Berkshire County plans to increase its profile for outdoor recreation

A county-wide outdoor recreation plan — the first of its kind — was revealed this month.

Olivia’s Overlook along the Yokun Ridge segment of the High Road.
Olivia’s Overlook along the Yokun Ridge segment of the High Road. –Gabrielle K. Murphy

Berkshire County visitors seeking outdoor adventures will be met with new and improved hiking and biking trails, additional campgrounds, a brand new climbing destination, updated outdoor facilities, and more in the months and years to come.

The Berkshire Outdoor Recreation Plan, unveiled earlier this month, is a 210-page document by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and private investment group Mill Town created to help boost the region’s profile as an outdoor recreation destination.

“It is the first of its kind for our region,” said Laura Brennan, senior planner for community and economic development for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

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The plan offers a county-wide deep dive into the region’s current outdoor offerings as well as recommendations for future growth. The team scrutinized more than 600 outdoor assets, consulted more than 60 local stakeholders including outdoor businesses, landowners, and nonprofit organizations, and surveyed more than 2,000 visitors and residents about their habits and behaviors.

The plan’s recommendations include infrastructure improvements, growing activities such as biking, hiking, camping, skiing, fishing, hunting, water sports, outdoor athletics, and more, and beefing up communications and marketing for the region’s outdoor recreation offerings.

“I think that it’s something that we’ve needed for a long time,” said Jenny Hansell, president of the Berkshire National Resources Council. “We know that people visit the Berkshires for two reasons: for the culture and for nature. This plan provides such a wonderful framework for more outdoor recreation opportunities to be developed. It’s very exciting.”

Hanging Mountain in Sandisfield. —Chris Beauchamp

Berkshire County’s outdoor offerings include more than 850 miles of mapped trails, 23 camping facilities, five alpine ski areas, more than 30 lakes and ponds, and prime destinations such as the Appalachian Trail, Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, and Mount Greylock, according to the plan.

“We have a little bit of everything,” said Mark Maloy, GIS, data, and IT manager for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. “We have hiking and water sports, we have skiing — downhill and cross-country — we have climbing areas, we have mountain biking, we offer just about everything someone could be interested in. It may not be fully developed how we would like yet.”

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The majority of those surveyed fell between the ages of 30 and 60, and their main reasons for participating in outdoor recreation in the area were having fun, connecting with nature, and keeping fit. The residents and visitors surveyed want to see expanded facilities, improvements to restrooms, equipment rentals, signage, and maps, and have more access to nature trails, ATV/ORV trails, designated swimming areas, paved biking trails, campgrounds, and mountain biking trails.

The study revealed that visitors and residents are overusing certain outdoor sites while they are unaware of others, Brennan said, so better educating the public about Berkshire County’s outdoor offerings will help spread folks out, protecting the land and reducing crowds.

“We recognize that there are certain trails that should be better marked, trails that need more parking or expansion of facilities,” Brennan said. “We really do want to not only raise the profile of the area but raise the quality of the experience. So we’re urging land managers to really invest in outdoor recreation.”

There are several projects already in the works that align with the plan.

Mill Town purchased Bousquet Mountain in Pittsfield in May, is renovating the ski area, and, along with the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, opened the Mahanna Cobble Trail there last month. Hanging Mountain, a new climbing venue in Sandisfield opening around Labor Day, will offer up to 200 rock climbing routes across 14 acres.

“It’s going to totally change climbing in the Berkshires,” Maloy said. “It’s going to really become a destination.”

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Greylock Glen, a 1,063-acre site in Adams, will include the future Greylock Glen Resort, a lodge/conference center, campground, trail system, outdoor center, performing arts amphitheater, and outdoor sculpture art garden.

Berkshire Natural Resources Council will open the first segment of The High Road in early 2021, Hansell said, and the trail will eventually connect the entire county. The multi-generational project, which has been in the works since 2014, is inspired by the Coast to Coast Walk in England and the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The first open section will be an eight-mile path along Yokun Ridge, stretching from Pittsfield to Stockbridge.

“It’s not just a walk, it connects town to town,” Hansell said. “[For example, you could] walk down into Lenox, find that wonderful bed and breakfast, stay for a couple of days and go to Tanglewood, go shopping, and then pick up the next piece and walk to another town. And rinse and repeat. It’s the opportunity to explore the Berkshires by foot, but also explore the towns and culture.”

The Ashuwillticook Rail Trail. —Berkshire Regional Planning Commission

“What’s great about the plan is it has got people thinking about and focusing on these opportunities and needs in the county,” Hansell said. “One potential impact of the plan is attracting more investments because people like to invest where there’s a clear plan.”

The region will host its first Berkshire Outdoor Recreation Festival Oct. 2-4 at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, which will include local and national vendors, speakers, authors, films, and organized outdoor activities and competitions.

“We don’t know how much is going to happen this year because of COVID-19,” Maloy said. “We’re hoping it will be in some form but what exact form that is, we still don’t know yet.”

The Berkshires region is also working on marketing the area as an outdoor recreation destination.

“I think the messaging that goes out to the Boston audience and the New York audience has long been centered on cultural opportunities,” Brennan said.

1Berkshire, the region’s tourism council, is launching a marketing campaign this year focused on outdoor recreation with the message, “Let the Berkshires be your backyard.”

“People know the Berkshires for cultural activity, certainly,” Brennan said. “There’s no doubt about that. But the visitors have always really appreciated the beauty of their surroundings when they’re here to visit Tanglewood or the Clark, or whatever it may be. And the average age of our visitor has been decreasing over time. And so there’s a lot of interest in including more outdoor recreation in a visit to the Berkshires. A longer visit means more hotel nights, more meals out, more shopping, more everything. So when you take a big picture look at our tourism and hospitality economy here, it just makes sense for us to weave more variety into our messaging about what we have and, especially, to include outdoor recreation.”

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