Not for nothing do locals in the little towns in the Hoosac Range and the northeastern edge of the Berkshires call their region "the Hidden Hills." Like the famous cartoon map depicting a New Yorker's view of the world, the geography north and west of Worcester gets a little murky for some Eastern Massachusetts residents. That's partly because, although this area encompasses 15 towns, whose borders roughly outline the Westfield River watershed (Williamsburg to Becket, Plainfield to Russell, Otis to Westhampton), back roads are the only way in. The driving is scenic and the traffic negligible, unless you count the occasional string of cars stuck behind a hay wagon.
Big rewards await those willing to explore: The Hidden Hills contain seven state forests and parks (not counting state reserves not managed for recreation), six hike-able Trustees of Reservations properties, and two Mass Audubon sanctuaries. In Massachusetts, hiking and quiet-water paddling don't get much better than this.
The following are some favorites.
Mass achusetts Dept. of Conservation and Recreation Route 112, Goshen 413-268-7098 mass.gov/dcr/parks/western/darf.htm
Littleville Lake This long, steep-sided lake is actually a reservoir formed by damming part of the Westfield River by the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the lake. Though it doesn't look very big on the map, it's about 1 1/2 miles long and covers 275 acres . The not-so-scenic south end, near the vast concrete dam, has a ramp for motorboats (low-horsepower only), so paddlers tend to put in on the shallower north end. Here the riverine character survives in the form of a wilder, wooded shoreline frequented by waterfowl, including mallard and merganser ducks.
Goss Hill Road, Huntington 413-667-3656 nae.usace.army.mil/recreati/lvl
Buckley Dunton Lake, October Mountain State Forest This forested reservoir lies on the southeastern tip of the largest state forest in Massachusetts. The 16,500-acre tract contains miles of trails that wind through varied terrain, including the dramatic Schermerhorn Gorge. The lake, with hemlock, pine, and mixed hardwoods covering its hilly shoreline, feels almost pristine. Boulders and submerged stumps make rough going for motorboats, so paddlers often have the place to themselves. Call for directions to the lake, which is not near the main entrance.
Tyne Road, Becket 413-243-1778 mass.gov/dcr/parks/western/octm.htm
Upper Spectacle Pond, Otis State Forest This small, undeveloped pond is a paddling favorite because it has no ramp, which means only small, low-horsepower boats can get into the water. Flowering water plants, turtles basking on rocks, and the flutter of birds, seen and unseen, in the surrounding pine trees make this a serene wildlife spot. A forested island adds to the intrigue. Although technically on state forest land, the area isn't developed for recreation -- meaning no phone, no visitor s center, no fee -- so use a good map or guidebook to plot the route.
Webb Road, Otis (Off Cold Springs Road, off Route 23) See "Quiet Water: Massachusetts, Connecticut & Rhode Island" by Alex Wilson and John Hayes (Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2003).
North, South, Burnett, and Bog ponds, Savoy Mountain State Forest This out-of-the-way state forest lies on the northern outskirts of the Hidden Hills, most easily reached from Route 2. Like nearby Mohawk Trail State Forest, this one contains log cabins that can be rented year-round. More than 50 miles of trails take in brooks, forests, waterfalls, and four big ponds. North Pond, in the day-use area, sports a bathing beach and picnic tables. Stocked with trout, it is popular with families and anglers and the only pond in the forest that allows motorboats (low powered, for trolling). Bog Pond is a wild, tussocky place, dotted with islands. South Pond, near the cabins, and the more remote Burnett Pond, which is frequented by moose, require canoeists or kayakers to carry in their boats for about 200 feet from the roadside.
260 Central Shaft Road, Florida 413-663-8469 mass.gov/dcr/parks/western/svym.htm
175 Mohawk Trail/Route 2 Charlemont 413-339-5504
Chesterfield Gorge Glacial rivers tunneled through bedrock to create this sheer-walled ravine, and the East Branch of the Westfield River has taken over the role of wearing down the stone. Sprays of hemlock dangle over the rock face, and the roar and hiss of the cascade add sound to the visual drama. A cable fence lines the side of the trail edging the cliff. Eventually this goat path widens into an old woods road (no vehicles allowed) that descends to boulder-studded shallows. The road continues into streamside woodlands also open to the public. Climbing and swimming are forbidden, but anglers ply the pools and riffles for trout.
River Road, Chesterfield 413-684-0148 thetrustees.org
Notchview Reservation Before the Europeans arrived, the native Mahicans also hunted on this 3,100-acre tract in the Hoosac Mountains , climbing to the 3,000-foot-high points to look out over the lower hills and valleys. Managed today for cross-country skiing, Notchview contains 18 miles that make for fine hiking in other seasons. They run through the pastures, orchards, and woods of former farmland commemorated by cellar holes and the occasional twisted apple tree found among encroaching conifers.
Route 9, Windsor
Bear Swamp Reservation A three-mile trail network provides a moderately strenuous hike through mixed terrain of steep ledges, a beaver pond, woodlands, and meadow. Mossy ledges and overarching hemlock boughs give the path the sheltered feeling of a walled corridor in places. Where the trail summits at the crest of the ridge is a fine view of the pond and the white-dusted forest spread out below. On the east side of the road (opposite the main trail network), a wide track ascends a few hundred yards to Apple Valley Overlook, a pastoral clearing with a picnic table, ringed by birches and pines.
Hawley Road, Ashfield 413-684-0148 thetrustees.org
This reservation, which lies only about 4 miles from Bear Swamp, is a favorite of climbers flocking to the 80-foot rock face at Pony Mountain, which rises in the midst of it, as well as for swimmers seeking a cold dip at the base of the falls, spilling over three ledges, on the opposite side of the road. In 1828, settlers erected a Methodist chapel that gives the spot its name, and at least two gristmills once stood beside the stream. Sheep grazed in pastures that have since grown into the surrounding forest of beech, ash, birch, sugar maple, northern red oak, and hemlock.
Williamsburg Road, Ashfield 413-684-0148 thetrustees.org
Jane Roy Brown, a writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached at regan-brown.com.