Legions of leaf-peepers come to admire the Berkshires' autumn colors, so it's natural that hikers will forever associate these hills in westernmost Massachusetts with fantastic fall foliage. But showy though these hills may be, they're more than just a pretty backdrop. Without a doubt, they are southern New England's most rugged mountains and well worth a hike--even when the leaves are only green or the tree limbs bare.
One famed Berkshires hiker was Pittsfield resident Herman Melville, who roamed these hills while plotting "Moby Dick" and other novels. The Berkshires, at least the small part of the range visited in the Berkshire Hills Ramble, appear to have changed little in the century and a half since the author's inspirational walks.
The ramble, an interpreted nature trail keyed to a pamphlet available from Pittsfield State Forest headquarters, travels slopes forested with red pine and spruce. In late spring, the forest floor lights up with pink azaleas and a host of other wildflowers.
The nature trail meanders down to Berry Pond. The lovely pond, at an elevation of 2,150 feet, is the highest body of water in Massachusetts.
Given the tangles of wild blueberries and raspberries in the area, most walkers are quick to conclude how the pond got its name. Actually, Berry Pond and Berry Mountain honor William Berry, who served with distinction at the Battle of Bennington during the Revolutionary War. In 1777, Gen. George Washington rewarded Berry for his service by granting him substantial acreage in the Berkshires.
While small portions of the region, such as that traversed by the Berkshire Ramble, remain relatively pristine, much of the rest has been altered considerably by two centuries of grazing, farming and logging. The forest was rendered into charcoal to fuel Berkshire County's ironworks and glassmaking industries.
Much of this logged-over, grazed-over land was restored during the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which planted substantial stands of red pine and spruce.
To extend your walk from Berry Pond, you can head south on Turner Trail, then east to cross Berry Pond Circuit Road and pick up Honwee Loop Trail. From Honwee Mountain, join Lulu Brook Trail and the Taconic Crest Trail to return to the Berry Pond Circuit Road trail head where you began the Berkshire Ramble.
Access: From U.S. 7 in the center of Pittsfield, drive west on West Street 2.5 miles to Churchill Street. Turn right and proceed two miles to Cascade Street. Turn left, bearing right at the next intersection into Pittsfield State Forest. Just beyond the forest entry kiosk, join Berry Pond Circuit Road, a one-way loop that ascends the lofty ridge top traversed by Taconic Crest Trail. As you top the crest, look to the left for the signed beginning of Berkshire Hills Ramble and to the right for scarce parking on the side of the road.
Ice Glen, Beartown State Forest
The contrast couldn't be more striking. Just outside Stockbridge, Mass., a cozy sampling of small-town America made famous by the paintings and Saturday Evening Post covers of renowned resident Norman Rockwell, is a wild gash in the Berkshires known as Ice Glen. It's walking distance from town to this wilderness, from nostalgia to nature, from light to dark.
Ice Glen is a narrow fracture in granite walls sculpted by glaciers. Its north-south positioning and shading by stands of huge white pine and hemlock mean little sunlight reaches the rocky floor of the glen. It's not unusual for ice to linger into late June.
The glen best shows off its ice artistry in spring, when melting water freezes into free-form sculpture attached to boulders and the 80-foot rock walls towering over the ravine. Even in the iceless summer months, the hiker faces a refrigerated ramble through the glen--definitely a welcome respite on a hot day.
Ice Glen abuts the rolling hills of Beartown State Forest, which sprawls over more than 10,000 acres. One of the best views of Beartown and beyond is from Laura Tower, a steel lookout posted on a 1,465-foot hill.
Laura Tower Trail crosses the Housatonic River on Memorial Bridge, a handsome pedestrian suspension bridge, then ascends one-third of a mile to a junction. The left fork climbs to Laura Tower. From the tower, you may extend your walk by continuing eastward into Beartown State Forest. It's a mile from the tower to the crest of abandoned Beartown Ski Area and then another half-mile to Burgoyne Pass.
From the above-mentioned junction, Ice Glen Trail leads right one-quarter mile into Ice Glen. Follow the blue blazes through stone mazes, using caution in the wet and icy glen. Once through Ice Glen, you can walk back on the road to Stockbridge and the trail head. Descend three-quarters of a mile along a steep road to Ice Glen Road, then walk another three-quarters of a mile to U.S. 7. Walk along the highway to Park Street, then back to this hike's beginning at Memorial Bridge.
Access: From U.S. 7, just south of the center of Stockbridge and just north of the Housatonic Bridge, turn east on Park Street and proceed a quarter-mile to its end at a small parking area.
Berkshire Hills Ramble
WHERE: Western Massachusetts.
DISTANCE: From Berry Pond Circuit Road to Berry Pond is 1.5 miles round trip; loop via Honwee Mountain is 5 miles round trip. From Stockbridge, Laura Tower Trail is 1.6 miles round trip.
TERRAIN: Taconic Range segment of the Berkshires.
HIGHLIGHTS: Fall color, haunts of Norman Rockwell and Herman Melville.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Pittsfield State Forest; tel. (413) 442-8992, Beartown State Forest; tel. (413) 528-0904.