Mohawk Trail - Masschusetts Scenic Drives

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Map of the Mohawk Trail

There are two kinds of scenic drivers. There who let the flow of images—of scenes—move across their windshield in flat display. This is landscape as TV—relaxing and enjoyable, if a little unadventurous.

Then there's the stop and go kind of scenic driver, halting at every overlook and getting out frequently to take a hike (or get the bikes down), explore an old village, visit a curiosity.

This is landscape as web site. Drivers of this variety realize that our planet is inscribed by a dense cross-hatchings of environment and history. Roads leading off the main route are links to the unexpected, the revelatory.

The Mohawk Trail, shown on maps as Massachusetts Route Two, is a great trip for both kinds of scenic driving. You can take the trail in an easy, curvey sixty plus mile stretch, just making the usual pit stops. Or you can spend days exploring its side roads and villages, hiking its open public lands. Either way makes for a satisfying excursion. And every season has its beauty; during the fall leaf peeping season the foliage is spectacular, but the route tends to be clogged—just another reason to take it slow and enjoy the view.

The trail began life as a Native American footpath across the Berkshires, used for trade, hunting, and social calling by five tribes, including the Pocumtuck and the Mohawk. After the colonization, the trail was successively widened and repaved, and its route altered to accomodate changing modes of transportation. All the stages of the region's economic life are represented: wild forests and mountains, colonial trading and farming villages, 19th century manufacturing towns, and the 20th century retrofitted rust belt.

In 1914, at the dawn of the automobile age, the Mohawk Trail was declared a scenic route, the first such one. There are many other firsts about this route, many of which we've noted below.

On your way to Greenfield, the starting point, you'll probably pass throuth either the town of Gill or Turner Falls. Both are classic New England villages. Gill is near Northfield Mountain Recreation and Environmental Center, which is on land owned and operated by Northeast Utilities. Northfield features 25 miles of hiking trails, including a portion of the Mohawk Trail footpath, and Barton Cove, which has campgrounds, canoe rentals, and a full program of exhibits, workshops and tours.

Turner Falls is the the site of the first dam built on the Connecticut River. The town's namesake waterfall is impressive, definitely worth a stop. The elaborate Our Lady of Czestochowa Roman Catholic Church deserves a peak in; it was built by the local Polish immigrant community in honor of a black Madonna image from their homeland.

Greenfield is the location of the country's first cutlery factory. The town is the offspring of Deerfield , which is just south on U.S. Highway 5. However, Greenfield outgrew its progenitor. In the American way, economic growth meant restless razing and rebuilding, while Deerfield became the obstinate, unchanging elder. Surrounded by 6,000 acres of preserved farmland, Deerfield is considered the best preserved colonial village in New England. Historic Deerfield features a museum complex of fourteen intricatately detailed 18th & 19th century houses along a mile long street. Despite the people running around in period costumes, Deerfield is an fascinating must-see that you could spend days exploring.

Back on the trail, Shelburne is the place where the first Yale locks were manufactured. Be on the lookout for a church with a white steeple. You've probably seen it many times before in pictures of New England; it's considered the standard. Near here is the Little Mohawk Road, which will take you to the Patten District with spectacular views. You'll find good hikes around Mt. Massamet, High Ledges and Wilcox Hollow.

Shelburne is perhaps best known for the Bridge of Flowers, which is actually in the hamlet of Shelburne Falls. In 1929 some enterprising local gardeners decided the town's abandoned trolley bridge (by this time the Age of the Auto is well under way) could use some dressing up. Today, 500 species of flowers bloom from spring to fall. Down-river, glacial potholes in the smooth bedrock make for popular sunning and swimming spots during the summer.

MA 112 is a pleasant turnoff into apple orchard country. Colrain, to the north, boasts the first school to fly the American flag. Today it also boasts the award-winning North River Winery. Catamount State Forest is hidden away near here—1,125 acres of public land with streams, marshes, wooded hills and a large pond. A good bet if you're seeking some isolation in the woods after all the tourist attractions.

Turning back to Route Two, you'll soon pass through the quaint rural village of Charlemont. The town's name has been changed several times in the interest of upward mobility. The settlement began life Chickley's Town. Later, this was changed to Charley's Mount, which became frenchified to Charlemont. Look for the historical marker for "Shunpike", a toll bridge that cheapskate yankees preferred to wade around rather than pay a toll. This action added fuel to the successful "free roads" campaign at the beginning of the 19th century. Music lovers will want to seek out the acoustically perfect Charlemont Federated Church, where concerts are held May to October. Even if you can't stay for a concert, the program is very interesting.

Further along the road, you'll drive through the Mohawk Trail State Forest whose 6,457 acres abut the 10,500 acre Savoy State Forest, forming the largest tract is open space in Western Massachusetts. Many of the old Indian trails still exist here, including a portion of the original Mohawk Trail footpath. With 18 miles of rivers and streams flowing through it, the Mohawk Forest is famous for its trout fishing. If you make it over to the Savoy Mountain State Forest, you'll want to seek out the half mile hiking trail that leads to Tannery Falls, an 80 foot cascade that tumbles eventfully over cliffs and ledges. You can stay overnight at the 45 unit campsites, located in an old apple orchard. For real luxury, especially in the winter, rent one of the three log cabins with stone chimneys overlooking South Pond. The cabins can be reserved up to six months in advance.

The town of Florida, ironically one of the coldest spots in Massachusetts, is near Whitcomb Summit, the highest point along the Mohawk Trail (2,240 feet). The first overnight cabin in New England was built on this summit. Florida is the the gateway to the Hoosac Tunnel, a 4.7 mile railroad tunnel completed in 1873 at the cost of 196 lives. The tunnel workers nicknamed the burrow "Bloody Pit." It was on the Hoosac that nitroglycerin was used for the first time in an industrial application.

When the tunnel was completed, the nearby town of North Adams took off. This old factory town is to 19th century industrial archeology what Deerfield is to the colonial period: a fascinating relic. Unlike Deerfield, it's been only recently that the town has been appreciated for what it is. Western Gateway Heritage State Park makes for an interesting stop. This state park was created out a North Adams freight yard, and features many 19th century structures renovated to house exhibits. The building the Hoosac Tunnel is fully explored, along with other aspects of the region's industrial history.

New England's only natural bridge is found at nearby Natural Bridge State Park. The park is situated in a large marble quarry that was active from 1810 until 1947. The quarry is probably the most interesting feature of this park. The natural bridge is displayed as a tourist's curiousity—with chainlink fencing all around and a walkover with handrail and steps.

The art's center MASS MocCA will be opening in 1998. This massive arts facility is housed in a 12 acre industrial complex built in 1872 for textile processing. According to the center's literature "bridges, viaducts, elevated walkways, and red-brick facades lend a distinct architectural ambiance, reminiscent of a small medieval city."

From North Adams, hikers will want to make a trip to Mt. Greylock State Reserve. At 3,491 feet, Mount Greylock is the highest peak in Massachusetts. Acquired by the Commonwealth in 1898, it was Massachusetts first state park. For years, Mt. Greylock has inspired artists and writers, including authors Herman Melville and Henry David Thoreau. After arriving at the summit by foot-trail or auto, you can see a panorama of five states. Bascom Lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1937, provides overnight accommodations and meals at the summit during the summer and fall.

The reserve includes 45 miles of trails. The Appalachian Trail also winds its way through. 35 campsites are available.

You can hike to the top of Mt. Greylock from the town of Adams by following the Cheshire Harbor trail that starts at the end of West Mt. Road. Every year on Columbus Day the local chamber of commerce shepards the Mt. Greylock ramble, when upwards of a thousand hikers of all ages make the summit.

Adams is another fascinating old factory town, lined with remnants of 19th century textile mills. The town has the distinction of being the birthplace of Susan B. Anthony, the 19th century feminist. If you're hungry, search out Miss Adams Diner, housed in an historic 1949 Worcester lunch car. Breakfast and lunch only, but who can argue with real cream pies?

Williamstown is the last town on the drive. This urbane home of Williams College is a good walking and biking town, especially near the village green. The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute is the town's star attraction. And it's free. The institute harbors the largest collection of 19th century French paintings in the country, including masterpieces by Renoir, Monet and Corot.The American collection is nothing short of fabulous as well: Sargent, Cassatt, Remington and Winslow Homer are all represented in a satisfying abundance. West of town you can stretch your legs and unwind at the Taconic Trail State Park or at the college's Hopkin's Memorial Forest .

Ready to go back the same way you came?

Region: Berkshire Mountains in northwest Massachusetts
Length: Approximately 65 miles
Endpoints: Greenfield and Williamstown
Features: Gentle mountain scenery, historic towns, forested state parks
Side Activities: Hiking, fishing, swimming, skiing, camping, historical exploration


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 17 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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