A drive you won't forget

A drive you won't forget

By Vivienne Mackie

The U.S. boasts an incredible variety of terrains and scenery, including wonderful national parks. To enjoy some of them, there are specially listed scenic drives, but you can find beautiful stretches of highway just about anywhere you look.

New England has numerous scenic drives, especially lovely during the fall, and one such drive is the Mohawk Trail through the Berkshires in western Massachusetts.

We were there one weekend in October for a family wedding and found it enchanting. It's a pretty part of the country, and the fall colors were gorgeous.

It's not densely populated, with little towns strung along the river valleys. It's interesting to know that this is where Indian tribes used to live and hunt and that as we drive along the trail, we are, in a way, following in the footsteps of the first people in this area.

The Mohawk Trail began as a trade route for the Native Americans of the Five Nations and connected Atlantic tribes with tribes in upstate New York, hundreds of years before European settlers arrived. They used it to pass between the Connecticut and Hudson valleys.

These days, the trail is part of Routes 2 and 2A, following much of the original Indian trail for about 69 miles, from Williamstown (home of Williams College) in the west to Greenfield in the east.

When it was incorporated in 1753, Greenfield was the northern frontier before the Canadian border.

There are stopping points along the way, with scenic viewpoints, roadside attractions and gift shops.

The road is narrow and winding, and the multiple layers of rolling hills are generally quite gentle, although there is a steep climb to Mount Whitcomb, the highest point of the trail at 2,173 feet.

On the western side is the popular hairpin bend and lookout at Western Summit (called Spirit Mountain by Native Americans) over the city of North Adams. On the eastern side, the highway descends steeply down the slope of the Hoosac Range. Note the "Elk on the Trail" statue at Whitcomb Summit.

Each new vista around a sharp corner had us "oohing and aahing." The prettiest section (we thought) was between North Adams east to Charlemont, where often the road is winding along the edge of the Deerfield River.

If you stop at some of the roadside lookouts next to the gently gurgling river, the sound of water is very soothing. The river was gentle then, but it gets much fuller in spring and summer — full enough for tubing and whitewater adventures. In summer, camping, hiking, horse riding, fishing and zip-lining are offered.

There's an active winter sports season too. We passed a couple of "Bear Crossing" signs and wondered how often bears are still seen around here.

The Berkshires are very popular with tourists because of the vibrant arts, music and recreation scenes, with a number of good museums, for example, MASSMoCA in North Adams. It boasts performing arts institutions like Tangelwood, and it is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The name Berkshires came from Sir Francis Bernard, the royal governor in office between 1760-1769, who named the area Berkshire to honor his home county in England.

Mackie is an Urbana resident and ESL teacher and freelance travel writer. See her blog at http://viviennemackie.wordpress.com.

Trip highlights

If you only have a few days, here's what we suggest.

Where to stay?

Whitcomb Summit Retreat, 229 Mohawk Trail (about 15 minutes out of North Adams and next to the Elk statue). You can easily drive to places from there. Visit http://www.whitcombsummitretreat.net. Their logo is "stay at the top," and the views are spectacular.

Or you could stay in North Adams at the Holiday Inn, 40 Main St.

Where to eat?

A good breakfast place is Renee's Diner, 780 Massachusetts Ave. A lovely coffee shop is Brewhaha, 20 Marshall St.

We had excellent meals at Public Eat and Drink, 34 Holden St. in North Adams (publiceatanddrink.com), and at the Golden Eagle, right on the famous hairpin bend, at 1935 Mohawk Trail (thegoldeneaglerestaurant.com).

MASSMoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) in North Adams has a cafe called Lickety Split and a restaurant called Gramercy Bistro.

What to do?

First, do the drive between North Adams and Charlemont and stop to visit the "Hail to the Sunrise" statue, a memorial to the Mohawk Native Americans, sponsored by the Improved Order of the Redman. Also stop at the Elk Memorial on Whitcomb Summit.

If you have a clear day, visit the Natural Bridge State Park, just outside of North Adams. It's an easy, pretty walk and well worth the view of the only natural marble water-eroded bridge in North America, created by the Hudson Brook. It's about 550 million years old and is 30 feet wide, spanning a chasm about 60 feet deep.

Drive a little south to Adams and visit the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum (born 1820), 67 East Road, Adams, susanbanthonybirthplace.org.

Visit MASSMoCA, the largest contemporary art museum in the U.S., and then check out the colorful murals on the wall nearby, on the underpass of Route 2.

A must-see is the Western Gateway Heritage State Park, right in the center of North Adams. This freight yard district has been restored and has a variety of historical attractions, including an exhibit on the building of the Hoosac Tunnel.

North Adams was a railroad and manufacturing hub, using power generated by the Hoosic River (producing textiles and shoes), with many huge old mill buildings (MASSMoCA is in the largest now). Many of the others have been converted into art spaces, galleries and little shops.

North Adams has a Fall Foliage Festival at the end of September/beginning of October, and there's a farmers' market on Saturdays, close to the MASSMoCA.



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