Thursday July 26, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN -- The Williamstown Rural Lands Foun dation is younger and smaller than a lot of the organizations that preserve the diverse properties that help make the Berkshires its own place. There is a natural beauty worthy of exploration in this northeastern-most town in Massachusetts, often overlooked by its neighbors and visitors alike save for its arts and entertainment. The WRLF owns and maintains 14 properties totaling 560 acres alone.

The two most recent properties this writer has visited, Berlin Road Trails and the Hopper Brook Loop, are easy, hour-long walks. Of course, if the hiker carries a camera, add an additional half hour to each walk at the minimum.

Berlin Road Trails

The Berlin Road Trails cover 35 acres and abut town of Williams town conservation pro perty to the south, Williams College property to the west, and Berkshire Natural Re sources Council property to the north, creating an almost 500-acre preserve.

Dubbed the Berlin Road Trails, the primary scenic loop through this gentle rolling woodland is complete with a scattering of interpretive signs and a most enjoyable little waterfall. It begins to the right of a weathered sign behind a small parking area marking the beginning of "The Class of ‘33 Trail." Follow the blue markers or blazes marked "Foot Trail" down a slight incline.

The first interpretive sign you encounter offers "Fern Facts," and beyond it is a slender tree with smooth, muscular-looking bark, called iron wood or eastern hophornbeam. Surrounding the iron wood are shrubby trees called striped maple. This tree has large leaves resembling a goose foot, giving it the nickname goosefoot maple.

Continue uphill between ash and white birch, maple, hemlock and beech, and over three small foot bridges and a larger pressure-treated one. Look for a side trail to the left and take it down a fairly steep path to Hemlock Brook and a wonderful little unnamed waterfall, maybe a 20-foot fall, flowing even in dry July weather. If I were to name it, it would be Hemlock Falls.

After enjoying the waterfall, return to the main trail and continue following the blazes (two, usually one above the other indicate a sharp turn). Eventually, after a fair distance, cross over the brook above the falls. There is no bridge here, but another blaze insures you are on track. On this visit we had to climb over and under three sizable trees, one with an interpretative sign that explains where the stream flows.

After the brook there is a "T" -- follow the sign pointing left to Williamstown Rural Lands Trail. A winter wren and an ovenbird warbler sang to us here.

After negotiating another fallen tree, walk into a more open ferny area, and look for another informative sign. This sign explains how "light gaps" allow shrubs to grow.

Continue downhill following the blue (Foot Trail) blazes through another opening in the forest canopy, this one with stinging nettles, where you will be happy you wore long pants. I must have been occupied with something else and didn't notice the nettles until I received a full dose of the chemicals so freely provided by their stems and leaves. These stems and leaves contain tiny hypodermic-like hairs that injected histamine, serotonin and formic acid into my legs.

With legs afire, I immediately began looking for jewelweed, a wild antidote. Even water or rubbing the affected areas with the underside of ferns would have brought some relief. Singing red-eyed and blue-throated verios helped keep my mind off of the temporary discomfort, and within 10 to 12 minutes the harmless burning sensation was gone without treatment.

We soon came to another interpretative sign explaining that these woods were "last harvested of oak in 1996."

The trail splits again; the right takes one to the ski trail (0.7 miles). Walking straight ahead takes one up Berlin Mountain, while left and downhill leads toward Berlin Road -- the "Class of ‘33 trail," where we began our quest. When you come to the gravel road, turn left, uphill, to arrive in moments at the parking area.

If you go ...

Berlin Road Trails

Rated easy, 11 2 miles

From Route 2 west, take Torrey Woods Road and continue until it turns into gravel and its name changes to Berlin Road. Look for a small turn-off about half-mile past the last house.

Hopper Brook Loop

Rated easy, one-half mile

From Route 7 and 43 at the five corners, follow Route 43 two miles east toward Williamstown and take a right, through Mount Hope Park, following the road uphill. Follow the sign for Mount Greylock and continue upward through farmland to the grass lot at the trailhead.

A trek along Hopper Brook Loop

As the day was still young, we decided to visit the Hopper Brook Trail at the base of Mount Greylock.

Fortunately, our route takes us to Five Corners at the intersection of Routes 7 and 43, and with the Store at Five Corners reopened we stopped for re freshments before continuing two miles to Hopper Road.

Drive it to the end, to the state-owned access to Mount Greylock and an assortment of trails. These trails include the Williams town Rural Lands Foundation's Hopper Brook Loop, a three-quarter mile jaunt that veers left between "cobble" stone walls with remnants of what ap pears to be a cobblestone road.

Continue downhill through an old pasture to Hopper Brook and an open grassy meadow, reputed an ideal picnic place. The trail joins the road near the campsites. To return to your car, turn uphill onto the road. There are sanitary facilities here and a variety of strenuous trails, some leading up the state's highest peak and to Stony Ledge.

-- Thom Smith