Lauren R. Stevens | Hikes and Walks: How to follow Thoreau up Mount Greylock

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A hike departing the Notch Road gate at 10 a.m. on July 20 will retrace Henry David Thoreau's footsteps up Mount Greylock. He made the trip about that date in July 1844. For its sesquicentennial, in 1994, high school English teacher Elliot Fenander dreamed up the idea of climbing the route Thoreau took, more or less. A group has traveled that way nearly every year since.

We take along a selection from "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers" in which Thoreau describes his trip up and on Greylock, stopping at sites he mentions to read the appropriate passages. Those who would like to find out more about Thoreau or his trip should consider this leisurely but strenuous, all-day hike.

Greylock is a monadnock, like New Hampshire's mounts Monadnock and Ascutney, and Mount Wachusett in central Mass. What we're climbing on, then, is the harder rock that remains after the softer rock — in Greylock's case, limestone — eroded away. We're starting out at 1,304 feet and gaining 2,200 feet in elevation, on nearly a five-mile hike up.

The trail begins beside Notch Reservoir and follows Notch Brook along what was once a highland road from North Adams to Adams. Unlike most trails therefore, it crosses culverts, parallels roadside ditches and sections are cobbled. At least three cellar holes indicate this area was once residential. Although conifers were planted by the reservoir, the trail passes by a row of stately sugar maples.

We begin on flat land that gradually gets steeper. North Adams owns the area as part of its watershed; therefore no blazes. We don't enter the state Reservation until nearly the Notch between the main peak and Ragged. Then blue blazes.

The Notch valley is called the Bellows Pipe, hence the Bellows Pipe Trail, for reasons that aren't totally clear. Thoreau suggests that it is because the wind rushes down it. He meant "bellows" in the sense of an implement to blow air to help start a fire. At the Notch, a side trail departs for Ragged, a half-mile round trip with a view of Greylock. Stone walls portray previous pasture use.

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A flat stretch, from which we get fleeting glances into the town of Adams, leads to the intersection with the Bellows Pipe Ski Trail, cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a downhill alternative to the Thunderbolt Ski Trail. We turn right, passing the three-sided Bellows Pipe Shelter. The route becomes perceptibly steeper, zigzagging its way up the east face of Greylock.

The beech and birch trees become scraggly as the Appalachian Trail enters from the right. That may be our route for the descent. To the left is a hut containing emergency equipment for the Thunderbolt, which we soon meet. We swing right toward the summit. Our trail is now blazed white; we leave a blue-blazed trail to Robinson Point on our right.

A fine view north greets us if we about-face where our trail crosses Summit Road. Then we scramble past the CCC-constructed ski shelter, named for famed Adams skier Rudy Konieczny, to the summit with War Memorial Tower and Bascom Lodge. The views in all directions are excellent, especially if we climb the tower.

We can descend the way we came up. We can, as some who do the Thoreau hike opt, be met by automobile at the summit and drive down. Or we can take the slightly longer return trip for a total of nearly 10 hiking miles.

The latter is steep, but less so than the way up. After starting back down the Thunderbolt and AT, we stay on the AT where the Bellows Pipe bears right. At about 2.5 miles, at a four-way intersection, the Bernard Farm Trail drops right (blue blazes). After losing some elevation we pass the remains of an airplane that crashed into the side of the mountain. We follow the blue blazes at another right turn. The Bernard Farm Trail, named for a family that farmed near the Reservation gate, crosses Notch Road, then passes through the woods again to the gate parking lot, about 2.3 miles from the AT.

Happy trails to early residents, Thoreau, CCCers, veterans, Rudy Konieczny and all of us.

Lauren R. Stevens is author of "50 Hikes in the Berkshire Hills," Countryman Press/W.W. Norton, 2016.


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