Hidden Giants
A giant sugar maple lies hidden in the Mohawk Trail State Forest.

This column appeared in the Winter 2012 issue (Vol.1, No.4) of The Recorder's Outdoor Adventure Magazine

This adventure is appropriate for lone hikers, couples, or entire families with young children. Your mission: seek out some giant trees; the results of 150 years of quiet, uninterrupted growth.

Your destination is the Mohawk Trail State Forest, which lies on the western edge of Franklin County. Measuring from the rotary in Greenfield where Rt. 2 crosses Rt. 91 you will have to drive about 21 miles, which should take about 30 minutes. You will know you are close to the Mohawk Trail SF when you cross a bridge over the Deerfield River and plunge noticeably into the forest. Keep your eyes open for the park entrance on the right.

At this time of year the days are quite short and the topography of the area is such that deep valleys will lose light quickly. So here is what I would suggest: go to the contact station, get yourself a map, and ask for permission to drive up to the group camping site (as I did). If you prefer to stretch your legs you can park by the contact station and walk the entire way, but you’ll have to factor in an additional hour or two for the journey. Two o’clock would be a good “latest start” if you intent to walk the whole distance.

Wherever you leave your car you will immediately fall under the spell of the forest. The thick, dark primeval feeling of Mirkwood Forest itself will sink into your bones and as you put more distance between yourself and Rt. 2 the road noise will begin to abate. You will pass beautiful rustic cabins as you head up the hill and with any luck you should feel the stresses of our everyday lives start to melt away. Your first challenge is to find the head of the Nature Trail, which is well marked with a gate.

The beginning of this “trail” is actually a wonderful dirt road. There is plenty of opportunity for walking side-by-side in large groups. So if you have a car full of children that need to burn off some energy this is the ideal place. It’s also a very nice place to walk hand-in-hand with someone special. As a lone hiker, I found the path to be especially nice because I could focus on the trees and not have to worry about my footing.

As you meander down the road you will find yourself passing a stand of particularly large pines on the left-hand side of the road where the land drops down a steep slope. This small concentration of giant trees are known as the “Pines of Peace”, or the “Trees of Peace” depending on who you talk to. They are very large in diameter and when you look up you will see that they are also very straight. This is a rare combination in pine trees and I hope it makes an impression on you. These are the kinds of tree that caught the attention of the first of the colonists when they arrived in the New World.

Rather than trying tell the history of this forest gem, I will direct you to the “Reader’s Corner” page of my website where you can find a link to a fantastic writeup by Bob Leverett and Gary Beluzo. This research report is very well done and is well worth reading!

Back on the dirt road you will notice the hill getting a little steeper and this is where you want to keep your eyes peeled for a hint of the meadow that lies to the left of the road. You will see it long before you can reach it by the trail, and when I recently visited I decided to abandon the road and descend through the trees. If you prefer to stick with sound footing you need only continue down the road until you find another road that makes a “T” intersection to the left. There is no sign, but this is the road to the meadow.

However you descend the hill you will emerge into an area of absolute splendor. You will be at the southern end of a large, managed opening in the forest and without too much trouble you should be able to find the grassy road that runs along its length. When I emerged into the field I was delighted to find two white-tailed deer grazing on the grass. They caught sight of me and their tails waived adieu as they ran off into the woods at the northern end of the field. Since that is where I was heading I like to think the deer were helping to show the way.

When you enter the forest at the north end you will be in a stand of trees known as the Algonquin Pines. This is where I found the giant trees that appear in the photograph. My visit was at the end of the afternoon and in the fading light these trees truly took on a dramatic feeling of age and greatness. They have been growing there, quietly, since the end of the Civil War.

Once you’ve soaked up your fill of these trees you have one last challenge before you can head back. Just a short distance in from the western side of the meadow stands one of the largest sugar maple trees I have ever seen. Growing next to the remains of a stone wall it is proof of the human disruption of this forest and serves to remind us of how close those large pines may have come to an axe.

This maple is so large and so decrepit that it even has ferns growing on soil that is starting to accumulate on its lower limbs. In a hundred more years this tree may be hollowed out with an opening the size of a phone booth in the middle, but for now you can see where the opening will be. See if you can find this tree for yourself.

As I left the giant trees and climbed back up the tree on the road I had a great feeling of satisfaction. I had spent my time well and I saw some of Nature’s splendor. As I reached the gate at the head of the trail a pileated woodpecker even called out. I felt as though someone had been watching over me and was saying farewell at our parting. It was a wonderful adventure indeed.