as a kind of gateway to the mysterious and magical Meshomasic State Forest.
It's a place where you just "take the dirt road next to the reservoir" to explore the old Nike missile sites. Or follow that dirt road to the foundation of the old smallpox hospital. The century-old white pine plantation? Why, just take that old dirt road.
But we often miss the beauty of the reservoir and its surroundings as we take that road to other places. The deep pine forests and picturesque swamp aren't places you want to just pass through.
And that's where the rim trail comes in. The orange-blazed parks and recreation trail incorporates that old dirt road – also known as the old Marlborough Turnpike – and wraps around the 125-year-old reservoir with its views of Raccoon Hill and Meshomasic Mountain. Visitors must be mindful that the reservoir is still a source of water, though, so while dogs are allowed, the law says they must be cleaned up after — something that quite a few canine owners forget.
Visitors park at the reservoir and follow the trail located to the left of the dam and spillway. Visitors are immediately greeted by views out to Racoon Hill and Meshomasic Mountain – translated as "great rattlesnake" from the Native American. Most of the views incorporate part of the 9,000-acre forest, the state's second largest.
The road twists along the northern edge of the reservoir. On one side is the reservoir and on the other a swamp with numerous stumps and dead trees sticking out of the shrinking ice cover. The town-owned "Stevens Lot" provides a backdrop of huge white pines and Norway spruces that were planted in 1913. An unmarked path will take visitors into the pines.
The rim trail continues along the road before entering the woods and crossing Buck Brook, a crystal-clear stream that feeds the Portland Reservoir. From its sandy banks visitors can see plenty of rapids and waterfalls along with the fish swimming in the clear water. Along the stream are huge concrete culverts covered with moss and lichen – miniature tunnels to explore.
Although it seems like the trail is taking visitors farther away from the reservoir, the path travels along the eastern rim through the deep woods and across bridges created by Andrew Donahue. A few years ago, Donahue's Eagle Scout project was to restore the trail and build bridges across several streams. And we aren't talking log bridges, but well-designed, solid structures — another example of all Eagle Scouts have done for the state's trail system.
The trail passes through a white pine grove and winds back to the reservoir's dam and spillway. Once again visitors can take in the panoramic view across to the pristine hills of the Meshomasic State Forest.
The trail winds past two huge water storage tanks and brings visitors back to the parking area. But before returning, be on the lookout for the old remnants of an old waterworks on the side of the road. Old foundations and huge iron storage tanks can be seen and are neat to explore.
Within the Meshomasic forest there are plenty of interesting places to explore. But on the trip there, don't forget to explore its gateway.
Route 17 to the intersection with Route 17A. Turn on Sage Hollow Road and left on Cornwall Street. Turn left on Old Marlborough Turnpike and follow to the reservoir.