Hiking the Hopper Trail up Mount Greylock

I’ve been wanting to do this since the first weekend I lived here in summer. June 1999, after my junior year, I shared a roomy apartment with college friends on the first floor of a big yellow house on Park Street. I wanted to pick strawberries, and someone told me they grow wide along the Hopper Trail.

(It might have been Doone McKay, who brought me up to Petersburg pass later on, about this time of the summer, to find blueberries, and taught me to make raspberry muffins without a recipe.)

Someone else told me the Hopper trailhead is off Route 43. So on the first Saturday of my first summer in Williamstown, I set out blithely to walk up Mount Greylock — with a basket for berries and nothing else.

In case you haven’t tracked it with your pedometer lately, Park Street to the head of the Hopper Trail is about a 5-mile walk, if you know where you’re going. And the Hopper trailhead is off Route 43 the way Tanglewood is off Route 7. You need to know a turn or two, and most of the last mile takes you up.

I splashed down the Green River and ambled up Blair Road and chatted with a llama, and about five hours after I left home two of my housemates drove by and found me near Mount Hope Park and offered me a lift home. It gave me a beautiful trek on a summer day, but I never reached the mountain.

Since then I’ve done a lot of walking in the hills. I’ve gone geocaching on the Taconic Crest and climbed Stone Hill in the dark. With some of my old Eagle colleagues (Jenn Smith and Mike Foster, I’m looking at you) I’ve climbed to Laura’s Tower and the rocky top of Ragged Hill to watch ravens turn loop-de-loops.

And I’ve come back to Mount Greylock. I’ve ridden horseback through Greylock Glen and ambled around the Bradley Farm loop … I’ve even found the Hopper trailhead and followed the stream to Money Brook Falls, and trekked up to Stony Ledge, where I wound up talking with some fellow hikers about designing magazine pages in Quark. But in 18 years I had never hiked the Hopper Trail.

Until yesterday.

Sunday came in sunny and breezy, a blue-sky July day and almost magically not too hot, and I decided it was high time.

The trail begins a short way up the mountainside. On my first unguided walk, I almost reached it — from Route 43 south, turn left into Mount Hope Park and cross the stream, heading left through the park. The road winds uphill, and when it forks, Hopper Road continues up into the hills. The road becomes dirt and ends gently with a gravel lot and map on one side and the weathered barn of the Hadley Farm on the other.

Trail signs point past a gate and up a laneway between fields, lined with stone walls and old trees. And then a path moves upward to the right, and the post points the way: Hopper Trail to the Mount Greylock summit, 4 miles.

This is four miles of steady climbing, sometimes gentle and sometimes steep, but all uphill. This time I looked up the distance first. (Slightly in my defense, in 1999 the internet was about as large as the U.S. highway system in 1905. It’s easy now to look up Massachusetts state reservations and check a trail map from my desk.) And this time I brought along the key elements I’d missed the first time — water, food, map.

The trail climbs through tall hardwoods, up and level and up. On the right, the slope rises steeply enough to hide the sky, and on the left it falls away. As I moved steadily upward, the sound of the brook faded away, and I caught glimpses through the screen of trees, out over the folds of the valley to the sunlit trees on the far slope.

A wide-leaved bush in the scrub had blossoms fully opened, and I thought of one of Hal Borland’s field notes in This Hill, This Valley, I’d read a few days ago — “The beauty of the lot, of course, is the purple-flowered raspberry, which has a crimson-pink blossom as big as a wild rose.” I looked later and found I had it right.

I went up with birch and hard rock and striped maple, pausing to let hikers go by and daydreaming, so the first level break surprised me, and I walked out onto the dirt road of Sperry Campground. A friendly couple directed me to the right, still uphill, and past the cabin with a poster about the local black bears. (It begins don’t feed the bears. I remembered, a few years back in Ocala national Forest in Florida, seeing signs that read don’t feed the alligators. I wondered just who thought tossing a spare sandwich to a reptile with a jaw longer than my arm was a good idea.)

To the left, the trail climbs again. Evergreens grow more thickly. I know the short, flat needles of Eastern hemlock, but I looked closely at stands of saplings with finer needles, more roundly set, and branches drooping from the trunk, and wondered if they might be a kind of spruce, though the spruces I remember in the Maine woods have more robust needles, bristling 360 degrees.

The path angles close to the one road up the mountain, almost touching before it curves away and up again. A section of wooden planks crosses a stretch that must get muddy in wetter seasons, and then all at once it clears the trees at the edge of a small pond. I came out into the light, so close to the water that the boards I stood on felt like a bench, and realized someone had thoughtfully set a real wooden bench into the bank below. So I took a moment to catch my breath and watch blue dragonflies skimming the water. I might have stayed longer, but the sound of engines ground the road part the far shore.

By now the trees have become smaller. The highest reaches of Mount Greylock, more than 3,000 feet up, are boreal forest, and I’m walking in a different system of plants than the ones at the trail head in the valley. There are more conifers here, and more beech trees, and I think I’m spotting mountain ash. They grow lower to the ground than the trees in the valley, and across the pond a red and white radio tower shows clearly above them.

From here the summit is obviously near. The trail crosses the road and connects to the Appalachian Trail, jogs up a last rocky scramble — and comes out, without fanfare, into a back lot where a friendly man is cheerfully and prosaically backing up some kind of John Deere-like rig for landscaping or maintenance.

I crossed the road, grinning, to the steps in front of the lighthouse. I’ve seen it before. I’ve driven up here once or twice. But I’d never walked up. Never come up to the bronze model of the mountain to trace the track I’d just spent three hours climbing. The Hopper is a bowl in the hills eroded by melting glaciers, a shape like a container that funnels grain, and the Hopper trail runs along the side of it and gradually upwards.

The lighthouse is dedicated as a war memorial, and coming around it I saw a pile of deep blue oblongs on the grass and thought for a moment someone had trucked up lobster buoys for a lark —  and then the group of college-age hikers caught my ear, teasing each other, and I realized I was looking at a ring of frame packs leaning against each other. The blue rolls were camping pads.

The lawn around the monument was busy with people of all ages and backgrounds, sitting on the grass and on the rocks, looking at the view. From here, all of Adams looks small enough to pack away into a toy box for the night.

I took time enough for a breather and a look-in at the stone fireplaces in Bascom Lodge — time enough to enjoy the sun and the feeling of stretching out for awhile at the end of the climb. Time enough to share the distant blue hills with my family and feel bemused that I can now send a photo on a cell phone at the top of the highest mountain in the state. In 1999, cell phones barely existed. Even in 2009 they barely worked in most of the Berkshires. I carried one up here mostly for safety, hiking on my own, and for the camera, but I did take a few minutes to tell my sister in California, my brother in Colorado and my parents in Connecticut that I was thinking of them.

But it was mid-afternoon, by now, and I still had the four miles to walk back down. And the top of the mountain was humming with people. So I turned back to the woods and swung onto an offshoot, a cool pathway closer to the edge of the trees. It’s called the Overlook. I scrambled over thick-rooted birch trees and stone with pale bands like quartz. In the moss and pine needles long the trail, someone had set flat stones in a square, like the foundations of a fairy house with a hearth made of birch bark.

The overlook itself is a small space, not much larger than a picnic blanket, with stair-step stones to sit on, and at 5 in the afternoon it was blessedly quiet. I unpacked a half a sandwich and found that my family were thinking of walking up here someday, and of birthdays coming up, and my parents’ 47th anniversary this week. I had been thinking of them too. They took their honeymoon backpacking in the Rockies.


The sunlight was slanting as I reached the campground again. A passing DCR staffer suggested re-filling my water bottle, and I followed directions to the camp’s well. The pump takes 10 strokes to prime it, and hauling that handle down felt like the most challenging exercise I’d gotten all day. The water comes up cold.

From here it’s downhill all the way with the light sifting between the trees and intense on the mountain wall across the valley. I came quietly down toward the sound of the stream in the valley, with sore ankles and a sense of hard-won peace. Six hours of walking, half of it uphill, is a good step for me. The cows were out to pasture at the Haley Farm, moving slowly along the fence line. And at home — I now share a roomy apartment in an old house in Williamstown with a college friend — it turned out my house-mate was making dinner.

If there are wild strawberries along the Hopper Trail, I still haven’t found them. But I hear there are old-growth red spruce up on the mountain, if you know where to look.

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