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Historic tower is popular hiking destination before winter

Email|Print| Text size + By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / October 24, 2007

LUDLOW, Vt. - Before the snow flies across the Green Mountain State and reigns over this town, hiking rules. And one of the best and most rewarding treks this time of year is to the fire tower, which puts visitors above Okemo Mountain's 3,343-foot summit for a look at autumn's splendor.

Besides the promise of seasonal colors, a trip to the tower also offers a panorama of Vermont's Green Mountains, a view west to New York's Adirondacks and east to New Hampshire's White Mountains.

According to the Green Mountain Club, the Vermont-based hiking organization that oversees the state's end-to-end Long Trail and other footpaths, Okemo's summit was used from about 1920 onward in the fight against forest fires. The Civilian Conservation Corps, the Depression-era work relief program, constructed a steel tower from 1932-34. It was manned until about 1970 and was named to the National Historic Lookout Register in 1998.

Once called Ludlow Mountain, Okemo is the name synonymous with the peak that forms a hulking backdrop for the former mill town in south-central Vermont. From November through spring, 18 lifts are the main transport to the 117 trails on the mountain and adjacent Jackson Gore Peak. Some hikers just follow the ski trails to the summit.

But a better way to go for families and casual hikers is to take the well-maintained Healdville Trail in Okemo State Forest. About three miles from the ski area on a side road off Route 103, a small trailhead alongside working Green Mountain Railroad tracks in Mount Holly is the jumping-off place into the 7,500-acre forest.

A kiosk with trail information is the gateway to the 5.8-mile round-trip hike. The well-blazed Healdville Trail, named after the defunct Healdville train station, is easy to follow, marked by numerous blue swaths along the trees.

The trek can easily take half a day as it plays cat and mouse with a small, gurgling brook running alongside it at stretches. A couple of sturdy footbridges greet hikers at the outset as Branch Brook flows off to the side in the hardwood forest. Chipmunks scurry about while overhead bluejays flutter from tree to tree. The sentries of the forests -squirrels - sound the alarm as you breach their comfort zones.

Constructed by the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps in the early 1990s, the trail is a good way to go. But it's no easy walk in the woods. There are some steep pitches in the first mile. And not only will hikers cross bridges, but they also may need to use stone steps to traverse muddy sections after any rainfall.

The pathway does relent as it swings across the western flank of the mountain. There are a couple of easygoing switchbacks and a sign on a tree that lets hikers know they've trekked two miles - and have nearly one more to go.

As you go higher, the forest landscape changes to evergreens and birches in the upper reaches of the hike. At one time, forest rangers lived near the summit in a cabin complete with stone chimney. The chimney still stands and is a reminder to make that last effort up to the steps leading to the observation platform in the tower.

The tower, which rises above the ski lifts, could use some of the love that goes into the trail work. There's an abundance of graffiti and a portion of the roof is unhinged. But on the day we went, a clear sky yielded an idyllic skyline that soon enough will include skiers making their snowy descents.

Marty Basch can be reached at marty@martybasch.com.

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