The rugged and beautiful Reformatory Branch Trail meanders more than 4 miles through three natural areas: Elm Brook Conservation Area, Mary Putnam Webber Wildlife Preserve, and Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. It is the perfect route for escaping the city to rediscover nature.
Westbound from the Bedford Depot Park trailhead on Railroad Avenue, you'll first reach Elm Brook Conservation Area. Its 19.3 acres of protected wetlands and floodplain offer additional biking and hiking trails through an enchanting red maple forest.
Almost immediately after leaving the conservation area and crossing Hartwell Road, you'll see signs for Mary Putnam Webber Wildlife Preserve. This 20-acre parcel is also mostly wetland and acts as a wildlife corridor for the many species that live within the surrounding wetland and woodland habitats. Trails on the left leading into this area eventually lead to the well-marked Massport trail around Hanscom Airfield, opened to the public (for hiking only) in 2011. As of July 2012 there are still no trail markings through the Mary Putnam Webber pointing to the Massport trails.
At Concord Turnpike, the trail crosses a gravel parking lot and continues across the street behind the guardrail; it's a very narrow path here, but once you descend the small hill, it opens up again to a proper rail-trail. Regrettably, the wooden bridge that carried traffic over the railroad was removed in 1967. Be careful when crossing the busy turnpike, as drivers are not given warning of the trail crossing.
You will quickly arrive at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. This massive freshwater wetland covers more than 3,600 acres and stretches 12 miles along the Concord and Sudbury rivers. Birders take note: The National Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the site, offers an annotated list of the area's 220 avian species. The refuge also shelters white-tailed deer, muskrats, red fox, raccoons, cottontail rabbits, weasels, amphibians, and several nonpoisonous snake species. Bicycles are not permitted on trails within the refuge; to explore, lock your bike to one of several trailside benches, or the bike rack near the telescope-equipped lookout tower, and take off on foot.
Back on the main trail, you'll leave natural tranquility behind as you draw closer to Concord. For approximately the last mile of trail, you will cross several roads; the trail ends shortly after crossing Lowell Road at the Concord River. The railroad corridor continues for another 2.5 miles, passing the reformatory for which it was named, but the bridge over the river is now gone.
To reach the Bedford Depot Park trailhead, from Interstate 95/State Route 128, take Exit 31B for State Routes 4/225 north toward Bedford. After 1.1 miles on SR 225, turn left on Loomis Street. Loomis Street turns into Railroad Avenue; where the road bends to the right, look for the trailhead parking lot. You may park here or in the paved parking lot at the Minuteman Bikeway trailhead back on Loomis Street.
To access the trailhead in Concord, take Interstate 495 to State Route 2 east toward Concord. In town, turn left on SR 2A east/Elm Street, which soon becomes Main Street. Park in the lot behind the Concord Visitor Center (64 Main Street) then follow the road directly behind the visitor center to the trailhead at Lowell Street.