Discovering the Headwaters of the Charles River

When we decided to paddle the entire length of the Charles River, one persistent question was “where does it start?”

Our paddling adventure only partially answered that question. We started where we could float the kayak and paddle downstream. That left the unnavigable stretches of the Charles River out of our scope. But our adventure would not be complete without putting boots on the ground to find the headwaters and see where the Charles River begins.

The Charles River starts at Echo Lake in Hopkinton. The lake was originally a swamp, but a dam impounds the water between high rocky ground. It’s now part of the Milford Water supply.

Echo Lake

There are several streams that run into Echo Lake, but none have been deemed worthy enough to carry the title of Charles River. We hiked around a portion of Echo Lake, but never made it to the dam or the trickle of water that starts the official beginning of the Charles River. Given the dry weather, we may have passed right over it and not noticed.

Echo Lake looks like it would be a nice place to paddle. However, it is drinking water for MIlford so paddling is not allowed.

From Echo Lake the Charles River water trickles south. You can easily see the channel along Milford’s Upper Charles River Trail. This rail-to-trail project runs to the Charles River and runs parallel for a short stretch. There was little water to see. Most people would not notice that it was the Charles River unless they looked a the map. That little puddle was the only water we saw in the channel.


We went to further point on the trail and found another impoundment at Wildcat Pond. It’s hard to envision that this wet ditch is start of the mighty Charles River.

Charles river as it leaves Wildcat Pond

The water quality was poor and the was no flow. The Charles River was just a dirty puddle at this point in its run to Boston Harbor. Wildcat pond at the source carried a sign that it was part of the Milford water supply and off limits to paddling. It would not have been worth the effort to carry the Kayak out to this dirty little pond anyhow.

Our next glimpse of the Charles River was Milford Pond, just North of Milford town center. The pond is formed by the Hayward Field Dam. The water quality is very poor. It’s an unnatural shade of brown and green, with a sheen of petroleum.

hayward Field Dam

The quality of the water did not improve at our next glimpse of the river at Central Street in Milford. The channel splits in two, with most of flow directed under the Archer Rubber Plant. A bypass heads to the left into a tunnel.


That is the last we saw of the river until our put-in at Howard Street in Milford. The dingy grey water at our start is now no longer a surprise.

The water was not much to see and certainly nothing that could be paddled.