The forecast called for mild temperatures in the 40s and promised no wicked winds or bone-chilling winter precipitation, so we took the one-hour drive from Natick to Gloucester to explore Ravenswood Park. The 600-acre nature preserve is owned and managed by the Trustees of Reservations. Open year-round, sunrise to sunset, the spot is a magnet for hikers, dog walkers, and cross-country skiers. Mountain biking is permitted on a few trails, but those trails are closed to mountain biking March 1 to April 30, during mud season.
The small, no-fee parking lot located at 481 Western Ave. was almost full when we got there, and many cars were parked along the street at this popular spot. We made our way across the muddy lot and onto the wide trail. Pretty soon into our hike we face-palmed ourselves for not throwing our yaktrax into our back packs. What are we, amateurs? We’ve been doing this winter hiking thing for months now.
“It’s icy like this the whole way,” a friendly local advised us. “If you have yaktrax back in the car, you should go get them.”
We trotted the five minutes back to the parking lot, strapped on our traction aids, and were the happier (and steadier) for it. The main trail, undoubtedly once covered with light, fluffy snow, was now packed down to a hard and slippery ice-and-snow mix. But now we were a match for such conditions. Steps that were slow and tentative when we set out with just our hiking shoes became confident strides now that we didn’t have to fight for purchase on a slick surface. Amazing how much better a hike gets when you’re not worried you’re going to fall and break a hip.
The usual suspects were on the trail—casual walkers and their dogs; family groups; and determined types eager to get off the wide, main path and explore deeper into the woods. The further you get from the parking lot, the more the hiking experience improves. The madding crowd fades away. The quiet creeps out from behind the trees and under the rocks, making its presence felt as a calming companion in the snowy New England landscape. You may be deep in the woods, but it’s hard to get lost at Ravenswood. The multiple trails are well-marked, and permanent maps located at potentially confusing junctions keep hikers in touch with their true north.
We followed the Ledge Hill Trail. Once you get the top you’re rewarded with a view of Gloucester Harbor, known as America’s oldest seaport. Especially with young kids, if all you did was an out-and-back hike on Ledge Hill trail to the overlook, that would be a fine hike and a successful family outing. The path is lined with moss-covered boulders, some of them absolutely massive, and the hiking itself is easy, with no sudden elevation changes.
We decided we needed to stretch our legs a little more and from the overlook we followed the blue trail loop. About two miles later, we met back up with the Ledge Hill Trail, which led us back to the path most taken, and the parking lot.
From there we took the 7-minute drive to Gloucester’s Main Street to wander around a bit before lunch. Because it was a Sunday in the winter, many of the shops were closed. And because we are in a pandemic, some of the shops are open by appointment only. And because we are in a pandemic, some of the shops are closed for good. There isn’t a town we’ve explored this winter that doesn’t have empty storefronts. Gloucester is no exception.
Come on a sunny spring day and you’ll find the doors open to antiques shops, art galleries, upscale clothing boutiques, shoe stores, a record store, restaurants, and more. We stopped in at two places—The Bookstore of Gloucester, 61 Main Street; and Dogtown Books, 132 Main Street.
The Bookstore of Gloucester is an independent shop that’s been in town for over 45 years. They sell a curated collection of new books that include everything from bestsellers to nautical history and local literature. Thanks to their artist of the month program, the walls are always full of original art, most of it for sale.
Dogtown Books is one of those fiercely unique places where a book lover can get lost for hours. The mission of the secondhand spot according to its website is “to be the best destination for Gloucester’s local and visiting readers, writers and creatives, and to connect people with the books that they will love.”
How can you not love a place like this? Dogtown is filled with all the things I secretly want to surround myself with at home. They’ve got books shelved neatly, and books piled in corners. Maps and magazines, and odds and ends. Leather bound tomes and tattered paperbacks. I love the vibe, but if I cart it all home, then I’ll have to dust it. Not that Dogtown, or any of the best used book shops, puts much faith in the idea of dusting. But when cool indie places are a little disheveled and unable to pass the white glove test nobody cares. It’s part of their charm. When they do things like devote an entire bookcase to “penny dreadfuls,” they’re considered hip and/or keepers of the past. When I do it, my family calls me a “hoarder.”
If you wander downtown Gloucester, definitely stop into both bookstores. I mean, two bookstores on one Main street? How is that even possible today? Must be some kind of North Shore magic.
All that hiking and wandering made us hungry. Our goal was to get takeout, park on Ocean Ave., and eat our lunch overlooking the water. We tried out a hugely popular local favorite, The Causeway Restaurant. After picking up our order of Caesar salad with scallops, fried calamari, and clam chowder, we drove a couple blocks down the street Ocean Ave. and got our parking space with a view. The ocean was pretty and all, but the people watching was even better. Everyone was out and enjoying the day, some sitting on benches and taking in the view, others on power walks. Nearby Stage Fort Park is another good place to have lunch if the parking spaces on Ocean Ave. refuse to open up. Plus there’s a playground and a dog park there, so fun for all. But the visitor center and its all-important bathrooms aren’t open until mid-spring.
Lunch smelled fantastic so we opened up the bag and got going. Whoops. They forgot to include our clam chowder. Pity. We’d heard rave reviews, but that’s the way it goes. A quick call to the restaurant cleared the charge off our card. On to the rest of the order. The meal-sized appetizer of fried calamari was fried up light and lovely, and the squid itself was tender. The Caesar salad was also enormous, with so many large and delicious scallops, perfectly grilled, that the leftovers became part of a bruschetta that night.
Other menu items that looked tempting were baked coconut rum haddock (dinner only); bacon wrapped scallops; shrimp scampi or alfredo; plus classics like onion rings, whole belly clams; burgers; swordfish, and steak tips. This diamond-in-the-rough spot offers friendly, informal service, reasonable prices, and huge portions. The dining room is open, and it’s BYOB.
There’s so much more to do in Gloucester—hang out one of their beaches, or catch a whale watch, or charter a fishing boat. Maybe we’ll be back in the summer and return with more to report.