Monday, August 31, 2015

Family-Friendly Twilight Hiking at Leominster's Sholan Farms

For us, the great joys of fall’s arrival are the crisp, cool nights and the smell in the air. Days in the fall are splendid but nights are an extra treat to enjoy outdoors. We love stumbling across nighttime events that allow us to be outdoors, enjoy the cooler weather, and simply be in nature.
Gazebo Twilight Hike Sholam Farms Leominster MA New England Fall Events
The Sholan Farms gazebo was our pre-hike gathering spot.
Last year we learned of a monthly event called the Twilight Hike series at Sholan Farms in Leominster, MA. Held on the 2nd Friday of every month, volunteers from the Friends of Sholan Farms provide a guided hike through the beautiful conservation land that makes up the farm, orchard, and trails. 

The hikes are free of charge, family-friendly, and do not require pre-registration. They even permit well-behaved, leashed dogs to attend the hike though none joined on our visit.

Eager to see what the twilight hike was like New England Fall Events checked it out first-hand on a clear Friday in September. 

We had never been to Sholan Farms before at night. We drove through the pitch-dark back-roads of Leominster climbing in elevation until our GPS told us we’d arrived—otherwise we’d never known we were there! By then the sun had already set and the farm was very dark with only a single lamp illuminating the farm sign. Remote as this area was, there were other cars in the dark parking lot we’d pulled into so we knew we were in the right place and the right time.

The hike was to start at 8:00pm and we’d arrived 15 minutes early as the website requested. On sheer faith, we walked across the street towards a distant gazebo which appeared to have some light. As we neared the gazebo it was clear this was the gathering spot. There were about 25 people waiting; of those,  6 or 7 of them were kids with the youngest child about age five and the others closer to eight or ten years old. The crowd held flashlights they’d brought and many carried water bottles. Some held walking sticks and all wore good walking shoes.

Twilight Hike Sholam Farms Leominster MA New England Fall Events
Flashlights and moonlight were our only illumination
Three Sholan Farms volunteers introduced themselves and our designated  guide explained the hike would last about an hour and we’d walk through the edge of the apple orchard, along the reservoir, and onto the forested trail. The entire Sholan Farms property boats 60 acres of farmland plus another 100 acres of forest and meadows so we were planning to just get a taste of the trails.

Off we went across the pitch black orchard under the starry sky, our flashlights swept across the path we walked on. The initial part of the hike was a mix of grass and occasional rocky ground and the pace the guide set was definitely swift. 

The hikers spread out naturally with a small cushion between each group and the kids stayed close to their parents. After about five minutes, we turned our flashlight off feeling confident that between the moonlight and the other hikers’ flashlights we could see well and safely enough. It also allowed our eyes to adjust better to the darkness and begin to notice the nature around us.

The hikers were a casual group—many we spoke to had been on several of these hikes before and were local to the area. Most people chatted throughout the hike but too loudly as to take away from the peaceful time in nature.

Gazebo Twilight Hike Sholam Farms Leominster MA New England Fall Events
Post-hike chatting and warming up by the campfire 
About halfway through the hike we began to climb up a bit and the flashlight was required to see well. It was a touch steep (not overly so) and required a more effort to follow the trail as it wound around the trees into the forest. The guide kept his eyes peeled for wildlife and would occasionally point out animal tracks but we don’t recall seeing any on our trip. Still, we heard the beautiful sounds of crickets all around us and stayed on guard for any eyes peering back at us in our flashlight beam.

Most impressive was how all the kids on our hike were truly up for the challenge from start to finish, even the youngest ones. We never overheard any grumbling about distance or speed (even though the pace must have been a bit challenging with little legs!) and the kids were cheerful and respectful in their volume too! For the kids, having a flashlight was both an exciting novelty and a useful safety measure so it was smart that the families thought to pack a flashlight for each child.  

Soon enough, we turned and steered ourselves back towards the orchard. Upon arriving at the gazebo we were greeted by a fire pit, marshmallows, hot cocoa, and tea! While we hiked, one of the volunteers had stayed behind to set up our post-hike fire and snacks. As we toasted marshmallows on a stick and warmed up with the cocoa, everyone chatted with their new-found friends about the hike experience. Before long, we said our farewells to our gracious volunteers and promised ourselves we’d be back again…And we absolutely will!

Upcoming Twilight Hikes at Sholan Farms
Friday, August 12th, 2016       Click for details
Friday, September 9th, 2016   Click for details
Friday, October 14th, 2016     Click for details

Here's our list of even more night hikes and full moon adventures happening this fall.

Tips for Twilight Hiking at Sholan Farms
  • The hikes are held year-round on the 2nd Friday of the month, weather permitting. In the winter, sometimes they will offer a snowshoe hike or cross-country ski “hikes”! In the winter, they may choose a different location to meet to facilitate the show-shoeing or skiing so always call ahead to verify the location of the hike, especially in the winter or unusual weather.
  • If you call ahead, best to call during the daytime hours as nothing looked open during the night hike and you’d likely reach a recording.
  • Arrive early—about 15 minutes before the hike begins. It would be difficult to join the hike after the group has left.
  • Well-behaved, leashed dogs are welcome.
  • Cocoa and tea are provided after the hike. You are invited to bring your own marshmallows, hot dogs, etc.
  • Bring flashlights. Wear good hiking shoes. Dress appropriately for the weather as it is all outdoors.

Tips for Twilight Hiking with your Family at Sholan Farms
  • Bring a flashlight for each child. Dress appropriately for cooler temps.
  • As it is dark out, you might find it helpful to dress your child in something white or bright like a hat, scarf, etc to spot them easily.
  • This not a stroller-friendly hike.
  • Make sure your child is up for the task. It is an hour of walking and there’s no real way to depart early.
  • Remind them to use a quiet voice and stay close.
  • The pace the guide sets is brisk. All the children on our hike were successful at keeping up. Even if your family is a little behind the hiking guide, it’s easy to find a group of hikers on the trail.
  • We recommend having at least as many adults in your group as children you have in tow.
  • The youngest child we saw was about 5 and she completed the hike remarkably well but most kids were 8-10 years old (or teens) and this seemed like a reasonable age to feel confident they could keep up and complete the hike. The hike lasts about an hour and starts at 8pm so their energy at that hour should be factored in.
  • Bring some goodies to toast in the fire after the hike!

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