Sunday, April 29, 2012

Hiking Mt Tom, MA

0.5 miles in, 2 miles to the top!
Itchy feet were calling to climb a mountain, and I picked Mt. Tom (in Massachusetts, not to be confused with the apparently identically-named other 42 mountains in the USA) as our first peak of the spring. At an easy 1202 feet and just under 5 miles for the hike, I figured it would be a mild warm-up for the rest of the year - especially since we were bringing along a friend who was relatively new to the world of the trail and had never really climbed a mountain before (and I didn't want to scare her off!).

Mt. Tom is part of the 110-mile Metacomet-Monadnock trail that stretches from Connecticut to New Hampshire, and is a basalt/traprock mountain unique for its cliff formations. It's also a hotspot for raptor migration (although that happens in the fall, so perhaps we will be back for some birdwatching!). The promise of dramatic cliffs as well as the chance to come eye-to-eye with some raptors sounded like an excellent use of a sunny weekend, and so we hit the road at 8 am on a Saturday afternoon to drive the 1.5 hours to Holyoke MA.

The gentle start of the white-blazed trail
We initially drove right past the turnoff to Reservation Road on Rt 5 (the sign to the park is only really visible if you come from the north), but pulled a turnaround a little ways up the road and drove in to the trailhead parking near the visitor center in the center of the park. The center was closed, but we took a brief glance at the information board outside that talked about the history of the area including the summit house (Mt Tom Hotel) that burned not once, but twice, and a "mysterious 50-degree breeze" that emanated at all times from a cleft in the rocks and was used for refrigeration purposes in times of yore.

Curly ferns
All breezes were in the 50-degree range this morning and not particularly mysterious but rather, fairly brisk. We started our way southward along the white-blazed trail after a quick bathroom trip in the woods. The trail meandered on fairly gently before hitting a short, steep incline to the top of the ridge. We were probably making too much noise to have any chance of seeing any wildlife, but we did come across some ferns that we hoped (in vain) would turn out to be fiddleheads. We noted the change of the rock underfoot as we neared the top - the way the basalt broke off in angular, clean cuts looked almost crystalline and was pretty cool to look at.
The Pioneer Valley

Breaking out on to the ridge immediately brought great views of the Pioneer Valley sprawled out before us in the sunshine, with the Connecticut River lazily meandering its way through the spring green, and the Berkshires rolling along the horizon. It was a nice change to have solid views for most of the way along a hike, as the path clambered up and down over rocky formations and followed the cliff side, sometimes hugging the edge closely enough to perhaps cause trouble for one afraid of heights! I know we at least were grateful that the wind was blowing on to the mountain and not the other way.
Chilling on a cliff
We were fortunate enough to spot two turkey vultures that morning - the first one flew by a mere 20 or so feet from us, with a crow in hot pursuit. It was pretty funny to see the large vulture being chased by a significantly smaller bird, but it was exciting to see one so close up and actually be able to see its bald red head and wobbly wattles. We did spot a few other raptors, presumably hawks, and can only imagine the area full of magnificent birds during peak migration season! Unfortunately, the birds went by too swiftly and unexpectedly to be good photo subjects. We also came across a cocoon/nest of tent caterpillars chomping their merry way through the early spring buds, and those proved to be more photo-friendly, but that was it for our interesting animal sightings of the day.
Tent Caterpillars

Excited to be at the top!
Despite the popularity of the trail, at some points it seemed as if it could have been better blazed. We ended up on a slight detour at one point when we accidentally followed a pseudo-path until it petered out, and spent a few other moments having to pause and search out the next blaze to guide us on. We eventually made our way past the first few telecommunication poles and a windmill, and finally made it all the way to the summit, which, unfortunately, was full of more communication towers (some even warning of unsafe radiation limits!). The summit was also home to a star-shaped frame with lights, and a flagpole, and unfortunately, litter here and there (we've started trying to pick up recyclable litter when we're out and about, but it's always frustrating to see). Mt Tom is apparently a broadcasting hotspot for a few TV and radio stations, and we sat on the steps to one of the buildings and snacked eagerly on trail mix, Snickers and bananas before turning around to head back the way we came.

Water by the trail
Spring blooms
The way back down passed much more quickly than the way up since we stopped less to ogle the views, and we  found ourselves back at the car park surprisingly quickly. We had spent about 3 hours in total for the round trip hike at a causal pace, with a detour for good measure, and a fair number of view-admiring stops. I'd say Mt. Tom was overall a pleasant and not-too-strenuous trip with a few fun rock scramble bits through cool geological features and a great view to accompany - all-in-all, a good pick for an introductory hike - a thought reinforced by the fact that our friend wasn't scared off climbing future mountains - in fact, she loved it! It was a great way to kick off our climbing season and we're definitely excited for some bigger peaks to come...

A couple more photos from this trip are up on my Flickr page if you'd care to check them out!

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