Mohawk Indians once trod this route across the rugged Berkshire Hills to raid the Pocumtucks of the Deerfield River valley, and armies from Colonial Boston in turn traveled this way to defend the Western Frontier. But the real flood of traffic began in 1914 when the trail opened to automobile traffic — just six years after the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford’s production line — for its panoramic vistas helped whet the nation’s appetite for leisure-time touring.
1. Northfield Mountain
From the summit of Northfield Mountain, found north of Rte. 2 in western Massachusetts, the view arcs out across a crazy quilt of corn and tobacco fields, ponds and reservoirs, stands of oaks and maples, and 19th-century factory towns, all linked by the majestic sweep of the Connecticut River. On the mountain itself, Northeast Utilities maintains a 2,000-acre complex of woodland hiking paths and ski trails — the Northfield Mountain Recreation and Environmental Center. It’s a fine spot to sample this corner of the state, whose character has long been defined by three key ingredients — farmland, mill town, and forest primeval.
2. Turners Falls
The life of the Atlantic salmon — a trout rather than a true salmon — is as fragile as it is astonishing. Each spring, tiny alevins by the millions hatch from eggs in freshwater streams throughout the Northeast. Most of them perish, but some survive and head downriver to spend the next year or two at sea. As adults they return, fighting their way upcurrent to spawn in the same streams where they were born — unless something stops them. And stopped these fish were, until recently, by power dams built across the Connecticut and other rivers. But at Turners Falls, Northeast Utilities has built state-of-the-art fish ladders that enable the salmon — and many shad as well as undesirable lamprey eels — to bypass their dam. At a special viewing area, open in May, you can experience the miracle of the fish’s spring migration.
3. Shelburne Falls
Just beyond I-91, Rte. 2 begins its climb into the hills. Scaling the steep wooded slopes of Greenfield Mountain, the Mohawk Trail spins on past apple orchards, pastures, hay fields, maple-sugar houses, and old barns brimming with antiques. Shelburne Falls, the first of the hill towns, is a huddle of rambling Federal-style houses and a historic shopping district nestled beside the Deerfield River.
The first visitors here were Indians, who came to net salmon at the base of the falls, where a swirl of boulders in the closing years of the ice age scooped some 50 circular pools into the bedrock. One pothole, measuring 39 feet across, is said to be the world’s largest. Nearby, the 400-foot-long Bridge of Flowers spans the Deerfield River. Originally built for trolley cars, it now displays bright seasonal borders that erupt in a nine-month display of color, from springtime’s daffodils and summer’s gladiolii to autumn’s asters.
“There is no lovelier place on earth,” once opined Archibald MacLeish, America’s late poet laureate and sometime resident of Franklin County, “nothing more human in scale and prospect than our hills.” He was opening the summer chamber music season at Charlemont’s prim white clapboard Federated Church, perched above the Deerfield River. In summer the concerts and — more ruggedly active — white-water canoeing are the attractions here; in winter skiing is the draw. The Berkshire East Ski Area offers short, steep runs and a Grandma Moses view of town from atop the slopes.
Charlemont also is the center of a renewed Mohawk presence along the trail. Tribal groups from all over the Northeast gather at Indian Plaza, east of town, to swap stories, perform native dances, and sell handicrafts. In a small park to the west, a statue of a Mohawk brave, Hail to the Sunrise, celebrates the trail’s Indian heritage.
5. Mohawk Trail State Forest
Beyond Charlemont the trail rises steeply, reaching an abruptly wild terrain of gorges, tumbling brooks, sudden ridges, and rocky outcrops, all enveloped in a densely mixed forest made up of hardwoods and evergreens. The air, perfumed by pines and hemlocks, grows cooler here in Mohawk Trail State Forest. Hikers can sample trails that range from gentle to moderately ambitious. Anglers can try their luck for trout. And wildlife watchers will find that the woods are alive with wonders: even from the campground parking area, you might glimpse a deer, a porcupine, or a black bear.
6. Whitcomb Summit
Experienced leaf peepers, as they’re known in these parts, pray for three things in early autumn: cool nights, warm days — and not too much wind. But in almost any year, the transformation is breathtaking. At the town of Florida, the trail reaches its loftiest point, and from the 2,200-foot-high overlook at Whitcomb Summit, the hills and valleys below unfurl in all their autumn glory: the orange and scarlet of maples, the bright gold of birch, the purple of ash, and the deep green punctuation marks of hemlock and spruce.
The prospect calls out for a closer look, and you should take it. Just east of Whitcomb Summit, turn onto Whitcomb Hill Road and head down to the Deerfield River. As the road descends into the gorge, each switchback reveals new views. Hills shift and disappear; a stream gurgles past; the river glistens.
Once at the bottom you’ll find an imposing historical landmark. A left onto River Road takes you to the Hoosac Tunnel, a five-mile-long railroad route through the granite spine of the Berkshires that was hailed as the engineering marvel of its day. It took 25 years to build and cost 196 lives — but it opened the rail link between Boston and Albany and led to the development of the lands between.
7. Hairpin Turn
At the Western Summit, a popular launching point for hang gliders, the view reaches on toward the sunset. The trail then zigzags down, turning a full 180 degrees at a dramatic Hairpin Turn. Back when the road first opened, cars ascending eastward from North Adams tended to overheat, and near this point the radiators of many would boil over. The owners would get water from the restaurant here — it’s still in business — and gaze out over the valley and the mountains beyond.
8. Mt. Greylock
Rising to 3,491 feet above sea level, Mt. Greylock ranks as the highest peak in Massachusetts. And what a splendid vantage point it forms. From the observation tower at its summit, you can see the Catskills and Adirondacks in New York, the Green Mountains of Vermont, the high peaks of New Hampshire, and the entire sweep of the Berkshires. The road to the top, a 10-mile switchback detour along Notch Road, takes you through a state forest reservation encompassing some 12,000 heavily forested acres, including a 200-year-old stand of stately red spruces. Wildlife is plentiful, with beavers, porcupines, coyotes, foxes, snowshoe hares, black bears, and bobcats all lurking in the shadows. Spend time also looking at the plentiful wildflowers in spring and the shaded glens and moss-banked creeks in summer.
Somewhere in everyone’s mental file cabinet there exists the image of a picture-perfect New England village. Williamstown comes close to that prototypical ideal. Classic white clapboard mansions line its tree-shaded streets, along with Gothic stone churches and the handsome buildings of Williams College, which has been thriving here since 1793. Its town parks are fine spots for impromptu picnics or sunbathing, with a chance to wind down — all in all, an idyllic climax to the varied scenery to be savored along the Mohawk Trail. Length: About 60 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round, but best in fall for the foliage.
Nearby attractions: Historic Deerfield, featuring well-preserved 18th- and 19th-century homes. Natural Bridge, a 550-million-year-old marble formation, North Adams. The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown.
Further information: Mohawk Trail Association, P.O. Box 1044, North Adams, MA 01247; tel. 413-743-8127, www.mohawktrail.com.
[sale-item img=”http://media.rd.com/rd/images/rdc/products/the-most-scenic-drives-in-america-pd.jpg” title=”The Most Scenic Drives in America” price=”25.00″ link=”http://www.readersdigeststore.com/The-Most-Scenic-Drives-in-America/M/0762105801.htm?trkid=rdv_store”]