On one of those unusually warm November mornings before winter set in for good, I decided it would be a good time to revisit Purgatory Chasm in Sutton, Mass. The only other time I had been there, I was still in high school. I had always meant to go back, and now, nearly 50 years later, it seemed as good a time as any.

Located in the Purgatory Chasm State Reservation (exit 6 off Rte. 146), the chasm itself is a gash in the earth about a quarter-mile long, 70 feet deep, and 50 feet wide, filled with a jumble of huge boulders that seem to have fallen into the chasm from the walls.

Certainly some upheaval of cataclysmic proportions must have taken place – but just what isn’t clear. The prevailing theory is that as the glaciers melted towards the end of the last ice age, about 14,000 years ago, the meltwater became dammed up and eventually broke through, cutting the channel.


The entrance to Purgatory Chasm

The entrance to Purgatory Chasm

Another theory is that the chasm formed much earlier, maybe 200 million years ago, when a fissure occurred, loosening the rock along the walls, eventually falling into the chasm over time. Whatever the origin, it presents a wild and forbidding landscape.

A single trail runs through the chasm itself. Actually, the term trail is a bit of a stretch. Mostly it’s just a smear of blue paint on a boulder leaving it up to you to figure out the best way forward.

It’s just a short distance, but the footing can be tricky in places, where it’s necessary to perch precariously on the tip of one rock while stepping over a deep gap to the next. In recent years, the chasm has claimed two lives, several injuries, and many calls for help from hikers who have ventured a climb off-trail only to find they couldn’t get themselves back down.

From the parking lot, I took the trail that entered directly down into the chasm. It descends in a series of terraces. Once coming out at the other end, the walk is much gentler looping back to the parking lot through a predominantly pine forest.

Thinking back, it might have been easier to enter the chasm from this direction. Perhaps climbing out of the chasm might be marginally easier that climbing down.

Being November, there wasn’t a lot of plant life or bird activity, but there were several interesting varieties of mosses and ferns not usually seen outside this unusual setting.