Hiking in winter is the best. You don’t have to swat bugs. And rarely, at least in these 10 spots, do you encounter more than a handful of people. With the numerous nature preserves and state forests in the Connecticut River Valley and flanking hill towns, hikers on snowshoes or skis will find plenty of varied terrain to explore.
Before heading out, check with the managing agency or organization for local conditions and rules about pets and parking. And in winter, it’s crucial to wear and pack the right stuff — see the Appalachian Mountain Club’s list at www.outdoors.org
1. Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, Easthampton (Mass. Audubon)
Five miles of trails thread this conservation area abutting the Oxbow of the Connecticut River, most famously painted by Thomas Cole in 1836. The smaller Mill River flows into the Connecticut, and the floodplain they share is home to wood ducks, great blue heron, marsh hawks, and kingfisher. An observation tower off the Fern Trail overlooks the frozen Mill River. Grasslands and other diverse habitats make this sanctuary unusually rich in wildlife. Trails trace layers of the site’s human history too — an old coach road and a former trolley line. No pets. 127 Combs Road, 413-584-3009, 800-710-4550, www.massaudubon.org/Nature_Connection/Sanctuaries/Arcadia/index.php
2. Mount Holyoke Range State Park, Hadley-Belchertown (Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation)
This park encompasses more than 3,000 acres covering the Holyoke (a.k.a. Mount Holyoke) Range and is laced with miles of trails for hiking and (ungroomed) cross-country skiing. The range is a volcanic ridge with an east-to-west alignment, which makes it a rarity in the Northeast. Although the highest peak, Mount Norwottuck, is only 1,106 feet, the steep-sided range rises sharply from the valley plain, giving it unusual drama. Streams and ponds within a hardwood forest make for varied views and habitats. The Notch Visitor Center, 1500 West St. (Route 116), Amherst, 413-253-2883, www.mass.gov/dcr/
3. Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) State Forest, Goshen (Mass. DCR)
A day of high clouds finds Tom Duffy and his son Johnny Nields-Duffy of Northampton trying out their skates on Upper Highland Lake, one of the two lakes in this locally popular state forest. “This is a magic spot,” says Duffy, a former Somerville resident. “We come whenever we can. There’s a lot of sky, and hardly anyone is ever here in the winter.” A well-used camping and paddling spot in summer, the forest offers the prospect of snowbound solitude at this time of year. 78 Cape St. (Route 112), 413-268-7098, www.mass.gov/dcr/
4. Mohawk Trail State Forest, Charlemont (Mass. DCR)
The Cold River burbles under the ice beside a spur of the ancient Mahican-Mohawk Trail, which once connected the Hudson and Connecticut rivers. A section of the trail passes through this 6,000-acre forest hunkered among the steep slopes of the northern Berkshire Hills. The mountainous enclosure, the vastness of the forest, and the scant settlement nearby allow the mind to imagine the region’s pre-European history. Log cabins, built in the 1930s, can be rented at any time of the year. 175 Mohawk Trail. (Route 2), 413-339-5504, www.mass.gov/dcr/
5. Savoy Mountain State Forest, Florida (Mass. DCR)
This is one of the state’s more remote recreation areas, covering part of the Hoosac Range. Established in 1918 on 1,000 acres of abandoned farmland, it contains 50 miles of trails, five ponds, two waterfalls, and assorted bogs, meadows, and hills. The big view is from Spruce Hill, accessible from the Busby Trail in the state forest, or via the Hoosac Range Trail, which traces 3 miles of ridgeline on an adjacent conservation area (no pets). Railroad buffs will enjoy passing the central shaft, or vent, for the historic Hoosac Tunnel (built 1851–1875) on the main road through the forest. Log cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s can be rented in any season. 260 Central Shaft Road, 413-663-8469, 413-664-4800, www.mass.gov/dcr/ . Hoosac Range Trail, Berkshire Natural Resources Council, www.bnrc.net/properties/214_hoosac_range
6. Bear Swamp Reservation, Ashfield (The Trustees of Reservations)
Though this off-the-beaten-track reservation holds just 3 miles of trails, the terrain is challenging and ruggedly scenic, with steep slopes and rough ledges overhung with hemlock. The trails crisscross to form several possible loops to extend the length of a hike. In addition to the dramatic ledges, the property’s other attractions include a beaver pond, a brook, and marshy wetlands. Across the road from the small parking area, a short trail leads to a stunning view of Apple Valley. Hawley Road, 413-532-1631, www.thetrustees.org/places-to-visit Continued...