Experiencing the new-and-improving Highlands Footpath

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Planning is under way for a 40-mile Highlands Footpath, beginning in downtown Lee and heading east through Becket, Chester, Worthington, Chesterfield and Cummington to DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) State Forest in Goshen. In addition, a 14-mile spur is proposed through Chester, Blandford and Russell, and an eight-mile connector following the old Huckleberry trolley line from Blandford. To sample it, I visited Sanderson Brook Falls and the H. Newman Marsh Trail in Chester.

Typically, we divide Berkshire County into south, middle and north; a more significant division, however, would be west, the Route 7 corridor, and east (roughly the Route 8 corridor). We tend to slight the east side, so it is more than exciting to find these proposals, most mileage of which already exists as trails or old roads — or trolley right of way. The Huckleberry line, built in 1911-12 and suspended eight years later, received its nickname because passengers would get off to pick berries.

A Sunday in early February was another microspikes day, of which we've had many this winter. I met up with Westfield Wild and Scenic River Volunteer Coordinator and Highlands Footpath volunteer Meredyth Babcock, and we drove to Chester-Blandford State Forest where Sanderson Brook Road exits Route 20. In 1920s the Civilian Conservation Corps built the road to a ski area it once served. Now, the road is open to foot traffic only, although the parking area by the kiosk is plowed.

About a mile of gradual incline, well-beaten down by hikers and icy, brought us to a right turn that led down off the road to the base of Sanderson Brook Falls, really a cascade with multiple drops, over 200 feet in all, into a deep pool — like the falls, frozen over that day. The scene, catching late sun, was an eyeful.

Then, we backtracked nearly to the parking area to pick up the Marsh Trail, named for an area outdoorsman who helped establish the Jacobs Ladder Scenic Highway. Two years after he died, in 1998, came a proposal to run a trail to the lookouts atop Observation Hill. The Student Conservation Association, based in Hawley, a division of AmeriCorps, designed and cleared it.

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The trail climbs the hill steeply and, the day we were there, with significant icy patches, in part following the course of a brook, to about 1,200 feet. The area was logged in the 30s, with yellow birch and hemlock coming back in. Ash, sugar maple and beech are joining them. Initially, posts along the way were keyed to a nature guide.

We climbed about a mile to the first lookout — two other lookouts extend the hike to about 1 1/2 miles one way. The appealing north view is of the town of Chester and the railroad, snaking along the Westfield River, and of the Berkshire Hills beyond including Gobble Mountain with its iconic fire tower — another stop along the Highlands Footpath.

The Footpath is a joint effort of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, The Trustees of Reservations, The Nature Conservancy and Westfield Wild & Scenic River Committee, with local trail groups. Federal and state Scenic Byways money connected with Route 112 and Jacobs Ladder Trail paid for a 2016 study. Babcock is delighted to show people the area. She can be reached at coordinator@wildscenicwestfieldriver.org.

Happy trails to you.

Lauren R. Stevens is author of "50 Hikes in the Berkshire Hills," Countryman Press/W.W. Norton


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