Ten cool winter hiking spots in Western Mass.

An observation tower at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton overlooks the Mill River, home to wood ducks, great blue heron, marsh hawks, and kingfisher.
An observation tower at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton overlooks the Mill River, home to wood ducks, great blue heron, marsh hawks, and kingfisher.Bill Regan for The Boston Globe/Bill Regan

Hiking in winter is the best. You don’t have to swat bugs. And rarely, at least in these 10 spots, do you encounter more than a handful of people. With the numerous nature preserves and state forests in the Connecticut River Valley and flanking hill towns, hikers on snowshoes or skis will find plenty of varied terrain to explore.

Before heading out, check with the managing agency or organization for local conditions and rules about pets and parking. And in winter, it’s crucial to wear and pack the right stuff — see the Appalachian Mountain Club’s list at www.outdoors.org

1. Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, Easthampton (Mass. Audubon)

Five miles of trails thread this conservation area abutting the Oxbow of the Connecticut River, most famously painted by Thomas Cole in 1836. The smaller Mill River flows into the Connecticut, and the floodplain they share is home to wood ducks, great blue heron, marsh hawks, and kingfisher. An observation tower off the Fern Trail overlooks the frozen Mill River. Grasslands and other diverse habitats make this sanctuary unusually rich in wildlife. Trails trace layers of the site’s human history too — an old coach road and a former trolley line. No pets. 127 Combs Road, 413-584-3009, 800-710-4550, www.massaudubon.org/Nature_Connection/Sanctuaries/Arcadia/index.php

2. Mount Holyoke Range State Park, Hadley-Belchertown (Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation)


This park encompasses more than 3,000 acres covering the Holyoke (a.k.a. Mount Holyoke) Range and is laced with miles of trails for hiking and (ungroomed) cross-country skiing. The range is a volcanic ridge with an east-to-west alignment, which makes it a rarity in the Northeast. Although the highest peak, Mount Norwottuck, is only 1,106 feet, the steep-sided range rises sharply from the valley plain, giving it unusual drama. Streams and ponds within a hardwood forest make for varied views and habitats. The Notch Visitor Center, 1500 West St. (Route 116), Amherst, 413-253-2883, www.mass.gov/dcr/

3. Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) State Forest, Goshen (Mass. DCR)

A day of high clouds finds Tom Duffy and his son Johnny Nields-Duffy of Northampton trying out their skates on Upper Highland Lake, one of the two lakes in this locally popular state forest. “This is a magic spot,” says Duffy, a former Somerville resident. “We come whenever we can. There’s a lot of sky, and hardly anyone is ever here in the winter.” A well-used camping and paddling spot in summer, the forest offers the prospect of snowbound solitude at this time of year. 78 Cape St. (Route 112), 413-268-7098, www.mass.gov/dcr/


4. Mohawk Trail State Forest, Charlemont (Mass. DCR)

The Cold River burbles under the ice beside a spur of the ancient Mahican-Mohawk Trail, which once connected the Hudson and Connecticut rivers. A section of the trail passes through this 6,000-acre forest hunkered among the steep slopes of the northern Berkshire Hills. The mountainous enclosure, the vastness of the forest, and the scant settlement nearby allow the mind to imagine the region’s pre-European history. Log cabins, built in the 1930s, can be rented at any time of the year. 175 Mohawk Trail. (Route 2), 413-339-5504, www.mass.gov/dcr/

5. Savoy Mountain State Forest, Florida (Mass. DCR)

This is one of the state’s more remote recreation areas, covering part of the Hoosac Range. Established in 1918 on 1,000 acres of abandoned farmland, it contains 50 miles of trails, five ponds, two waterfalls, and assorted bogs, meadows, and hills. The big view is from Spruce Hill, accessible from the Busby Trail in the state forest, or via the Hoosac Range Trail, which traces 3 miles of ridgeline on an adjacent conservation area (no pets). Railroad buffs will enjoy passing the central shaft, or vent, for the historic Hoosac Tunnel (built 1851–1875) on the main road through the forest. Log cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s can be rented in any season. 260 Central Shaft Road, 413-663-8469, 413-664-4800, www.mass.gov/dcr/ . Hoosac Range Trail, Berkshire Natural Resources Council, www.bnrc.net/properties/214_hoosac_range


6. Bear Swamp Reservation, Ashfield (The Trustees of Reservations)

Though this off-the-beaten-track reservation holds just 3 miles of trails, the terrain is challenging and ruggedly scenic, with steep slopes and rough ledges overhung with hemlock. The trails crisscross to form several possible loops to extend the length of a hike. In addition to the dramatic ledges, the property’s other attractions include a beaver pond, a brook, and marshy wetlands. Across the road from the small parking area, a short trail leads to a stunning view of Apple Valley. Hawley Road, 413-532-1631, www.thetrustees.org/places-to-visit

7. Chapel Brook Reservation, Ashfield (The Trustees of Reservations)

Hikers on the trail to Pony Mountain.
Hikers on the trail to Pony Mountain.

Pony Mountain (1,420 feet) is the highest point on this 173-acre reservation, and it offers a grand view in any season. In the summer, the most dramatic features here are Chapel Ledge, a rock face on the mountain that attracts skilled climbers, and Chapel Falls, a spill of cascades and pools across the road. This winter, the biggest attraction is the new Two Bridges Trail, which connects Chapel Brook and Bullitt reservations. Sheila Croteau, an all-season hiker from West Springfield, says that the new trail, though shorter than 2 miles, is challenging, with “lots of ups and downs.” Williamsburg Road, 413-532-1631, www.thetrustees.org/places-to-visit


8. Bullitt Reservation, Ashfield–Conway, (The Trustees of Reservations)

A boulder called the Pebble tops the highest point of this former farm, a conifer-cloaked hill rising from gradually sloping fields. The fields, kept mown, make for excellent wildlife tracking when covered in snow. At least one local fox regularly crosses the expanse, keeping company with deer and rabbit. Hawks circle overhead. The new Two Bridges Trail leads to Chapel Brook Reservation, less than 2 miles away through the woods. Bullitt Road, Ashfield, 413-628-4485, www.thetrustees.org/places-to-visit

9. Conway Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, Conway (Mass. Audubon)

This relatively new Mass. Audubon property, covering 105 acres, combines the region’s characteristic rolling terrain covered in forest and former farm fields. The pleasing curve of the hayfield that slopes to the road is smooth, inviting a dogged tramp. A barn collapsing into itself in the hayfield and rock walls edging the woods make for a poignant postcard view. A brook runs through the land, which is home to fisher, moose, and bobcat. No pets. Route 116, 978-464-2712, www.massaudubon.org/Nature_Connection

10. Wendell State Forest, Wendell (Mass. DCR)

At 7,566 acres, this state forest on the eastern side of the Connecticut River lets hikers stretch their legs for a daylong outing. Among the attractions are several streams and ponds, including 10-acre Ruggles Pond, a beloved summer swimming hole. Cross-country skiers love to glide on miles of ungroomed roads, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. 392 Montague Road, 413-659-3797, www.mass.gov/dcr/


Jane Roy Brown can be reached at brownjaneroy@gmail.com.