Lauren R. Stevens | Hikes: Brilliant barns, bridges and sights along Old Mill Trail

One of the pleasures of getting out in the Berkshires is discovering history or at least human artifacts left over from an earlier era. Sometimes the indications are subtle, such as the difference in the forest between former fields that were once tilled and those that were pasture.

But as you move out of 2018's endless winter, go for the obvious. If you visit this group you'll get to see something of the industrial, recreational and transportation history of the county.          

The Housatonic Valley Association built the Old Mill Trail along 1.5 miles of the East Branch of the Housatonic River between 2003 and 2010. It begins in Dalton and ends in Hinsdale. The trailhead, suitably marked by a sign, is on Old Dalton Road, just off the east side of Route 8, south of the Hinsdale/Dalton line. Most of the land belongs to Crane & Co.; the rest to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

The gravel portion of the trail, suitable for wheelchairs, runs though mixed hardwood forest from the parking lot to a lovely bridge over the river, passing a dam (and an old automobile). You're invited to log in — in a logbook at a kiosk, that is. Cross Route 8 carefully. Trail-builder Peter Jensen artfully arranged streamside boulders for the next section, which can be wet at high water. This area was home to the Plunkett Brothers Mill. Portions of the metal penstock that served mills in Dalton remain. A small bridge crosses a millrun. The former Renfrew Woolen Mill is just beyond the end of the walk, where trail ends in a forested area. Return the same way.

Jug End is the name given to a bluff where the Appalachian Trail drops down from Mount Washington. By extension it refers to what was once called Guilder Hollow, a former ski area now named Jug End State Reservation. Someone will correct me, but I understand the name derives from the German word "jugend," youth. It's not clear if the multilingual pun was deliberate.

From South Egremont, turn south off Route 23 onto Route 41 and almost immediately west onto Mount Washington Road. Then turn south onto Jug End Road, not turning into a private home, rather into the parking lot marked by the chocolate-colored state sign. The three-mile-long Jug End Loop Trail begins as a mowed grass path heading up from the east corner of the parking lot by the foundation for some resort-related structure. It turns right, following blue blazes, on an old road. Abundant milkweed, in season, attracts butterflies. Cross two fields, with woods between, looking over the hollow to Mount Danby, with traces of old ski runs.

Turn left into hemlock woods and cross Fenton Brook at an old cabin site with a fireplace. Essentially your trip is up one side of the brook and back on the other. Follow the jeep road until reaching fields, where trails are again mowed. Bear right and then right again at the small bridge. That should drop you at the footbridge that leads to the parking lot.          

Alexander Birnie built the first keystone arch railroad bridges in this country between 1839 and 1840 to get the Western Railway from the Westfield River valley up into the Becket hills. George Washington Whistler, the painter's father, engineered this feat and then went in to design the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Some bridges have been replaced or avoided by altering the alignment. The CSX line crosses the double arch keystone bridge that you see immediately on the left, spanning the West Branch of the Westfield River. A warning to families and dog owners: the walk takes in bridges without fencing or railing.

Turn off Route 20 onto the Middlefield Road in the center of Chester — where there is a Railway Station and Museum on Prospect Street. Follow 2.5 miles to unmarked Herbert Cross Road, on the left. There are two parking areas. Some railroad trucks and all-terrain vehicles use the area. It is open for hunting. Follow the blue blazes for a three-mile walk across a grate-bridge to the second right (at a foundation); take another right into the woods on the trail proper. At an intersection of trails go straight, despite the earthen berm. The woods road that soon enters left is a section of the Old Pontoosuc Turnpike, the stage road to Albany.

Turn left to view the 65-foot high abandoned bridge. Double back along the right-of-way to look down on the pick and shovel (not mechanized equipment) rock cuts and retaining wall. Pass an old signal stand and end up after 1.5 miles on a bridge 70 feet above the river.

Don't jump. Live to hike another day. Happy trails to you.

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


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