Clam River, Sandisfield (BNRC). Photo: Gabrielle K. Murphy

Let’s Wander! Hitting the trails to stay (mostly) sane

We're lucky here in the Berkshires. We’ve got nature ⎯ that secret sauce that revives under nearly all circumstances and is there, free, for the vibing.

Pandemics be darned, things can only get so miserable in the Berkshires. Because we’ve got nature ⎯ that secret sauce that revives under nearly all circumstances and is there, free, for the vibing.

That’s what I tap into. I go for a hike daily. It keeps me (relatively) sane, (relatively) fit, and, well, (relatively) happy, and I dare say even mostly peaceful. My pup Gingersnap, a wolverine-honey badger mix, and I know some great hikes in South County, several of them within walking distance from our front door, and we hit them more or less seven days a week.

In an era of reduced options, there are still so many to choose from. True, not all trails are open ⎯ we’ll go over that in a minute ⎯ but still, many are. And they’re filled with green goodness and wildlife. With human commerce and travel temporarily unwinding, wildlife is more abundant than ever. Don’t be surprised if you encounter foxes, porcupines, or even beavers on your hikes.

Here’s the basic low-down on what’s open as of now in the beautiful month of July, Year One of Covid-19:

– All Berkshire Natural Resources Council lands
– All State lands in Massachusetts
– The Rail Trail (Ashuwillticook and Harlem Valley)
– A smattering of Trustees of Reservations lands
– And Mass Audubon has just decided to re-open many of its properties

Parsons Marsh, Lenox (BNRC). Photo: Gabrielle K. Murphy

If you haven’t heard of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council (affectionately known as “the BNRC”), now’s a good time to listen up. Their mission is simply to “protect and preserve the natural beauty and ecological integrity of the Berkshires for public benefit and enjoyment.” No argument there. As their motto states: “We keep land for you.” Thank you, BNRC! And double thanks, because when many lands (aside from State lands) were closed to the public in the early Covid days, the BNRC made a firm and courageous decision—to remain open.

“We had a very lively debate,” Jenny Hansell, president of the organization tells me. “The main question, once we established that we could be open and that we could safeguard our workers with extra precautions ⎯ was whether visitors could be safe on our trails if they practiced social distancing. And we felt the answer was ‘yes’. We are very strongly aware of the benefits of being in nature for our mental, emotional, and physical health. And we are so glad we can provide that opportunity for people right now.”

The BNRC’s website is lively and interactive ⎯ frankly, it’s best-in-the-biz ⎯ with lots of trail recommendations and printable maps(!), but Hansell suggests you check out and download their even groovier live trail app (iOS and Android). The maps on the app are interactive with real-time directions to trailheads, and as you hike along the trail you’ll be that moving dot! Hansell also recommends checking out the BNRC’s social media accounts, which are full of timely tips on bird and animal sightings, what wildflowers are blooming and where, and impromptu scavenger hunts for kiddos.

Housatonic Flats, Great Barrington (BNRC). Photo: Kelly Cade

You may have heard of Olivia’s Overlook, just above the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health (currently closed). It’s one of the better-known BNRC trails. But I can all but guarantee that there are a dozen or more that may be new to you and prime for exploration.

– Clam River in Sandisfield has cool artifact stone walls and foundations from 100+ years ago (with interpretive signs), and a free-flowing river to walk along.

Hoosac Range in North Adams has rugged terrain and affords incredible views all the way into Vermont.

Steven’s Glenn in West Stockbridge has a deep hemlock forest and a cantilevered platform overlooking a waterfall.

Massachusetts’ being the civilized State that it is, we’ve got lots of protected public lands to chill out on. The Department of Conservation & Recreation (“DCR”) has a wonderful “Find a park!” mobile website to easily find somewhere to visit alone or with your family. Some of the Berkshire’s finest are listed. You may already be acquainted with many of them. Here are three, but there are so many more.

Beartown is one of my favorites. There’s a delightful trail around Benedict Pond (swim in season!), and a trail up to “The Ledges” with its vista south and west. The Appalachian Trail goes right through Beartown, which adds a touch of panache. And yes, there are bears in them woods. Do not, repeat, do not bathe in honey before visiting.

Mt. Greylock, Adams (DCR). Photo: Kelly Cade

Mt. Greylock is the granddaddy of state lands in Berkshire-land. At nearly 3,500 feet, it’s the highest point in Massachusetts. On a clear day, you can see for 90 miles. Bascom Lodge, a Civilian Conservation Corps beauty from the last Great Depression is open(!), albeit on a more limited scale. Give ‘em a call and see if you can reserve a table for dinner, although an overnight may not be possible. It’s an unforgettable experience.

Bash Bish, firstly, is not pronounced “Bish Bash” for obvious reasons, that beyond the obvious, are not particularly obvious given that everyone wants to mispronounce the name even though not everyone is actually dyslexic. That said, if you haven’t checked it out yet, do so … for obvious reasons: it’s the highest single-drop waterfall in Massachusetts. The parking lot is currently closed, but the lands are open.

The Trustees of Reservations is another one of the institutions we can be so proud of as denizens of the great state of Massachusetts ⎯ it’s the first private nonprofit conservation organization in American history. The late 19th-century brainchild of a young landscape architect practicing in Boston, Charles Eliot, the idea was to create a nonprofit organization that would hold land for the public to enjoy “just as a public library holds books and an art museum holds pictures.” Talk about forward thinking. Then again, that’s just how we roll in Massachusetts.

Not all properties are open, including several of my very favorite ones. But let’s concentrate on the awesome ones that are.

Bartholomew’s Cobble, Hurlburt’s Hill trail, Sheffield (Trustees of Reservations). Photo: Brad Alm

Bartholomew’s Cobble in Sheffield is a treasure that winds along the Housatonic River on one side and, across the street, features a grand hill (Hurlburt’s) with an unparalleled vista of the whole county. Great spot for a summer solstice toast, or leaf peeping. Just please don’t tell too many folks about it.

Tyringham Cobble is another stunner. Possibly my favorite moderate hike in South County. (But, please, mum’s the word and don’t let anyone write about it in an online shareable magazine.) If you haven’t stumbled across the Tyringham Cobble, just know that it’s populated by Hobbits and Ents.

Naumkeag is now open! Built during that other Gilded Age by a tribe of people who wore three-piece suits and ankle-length corseted dresses in the sun and called their palaces “cottages,” Naumkeag is a must-see. The Choate home is closed, but the grounds are open. And speaking of gorgeous grounds-open-only historic sites, you absolutely must visit The Mount ⎯ Edith Warton’s fabulous-with-a-capital-F estate. It has no affiliation with the Trustees, but I’m going to mention it here anyway. Because it’s wonderful … and because I can.

Mass Audubon has decided to re-open a selection of its sanctuaries that can handle responsible social distancing. As their website states, now’s the time: Baby birds are hatching, wildflowers are bringing color to the landscape, and Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers provide an evening chorus. You can follow the link for a listing of locations. But here are a few favorites:

Pleasant Valley, Lenox (Mass Audobon).

Pleasant Valley in Lenox is probably the best-known Audubon sanctuary in the Berkshires. There are simple, mostly flat strolls as well as more strenuous hikes, including up to the top of Lenox Mountain, where you can enjoy views all the way out to the Catskills.

Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield has three miles of looped walking trails to explore. Keep an eye out for beaver, leafy hardwoods, a shady canopy of hemlocks, and … birds, birds, birds!

Lime Kiln in Sheffield is not as blistering hot as it sounds, but there is a quarry site and a cool relict kiln from ye olden days when that’s how cement was made. The reservation has several miles of quiet woodland trails, views of Mt. Everett, and the Taconic range, and a bucolic hayfield buzzing with summer sounds and often cooled by a soft breeze.

For those of you who like to hop on a bike, too, you might want to consider our local Rail Trails. (Hint: you can walk them, too, silly!). If you’re new to the concept, the idea is simple: take an abandoned rail line and turn it into a recreation trail.

One of the highest-rated rail trails of the Northeast is the – wait for it and pronounce it slowly – Ashuwillticook Rail Trail (Ash-oo-WILL-ti-cook ) in the northern Berkshires, the result of a citizen initiative begun in the 1990s. The Native American name means “pleasant land between the mountains,” and it’s easy to see why: Mt. Greylock rises to the west, the Hoosac range to the east, with the Hoosic River valley in between. The well-maintained, 10-foot-wide paved trail runs like a ribbon 11.2 miles between Lanesborough and Adams through woods, along brooks and wetlands, by the Cheshire Reservoir and the Housatonic, and past impressive century-old mill buildings in the vicinity of Adams. There are numerous benches and picnic tables along the way, located at particularly scenic spots and at places to observe wildlife. The Trail is mostly level, making it accessible to riders, rollerbladers, runners and strollers of all ages and abilities (and disabilities). The southern end begins along Route 8 at Berkshire Mall Road, the northern end at the Adams Visitor Center, with access points in Cheshire in between. There are public parking areas at both ends of the Trail and in Cheshire. Bikes can be rented at the Adams end, in Cheshire, and in Pittsfield. The Trail can get a little crowded on weekends, but an easy-going ethos prevails.

Harlem Valley Rail Trail, Copake Falls, NY. Photo: Jim Gibbons

Just as the demand for rail freight eventually dried up in western Massachusetts, so too in the eastern New York corridor, known as the Harlem Valley, that skirts the Connecticut and Massachusetts border up to Hillsdale, then veers west and north to Chatham. Passenger service to Wassaic, terminus of the Metro North line, remains, and that is where the Harlem Valley Rail Trail (HVRT) begins. It’s a paved trail along the former rail bed of the New York and Harlem Railroad that will eventually run 46 miles all the way to Chatham. The Trail currently goes for ten miles from Wassaic to Millerton, with another six miles in two sections south of Hillsdale.

There’s also a collection of very localized parks with hiking trails (some municipal), where one can explore. Many of them are in flux trying to figure out how to handle Covid-19 precautions, so it’s best to contact them directly via their websites. Here are a few:
Williamstown Rural Land Foundation
Williamstown Chamber of Commerce  (Has an excellent tab of local resources)
North Adams Chamber of Commerce
Pittsfield Chamber of Commerce
Lenox Chamber of Commerce ( Parson’s Marsh)
Lee Chamber of Commerce  (Basin’s Pond)
Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce
Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce

Or … ask around. That’s how some hidden local spots are best found. There’s no better time to go strolling and getting to know your neighbors if you haven’t already. Some will have great tips on where to hike. And maybe you’ll make a new friend at the same time. Happy trails!