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Seeking the Heights

by Kathryn Boughton

Mid-October may be the premier season for day hikes. The weather is cool and crisp, the scenery at its most spectacular.

There are two more weeks—more or less—before the trees are shorn of their finery and it is time to get out and make sure that you visit one (or both) of the region’s finest destinations before the subtler shades of November replace the flamboyance of October.

One of the sites—perhaps the more accessible as it is located right off Route 7, just north of Great Barrington MA—has long been an attraction for hikers seeking the heights. Monument Mountain has been a source of inspiration to poets, novelists and painters for nearly two centuries.

During William Cullen Bryant’s sojourn in Great Barrington he penned Monument Mountain, a lyrical poem that tells the story of a Mohican maiden who leaps to her death over her forbidden love. In the poem, Mohicans create a rock cairn on the spot where she is buried, giving the mountain its name–Mountain of the Monument.

The mountain so seduced the literary lights of the day it became the incubus for one of America’s literary masterpieces, Moby Dick. On August 5th, 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville hiked to its peak for a well-documented picnic. When a thunderstorm threatened they, and the others in their party, took refuge in a cave where they continued their repast and their vigorous conversation, conversation that provided powerful ideas for Melville’s book.

While neither author recorded the event beyond Hawthorne saying it had occurred, party member Cornelius Mathews’ recounted that Oliver Wendell Holmes drank too much champagne and came “near losing his foothold and tumbling straight down a thousand feet.”

Melville, Mathews said, was inspired by the height and “certainly fancying himself among the whalers of the Pacific, for he perches himself astride a jutting rock, like a bowsprit.” Hawthorne was a dour presence, causing Mathews to call him “Mr. Noble Melancholy.”

Today, Monument Mountain attracts a steady stream of visitors who climb the three “loop” options, none of which is longer than three miles. The 1.51-mile Indian Monument Trail takes hikers past more than 300 years of history, from the remains of ancient Native American trails, to the horse-and-carriage pleasure roads, recreational foot paths and roads traveled by Ford Model T’s.

The 0.83-mile Hickey Trail is the most direct—and strenuous—approach, and the 0.62-mile Squaw Peak Trail is the summit connector for both the Indian Monument and Hickey trails, and offers the best views.

The climb is listed as moderately difficult, but yields memorable views. Some fitness is required to handle the trails and sturdy shoes and a supply of water are recommended. It is open year-round, sunrise to sunset. Caution should be used in winter, however, as steep routes and ledges can be slippery.

From the 1,642-foot summit of Squaw Peak, visitors enjoy views as far north as Mount Greylock, near the Vermont border, and, in the western distance, New York’s Catskills.

Melville provides the natural connection between Monument Mountain and Mount Greylock. The highest mountain in Massachusetts at 3,491 feet, Greylock’s double humps suggest a green whale breaching through the mist. Melville gazed at the mountain day by day from his home in Pittsfield. That it proved an inspiration for his epic tale of an obsessed sea captain and a great albino whale is proved by Moby Dick’s dedication to ''To Greylock's Most Excellent Majesty.''

Greylock also rewards visitors with breathtaking views from its summit. The road to the summit closes October 31st although Rockwell Road to Jones’ Nose remains open until weather forces closing.

Greylock became Massachusetts' first wilderness state park in 1898 to preserve its natural environment for public enjoyment. Bascom Lodge, a rustic stone Arts and Crafts hostelry on the summit, offers overnight accommodations and meals from late May through October.

The building was constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps of local stone and old-growth red spruce timbers. Its architecture became the blueprint for America’s National Park and lodge remains the centerpiece of the 12,500-acre wilderness park.

The lodge closes for the season at the end of October. For details call 413-743-1591.

Since the 2007-08 Historic Parkway Rehabilitation Project, the restored road system offers numerous opportunities for scenic viewing and short hikes along this state-designated Scenic Byway. The Veterans War Memorial Tower at the summit dedicated in 1933, is currently closed for restoration. Hikes within the park range from easy to strenuous.

To reach Mount Greylock, take Route 7 to Pittsfield MA. Continue north on Route 7 to Lanesborough for 6.6 miles. At the brown Mount Greylock sign turn right onto North Main Street. Follow the brown lead-in signs 1.5 miles from Route 7 to the Visitor Center and park entrance. Driving distance from Visitor Center to summit is eight miles.

Monument Mountain
Mount Greylock