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The Hills of Central Massachusetts
To reach the central part of the state from the Mass Pike, take the Palmer/Route 32 exit and follow Route 32 north to Route 9 west. If you're coming from the north on Route 2, exit onto Route 202 and you will pick up this ramble at the halfway point. Peak foliage is expected in mid-October.
Highlights: Quabbin Reservoir, Hamilton Orchards, Keystone Bridge, unusual rock formations, village greens, waterfalls, hilltops, Native American history, trout fishing, nature watching, historic structures and more.
Slowly the quiet villages and the sprawling forests encircling Quabbin Reservoir are being discovered, yet the area still retains its charm. Back roads pass through orchards and wildlife reservations and over crystal-clear trout streams. There are no true mountains here, but plenty of easily accessible hilltops that afford panoramic views. And autumn is celebrated in country fashion in a number of towns with fall fairs, pumpkin contests and craft sales. Major cities such as Springfield, Hartford and Boston are all only an hour or two away.
Our route is a circular one, starting at the lower end of Quabbin Reservoir and looping around the region in a clockwise direction. A good way to start the trip is to get a look at the reservoir that helps make this area so special. Although four towns were "drowned" in the creation of Quabbin, the reservoir now helps to protect the integrity of the remaining towns by limiting development. Thousands of acres of forest have been left in their natural state to protect the watershed that gives much of Massachusetts its drinking water.Quabbin itself is huge; over 38 square miles of water surface and 119 miles of shoreline.
Great views of the reservoir can be seen from the Winsor Dam area off Route 9 in Ware. The islands you see far out in the water are actually the tops of hills that were flooded when the reservoir was created in 1939. The view here is always fantastic but especially so in the autumn when the blue of Quabbin is framed by rust-colored hills. Besides the Winsor Dam, there are several more lookouts nearby, such as the Goodnow Dike, the Enfield Lookout and Quabbin Summit Tower. Inside the visitors center, there are fascinating displays showing the creation of the reservoir and aerial photos taken before it was built. As we ramble around the reservoir, we'll visit a number of access points that are great for an autumn stroll with good chances of seeing some of the Quabbin's wildlife, including bald eagles, loons, coyotes, foxes and deer.
Belchertown & Pelham
Belchertown is just a couple miles west on Route 9. Although the name is sure to cause a chuckle, the town center is really quite appealing. The village green is exceptionally long, with many maple trees and historic structures. If you are here in September, you won't want to miss the Belchertown Annual Fair. Just a few yards down Route 202 to the west is the Stone House Museum, which features artifacts and antiques from the town's historical association.
By following Route 202 north, you begin to circle the west side of Quabbin. Stop at Pelham to see the 1839 Congregational Church and the 1739 town hall, said to be the oldest one in continuous use in New England. Pelham was the home of Daniel Shay, a Revolutionary War hero who led an uprising of farmers opposed to heavy taxation against the government in 1786. Behind the church is an interesting old burying ground with unusual headstones.
Waterfall lovers and those that enjoy walking along a mountain stream, should take the side road next to the town hall to Buffam Falls Conservation Area. Simply follow Amherst Road west 3.2 miles to North Valley Road (on your right), proceed six-tenths of a mile up North Valley Road and park at the pull-off on the left. Walk about 400 feet farther up North Valley Road and you will see an entrance sign to Buffam Falls. A path follows Buffam Brook through mountain laurel and towering hemlocks and in 10 minutes you will reach the falls where Buffam Brook converges with Amethyst Brook. The combination of sparkling water, yellow ferns, evergreens and a few red maples will have you reaching for your camera. Wild turkey are sometimes seen here, but not often as these birds can run and fly at fast speeds, unlike the domestic birds which are too fat to fly!
If you wish to extend your hike, there is a trail that follows Amethyst Brook upstream. Hemlocks are the dominant tree and you may notice that little vegetation grows beneath them. The hemlock needles are quite acidic and they blanket the ground, preventing other species from growing. However, porcupines have a taste for hemlock twigs and more than once I've seen one of these quilled woodland creatures far up in a hemlock, slowly munching away.
Continuing our loop around Quabbin, find your way back to Route 202 and proceed north, passing a scenic overlook of the reservoir on the right. As you travel into New Salem, keep your eyes peeled for a sign to Hamilton Orchards. The orchard is just a short way up West Road, which will be on your left. Here, you can pick your own apples or purchase cider, pie and other goodies in the store. Children, as well as adults, will love the place. There is a small petting zoo, swings and a nature trail. Watching a child's face when they pick their own apples is worth the trip.
I love to take autumn pictures here, always shooting the giant sugar-maple trees next to the farm house during the second week in October when they reach peak color. But even if the color isn't at its max, the pumpkins placed beneath the trees in large wooden boxes and the old-fashioned swing hanging from a branch are worthy of pictures.
I discovered that one of the best views of Quabbin was from the hilltop raspberry patch at Hamilton Orchards. Just walk past the farm house and turn onto the first dirt road on the right that leads uphill through apple and peach orchards and then through raspberries. Go all the way to the end of the road and then turn around. An incredible vista of the nearby hills is seen and Quabbin's deep blue waters sparkle in the distance. The hill is appropriately called Serenity Hill and it's the kind of place that invites you to rest and enjoy the scene.
From Hamilton Orchard, it's just a short drive north on Route 202 to my favorite village in the entire state--New Salem. A sign for New Salem will be on the right side of Route 202. When you reach the town green, you will have the feeling that time stopped. Twin spires from old churches rise up next to each other piercing the sky. An old burying ground, granite benches, hitching posts and traditional white painted homes add to the feeling that the town is locked in the 19th century. I have taken dozens of pictures here, but have yet to time my trip with peak color and bright sunshine. That gives me the excuse to keep coming back.
Book lovers should stop in at the Common Reader, a converted one-room schoolhouse on the green now serving as an antique shop and rare-book store. I love to browse the shelves, hoping to find a gem that others have overlooked. Near the bookstore is an old fire station with a ballfield behind it. An unmarked nature trail leads from here to a ridge that overlooks Quabbin. Thanks to the reservoir, the town has remained beautiful--the road gets little traffic as it abruptly ends at the reservoir forest.
On Route 202, opposite the entrance road to the village center, is the New Salem General Store and the Yankee Strudel Bakery. Pick up some goodies and have a picnic.
North New Salem is also a handsome section of town, located just a couple miles up Route 202 and then left on Elm Street. If you fall in love with this "west side of Quabbin," the place to stay is Bullard Farm, on Elm Street. Situated on the banks of the Middle Branch of the Swift River, this charming 200-year-old colonial home has been lovingly owned by the Bullard family for the past 120 years. I've enjoyed a few wonderful stays there, curling up with a good book by the fireplace in the Harvest Room. Conservation land surrounds the property and out back are high-bush blueberries, rhododendrons, azaleas and other plantings.
When Massachusetts Bay Colony was first settled, the coastal area and the valley along the Connecticut River were more attractive to the farmers than the wilds of central Massachusetts. In fact, much of central Massachusetts was controlled by the Nipmuck Indians well into the 1600s and only a few scattered settlements, such as Brookfield, were in the hands of the Puritans. When King Philip's War broke out in 1675, the Indians used central Massachusetts as a staging area from which to launch raids on English towns. It is said that the bloody raid on Deerfield was launched from an area of New Salem, now called the Bears Den, located off Elm Street on Neilson Road.
Bears Den is now owned by The Trustees of Reservation and has been preserved for all to enjoy. A five-minute walk from the parking area leads to a beautiful waterfall shaded by mighty hemlocks. Like most streams in Massachusetts, the Middle Branch of the Swift River, which tumbles through the property, was harnessed for its water power. Foundations of an early grist mill can still be seen here.
While the Bears Den offers natural beauty, the Keystone Bridge showcases man's craftsmanship. By following Route 202 to the north end of Quabbin and then turning south onto Route 122, you will arrive at Gate 30 on your right. The gates around Quabbin signify various access points into the reservoir and most are open to the public. By walking just a hundred feet down Gate 30, you reach the Keystone Bridge, which spans the Middle Branch of the Swift River. (Quabbin is fed by three branches of the Swift River.) Large stones fit neatly into place forming an arch over the rushing water below. The best way to view this small bridge is to walk down to the level of the river. On a clear day, looking through the arched tunnel of the bridge, sunlight dances on the river making it shine and sparkle on its way to fill the Quabbin.
Anglers may want to give the river a try for trout or fish the Quabbin itself. Boats can be rented at Gate 31, but you must have a Massachusetts fishing license. Smallmouth bass, lake trout, rainbow trout and salmon all cruise the depths of the reservoir. On my last outing, I caught only a small bass, but I had the pleasure of watching two bald eagles come and go from an island where they may have had a nest.
By following Route 122 south and turning on Route 32 for a short distance, you arrive at Petersham Center. With a number of Greek Revival buildings clustered around a village green, Petersham is quintessential New England. Try visiting the Country Store for lunch or a piece of pie and coffee and, if the weather is warm, carry it out to the gazebo.
Thoreau called October "the month for painted leaves" and at North Common Meadow autumn displays one of its finest scenes. Located just a hundred feet north of the Country Store on Route 32, North Common Meadow features a rich assortment of natural habitat. A meadow filled with wildflowers slopes down to a small pond that abuts heavily forested hills. Meadowlarks, bobolinks, kestrels and bluebirds all can be found in the open areas.
Before walking down the trail to the pond, take a moment to pause on Route 32 and soak up the scene beside the Brooks Law Office (1885). Old sugar maples rising next to the office add dazzling color in the foreground and beyond, the greens and yellow of the field blend into the muted rust-colored hills. Goldenrod and aster form patterns of yellow around the dark blue waters of the pond. It's an easy walk through the meadow and it's possible to loop behind the pond and return to your car via East Street. The forest adjacent to the meadow is part of the Brooks Woodland Preserve, a much larger property that has trails crisscrossing the East Branch of the Swift River. In contrast to North Common Meadow, Brooks Woodland has more rugged terrain with rocky outcrops, scattered boulders and dark woods of hemlock, hickory, birch and pine. Besides the access point from North Common Meadow, you can follow a riverside trail from Quaker Drive, about two miles south of Petersham off Route 122/32.
If you happen to be in the area over the Columbus Day Weekend, be sure to visit Phillipston, where the Giant Pumpkin Contest is held annually on this holiday weekend. Phillipston has a tiny town center that looks as peaceful as can be. The half-circle village green is framed by a few buildings, most notably the Congregational Church, which dates back to 1785. I once went up to the steeple to see first-hand the wooden wheels of an ancient clock. It once used a 417-pound boulder as the pendulum. Phillipston is just to the northeast of Petersham; take Route 32 north to Route 101 east.
For a hilltop view, try the Swift River Reservation, about 2 1/2 miles south of Petersham down Route 122/32, opposite the dam at Conners Pond. (The walk to the overlook takes about an hour and 15 minutes, round-trip, so leave well before dusk.) By following the trail that parallels the river in a downstream direction, you will enter a forest of old-growth pine and hemlock. Wildlife you might glimpse here includes beaver, weasel, porcupine, deer, fox, coyote, ruffed grouse, great horned owl and various hawks. Believe it or not, there are even a few moose in this part of Massachusetts and one was sighted at this reservation.
The trail ends along the river at a steel gate, but just before it is a footpath on your right that leads up a wooded hill. Follow that trail to the next intersection and turn left, followed by a quick right at marker #79. It's about a 10-minute walk to a rocky outcrop on your right, where a faint trail winds up the ledge to the overlook. The view is eastward, over Conners Pond, to the hills beyond. It's a wonderful, secluded place to rest and enjoy this special time of year. Descend the ridge by retracing your steps to marker #79 and then following the downhill path by the power line (instead of turning right onto the path you used to ascend).
The last leg of our trip follows Route 32 south all the way back to our starting point in Ware. On the way, you might want to check out the unusual "Rockingstone." It can be a bit tricky to find, but if you look for a right off Route 32 near the Petersham/Barre line, called Rockingstone Park Road, it will take you to this strange glacial configuration of boulders. One giant rock rests atop another and both are perched precariously on the granite ledge. Nearby, on Old Dana Road, is Hartman's Herb Farm, where over 250 varieties of herbs are grown. You are welcome to walk around the grounds of this little farm and visit the gift shop loaded with country crafts.
Our final stop is in West Brookfield, a few minutes ride south on Route 32. First you will pass through Barre, where there are a number of shops and restaurants. Route 32 intersects Route 9 farther south near the border of Ware and West Brookfield. When you reach this point, travel east on Route 9 for 1 1/2 miles and look for the Rock House Reservation parking area on the left.
The Rock House is a 30-foot rock shelter used by Native Americans for thousands of years. The open end of the overhanging rock faces the southeast to catch the warming rays of the sun and the shelter looks something like a giant lean-to. In the winter, a five-foot section of ground beneath is always free of snow and ice. It's easy to use a little imagination and picture Indians huddled around a campfire, discussing an upcoming hunt.
A small pond lies directly in front of the shelter and the fall colors here are fantastic. Swamp maples turn a fiery crimson and the brilliance reflects off the water, mixing with the green of the conifers, the yellow of the beeches and the golden-brown tones of oaks. A small trail-side nature center sits on a hill overlooking the pond, making a fine stop for a picnic. From the Rock House, you can travel into West Brookfield, home of the renowned Salem Cross Inn, which features fine dining. There are many historic sites in town. For those interested in learning more about Greater Quabbin, a complete review is given in Quiet Places of Massachusetts, also by Hunter Publishing. To return to Ware and the Mass Pike, head west on Route 9.
For More Information
(Area code 978 unless noted otherwise)
The Common Reader 544-7039
Hamilton Orchards 544-6867
Hartman's Herb Farm 355-2015
Phillipston Town Hall 249-6820
Quabbin Visitors Center 413-323-7221
Salem Cross Inn 508-867-8337
Swift River Reservation 840-4446
(Area code 978 unless noted otherwise)
Harding Allen Estate B&B 355-4920
Hartman's Herb Farm Bed and Breakfast 355-2015
Stevens Farm Bed and Breakfast 355-2227
Jenkins House Bed and Breakfast Inn 355-6444
In New Salem
Bullard Farm 544-6959
The 1880 Inn 413-967-7847
Bed & Breakfast at Wildwood Inn 413-967-7798
A Southern Berkshire Loop
The Mass Pike will lead to Berkshire County, as will Routes 7 or 8 from the south. Peak foliage is expected from early to mid-October.
Highlights: Tyringham Cobble, Gingerbread House, waterfalls, Chesterwood, historic Bidwell House, Colonel Ashley House, Bartholomew's Cobble, Monument Mountain, Berkshire Botanical Garden, Norman Rockwell Museum, Naumkeag House, antique and craft shops, small villages and more.
Many residents of eastern Massachusetts head north each autumn without ever having visited the Berkshires. Located in western Massachusetts, the Berkshire Hills extend from Vermont south to the Connecticut border. The region below Stockbridge is especially scenic. The area offers an array of activities and there are many hidden places to explore. Having grown up in western Massachusetts, I have a special love for the Berkshire's many unique natural areas that represent the best of the great outdoors.
Tyringham & Monterey
The ramble described here makes a large loop of the southern Berkshires, starting at Lee, which has an exit off the Massachusetts Turnpike. From the exit, follow Route 102 south a few hundred feet and turn left onto Tyringham Road. Tyringham has somehow balanced people with open space, and golden fields are framed by rolling hills ablaze in autumn's color. In fact, it was the rolling hills that inspired the strange roof of the Gingerbread House, which you can't miss as you head to the center of Tyringham. The Gingerbread House is the nickname given to the Tyringham Art Galleries, where a diverse assortment of paintings and sculptures are exhibited. While the roof looks like it's made from thatch, it's actually comprised of several tons of shingles set in wavy lines to resemble mountains. Rock formations scattered out front add to the enchanting feel of this special place. Behind is a small sculpture garden and pond, while across the street is Sunset Farms, where maple products are sold.
A Southern Berkshire Loop
The center of Tyringham has a simple white church sitting on a rise of land with a burying ground and fields behind it. As beautiful as this scene is from the ground, it's even better from Tyringham Cobble, a 400-foot hill from where there are sweeping views of this idyllic valley. To reach the path that leads up the hill, just follow Jerusalem Road three-tenths of a mile from the center of town and park at the small lot on the right.
The walk to the summit, first through pasture and then into woodlands, is not strenuous. Occasionally, there are openings in the foliage where you look down at a red barn below. You will pass a twisted rock formation that juts skyward, then the woods open to a hillside field. During September, this open area will be bright yellow with goldenrod, offset by the occasional splash of crimson from blueberry leaves and staghorn sumac. Staghorn sumac gets its name from its dense hairy stems and fruits which look like the velvet stage of a stag's antlers. It tends to grow in old fields and along sunny borders, while the poison sumac prefers shady conditions in swamps and low, moist areas. Joe-pye weed will also be blooming if you are here in the beginning of October. This is also a good time to spot migrating monarch butterflies as well as various birds, such as yellow-rumped warblers and large congregations of blackbirds. Having the good fortune of a sunny day, foliage at its peak and wildlife on the move can make memories that will warm you come winter.
Years ago, the upper slopes of the Cobble were farmed, but the rocky soil has since been reclaimed by the forest and a stately stand of white birch awaits you as you make your way to the summit. Its clear yellow leaves are beautiful, especially when your eye can take in both the white trunk and the foliage. There is one particularly handsome birch at the summit of the Cobble which provides a great contrast when composing a photograph of the valley far below. Hawks, including broad-winged and sharp-shinned, are sometimes seen riding the thermals in autumn. It's pure pleasure to watch them and the best viewing time is usually mid-September on clear days.
The exposed rock ridge of the summit is thought to have broken off from nearby Backbone Mountain and flipped over eons ago. No matter how it was formed, this hilltop is a romantic spot and you shouldn't miss it--there is nothing quite like the top of a mountain and open sky above to make you feel alive. Total climb to top takes only about 45 minutes.
To continue our ramble, head south on Tyringham Road, but be sure to look back occasionally at the hill you just climbed. The scene past a split-rail fence and across a field toward the Cobble is another one to catch on film. When you reach the intersection with Monterey Road, turn right, then turn right again on Art School Road. If you enjoy finely crafted pottery, be sure to stop at Joyous Spring Pottery, which will be on the right side of the road. At the end of Art School Road is the historic Bidwell House, a Georgian saltbox constructed in 1750. The house is complemented by a wooded setting and gardens. With a little imagination, it's easy to feel as though you're back in another time. In the house are four fireplaces, two with beehive ovens, and large symmetrically placed rooms opening off the front stairwell.
After visiting the Bidwell House, proceed south on Monterey Road into the little village of Monterey, complete with an old-fashioned general store. For those who enjoy late-season camping, Beartown State Forest (off Blue Hill Road) has a number of sites, as does nearby Sandisfield State Forest.
At Monterey, go west (right) on Route 23. If you love waterfalls, there is a small but scenic one just off Route 23 on River Road, which will be on your left. There is something about white falling water passing through narrow channels canopied by vivid foliage overhead that makes me want to linger at such a spot and just listen.
Great Barrington & Ashley Falls
Route 23 will carry you past Butternut Basin and into Great Barrington, one of the larger towns in the Berkshires. Here, you will find a number of shops, restaurants, inns and motels and the center of the town is compact enough to explore on foot. Just south of town, there are two very interesting areas to visit. The first one is in Ashley Falls, where The Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit conservation organization, owns both a unique natural area along the Housatonic River and a historic homestead on a nearby back road. Follow Route 7 south to 7A south, then go right on Rannapo Road for about a mile and a half to Cooper Hill Road. The Colonel Ashley House, built in 1735, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the oldest homes in Berkshire County. Like the Bidwell House, I love it because of the setting--on a quiet country road with plenty of open space around it. Tours are offered and you can see firsthand the fine craftsmanship, exemplified by the curved staircase and "sunburst" cupboard.
Bartholomew's Cobble is nearby on Weatogue Road and covers 270 acres along the Housatonic River. (The Housatonic offers some fine flat-water canoeing through woods and rich low-lying agricultural land.) Unusual rock formations, hundreds of plant species and great birding are just some of the reasons to visit Bartholomew's Cobble. Besides the woodland colors, there are open fields with their own special autumn hues from goldenrod and aster. The riverside trail is only a short walk from the parking area and is worth the trip. Giant white pines and hemlocks shade your way and ledges alongside the Housatonic offer sweeping views of the river and lowlands.
The other area south of Great Barrington deserving of a visit is the town of South Egremont, a small peaceful village with a center that's so well preserved that it's a National Historic District. Penny candy still sells for a penny at the 150-year-old Gaslight Store and the entire town offers a trip back in time. The Egremont Inn, with porches upstairs and down, dates back to 1787 when it was a stagecoach stop. During the Civil War, the inn was used as both the town hall and a hospital. In the living room, you will see a curving brick hearth, once a blacksmith's forge.
Another great inn is the Weathervane Inn, which began as a farmhouse in 1785. During my stay there, I met fellow travelers having a drink around the fireplace and we traded tips on some of the more scenic spots in the area. Bash Bish Falls, in nearby Mount Washington, was on everyone's list and the next morning I set out to see the 80-foot falls myself. At the time, I didn't realize the best access to the falls was from Copake, NY, so I coaxed my ancient Subaru over some very rugged roads through Mount Washington. The trip was rough on the car, but there were a number of nice views and, once at the falls, I was glad I came. This beautiful but remote area of Massachusetts has few visitors and I felt as though I was in the White Mountains rather than the Berkshires. (Mount Washington has the fewest residents--under one hundred--of any town in the state!)
It's possible to form a loop of the southern Berkshires and return back to the Mass Pike by going north on Route 7 toward Stockbridge. One of the best places to capture the colors of the hills is from the summit of Monument Mountain. Hiking trails up the mountain branch out from a small parking area on Route 7, about halfway between the center of Great Barrington and Stockbridge. White birch, oak, striped maple and beech are just some of the trees that add their distinctive colors to the mountain's collage.
The direct route to the top takes about 45 minutes and it is a strenuous walk, but oh, what a view. Below are the hills, marshes and river valleys, with distant mountains stretching off to the west. Monument Mountain has had its share of famous visitors, including Hawthorne and Melville who first met here. William Cullen Bryant also came to the mountain and was so impressed he wrote a poem:
Thou who wouldst see the lovely and the wild mingled in harmony on Nature's face, ascend our rocky mountains.
Let thy foot fail not with weariness, for on their tops the beauty and the majesty of earth, spread wide beneath, shall make thee to forget the steep and toilsome way.
After tackling the mountain, you deserve to treat yourself and Stockbridge is just the place for dinner or a drink. Home of the popular Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge serves as the hub of the area, with numerous shops, galleries and historic sites. It is also home of the Norman Rockwell Museum, where you can see art treasures by America's favorite illustrator. The museum is on Route 183, just north of Stockbridge. Nearby is another "must see": Chesterwood, the home, studio and garden of Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the Lincoln Monument in Washington, D.C. Also in Stockbridge is the Berkshire Botanical Garden (on Route 102 at the intersection with Route 183). This 15-acre garden features herbs, perennials, ponds and woodland trails. In October, the annual Harvest Festival is held here. My favorite spot in Stockbridge is Naumkeag, an estate built on the side of Prospect Hill. Naumkeag is a Native American word meaning "haven of peace," and that's exactly what you feel when you spend some time here. Joseph Choate bought the property in 1886 and had the 26-room "summer house" built, complete with gables, alcoves and porches designed to take maximum advantage of the views. The grounds are a wonderful place to stroll, with vistas, terraced gardens, a reflecting pool, a walled Chinese garden and a stand of white birches that offer vibrant hues for your autumn visit.
For More Information
(Area code 413)
Berkshire Botanical Garden 298-3926
Bidwell House 528-6988
Colonel Ashley House 229-8600
Joyous Spring Pottery 528-4115
Norman Rockwell Museum 298-3579
Sandisfield State Forest 258-4774
Southern Berkshire Chamber 528-1510
Tyringham Art Galleries 243-3260
(Area code 413)
Berkshire Visitors Bureau 443-9186
Egremont Inn, South Egremont 528-2111
Stockbridge Lodging Association 298-5327
Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce 298-5200
Southern Berkshire Lodging 528-4006
Weathervane Inn, Egremont 528-9580