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Hiking: Massachusetts

Holyoke Trails All Academic

June 29, 1997|JOHN McKINNEY

My daughter won't be college-bound for another dozen years or so, but when she's ready I'll be delighted if she chooses Mt. Holyoke. Backdrop for the college's idyllic setting is Mt. Holyoke itself--a perfect place for a study-break hike.

Looming much larger over the Connecticut Valley than its 942-foot elevation would suggest, storied Mt. Holyoke is proof that total height isn't everything. It's Holyoke's rapid and dramatic rise from the near sea-level valley floor that makes the mountain so special and the views from its summit so superb. These panoramas extend from Connecticut to New Hampshire and take in a 70-mile length of the Connecticut Valley. Perhaps only the considerable number of migrating hawks, riding the thermals above the mountain's open ridge top, have better views than hikers.

The seven-mile-long Holyoke range was named for Massachusetts Bay Colony official Elizar Holyoke, who was assigned the task of divvying up the region into plantations in 1656. More than two-thirds of the range is protected by Skinner State Park, Holyoke State Park and bordering town green spaces.

Metacomet-Monadnock Trail traverses Holyoke's ridgeline. The M&M, as it's known locally, along with other well-defined trails on Mt. Holyoke and Mt. Tom (Holyoke's across-the-valley cousin) are popular excursions for the area's many college students.

In the 1820s, almost as soon as Americans and Europeans began touring New England, Mt. Holyoke became a popular tourist destination. One early guidebook described the view: "From Mt. Holyoke . . . is seen the richest prospect in New England, and not improbably in the United States. . . . The variety of farms, fields, and forests, and plains comprised in this scene can neither be described nor imaged."

Such a view inspired one of the most famous American landscape paintings: "View From Mt. Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm." Thomas Cole created it in 1836; it hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

About the same time Holyoke was making the must-see lists of travel writers, a one-room house was built atop the summit. By some accounts it was America's first mountaintop building and by other accounts it wasn't much--a kind of watering hole where locals and tourists could swill ginger beer and savor the views.

More ambitious accommodations were offered by John and Fanny French, who built a hotel called Prospect House atop Mt. Holyoke in 1851. A cable railway carried passengers up the mountain and the cars delivered guests right to the hotel lobby. The hotel was enlarged over the years, and eventually passed into the hands of wealthy silk manufacturer Joseph Skinner, who closed it down and, in turn, deeded the mountaintop to Massachusetts in 1894.

Only the frame of the hotel, after being hit by a hurricane in 1938, is left, but the spot is a popular picnic spot for those who hike or drive to the top. Skinner State Park's Summit Road ascends past a volcanic rock outcropping known as Titan's Piazza and a magnetic boulder named Devil's Football.

For hikers, Halfway Trail is a short, steep route to the top of Mt. Holyoke. Near the top, Metacomet-Monadnock Trail joins Halfway Trail and the two continue as one to the summit. It's a popular route, though not nearly as popular as it was in the days before visitors began using horseless carriages to convey them to the summit.

For a longer (four miles round trip) route to the summit, try Dry Brook Trail, which ascends Holyoke's south slope. Ambitious hikers desiring an all-day outing should consider the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, which traverses the entire nine-mile length of Holyoke Range and Skinner State Park.

Access: From Interstate 91 in Hadley, take Exit 19 and head east briefly on Route 9 to Massachusetts 47 and head south to Skinner State Park. Turn left into the park and follow Mountain Road to the Halfway Trail parking area. The signed trail begins just below the parking lot.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Halfway Trail

WHERE: Skinner State Park.

DISTANCE: To Mt. Holyoke Summit is 1 mile round trip; to summit via Dry Brook Trail is 4 miles round trip.

TERRAIN: Commanding massifs of Holyoke Range, pine and hemlock forests.

HIGHLIGHTS: Far-reaching views.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy-moderate.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Holyoke Range State Park, Skinner State Park, P.O. Box 91, Hadley, MA 01035, (413) 576-0350; Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, 1350 Main St., Springfield, MA 01103, tel. (413) 787-1555; Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, 100 Cambridge St., 13th Floor, Boston, MA 02202; tel. (800) 447-MASS.

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