Walking The Emerald Necklace

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The Emerald Necklace is a chain of nine parks spanning throughout downtown Boston, Brookline, and Jamaica Plain. It was created in the late 1800s by Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of other “greats” like Central Park, Golden Gate Park, and the first planned suburb. The Emerald Necklace was made to be an escape for people in the city who wanted a taste of the great outdoors. It begins at Boston Common and ends at Franklin Park.

Walking the entire Emerald Necklace is something I’ve always wanted to cross off my bucket list but I was never sure that I’d actually do it. As a city dweller and a lover of parks, I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity to see as much of Boston as I could. But it is seven miles and a pretty daunting walk. After months of winter, however, it was finally 50 degrees out, and my roommate and I decided we were up for the challenge.

Our first stop was Boston Common. The Common is an Emerson College staple and a park I go to often, so I considered skipping it all together. Looking back, though, I’m glad I didn’t. It was good to begin my journey in the city so I could really feel the slow decline into suburbia later on. The Common is a park I hold very dear to my heart. It has been the home of so many memories; good, bad, and ugly. I can remember sitting on the grass and dog-watching with friends, or crying on the phone to my sister as I sat under the gazebo, lamenting about a bad break up. I’m sure any Emerson student would feel the same. It’s good to start with something familiar.

Across the street was the Public Garden. I’ve always thought that the Garden was one of the most beautiful parks in Boston and now that I’ve walked the whole Emerald Necklace, I can still safely say that it is. The tune from a panhandler’s erhu served as the perfect song for the walk. The park’s graceful willows, picturesque bridge, serene ponds, charming flowers, and boisterous ducks all provided a safe space of perfection in what was a seemingly loud and dirty city around it. I love the way the surrounding buildings peak out behind the beautifully landscaped trees.

Next was Commonwealth Ave, a 32 acre link in the chain. My roommate and I considered this link one of the “weakest” because it’s less of a park and more of an overt plan made to connect The Garden and The Fens. It doesn’t feel like a park in the conventional sense, but it’s still the backbone of the entire luxurious Back Bay area. I could feel the essence of downtown leaving me as I walked further down Commonwealth.

Finally we reached the Fens. Unfortunately, since it rained the night before, we spent our entire walk trying to avoid mud puddles. The Fens is filled with a bunch of little community gardens. I imagine if the weather was warmer they’d be nice, but in the winter the gardens are, to put it nicely, ugly. Piles of undetectable debris were scattered throughout the area, wet leaves polluted the floor, and not a single flower was budding. I got a chance to talk to a gardener, though, and I asked how he got his garden and how long he’d been gardening there. Nine years, he said and then, thinking I was interested, he urged that I sign up for a garden as soon as possible. Apparently it’s a great opportunity for young people to make new friends.

Next was the Riverway, a park that scales alongside The Muddy River. Unlike its predecessors, this park definitely felt like more of a trail. It seemed very rural—the low hanging trees, the brown sludge-y river, the suburban houses dotting the horizon. It was at this moment when we left Boston and entered Brookline.

Finally we got to Olmstead Park. Olmsted Park was a good change from the previous damp, desolate, and muddy Riverway Park. Families and their dogs were taking strolls while groups of people huddled around tripods by Leverett Pond. I even saw two men fishing who shrugged me off when I tried to talk to them. My roommate and I stopped to admire a swan gliding in the water nearby.

Then we crossed the street. Entering reality was a bit shocking, but then the street dipped into a hill below the highway and formed into the park again. This was Olmsted Park, but different. Much more desolate and hilly. We could see people in the street below us, but our trail brought us higher, revealing the surrounding fields and infrastructure of the area. My roommate recommended we go off the path to climb an even steeper hill. He thought there’d be something cool up top. There was just a lot of broken glass and fallen tree trunks, the perfect “chill spot,” he said.

Finally we reached Jamaica Pond. This is the part of the trip when I truly regretted not waiting until the spring. Jamaica Pond was covered in ice but it’s expansive in a way that is absolutely breathtaking. It takes up the entirety of the park and in my opinion, is the thing about Jamaica Pond that is most worth seeing. My roommate and I walked up John Hancock’s steps from the terrace of his (actual) mansion and were able to see the pond from a bird’s eye view. Besides that, we spent much of our time imagining sitting under the shade of the trees in warmer weather, taking in the beauty of the pond. We swore we’d come back.

Next was the absolute weakest link in the chain—The Arborway, which was basically a strip of land between two highways. This bleak excuse for a park was also where I began to experience pain in my leg muscles. I already walked five miles from downtown Boston to Jamaica Plain.

It’s a shame that such a large and informative park is one of the last stops of the Emerald Necklace. The Arboretum is home for thousands of different species of trees and each tree has a description about their attributes. By then I was tired, but I tried my hardest to read and learn about every tree that I could. The Arboretum spills out to the Forest Hills stop on the Orange Line. You could easily take this home after a long day of walking or you could go a little farther to Franklin Park. By the time we’d reached Franklin Park the zoo was closed but still, it’s the largest recreational park in the Emerald Necklace and worth a visit. It has a zoo, golf courses, picnic areas, and large spans of green.

If you ever decide to make an Emerald Necklace trek of your own, I’d recommend dressing comfortably. The Emerald Necklace isn’t a journey for the faint of heart and you’ll probably want to Uber or take the T to get back home. Still, it’s something I’d recommend any Boston lover do, whether or not you consider exercise your forte. It is truly beautiful to watch the city of Boston unfold around you as you journey into its dips of quaint suburbia and forestry.

Illustration by: Francisco Guglielmino