Wild azaleas — we can smell them even before we see them. The place you can smell and see the most of them, all together, is Pittsfield State Forest, but that's not the only azalea hangout in Berkshire. From Lenox Mountain to the Dome, this is their time.
George A. Petrides rhapsodizes in "A Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs": "Like the evergreen rhododendrons, the shrubby azaleas are highly prized for their beautiful clusters of large and colorful blossoms." Around here, mostly pink. Call me a dendrophile: I think the wild ones are prettier and more aromatic than the hybrids planted around our homes.
Let's check out them out on East Mountain and Pine Cobble, in Williamstown. Our route will be Pine Cobble Trail (PCT) to '98 Trail to Appalachian Trail (AT) to PCT, for 5-plus miles. As well as the azaleas, we will get the fine views from East Mountain and Pine Cobble, pass some significant quartzite cliffs, possibly run into distance hikers on the AT, walk through the rocky remains of a burn area and discover DIY cairns. Oh, we may also come across ravens.
Trailhead parking is in the Pine Cobble housing development: From Route 2 in Williamstown, left on Cole Avenue at the traffic signal, right on North Hoosac Road, left at Pine Cobble Road. The parking area is on the left. (An alternate route involves the Chestnut Trail, off Chestnut Street, but trailhead parking there is poor).
Our trailhead is across the road from parking. The blue-blazed trail enters the woods parallel to the road, then turns left to begin ascending, gradually at first and then, after a short descent, steeply, as it circumscribes the homes on the hill side. Just shy of a mile, the `98 trail exits to the left. It was a gift to the Williams College from the graduating class of 1998.
We follow the '98 along a flat stretch beneath the cliffs and a jumble of boulders that have tumbled from the summit. After passing the junction of the Chestnut Trail, left, our route begins a steep ascent, aided by stone steps and several rocky switchbacks, through mountain laurel that will bloom later in June. We enter Clarksburg State Forest, its boundaries blazed blue like our trail, to right, after 1.5 miles on the '98, on the white-blazed AT.
Here we are most likely to meet distance hikers, the few who are venturing out in this plague year. Some might be following the AT to Mount Katahdin, Maine; others might be following the Long Trail to Journey's End on the Vermont-Quebec border.
There are more azaleas on the ridge we now follow. The layered quartzite has been shoved up. We walk on its bones to the entrance of the AT, left. We go straight to the summit of East Mountain, marked by a pile of rocks or cairn. The forest fire here burned the soil, leaving the bare stone. In the absence of trees, except for the pitch pines, other cairns mark the route. They have inspired passing hikers to add their own. Views are south and west.
We continue to follow through another open area with blueberries ripening; then into a wooded area with more azaleas until we reach the junction where the PCT drops down. We go straight to get the views from various sectors of the Pine Cobble overlook. The views range from the wooded Sherman Brook valley, up which the AT rises, to the Hoosic River valley, including North Adams and Williamstown/Williams College.
Back to the intersection and down the steep section of the PCT, passing more azalea and boulders convenient for resting on the way up: 1.6 miles remain to the trailhead. This route is well-worn by generations of students and civilians. It flattens and swings right at a rocky area, then descends steeply again until it passes the `98 Trail, right, we turned on before. From here on we retrace our steps.
That creaking sounds of a rusty gate might be ravens. They hang out in the cliffs.
Happy trails to you.
Lauren R. Stevens is author of "50 Hikes in the Berkshire Hills," Countryman Press/W,W. Norton, 2016.