A metal gate, set back about 100 feet, is the only sign that you have arrived at the public access to Stearns Hill, a beautiful, little-used property owned and maintained by the City of Keene and protected by the Monadnock Conservancy. Since its protection in 2012, the hill has become even more of a treasure in this quiet part of town.
Stearns Hill is off Hurricane Road in Keene, one mile north of the intersection with Dickinson and Aldrich roads at the sharpest of several curves. Behind the gate you’ll find an inconspicuous, sunken road heading downhill into the woods. It’s the old Craig Road, which first leads down to Hurricane Brook, crosses over a logging bridge, and then climbs a steep, short ascent to magnificent upland meadows. About 8 acres in size, the meadows are surrounded by stately sugar maples.
These fields and woods contain vestiges of the old Craig Farm; clues include cellar holes, rusted fencing enveloped by tree trunks, numerous stone walls, and even faint old cow paths leading from field to brook. Here you can find turkey tracks and signs of bear, fox, coyote, deer, bobcat, even the occasional moose. You can hear owls or coyotes, and, in spring, woodcock. If your timing is right, the far-off whistle of a train in the Connecticut River Valley offers a reminder of commerce.
The property contains about a half-dozen wetlands, many of which drain to Hurricane Brook. In springtime, freshets and vernal pools invite amphibians.
Stearns Hill is part of a 5,500-acre stretch of forest between Keene and Westmoreland. Several unmaintained trails reach into the surrounding woods to the south, west, and generally uphill. The 138-acre conservation property came under city ownership in the mid-’70s. A master plan was completed in 2008, with contributions from several past and current Conservancy staff members.
If you visit, park alongside Hurricane Road, but please do not block the access. And don’t mind the frenetic barking coming from the nearby blue-gray house. That’s Millie, a boxer, who delights in seeing hikers. I’m sure you’ve heard this before: “She’s friendly.” No, really! And, anyway, she’s invisibly fenced.
– Nat Stout, neighbor to Stearns Hill and office manager for the Conservancy
Editor’s note: The Conservancy does not maintain the property; that is the responsibility of the City of Keene as the landowner. Walking the old road from Hurricane Road to the field is not for the faint of heart and takes about 25 minutes one way.