This winter has been a season of extremes. One day we have -10 degrees with blizzard conditions and the next it’s sunny and 55 degrees — or more. The so-called “wobbly vortex” is messing with our standard winter conditions and making outdoor pursuits more challenging than ever. But no matter your position on climate change or your secret inner desire to winter in the Caribbean, the Pioneer Valley is a beautiful place that is easy to enjoy year-round. And, we have the added benefit of being surrounded by a gastronomical and fermentation obsessed landscape of amazing pubs, breweries and restaurants to take the chill off afterward.
Generally said, just about any summer hiking spot can be a winter spot and the Valley offers easy and difficult treks up and down and on both sides of the river for both hardcore enthusiasts and newbies alike.
But before we venture out, we have to discuss three primary concerns: traction, safety and preparedness. This winter’s lack of a dependable snowpack presents some challenges no matter what your level of experience because when there is not enough snow for skis or snowshoes, and the weather is variable, it usually means ice.
Do not underestimate the power of ice. Ice can turn the road up Mt. Sugarloaf in Deerfield into the Khumbu icefalls of Mt. Everest in no time. And while I’ve seen people scoot up that hill in twenty minutes wearing sneakers, I’ve seen them take an hour to get down, often with falls. So, no traction = no go. If you want to avoid injury on even the most basic adventures in the woods, you must add yak trax, cat tracks or microspikes to your regular hiking boots..
On top of safety, there is more safety. The number one most basic rule: don’t hike or snowshoe alone. Two heads actually are better than one when ice, cold and wind are involved. Number two: make a check-in plan with a friend or relative who is not on the hike with you. Tell Aunt Sue that you will text her when you get back to your vehicle. Tell her where you are hiking, whom you are hiking with and even what you are wearing. If she does not hear from you by 6:00 p.m., she’ll know to call the authorities.
A few more good tips: Check out the entire day’s weather to avoid surprises. Start small and hike or snowshoe something you know. Experiment with new or unfamiliar equipment before you get two miles from your vehicle. Try things on. Adjust straps. Fall into the snow and get yourself up — a test that can be a real indicator of your preparedness. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to turn back if you are tired, unsure of the terrain or concerned you may be overdoing it. As the saying goes, the mountains and trails will be there waiting for your return. Just getting outside in winter means you have succeeded and any unfinished hike or peak becomes a goal for the future.
Gather your gear
The list below may seem like a lot of stuff, but keep in mind that winter requires a few extra precautions because daylight is short, fewer people are outdoors, hikes take longer and the weather can change suddenly. Note: Water bottles can freeze, so use lukewarm water and cover your bottles with a wool sock. Cell phone batteries also die faster; store your phone inside an old glove deeper inside your pack. Before you head out, try your best to pull together the following:
Warm, layered and breathable clothing — preferably a bright outer layer (required)
Insulated boots (required)
Ski/trekking poles (recommended)
Snowshoes, cross-country or backwoods skis (required in deep snow situations)
Cat tracks (small teeth), yak trax (bigger teeth), microspikes (even bigger teeth) and crampons (giant teeth) (best in light snow/ice situations)
A decent day-use backpack with basic medical supplies (required)
Headgear and goggles (required)
Water (see note above), headlamp, snacks, a detailed plan and a map (required)
While it goes without saying that being outside usually involves the cold, one of the biggest challenges is actually overheating and managing trapped moisture from sweat. That combination can lead to hypothermia and hypothermia can lead to, well, bad things.
When dressing for strenuous winter exercise, stick with warm, layered and breathable gear. No cotton. Cotton loses all of its warming value with the slightest bit of moisture. Polypropylene long underwear and layered wool are best. Jackets that can be peeled off and stored in a pack are good, too. For lack of a better way to think about it, what would you wear and bring if you had to run a mile, do one hundred pushups and then sit in a snowbank overnight by yourself? It could happen.
OK, now for the fun stuff. Let’s get outside with three great treks. Each of these can be skied, hiked in microspikes or on snowshoes, it all depends on the weather, snow depth and what gear you possess. City Special: Whiting Street Reservoir & Mt. Tom Ski Area in Holyoke
Getting there: Take Rte. 5 to Mountain Park Road and head up the hill to the end of the road. There’s a small parking area at the top that is generally plowed. To the south, a gate leads down a road a bit and then connects to the reservoir. To the north, another gated road wraps around the park and then up a steep hill to the Mt. Tom base area. The Mountain Park concert area is fenced off in the middle. Both roads lead to a bunch of options.
Option #1: (Reservoir) Head through the gate to the south and connect to a trek around the reservoir. You’ll enjoy a mostly flat 3.8 mile loop that offers great views of Mt. Tom, lots of light with a few streams and a glimpse or two of wildlife. This is a moderate effort taking approximately 2 hours if spiking or snowshoeing.
Option #2: (Reservoir + Loop) Take the road to the north. It’s approximately 1 mile to the base area (mostly uphill). After you crest the hill (great views) and head downwards, note an industrial dumpster (yes) on the left. Behind i is the path that connects to the reservoir. After poking around the base area, head back and then down the short but steep trail. Take a left and you can make it a 2 mile loop along part of the reservoir by taking the left at the pump house and following the road back to the parking area. This is slightly more strenuous and takes about an hour and a half. Note: if you take a right, it’s most of Option #1 above.
Option #3: (Reservoir + Ski Trails) This was my choice using snowshoes on a recent snowy day. I reversed Option #2 and made it to the base quickly and then headed straight up the ski trails. It’s a pretty strenuous climb of approximately 750 vertical feet but well worth it. You’ll see the old lifts and shacks and when you take a break and turn around, you’ll see the Holyoke Range to the north, Hadley across the river, Holyoke in the foreground and Springfield to the south. It’s pretty strenuous overall. Allow 2 hours depending on how far up the hill you go.
After your adventure, head over Rte. 141 to warm up at the Daily Operation in Easthampton with some replenishing made-to-order food (and perhaps a local beer.) Dave Schrier, Jessica Pollard and Dave Clegg recently decamped from the Alvah Stone up in Montague to open this spot, and their funky, filling, casual and creative Asian-influenced food never disappoints. My favorites include the blackened fish sandwich, cheesy fries, Sichuan cabbage salad and Jessica’s black bottom maple pie. As for beers, $3 gets you a can of Genny Cream Ale and $5 gets you the brews from nearby Fort Hill Brewery. 360 Degree Views: Mt. Toby Telephone Trail/ Firetower in Montague
Getting there: Take Rte. 116 to Rte. 47 North in Sunderland. Wind your way along and then turn onto Reservation Road. The parking area is about a ½ mile up on the right. If there are no maps available or you forgot yours, take a picture of the large map on the information sign, better to have at least that as a reference when you head out. Just a heads up: It’s a pretty popular spot on the weekends, especially if the temperatures are warm. Much like Mt. Tom, there are a bunch of options depending on your time, fitness and appetite. Skiers should probably consider Tower Road out and back vs. the Telephone Trail.
Unsure of what the recent warm ups and re-freezes would bring, my wife and I popped on the microspikes, brought trekking poles and carried crampons in our packs. The microspikes were the right call. From the parking area, take the Tower Road fire road that heads gently south into the forest. Ignore the Hemlock Trail on your first visit. Stay on Tower until you reach the Telephone Trail marked with blue blazes (at about ¾ mile). Take a right and begin heading upwards. You’ll come to a junction with the Upper Link Trail after another ½ mile. If you’re tired, head across the Link and reconnect with Tower Road for an easier way to the top. If you like a challenge, stay to the right. Most of the 900-foot vertical gain now stacks up to a frozen stream staircase for about .4 miles to the top. Climb the fire tower on a sunny clear day for a 360-degree view and you can see the ski areas in Vermont, the Berkshires and Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire — in addition to the entire Valley. Head back down the same way or for an easier (but longer) loop, head down the Tower Road and take a left at the Link or stay on Tower. (Telephone Trail up and back is strenuous and slippery, about 2 hours. Looping is a little easier, but adds time.)
After your hike, continue up Rte. 47 for a couple more miles to the Montague Bookmill. The Lady Killigrew Café will get some replenishing carbs back in your body fast. A simple but hearty menu provides perfect options for something warm or cold that will get your body back in line. They also have four great local beers on tap. I opted for a pint and a grilled basil, tomato and mozzarella sandwich with a nice side salad. (I strongly suggest their delicious cupcakes.) Quick Historical Loop: Bullitt Reservation in Ashfield and Conway
Getting there: The Bullitt Reservation is a 3000-acre Trustees of Reservations property accessible from Bullitt Road in Ashfield. Take Rte. 116 up from Rte. 91 or from Williamsburg Road. (The Poland Road approach is not plowed in the winter.) William Bullitt was the first ambassador to the Soviet Union and the family’s summer home and farm has been preserved for our benefit.
This property has a great history, sublime views and a couple of nice options for a snowshoe, ski or hike. Parking is available at the barn and homestead and the trail entrance is located back up Bullitt Road. The primary trail here is the “Pebble” trail, a 1-mile loop hike that gains some elevation on its way to the “Pebble,” a huge erratic boulder that appears wedged between supporting trees. It’s a fun feature for the kids if you’re with the family. The loop is not stressful, but if you are interested in doing more, the Three Bridges Trail to Chapel Brook is 4 miles round-trip and will definitely fill your afternoon. When I went in early February, four inches of fresh snow had blanketed an icy crust beneath, skiers had made their way to the Chapel Brook cutoff and a few other hearty snowshoers had done the Pebble. Short on time and daylight, the Pebble was a perfect 45 minute loop. Be sure to print a copy of the map from the Trustees website before you head out.
After your hike, make sure you warm up the car a bit because the options are a little dispersed. I was craving pizza, so I opted to double back and head to Magpie Woodfired Pizza in Greenfield for an amazing grilled Caesar salad and a tasty handcrafted pie. Best of all? The atmosphere is warm and inviting so you won’t look out of place with a little “hat head” or in ski pants.
Patrick Kandianis is a serial entrepreneur and CEO of the education finance startup Pay4Education. An avid snowboarder, hiker, mountain biker and fly-fisherman, his freelance work has appeared at REI.com, in Coastal Angler and in Blue Magazine. He lives in Holyoke with his wife and two dogs. Drop him a line at email@example.com