By Kristen Levine, Reporter
Started in April 2017 by the Princeton Open Space Committee, the Princeton Hikes! group invites hikers of all ages to enjoy all the trails Princeton has to offer, and beyond. With at least two hikes a month, the group seeks to guide its participants to trails both new and familiar.
“We just started the fifth year of the program,” said Open Space Committee chair Rick Gardner. “The regular hikes on Saturdays are well-attended, and we picked up people from Leominster, Worcester, Hubbardston….we’ve picked up hikers from the whole area.”
The group’s foundation was created in part for solitary hikers concerned for their own safety after the 2016 murder of Vanessa Marcotte. Princeton Hikes! offers safety in numbers, with an average of 20 participants per hike.
“It was one of the catalysts for starting the group,” Gardner said. “[The group] produces a safe venue, particularly for women going out walking.”
The group has several core tenets to its operation: to showcase Princeton trails, to provide a safe means of hiking, and to encourage exercise and social contact. The group has proven popular during the COVID-19 quarantine, enabling an appreciation for the outdoors and safe company. So popular, in fact, that Gardner has had to tone down advertising to manage group sizes.
“We had one hike have 50 people show up,” Gardner said. “We’re managing it better, reducing the amount of marketing I do and not marketing outside of Princeton at this point. There’s still a number of people outside Princeton on the mailing list – 270 right now.”
With quarantine restrictions easing and more people heading back outside in greater numbers, Gardner still expects the groups to maintain at a 20-person maximum. The hikes are typically three to five miles, and special seniors hikes that are held once a month go on easier trails at two to three miles, though Gardner noted that plenty of seniors take on the more challenging hikes.
“I’d like to see more Princeton people get to know these great hiking places in town; there are a lot of people that only hike Mount Wachusett or Wachusett Meadow. There’s a lot of beautiful places to introduce them to,” Gardner said.
Twenty-seven Princeton trails are listed on the Princeton Hikes! web page, categorizing their difficulty and distance. Many of the trails are loops that double back on themselves, offering scenic routes with unique views of nature from beginning to end. The Open Space Committee maintains the trail information archive; the Committee also provides community outreach and education, such as hosting talks at the Princeton Public Library.
“[There was] a talk at the library to explain what the trails are like, and programs like how to use GPS while out so hikers don’t get lost,” Gardner said. Beyond the website and lectures, the Committee is also working on trail signage projects, hoping for modernized signs that can be scanned with QR codes for hikers to track their locations.
Gardner has been happy with public interest and participation in the hiking group, eager to share the natural beauty and challenges of hiking in Princeton. While other hiking groups do not join in on Princeton’s activities, such as the Vintage Vagabond group located in Holden, the groups do cooperate to share ideas and trails. This has led to a rich map of locations for hikers – hikers that are not obligated to stay with Princeton Hikes!, but able to split off and form their own groups.
“We’ve had a lot of people come and go,” Gardner said. “People meet hiking, they form some friendships and then they could go out on their own, and they don’t have to do the program anymore.”
With hikes ranging through Princeton and the surrounding areas, there is plenty of nature to see, admire and traverse. The program runs year-round, inviting anyone to join in for the exercise, socializing and fun.
“Every time I do a hike, I’m really fired up,” Gardner said. “People really enjoy them.”
For further information about Princeton Hikes! or the Open Space Committee, visit their website at https://www.town.princeton.ma.us/open-space-committee.