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A walk in the Holyoke Range December 7, 2010

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature.
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View from Mt. Norwottuck toward Long Mountain

There is something that I really like about mighty 1106′ Mt. Norwottuck. I think it goes back to the first of the four times I’ve climbed it, a muggy midsummer day when thunderheads were blossoming everywhere. I remember looking out over the Connecticut River valley from the summit and observing that each of the dozens of thunderheads was stamped out in the same distinctive pattern, created by the particular combination of updrafts, humidity, prevailing wind, and whatever else goes into the meteorological recipe. Each one looked a bit like an A-bomb mushroom cloud but with a particular distortion in the lower section apparently caused by some trend in the wind. And each one contained live lightning, sort of like a reptile egg that has a live baby crocodile in it. When I noticed that one of these neatly and identically designed thunderheads was rapidly approaching the summit, I ran away.

Whenever I visit my sister in Northampton, Massachusetts, I do some hiking in the Holyoke Range, which has the distinction of being one of two east-west oriented mountain ranges in the United States. (The other one is the Uintas in northern Utah, where I have also been.) On my recent Thanksgiving visit, I did two very different hikes. One was on the slopes of Mt. Washington, and the other was in the much-closer-to-Northampton Holyoke Range.

I’d spoken with my “ex,” Bob, about plans for doing something in the area—he is “Mr. Knowledgeable” when it comes to any hiking area in New England. He mentioned that Monday November 29 was opening day for deer hunting in Massachusetts. I completely forgot about that until I was already parked at the trailhead, contemplating my utter lack of fluorescent orange clothing. I decided that it would probably be safe to hike on the Metacomet-Monadnock trail along the ridgecrest of the range—partly because hunters would be aware that hikers would be traversing that trail, and partly because hunters tend to pursue their game in lower areas where it is easier to haul back the carcass. So I set forth to once again conquer Mt. Norwottuck, a vertical climb of about 600′ with some fairly steep rocky sections. Because of past experience with ice in the Holyokes, I brought along my microspikes, but it turned out that there was no ice at all—just tons of exceedingly slippery oak leaves.

When I reached the ridge, I noticed a grove of small but healthy hemlocks, which created a certain nostalgia for someone now living in the woolly-adelgid-decimated Southern Appalachians.


Small but healthy hemlocks

After a few short scrambles over rocks coated with oak leaves, I arrived at the summit.


Looking from the summit north toward Amherst---UMass dorms visible in the distance

The rocks on the summit have the distinctive Holyoke Range puddingstone consistency.

Typical Holyoke Range puddingstone conglomerate

I’d decided to continue east from the summit, which I had never done before, and if possible to go as far as Long Mountain (920′). I descended the steep eastern face of Norwottuck and arrived at the Horse Caves.

The trail squeezes between these giant boulders

I continued under the overhang of the Horse Caves.

The overhang of Horse Caves

On I went toward Long Mountain, realizing that as I ventured into this less-traveled territory, I was more and more likely to get into areas visited by deer hunters. I got onto the lower slopes of Long Mountain and decided to turn back, mainly because I was running out of time—I needed to drive into Boston that afternoon to meet my friends Linda and Katherine—but also because I belatedly noticed on the map that the M-M trail does not actually go over the summit of Long Mountain, but only makes a tedious sidehill along the top.

Returning near Rattlesnake Knob, I opted to take the lower, more direct route back to the trailhead rather than going back over Norwottuck. I figured that here I would be almost certain to run into deer hunters, so I took to banging my hiking poles loudly against rocks and trees as I walked along. And sure enough, I met a deer hunter sitting peacefully next to the trail, cradling his rifle. We chatted for a bit, and it turned out that he has relatives in North Carolina—in Asheville and in Canton.

I am very glad to have easy access to the Holyoke Range for odd times during my visits up in the area.


The laurel grove on Mt. Holyoke October 24, 2008

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature.
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Hike distance 2 miles/Elevation gain 700 feet

Conglomerate rockWhenever I’m out in Northampton to visit my sister, I often do a short hike in the Holyoke Range.  I like to start at the parking lot where Rt. 47 nearly touches the Connecticut River and climb up the Conglomerate Rock Trail, which has no rock at all on it except for the single enormous and solitary boulder from which it gets its name.  The boulder is dark and melancholy, its surface as wrinkled as the hide of an elephant.

The trail comes out at the auto road near the Halfway House, and from there I can take the Halfway Trail to the summit or walk up the road to Taylor’s Notch and take the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail in either direction.  On this gray, breezy day I walked up the road to the notch and then took the M-M Trail to the summit.  I was wearing a pair of clogs because I’d forgotten to throw my running shoes into the car when I drove out, but the soles seemed to cling nicely to the polished rocks and roots on the last stretch going up to the summit, so I was able to take the steep Halfway Trail down with no problem.  On the balcony of the summit house, a geology professor was giving a lecture to a group of huddled students with their sweatshirt hoods pulled over their heads.  They looked as though they were metamorphosing into miniature boulders.

In the woods below the Conglomerate Rock, the trail passes through a grove of the largest, oldest, gnarliest mountain laurels I have ever seen.  Some of them are more than 15 feet high with trunks six or eight inches in diameter.  I always think of central Mass. as a place of hemlock and laurel, but these are the best, the grandfathers of the laurel forest.  The leaves are mostly too far from the ground to look at, so what you are seeing is the massive twisting trunks that have intricate strips of peeling bark.  They speak of age, the kind of age that commands respect.  I would love to know how old they are.