Saturday, June 11, 2011

Camping in Acton

Urban bike paths, country lanes, revolutionary war sites, dirt paths can all lead to a majestic stand of tall old pine trees. Sheltered beneath the trees at an Acton conservation & recreation area we found a thick mat of pine needles to sleep upon for the night. An easy afternoon bike ride from Boston and we almost mistook our surroundings for western Massachusetts.

I've been looking for a few good camping trips within a short bike ride from Boston. One that I found is a small municipal camping area in the northeast corner of Acton.

My friend Jon, who is better known for his longer bike camping trips, joined me on this short trip. We set out on this trip as a S24O or Sub 24 hour Overnight, popularized by Rivendell Bicycles. We left around 6pm Friday, and we were home by noon Saturday.

Camp Acton isn't too far away, about 20 miles. There are many ways to get there. My favorite route, especially when loaded with camping gear, is the Minuteman since it is along an old rail bed, and is thus flatter than many of the onroad alternatives. We also used sections of the Reformatory Branch Trail and we rode the length of the Battle Road on our return.

No matter how you decide to get out of town, the route through Concord will take you along many pleasant country roads, with names such as Barrett's Mill, Strawberry Hill, Pope, Spencer Brook and Westford Roads.

I would ordinarily take my road bike with panniers, or maybe just a saddle bag on a short overnight bike camping trip. However, I am recently a happy owner of a cargo bike, and I wanted to see how it would work as a touring & camping bike. This also gave us the opportunity to bring my luxurious four person tent and a charcoal grill!

Jon, instead, took the minimalist approach. Yet he was nice enough to ride a single speed so I could keep up.

No matter which extreme of bikes, or more likely somewhere in between, you'll be able to carry what you need for a short overnight. Remember, you will not be too far from civilization (or home) so you can skip the excessive gear. You could even skip the food altogether and eat at a nearby restaurant.

Getting permission to camp at Camp Acton was much easier than I anticipated. In fact it is very simple, fill out this PDF with your name, contact, fellow campers and date(s) you would like to camp. Then mail the completed PDF with a $15 per night night fee to:
Acton Recreation
Town of Acton
472 Main Street
Acton, MA 01720

I would recommend sending it a couple weeks before you plan to go. If you are feeling uncertain, as I did, you can call Acton Recreation at (978) 929-6640. A very friendly lady named Cheryl helped me through the process and emailed me my permit once it was a approved.

Of course you also need to select one of the seven campsites, and they are all good. The camp is in a large pine forest, so the ground is comfortable to sleep on covered in a thick mat of pine needles. Plenty of space between trees to set up even the largest of tents, and good tree placement if you prefer sleeping in a hammock. And each site has a picnic table and a large fire ring.

The mosquitoes were quite difficult at dusk and dawn; we ended up breaking camp quickly in the morning and eating breakfast at the North Bridge. Another friend lives nearby and notes that the mosquitoes are more tolerable later in July and August when it is drier. We went in early June and it was still quite damp.

The camp used to be an old Boy Scout campground, and is still used by scouts from time to time. The two sites closest to the road and small parking lot are very large intended for groups. We stayed at the seventh site, thinking it would be the most secluded, which it was. Seven was also very open, high and dry. All seven sites are on the same trail. The trail was sufficiently wide, not too steep with few rocks and roots, so it was easily passable by bike.

Before we left we checked out the remaining campsites. Here are a few summaries.
Sites 1&2, next to each other, large group sites.
Site 3 was small on the top of a small hill.
Site 4 had room for two or three tents on the side of a hill that the fire ring was built against.
Site 5 was far from the trail and a little difficult to get to by bike.
Site 6 was nice but surrounded by undergrowth so only a couple tents would fit.
Site 7 had plenty of room to spread out with three or more tents and bikes, yet didn't feel like a group site.


  1. sounds like a blast. there's also Ponkapoag Pond down south of the blue hills, which is relatively easy to ride to, though with a few more hills. my family's first bike camping trip was to there.

  2. JPTwins, I've been considering Ponkapoag Pond, it sounds like a nice place. I've been compiling a list of nearby S24Os, and Ponkapoag is on the list.

    Is the trail from Houghton's Pond that difficult to walk your bike & trailer along? I'm not that keen about riding on busy roads like Rtes 138 & 28 across interstate interchanges, especially with children. Is the Houghton's Pond trail an unrealistic alternative?

  3. we went on the houghton's pond trail after it rained and it was in pretty bad shape. with a trailer each, it was not feasible -- perhaps on a lightly loaded bike without kids with no massive puddles... i haven't been there for a while.

    i think where you went sounds much more relaxing and easier to do. i've also been thinking about taking the train to plymouth and riding back roads to myles standish. we'll see if that happens this year.