When it comes to fall foliage, it’s hard to go wrong anywhere in New England. But neither is there any need to go farther than the compact and easily accessible Berkshires of western Massachusetts, as authentic a slice of classic New England as anywhere further north.
Stretching from Connecticut to Vermont, the Berkshires occupy the most western part of the Bay State. Nestled among their thickly forested ridges are picturesque colonial-era villages, complete with Congregational churches, sugar maple-accented greenery and hundred-year-old general stores; 19th-century industrial villages, now mostly reclaimed for more benign uses; bucolic farmlands and orchards; art and craft galleries; and plenty of gorgeous fall scenery.
But the Berkshires have something else going for them: dozens of art and history museums, literary sites, and grand historic homes — something for itinerant leaf-peepers to do should the weather temporally obscure Mother Nature’s annual command performance.
And commanding it most certainly is. Each fall, the curtain rises on daily performances on the Berkshires’ two main stages: the low, rolling southern Berkshires, with their emphasis on gracious living, and the truly mountainous and more working-class northern Berkshires. But that doesn’t mean you have to choose one or the other — not when only 10 miles and the small city of Pittsfield (population 45,000), the Berkshires’ only “metropolis,” separates them along US Route 7, the Berkshires’ main north-south artery.
In fact, the only real choices that fall foliage fanatics have to make are where to stay and just how they wish to see their colors. You don’t have to choose just one here either, but may select as many as you like from a full sideboard of mobile, pedestrian, and adventurous options.
As essential to getting around in the Berkshires as Route 7 is, committed color seekers will find the road to be unpleasantly congested in October, especially on weekends. The solution: veer off onto any of these equally rewarding, but less-traveled alternatives.
• Massachusetts’ highest peak, 4,391-foot Mount Greylock ( www.mass.gov) affords magnificent 60-90 mile views in all directions, and an especially spectacular panorama during fall foliage season. The free, eight-mile access road can be picked up off Route 7 in Lanesborough or off Route 2 in North Adams. ($3 summit parking fee). Too spectacular to leave? Then spend the night at Bascom Lodge (413-743-1591, www.bascomlodge.net), built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Private rooms $125, family room $150, bunk rooms $36 per person.
• Extending 65 miles eastward from Williamstown to Greenfield in the Connecticut River Valley is State Route 2 — better known as the Mohawk Trail — a former Indian path, now a two-lane highway, that traverses large tracts of pristine state forests en route to Shelburne Falls, home of the renowned Bridge of Flowers (viable until the first frost).
• State Route 43 south from South Williamstown connecting to Corey Road east in Hancock, passing Jiminy Peak ski resort, and back to Route 7 in Lanesborough (25 miles): A refreshingly non-commercialized northern Berkshires drive with uninterrupted mountain panoramas on both sides.
• State Route 23 east from Great Barrington to West Otis, north on Route 102 through Tyringham, picking up US Route 20 into Lee and on into Lenox (25 miles): Sylvan farming communities give way to colonial-era Lee, famous for its marble quarries and 200-foot-tall wooden steeple, and stupefyingly opulent Gilded Age Lenox.
• State Route 23 west from Great Barrington to South Egremont, north to North Egremont, Alford, and West Stockbridge, then east to Stockbridge on State Route 102 (20 miles): This three-quarters loop in the southwest corner of Massachusetts takes in some of the Berkshires’ lesser traveled roads.
WALKS IN THE WOODS
You can see the forest and the trees by getting your own boots on the ground. Below are five hikes, each less than two hours, that will take you either deep into the autumnal forest or high above it.
• Monument Mountain: William Cullen Bryant, a Berkshire native, immortalized the mountain in a poem; Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville met here for the first time on a rain-interrupted excursion in 1850. The 50-plus-mile view from atop 2,640-foot high Squaw Peak is well worth the rigorous hour-long climb. Route 7 between Great Barrington and Stockbridge, 413-298-3239, ext. 3000, www.thetrustees.org (free).
• October Mountain State Forest: Named by Pittsfield resident Herman Melville for its spectacular fall colors, October Mountain is Massachusetts’ largest state forest and offers miles of hiking, including trails through Schermerhorn Gorge and to the top of Mount Walling (2,220 feet). 256 Woodland Rd., Lee, 413-243-1778, www.mass.gov (free).
• Tyringham Cobble: A two-mile loop circles around to the top of two 400-foot high rock outcroppings overlooking bucolic pastures and farmland. Jerusalem Road, Tyringham, 413-298-3239, ext. 3000, www.thetrustees.org (free).
• Natural Bridge State Park: A half-mile paved road leads you up to a 13,000-year-old, diminutive natural bridge of white marble set on the grounds of an abandoned quarry. McCauley Road (off Route 8), North Adams, 413-663-6392, www.mass.gov ($2 parking fee).
• Wahconah Falls: It’s only a hundred yards from the parking lot to this thunderous, 40-foot cascade that gushes forth from the surrounding woods. Route 9, Dalton, 413-442-8992, www.mass.gov (free).
No longer must leaf-peepers live by their feet and wheels alone. Today’s devotees have a variety of more exhilarating ways to see the colors, even if only briefly.
• Get a bird’s-eye view of the autumnal splendor from the chairlift at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort (413-738-5500, www.jiminypeak.com) in Hancock. Cost: $11 over 54 inches, $9 under through Oct. 14. If you are traveling with kids, Jiminy Peak’s Mountain Adventure Park (alpine slide, mountain coaster, trampoline bungee, etc.) will be open weekends. Cost: $49 over 54 inches, $29 under.
• Go even higher in a hot air balloon with Worthington Ballooning in Worthington (413-238-5514, www.worthingtonballooning.com; $250 per person for a 75-minute ride) or a scenic flight with Teamflys (413-652-1274, www.teamflys.com) out of Harrison-West Airport in North Adams. Cost: $30-$69 per person depending on number of passengers.
• Lighten up your fall palette with a little class II-III whitewater rafting on the Deerfield River. Three Charlemont-based operators, Crab Apple Whitewater (413-625-2288, www.crabapplewhitewater.com), Moxie Outdoor Adventures (800-866-6943, www.moxierafting.com), and Zoar Outdoor (800-532-7483, www.zoaroutdoor.com) offer 10-mile trips through Zoar Gap through mid-October. (Cost: adults $68-$95, children under 16, $57-$62.)
• See the colors through the trees at 25 mph on an exhilarating three-hour zip line canopy tour. Available at Berkshire East and Zoar Outdoor (see above) throughout October. Cost: adults $85-$94, ages 7-16 $74-$94.