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Major improvements benefit Mount Tom State Reservation

  • A park featuring play structures that mimic natural elements is shown Thursday as part of the Mt. Tom State Reservation improvements taking place in Holyoke.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    A park featuring play structures that mimic natural elements is shown Thursday as part of the Mt. Tom State Reservation improvements taking place in Holyoke.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • A park featuring play structures that mimic natural elements is shown Thursday as part of the Mt. Tom State Reservation improvements taking place in Holyoke.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    A park featuring play structures that mimic natural elements is shown Thursday as part of the Mt. Tom State Reservation improvements taking place in Holyoke.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • A 60 ft. wooden footbridge is shown Thursday as part of the universal access trail at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke. The bridge is a recent improvement on the Lake Bray Loop.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    A 60 ft. wooden footbridge is shown Thursday as part of the universal access trail at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke. The bridge is a recent improvement on the Lake Bray Loop.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • A 60 ft. wooden footbridge is shown Thursday as part of the universal access trail at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke. The bridge is a recent improvement on the Lake Bray Loop.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    A 60 ft. wooden footbridge is shown Thursday as part of the universal access trail at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke. The bridge is a recent improvement on the Lake Bray Loop.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • A new footbridge featured eco-grading is shown Thursday at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke. The bridge is one of several recent improvements on the universal access trail and allows for rain and light penetration.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    A new footbridge featured eco-grading is shown Thursday at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke. The bridge is one of several recent improvements on the universal access trail and allows for rain and light penetration.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • A park featuring play structures that mimic natural elements is worked on Thursday at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke. The park is one of many recent improvements taking place at the reservation.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    A park featuring play structures that mimic natural elements is worked on Thursday at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke. The park is one of many recent improvements taking place at the reservation.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • A park featuring play structures that mimic natural elements is shown Thursday as part of the Mt. Tom State Reservation improvements taking place in Holyoke.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • A park featuring play structures that mimic natural elements is shown Thursday as part of the Mt. Tom State Reservation improvements taking place in Holyoke.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • A 60 ft. wooden footbridge is shown Thursday as part of the universal access trail at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke. The bridge is a recent improvement on the Lake Bray Loop.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • A 60 ft. wooden footbridge is shown Thursday as part of the universal access trail at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke. The bridge is a recent improvement on the Lake Bray Loop.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • A new footbridge featured eco-grading is shown Thursday at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke. The bridge is one of several recent improvements on the universal access trail and allows for rain and light penetration.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • A park featuring play structures that mimic natural elements is worked on Thursday at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke. The park is one of many recent improvements taking place at the reservation.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

Volunteers, state-hired contractors and park staff have spent the past few years improving the reservation’s amenities and infrastructure with the crème de la crème being one smooth car ride through the park.

For the first time in decades, most of the park’s roads and parking areas have been resurfaced. The $1.2 million project by Warner Bros. of Sunderland stretches for approximately 4 miles, from Reservation Road near the Route 5 entrance in Holyoke to the end of Christopher Clark Road in Easthampton at Route 141.

Meantime, a group of volunteers has carved out a new universal access trail on the shoreline of Lake Bray and built and installed three walking bridges, including a centerpiece wooden span.

What’s more, a spanking new playground with naturalistic rock-climbing features is days away from opening near the Elder Field pavilion, while other improvements, including nature exhibits, continue to enhance the historic Robert S. Cole museum.

“A lot has happened all at once,” said Robert Carr, forest and park supervisor at the 2,161-acre reservation for the past decade. “So many people have commented on how nice it is.”

New roads

The road resurfacing had been sorely needed. The main roads and parking areas had been riddled for years with potholes, boulders jutting through broken pavement and uneven surfaces that bottomed out vehicles at scenic vistas.

Mount Tom historian Robert Schwobe of Southampton said it has probably been 75 years since the reservation has seen such extensive roadwork.

“It got pretty treacherous up till the end,” said Schwobe, who, along with Carl Libucha of Easthampton, frequently volunteers time at the visitors center.

“Not even bicyclists wanted to go down it, it was that bad,” added Carr, who had been advocating the work for years.

Carr said crews had been filling potholes as best they could year after year at the reservation. A mile-plus stretch of road from the visitors center to the Eyrie House ruins remains accessible to the public but off-limits to vehicles because that section of road is still in severe disrepair. The Eyrie House was a former mid-19th century hotel at Mt. Nonotuck that burned to the ground in 1901.

Now, most sections of newly resurfaced roads are lined with what is called silt sock to prevent runoff while grading and the final stages of roadside restoration are completed. While the roadwork was under way, Carr said, a snake expert was brought in to brief crews on the endangered reptiles that inhabit the reservation, notably the timber rattlesnake and northern copperhead.

He also said the new roads have brought a new problem: speed.

“The challenge now is to keep traffic to a reasonable speed,” he said of motorists high-tailing it through the park.

Trail and bridges

At Lake Bray near the Route 5 entrance, the Mt. Tom Advocacy Group spearheaded a new trail extension and bridge project, which the state Department of Conservation and Recreation was not able to fund.

The extension is a wider, flatter, stone dust trail that meanders around a section of the lake. The trail is accessible to those who use wheelchairs, the elderly who may want an easier walking trail and young families with children in strollers.

The trail was created, in large part, by the advocacy group, which also built and replaced three pedestrian bridges along what is known as Bray Loop.

The largest of those bridges is a nearly 60-foot wooden walking bridge crossing an area where the lake morphs into swampland. The area around the bridge harbors wildlife, from moose and beavers to bullfrogs and bats.

“It’s a phenomenal location, the stuff you see down there,” said Bill Finn of Holyoke, a member of the advocacy group.

Finn wrote the proposal that secured a federal Recreational Trail Grant to help build the bridge, which a state engineer designed. The group received project help from the Appalachian Mountain Club and other trail rights advocates, including Mike Zlogar, a retired assistant fire chief in Amherst who served as construction supervisor.

Finn said Zlogar was instrumental in providing guidance to a volunteer work force that had limited experience with construction.

For about $7,000, volunteers constructed and installed the lengthy bridge, which would have cost an estimated $70,000 to $100,000 if it had been farmed out to contractors, according to those involved. The bridge replaced another 12-year-old structure that Schwobe had earlier spearheaded, which deteriorated and became a safety hazard.

Finn said the project took an estimated 802 man hours by volunteers during the past year. “For seven grand, we produced a bridge that we would never have been able to do,” he said in reference to the lack of state funds for the project.

Carr, the park’s supervisor, marveled at the bridge during a hike around Lake Bray last week.

“I’m afraid to put a dollar amount on what that would have cost without the volunteers doing it,” Carr said. “That’s a pretty amazing bridge for a group of volunteers.”

Carr noted that the area around the lake is a popular destination for school groups to learn about nature and the region’s geology through nature interpreters. Others use the lake for fishing and ice skating in winter.

Play area

Near the visitors center, the finishing touches are being put on a new, approximately 4,800-square-foot children’s play area at Elder Field with rock climbing structures, swings and slides.

The site has been home to a play area since the 1930s. Outdated and out-of-code playground equipment was dismantled and removed last year.

The new play structures were designed to blend into the natural environment and include a balance log, hollowed-out log, and log benches. A state-hired landscaper was busy at work last week grading for a new path from the play area to the parking area.

The playground sits alongside a large open field and picnic pavilion built in 1999. In 2012, the pavilion was reserved on 55 occasions, including 39 reservations by the general public, according to DCR.

If you go: The Mount Tom State Reservation is open daily throughout the year. As of Memorial Day weekend, the reservation’s hours extended to 8 p.m. through Labor Day. The cost of admission is $2 per vehicle weekends and holidays during the spring and summer season and free on weekdays.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

Legacy Comments2

I wanted to add my thanks to Dan as well, for highlighting the opportunities for the disabled and accomplishments of the work of all the volunteers and DCR staff that made these improvements possible. TRAILWRIGHTS of New Hampshire feels honored to have been asked and participated in working on the trails and bridge projects. Special thankyous should go to Bill Finn for his dedication to the Park and Mike Zlogar for keeping us volunteers all in line until the job was completed. Sincerely, Ray Jackson TRAILWRIGHTS - President

Dan, Thanks for this article and appreciation of Mt Tom and the investments that are happening. It is truly a gem of the Valley. And thanks to DCR for making these investments in tough times!

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