This 210-acre property was originally owned by the Stoddard and Leblanc families with a new 11-acre parcel donated by E. W. Sykes Inc. Wanting to keep the land open as a tribute to their family legacies, the Stoddards, LeBlancs, and Sykes worked with Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust to convey their lands to the Town of Athol Conservation Commission.
The protection of this area complements the rich, cultural history of Athol. The area abuts the former Morgan Memorial Fresh Air Camps, 330-acres are now under a conservation restriction by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and are open to the public. Enjoy a leisurely stroll along the property's original cart road where you can walk along 0.5 miles of the former Rabbit Run Railroad that once traveled from Athol center to Springfield, MA. Some common wildlife seen in the area include owls, songbirds, porcupines, white-tail deer, turkey, and black bears.
To find the South Athol Conservation area entrance: travel south on South Athol Road from Athol center and the entrance will be on the right 1.1 miles south of the Route 2 overpass, between the intersections of Riceville Road and Conant Road. (GPS - 3795 South Athol Road) A Conservation Area sign at the driveway will point you down the dirt roadway to a small parking area on the right before the gate (private residence).
The trailhead is just off the left of the parking area and a short trail brings you to a well-worn cart path leading out to the Rabbit Run. You are now ready to explore Athol's newest conservation area.
Hiking Options In the South Athol Conservation Area (SACA)
Hiking Options In the South Athol Conservation Area (SACA)
by Dave Small
Nestled between White Pond and South Athol Pond, the South Athol Conservation Area (SACA) consists of 210 acres originally owned by the Stoddard and Leblanc families with an additional 11-acre parcel donated by E. W. Sykes, Inc. Wanting to keep the land open as a tribute to their family legacies, these families worked with Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust (MGLCT) and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to convey their lands to the Town of Athol Conservation Commission.
There are several options for a hike and lots of trails to explore whether you’re looking for a short or long visit. There is a network of trails, so looking at a map before you go is helpful. Kiosks are at each of the two trailheads, with rules and maps. The Town of Athol’s website also has a map and additional information: https://www.athol-ma.gov/parks-trails/pages/south-athol-conservation-area
Perhaps most intriguing is the opportunity to walk on the rail bed of the former Rabbit Run Railroad. An array of wildlife lives on this mostly forested land. Some common wildlife seen in the area include Barred Owls, songbirds, porcupines, white-tail deer, turkey, black bears, amphibians, reptiles, plus many dragonflies and butterflies.
The Rabbit Run Trail itself is a flat and easy hike. Many of the trails are old cart roads which are easily followed. The trails are generally gentle rolling hills or flat, except for the Rice Hill Trail which is a moderate climb. Most are well marked.
The protection of this area complements the rich, natural, and cultural history of Athol. The area abuts 330-acres of the former Morgan Memorial Fresh Air Camps protected by DCR and MGLCT, with additional trails open to the public.
Two entrances to the SACA are available -- the Leblanc trailhead and the Stoddard Trailhead.
The Leblanc Trailhead is at 3795 South Athol Road. Travel south on South Athol Road from Athol Center, look for a driveway on the right 1.1 miles south of the Route 2 overpass. A green Conservation Area sign at the driveway will point you down the dirt roadway to a small parking area on the right before the gate (private residence).
Enjoy a leisurely stroll along the property's original cart road passing beaver dams and vernal pools through oak/pine forest. The gently rolling trail is a relatively easy walk. Within a half mile you will encounter the rail bed of the former Rabbit Run Railroad that once traveled from downtown Athol to Springfield.
Hiking to the left (south) on this flat improved part of the trail brings you to the SACA boundary at Thrower Brook.
A right turn (north) takes you across a section of private rail bed to Ellinwood Brook. All along this section of rail bed you encounter wetlands including bogs, vernal pools, and beaver ponds. Wildlife is abundant including some interesting dragonflies.
Going straight across the rail bed (west), you start up the slope to Rice Hill. This moderately steep climb features a mature oak forest and connects with the western sections of the conservation area. From here you can hike all the way to the Stoddard Trailhead on the western side of the SACA.
The Stoddard Trailhead between 2106 and 2130 White Pond Road. A small parking area and kiosk is nestled between houses on the east side of the road. The trail starts down a gentle slope to the western section of the SACA. Trails entering from the right belong to the Morgan Memorial Forest Legacy Project and are open to public use.
Crossing a small brook at the outflow of a small beaver dam, views of South Athol Pond appear. Ducks, geese, kingfishers, otter, and beaver may be found along this section of the trail. A yellow gate to deter all-terrain vehicle use brings you to the Barrens Loop. This quarter-mile loop over the deep sands left by glacial Lake Orange provides a unique habitat of pitch pines, scrub oaks, and low bush blueberry. Staying to the right brings you to trail connections to the Rabbit Run, Leblanc Trailhead, and Thrower Brook. The Rice Hill trail can also be accessed from this area.
A portion of the old "Rabbit Run" railroad passes through the South Athol Conservation Area
Vernal pools whose temporary waters are the breeding grounds for many frogs toads and salamanders
Spotted Salamander (with yellow spots) and the state listed Jefferson Salamander are both known to inhabit pools in the South Athol area. Other salamanders you might find in South Athol are Red-backed, four-toed and Red Eft the terrestrial form of the Red-spotted Newt. Other amphibians include Wood Frogs, Gray Tree Frogs, Bull frogs, Green Frog Pickerel Frogs and occasionally Leopard frogs and American Toad. Reptiles to watch for include Painted Turtle, Spotted Turtle, Snapping Turtle, Musk Turtle, Wood Turtle, and Box Turtle. If you see a box Turtle or Wood Turtle take a photo and sent it to Dave@atholbirdclub.org and he will confirm Identification and walk you through the process of adding it to the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species database.
Birdlife is abundant in the mixed pine-oak forest. The Black-throated Blue Warbler pictured above is a regular breeding bird in the conservation area. Spring and Fall migration will produce the most species on any given day but something can be found on almost any day of the year.