Trail Mix: Hopkins Forest Tour

The Hopkins Forest Tour combines five trails that traverse the periphery of the forest. Passing through numerous topological features and ecological communities, they present a nearly complete portrait of the typical New England forest. The trails are relatively accessible year-round, allowing the tour to be hiked on snowshoes. A new path on the RRR Brooks Trail allows the entire route to be completed on Nordic skis, although I wouldn’t recommend it for novices since there are several steep stretches.

The tour can be taken in either direction. I will describe the hike in the clockwise direction, which begins in the southeast and heads west, then north, then east-southeast. The hike starts at the RRR Brooks Trailhead on Bee Hill. To get there, take Rt. 2 West/Rt. 7 South out of Williamstown. After about 3/4 mile, make a right on Bee Hill Road. Be cautious here, as the hill can mask the approach of fast-moving cars. After crossing Flora Glen, the small stream that runs beneath the bridge, look for a sign on the right indicating the trail. If you happen to be driving to the trailhead, continue past the trailhead and park at a larger lot several hundred yards up Bee Hill Road. This is the trailhead for the Fitch Trail, which, after 1.1 miles, will intersect with the regular trail.

The RRR Brooks trail descends slightly and crosses the small alluvial wash created by the stream. In the fall you can get away with crossing the deposits in sneakers because of the low water level. However, the new planks will help once the melting snow raises the water level. Make sure to find the trail on the far bank so that you don’t end up in the wrong place. Once the final channel has been crossed, follow the trail along the bank, crossing the stream again a hundred feet down the trail.

This is probably the most difficult part of the hike, because the combination of the dark, nonporous soil and the shade provided by the evergreen canopy conceals the trail very effectively. From the stream crossing, the trail continues to the right, making a sharp switchback and quickly climbing the steep slope. If you lose the trail, look for the blue blazes or try to find the trail bed on the upstream side of the bank (if you’re looking uphill, this will be on your right). Continuing through the spruce forest, the RRR Brooks intersects with the Fitch Trail on the left.

If you’re coming from the Fitch Trail, make a left for the complete hike or a right for a wonderful 1.8-mile loop that is completed by hiking up Bee Hill from the RRR Brooks trailhead to the Fitch Trail parking lot.

The RRR Brooks trail climbs upwards, following Flora Glen up Birch Hill. After another 2/3 of a mile, the trail abruptly emerges into a beautiful tall-grass meadow that covers the shallow saddle between Birch Hill and the Taconic Crest. Be careful here, as the blanket of grass and herbaceous flora conceals what is often very soggy terrain. On a sunny day, the meadow is one of my favorite places to hike to: wide open, gorgeous view of the Flora Glen drainage and Hoosic River watershed below, and sprinkled with wildflowers in the spring.

Continue through the meadow to the intersection with the Old Petersburg Road, a dirt road that runs perpendicular to the trail. If you get lost in the meadow, hike uphill until you reach the road then make a left and hike until you reach the trail. From the junction, head to the left, toward Route 2 and continue up the wide path that parallels the highway.

Continue along this gently sloped path for another half-mile until coming to the intersection with the Shepherd’s Well trail. When I hiked it, there was no sign marking the intersection, so make sure you look out for the trail branching off to the right. It will be considerably narrower than the path you are currently on. Look for blue blazes trailing off into the forest. From here, take the Shepherd’s Well trail through the maple forest that marks the upper reaches of the Taconic Range. About 3/4 of a mile from the junction, there is another incredible view to the south and east of the Greylock and southern Taconic ranges. From here, the trail enters New York and levels off. Within 1/4 of a mile, it intersects with the Taconic Crest trail, the third trail on the tour.

The Taconic Crest Trail is actually a 35-mile, multi-use trail running from Pittsfield to Pownal. It is defined by its unique white diamond blazes. Taking a left and hiking for a half mile would bring you to Petersburg Pass. However, for this hike, make a right and continue up a gentle slope, entering an area known as the White Rocks. The area is named for the ubiquitous quartz outcroppings that mark the next half-mile. However, the most impressive part of this area can only be seen by looking up from the rocks and out over a dramatic view of the western slope of the Taconic Crest. One can see most of Rennselaer County from this exposed knoll.

Continue on the Taconic Crest Trail for another half-mile and follow the crest’s gentle contours. After a slight descent, the junction with the Birch Brook trail will become visible. Make a right here to begin the descent back to Williamstown. The upper part of the Birch Brook trail has been made into a miniature gully by the combined impact of hikers and flowing water. If it is passable, hike through the gully to avoid impacting the surrounding terrain.

The Birch Brook trail traverses the elevation contour before turning to the left, entering Massachusetts and beginning its 1000-vertical-foot plunge towards the Hopkins Forest Loop trail. Like the RRR Brooks Trail, the ground can be deceptively soggy. Continue down the steep slope. After a quarter mile, the trail intersects with a frequently active creek. The creek’s erosion over the course of many years has made this section essentially impassible, so it will probably be necessary to circumnavigate the gully. Be careful here, as the steep, leaf-coated slope can be dangerously slippery.

After the creek follows the fall line away from the trail, continue along the trail, passing several more streams and proceed onto a broad ridge. The trail follows the ridge for 1/4 of a mile before making an abrupt right turn and dropping quickly to the bank of Birch Brook. From here, it is a brief but scenic quarter-mile until the trail reaches the Hopkins Forest Loop. The tour’s fifth and final trail is the Hopkins Forest Loop, which has been described in my column on Sep. 30. From the junction, it is nearly the same distance in either direction, so the hiker can choose his or her favorite way down.

From the Rosenburg Center at the terminus of the Hopkins Forest Loop, hike down to the intersection between Bulkley Street and Northwest Hill Road. To get back to campus from here, make a left and continue down Bulkley Street until reaching Rt. 7. Take a right, and the Greylock Quad should become visible very quickly. To finish the loop from the Rosenburg Center, take a right on Northwest Hill Road. Continue for a half-mile until you get to West Main Street. Hike up the short hill and make a right on Thornliebank Road. Contine for a half-mile until you reach Rt. 2/Rt. 7.From here, it’s a short walk back up Bee Hill Road to the trailhead.

The Hopkins Forest Loop provides a dynamic range of ecological settings, several dramatic views and most importantly, an opportunity to experience the amazing geographical and ecological diversity of the Berkshires. Make sure you set aside a significant amount of time, since it is impossible to complete the tour without taking the time to listen to the water rushing down the stream bed, taking a deep breath of the cool autumn air or gazing out over the dramatic scenery that we have in our backyard.

For more information on Hopkins Memorial Forest and hiking within it, check out “Farm to Forest: A Naturalist’s Guide,” published by the Center for Environmental Studies. Also, the North Berkshire Outdoor Guide and “North Berkshire Trails” Topographic map, published by the Outing Club, describe this and many other hikes in the Williamstown vicinity. Contact Scott Lewis, Outing Club director, at slewis@williams.edu for more information.