New England’s First Scenic Drive
Mount Greylock and the Mohawk Trail
Excerpted from Backroads of New England, Text © 2004 by Kim Knox Beckius. Published by Voyageur Press, Inc. 123 North Second Street, Stillwater, MN 55082 USA 1-800-888-9653. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
From Pontoosuc Lake, follow Route 7 North to a right on North Main Street in Lanesborough, Massachusetts. Turn right on Rockwell Road and proceed to the summit of Mount Greylock. Drive down the mountain on Notch Road and continue north to Route 2 in North Adams. At the base of the mountain, make a sharp right by the Mount Williams Reservoir to stay on Notch Road. Turn right onto Route 2, the Mohawk Trail, and follow it east to a left on Route 8 North. Turn left on McCanley Road to Natural Bridge State Park. Reverse to Route 2 and continue east to the Mohawk Trail State Forest in Charlemont.
Only in New England can a well-worn path retain its reputation as a “backroad.” For centuries, the Berkshire region of northwest Massachusetts has been traversed by traders, warriors, and tourists. First blazed by five Native American tribes, the artery through this majestic mountain region has evolved from dusty footpath to paved highway, but the route-with all its scenic wonders-has remained essentially unchanged. On October 22, 1914, in the nascent days of America’s love affair with the automobile, the 63-mile stretch of Route 2 from the Massachusetts-New York border to the Connecticut River was officially designated a scenic tourist route by the Massachusetts legislature. Known as the Mohawk Trail, New England’s first official scenic road offers unparalleled natural beauty along with its assortment of country inns, gift shops, and arts attractions.
You don’t have to drive over a mountain to get to the trail, but you really should if your travels take you to the Berkshires between mid May and mid October. From the smooth and meandering public road that leads 8 miles to the summit of Mount Greylock, views of the open valley expanses below will remind you of just how rural this part of the state remains nearly three centuries after the first European settlers arrived. Wind-bent birches furnish a canopy that dazzles in the fall and casts intricate and intriguing shadows on the narrow road whatever the season.
Herman Melville saw a great white whale in the snowy profile of the mountain and dedicated the book he wrote after Moby Dick to Mount Greylock. Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne also found literary inspiration in the imposing form of this 3,491-foot spike in the western Massachusetts landscape. You’re apt to be similarly impressed as you encounter Massachusetts’s highest peak and the centerpiece of its first state park.
When you arrive at the mountaintop, park the car and explore. The 92-foot-tall War Memorial Tower is an illuminated beacon that was originally intended to serve as a lighthouse on the Charles River in Boston. In season, the tower is open to the public, and those who climb to the top are rewarded with views of five states. The summit is also home to Bascom Lodge, a stone and wood retreat erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937. The lodge houses a snack bar, gift shop, restrooms, and rustic accommodations for thirty-two guests; reservations are a must. Hikers are common among the overnighters, as the famous Appalachian Trail passes through Mount Greylock State Reservation.
After descending Mount Greylock’s northern slope, you will meet up with the Mohawk Trail in North Adams, historically the industrial and commercial hub of the Berkshires. The growth of North Adams’s papermaking and textile enterprises in the 1800s fueled the need to widen and improve the road connecting the town with the Boston market. Today, the city’s chief attraction is Mass MoCA, a 13-acre, 27-building former mill that was converted to house the region’s largest museum of contemporary art.
For purists who want to start their Mohawk Trail trek at the very beginning, a jog west on Route 2 is an option. Lovely Williamstown is certainly worth a visit; the town is home to the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute and to Williams College, chartered in 1793 as the second college in Massachusetts and the sixth in New England.
Otherwise, continue east on the Mohawk Trail until you spot Route 8 North. You’ll definitely want to see New England’s only natural bridge. An abandoned marble quarry known for its rock formations, particularly the marble arch or “bridge” that was carved millennia ago by receding glaciers, became a Massachusetts state park in 1985.
Scenic overlooks present themselves at regular intervals on Route 2. You won’t want to take your eyes from the road as you navigate the trail’s notorious Hairpin Turn, but your travel mates will be awestruck by the far-reaching view of the Hoosac Valley, nestled among the Berkshire Hills.
Though the Mohawk Trail stretches another 27 miles to Millers Falls on the Connecticut River, you’ll be ready to stretch your legs before then. The 6,457-acre Mohawk Trail State Forest in Charlemont is a good place to end your day’s drive. Several original Indian trails within the park are open for hiking, so you’ll have the opportunity, at last, to experience the Mohawk Trail as a true backroad.