Western Massachusetts offers abundance of trails for novice and experienced hikers

Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2015

If you have a love for the outdoors and a yearning to connect with the natural world, western Massachusetts offers outstanding opportunities for walking and hiking for both novice hikers and experienced trekkers.

The beauty of living in the Pioneer Valley is that you are generally no more than a 45-minute drive from rigorous hikes or casual walks in the woods.

Whether you hike for the exercise, the challenge, to appreciate the woods and wildlife, or to see some of the state’s most breath-taking vistas, hiking is a fun and healthy activity that almost everyone can enjoy.

Selecting a hike will depend on the kind of adventure you want, and the level of difficulty you are seeking. In many areas, hikers can find a selection of trails that range from easy to rigorous.

Most locations have trail maps that designate the length and degree of difficulty of the trails. You may also contact the park or organization that oversees the trails for pertinent information on hours, types of trails and conditions.

Paul Jahnige is the director of greenway and trail programs with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation at 136 Damon Road in Northampton. His department manages the state parks and over 3,000 miles of trails.

“Hiking is the most popular activity in our state parks. It draws a population of people of all ages and abilities,” Jahnige said. “Mount Tom and Skinner State Park are probably the most popular places to hike in the area.”

Passing through both areas is the New England National Scenic Trail, a 215-mile route from Long Island Sound in Connecticut to the New Hampshire border. The Massachusetts portion primarily is the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail.

At the western end of the Holyoke Range, J.A. Skinner State Park has more than 400 acres of forest on Mount Holyoke with 40 miles of multiple, marked trails. The Summit House is at the top of the mountain and paths from the building link with the blazed trails through the range, including 6.5 miles of the New England Trail. Scenic vistas of the Connecticut River and the Valley abound in this area.

“We have done some trailhead counts on the New England Trail at Mount Holyoke,” Jahnige said. “In 2012, over a five-month period we had 170 hikers a day, 1,170 a week and 4,200 a month. We estimate that we have about 10,000 hikers there annually.”

The Mount Tom State Reservation in Holyoke covers 2,161 acres and has 22 miles of hiking and walking trails. This area also has spectacular views of the Valley and is known as a premier hawk-watching spot.

‘Nature and quiet’

On a recent Monday afternoon, Lindsay Baker 34, of Northampton and hiking partner William Rock, 30, of Amherst, were on their first hike at Mount Tom.

“We hike (Mount) Sugarloaf a lot. It is brutal, but worth it,” Rock said. “This hike gives you more time to enjoy your surroundings.”

Baker said hiking is good for the soul. “I hike regularly. I really enjoy it,” she said. “It’s great just to be able to get away from all of the gray of the world and be surrounded by nature and quiet.”

Mount Tom has one of the more impressive six-mile sections of the New England Trail in Massachusetts. It crosses the skyline near the cliffs of Mount Tom and Whiting Peak, then passes through the hemlock glens of the Mount Tom Reservation center, continues onto Goat Peak, then over Mount Nonotuck.

Other popular hiking trails can be found on Mount Sugarloaf in South Deerfield, Mount Greylock in Lanesborough, and Mount Everett in Mount Washington. Passing through the latter two is the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail, one of the longest continuously marked foot paths in the world which crosses a total of 14 states.

While hiking in nearby mountains is popular, other opportunities can be found in local parks, wildlife sanctuaries and conservation areas.

For easier yet beautiful hiking, Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton covers 723 acres with five miles of trails that pass through forests, meadows, grasslands, marshes, and wetlands all of which contain a variety of wildlife. The property also has an observation tower and wetland boardwalk.

“People love to hike here and I think they love to come back from a hike and share what they have seen and found,” said Patti Steinman, education coordinator at the sanctuary, which is owned by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. “It’s great to see people out using their outdoor skills.”

Steinman said the sanctuary is a perfect place for bird-watching and viewing other wildlife including wild turkeys, herons, painted and snapping turtles, deer, and perhaps the occasional fox, coyote, or black bear.

Arcadia also offers night hikes and early morning “owl prowls.”

Be prepared

Before hitting the trails, there are a few things to know that will make your foray into the woods a safe and enjoyable adventure.

Cindy Hibert, of Enfield, Connecticut, is a member of the Pioneer Valley Hiking Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club and frequently leads hikes for both organizations. As well as wearing well-fitting boots made for hiking, she stresses the importance of knowing the basic “10 essentials” for every hike. Even if you are only going out for a couple of hours, having this equipment can not only make your hike safer, but could also save your life in unforeseen situations.

They are:

∎ Navigation — Always carry a compass and a detailed topographic map of the area you are hiking, and be sure you understand how to use both. A GPS unit is handy to have as well, but nothing beats a map and a compass.

∎ Sun protection — In every season, carry a hat, lip balm, and some sunscreen to prevent sunburn when you’re out in the open.

∎ Extra clothing — Weather can change quickly. Bring rain gear and extra clothing for the coldest possible weather during the current season. Avoid cotton as it keeps moisture near the skin.

∎ Illumination — Even if you are going out in the daytime, unexpected situations may keep you out later than you expect. A head lamp, or flashlight, as well as extra batteries are important to have with you.

∎ First-aid kit — These can be purchased in sporting goods stores, or you can put together your own. Remember to include insect repellent.

∎ Fire-making ability — Bring a butane lighter, matches in a waterproof container, or a ferrocerium fire-starter. You might also consider carrying dry tinder in case you have to start a fire in wet conditions.

∎ Knife or multi-tool — These come in handy for a variety of cutting and repair jobs that you may need to do on the trail.

∎ Water — Carry two extra liters of water for one additional day. Remember you can survive three days without water and three weeks without food.

∎ Food — Lightweight foods such as granola bars, nuts, dried fruit and jerky are great items to carry. Bring extra in case you are out for longer than expected.

∎ Emergency blanket or shelter — A lightweight, windproof and waterproof emergency blanket with one reflective side keeps you warm by reflecting up to 90 percent of your body heat back to you. A lightweight emergency tarp with a reflective side can be made into a temporary shelter if needed.

Cautionary tales

For most hikers, preparing well for a day on the trail is second-nature and most forays into the woods are rewarding, fulfilling and exhilarating. Accidents and unexpected situations do happen, however, and when they do, it is people like Environmental State Police Lt. Cameron Davis who are trained to help.

“I’ve been an officer for 31 years and I have seen all different sorts of ways that people end up lost in the woods,” said Davis, who is based at the regional office in Montague.

According to Davis, hikers in need of rescue include people who have wandered away from groups, those who don’t have the basic necessary equipment and others who started too late in the day and get caught in the woods after dark. There are also hikers who are injured, a situation that is worsened if they are traveling alone. And sometimes people just get turned around in the woods.

Davis recalled a lone man who slipped and fell off a ledge, hitting his head and losing consciousness while hiking on Mount Greylock.

“When he woke up it was dark. He used his cell phone to call 911 and we were able to get his coordinates from his cell-phone signal,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, he then did the wrong thing and decided to move to us, rather than waiting for us to come to him, and it took us an extra hour to find him.”

In another case a deer hunter had gone off into the woods alone while the weather was nice, but while hunting, a heavy rain hit the area, followed by a cold front and snow.

“He didn’t have the proper clothing and unfortunately when we found that gentleman, he was deceased from hypothermia,” Davis said.

Davis said that cell phones with fully charged batteries are good to bring on a hike, but you cannot rely on them as you may often be out of service range.

He suggests telling friends or family where you will be hiking and when you expect to return. Davis also said it is a good idea to leave a note in your vehicle showing the date and time and where you plan to hike.

Davis said that it is accidents and being ill-prepared that are the most common problems for hikers, not running into animals such as coyotes, bears and moose. “I actually can’t think of any issue that we have had with hikers being injured by wildlife,” Davis said.

And Steinman offers this bit of advice.

“Any time you are hiking it is important to be aware of ticks and other insect pests. And it is also good to know how to identify and avoid plants like poison ivy and stinging nettle,” Steinman said.

With locations, basic equipment, and safety tips under your belt, Hibert said joining a hiking club can greatly enhance your experience.

“When you join a hiking club, you get a great education about hiking and the outdoors and you meet a lot of very nice people and make new friends with common interests,” Hibert said.


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