Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Junior Naturalist: Acorns

We’ve had an explosion of nuts around our house! Oak nuts, that is, more commonly known as acorns. We can’t walk down the road right now without hearing the crack! and thunk! of acorns dropping nearly a hundred feet from the sky. If we didn’t know before that many of the trees lining our road are oaks, we certainly know now.

Wild turkeys, blue jays, chipmunks, and squirrels have been taking advantage of this noisy bounty. Squirrels have been known to chuck the nuts from tree branches — yes, that’s right, throw acorns — to break open the hard outer casing and expose the sweet nut-meat inside. (If you’re walking underneath the branch at that particular moment, you can be forgiven for wondering if the squirrel was aiming at your head...) Squirrels also bury acorns in the original dirt cellar, as do blue jays.

Virgil has been acting like a little chipmunk or squirrel himself — although it’s his pockets he’s been stuffing with the plump nuts, not his cheeks. (This display of common sense means he’s avoided the stomach-ache he’d otherwise get if he ate raw acorns.) And as far as I know, he hasn’t been digging holes and burying acorns for mid-winter meals. But because of the growing pile of nuts in our entryway, he’s noticed that acorns come in different shapes and sizes. Some are long and egg-shaped. Their caps are elongated, too; the knob where the acorn once attached to the tree occupies the same position as a pom-pom on a winter hat. Other acorns are round and wear their caps like jaunty berets. Still more are small little fellows and leave their trees in twinned pairs, joined at the tips of their caps.

More “nutty” facts:
• The white oak can grow to a height of 100 feet or more and live as long as 600 years. Both the acorns and the lobes on the leaves of the white oak are rounded.
• Northern red oak and black oak both have egg-shaped acorns and lobed leaves that come to a point, but black oaks have smaller, more deeply lobed leaves.
• As the name suggests, the leaves of the scarlet oak turn brilliant red in the fall. Scarlet oaks are smaller than white or northern red oaks. Their acorns are smaller, too, with caps that cover about one-fourth of the nut.
• Oaks don’t start producing acorns until they are about 25 years old.
• Oaks are what is called a “masting” species: An individual tree may not produce a crop of acorns every year, but every few years it will produce a bumper crop — as many as 7,000 acorns!
• Gray squirrels are more likely to eat the acorns from white oaks and store the acorns from black and red oaks. Acorns from white oaks are easier for the squirrels to digest than acorns from black and red oaks, which contain a high level of tannin (the same stuff that turns tea brown). However, acorns from black and red oaks are higher in fat, and so are more nutritious than white-oak acorns. In one of those wonderful miracles of nature, burying the higher-fat, higher-tannin acorns helps reduce the level of tannin and gives the squirrel an extra nutritional boost. (If it can find the acorn...)

If the snap and pop of falling acorns and the crunch underfoot is any indication, we’re having a “mast” year for acorns. That makes one seven-year-old and a lot of squirrels very happy.

Learn more

• “Foliage Finder: Identify the Northeast’s favorite trees” (AMC Outdoors, May 2009)
Junior Naturalist: What’s black and white all over (with a spot of red)? (August 2009)

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

“America’s Best Idea” in New England

We don’t have TV in our house — the satellite we have is for Internet access, not cable — and normally I don’t miss it. But every once in a while a TV program comes along that I wish I could see along with everyone else. “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” the six-part series on PBS by cinematic historian Ken Burns, falls into that category. The series started on Sunday night, but we weren’t in the viewing audience.

Instead, thanks to the folks at Burns’ film company, Florentine Films, we watched a segment that airs on Tuesday night. This segment, “The Empire of Grandeur,” follows the history of the national parks after John Muir’s advocacy helped create the country’s first national park, in Yellowstone, and protected his beloved Yosemite.

That history, over the years 1915 to 1919, includes the struggle to create what became the first national park east of the Mississippi and remains New England’s only national park, Acadia, on Maine’s Mt. Desert Island. People who care about the wild places of the Northeast will find much to think about in the story.

As the episode dramatizes, Acadia became a national park in large part because a small number of people thought beyond their individual pain or pleasure to a larger, common good. The first of them, Harvard president Charles W. Eliot, used his personal influence and connections to start a preservation movement on Mt. Desert, honoring the ideas and impulses held by his prematurely deceased son, a landscape architect in the Boston firm of Frederick Law Olmstead. George Dorr took that movement and made it his life’s work, spending down his personal inheritance so that the island’s rocky shores and forested mountains could be added to a national inheritance shared by all. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who had decided to concentrate his energies on “the social purposes to which a great fortune could be dedicated,” became enlisted in the cause; his land purchases and donations tripled the acreage of what would eventually become Acadia National Park.

I happen to agree with the thematic notion in the series’ subtitle: The national parks are possibly “America’s best idea” — or at least among our country’s very best ideas. Watching the segment on Acadia reminded me, though, that it has never been easy to conserve land of important scenic or historic value. George Dorr learned that he couldn’t even give the land on Mt. Desert Island to the federal government on behalf of preservationists.

But Acadia, in some ways, is the exception that proves a rule: It almost always takes more than that small group of committed people, and more than money or influence, to preserve our natural heritage. Again and again, from Yosemite to Glacier to the Grand Canyon, Ken Burns’ documentary shows that protection of public lands requires broad public support.

Over the weekend, as I was learning about the history of our national park system, I learned that funding for several important conservation projects in the Northeast has moved out of the U.S. Senate and on to the House. Cardigan Highlands, Mahoosuc Gateway, and the Silvio O. Conte wildlife refuge are among the projects; all are AMC priorities for federal land funding in the next budget cycle. Many people and organizations around the country are working to make these and thousands of other “best ideas” a reality.

See the links below to find out more or join in.

Learn more
• Learn more about Acadia National Park

• Learn more about “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

• The Cardigan Highlands are included in the Quabbin to Cardigan Initiative (Q2C), which is attempting to conserve one of the largest remaining areas of intact, interconnected, ecologically significant forest in central New England.

Images of Acadia National Park and George Dorr from the NPS.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

6 Quick Fall Hikes and Rambles with Kids Near Boston

This is the final post in a series on great fall hikes with children around the Northeast. In most years, the change in the season arrives last along New England’s southern coastline, so with this post I am paying special attention to walks with a salt-water view, although I also include some inland highlights. The hikes described here also take advantage of another important sign of fall, the migrations of birds and butterflies, as well as other wildlife.

Remember that as the season progresses, even sunny days may feel cool, especially early and late when the sun is low in the sky. The temperature drops quickly in the shade, and ocean breezes have an extra bite to them. It’s a good idea to pack extra layers and windbreakers, especially for the coastal hikes mentioned here. Children being carried in backpacks or front-packs may need additional clothes, even hats and mittens, at this time of year.

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Plum Island, Newburyport. Close to 300 species of migratory and local birds have been spotted at the Plum Island refuge, making it one of the Northeast’s premier birding spots. The 3.0-mile trail to Sandy Point travels through scrub oak and freshwater marsh to reach a panoramic view of the dunes and the Atlantic Ocean. In September, look for monarch butterflies here: Many migrate through the refuge. For the chance to observe migrating birds from behind an observation blind, stay on the delightfully named Hellcat Swamp Nature Trail, a boardwalk trail. From the blind at the end of this 2.0-mile trail or from the observation tower next to the parking lot, look for green-winged teal and great blue herons, migrating rough-legged hawks and falcons. Later in the year, you may even catch a glimpse of a snowy owl.

Halibut Point State Park, Rockport. The Cape Ann coastline is more reminiscent of Maine than Massachusetts. A trip to the rocky headland of Halibut Point can feel just like a visit to the Maine coast. An easy 1.5-mile roundtrip walk brings you to a high overlook. Bring binoculars to scan the shoreline for seals or the water for lobster boats. On a clear fall day, you may be able to see all the way to Mount Agamenticus in Maine. Lower down (but not on the Grout Pile), children will find great exploring opportunities. Halibut Point is also a great place to find overwintering loons. The distinctive black-and-white bird of New England’s northern lakes loses its patterned plumage after breeding season and doesn’t make its haunting call. But you may be able to watch small flocks diving for fish, getting ready for another summer season.

Great Island, Cape Cod National Seashore, Wellfleet. A 4.0-mile roundtrip walk along a knob of glacial debris connected to the mainland by a narrow hill of sand is a living testament to the phrase, “the changing sands of time.” When European sailors first explored Cape Cod, Great Island was, in fact, an island, and stayed so into the mid-1800s. Now, tidal marshes have filled in, giving hikers an additional opportunity to visit a bit of Colonial history: the old Smith Tavern site, where mariners came ashore to eat, drink, and be merry. Exploring this tidal flat with children in the fall can be an extended nature walk: Look for oyster shells and both water and migratory birds; also keep a “weather eye” (as sailors would say) out for seals, which sometimes visit these areas. If you walk all the way out to Jeremy Point, at the end of Great Island, look southwest for Billingsgate Island at low tide. It’s the “disappearing island” memorialized in the children’s book of the same name.

We now leave the seacoast for several inland hikes and rambles.

Mt. Pisgah, Northborough. An easy 2.0-mile hike gives you the feel of northern New England, especially on a cool fall day. The trail follows old stone walls — perfect places to look for chipmunks and squirrels scampering about in their preparations for winter — and through new red maple, oaks, and pines in autumnal glory. The summit of Mt. Pisgah (715 feet) does not give the best views; for expansive views, follow a spur trail to an exposed rock ridge. Trails are maintained by the town of Northborough.

Lincoln Conservation Land (Sandy Pond)and Audubon’s Drumlin Farm, Lincoln. Combine a walk through diverse habitats along a freshwater pond with a visit to a farm with wildlife exhibits. The walk around Sandy Pond follows in the footsteps of Thoreau. It’s also a good place to look for migrating wood ducks and hawks. Nearby Drumlin Farm has trails, as well as farm animals, hay rides, wildlife exhibits, and regular events, including an evening Halloween-themed walk and ride on October 29.

Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, Natick. There are 9 miles of trails in this popular hiking spot. A 0.25-mile accessible trail and boardwalk along the bank of Indian Brook and over the marsh offers opportunities to look for wood ducks, kingfishers, great blue herons, kestrels, and other migrating birds. Beavers have recently returned to Indian Brook, which flows into the Charles River at the sanctuary. If you’re lucky, you’ll see one from the 110-foot-long bridge as it prepares for the cold weather to come.

Learn more
You can find detailed descriptions of these hikes in AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near Boston by Michael Tougias.

Previous posts in this series:
Peak Bagging of a Different Kind
8 Classic Fall Hikes and Rambles with Kids in the White Mountains
5 Great Fall Hikes and Rambles with Kids in the Berkshires
4 Nature-filled Fall Hikes and Rambles with Kids in Connecticut
6 Fall Hikes and Rambles with Kids in the Hudson Valley and Catskills

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

6 Fall Hikes and Rambles with Kids in the Hudson Valley and Catskills

This fourth in a series of posts about great hikes with children around the Northeast explores the landscape of the Hudson River Valley, where so much of the hiking is colored by the region’s especially vivid history.

Four hundred years ago this month, Henry Hudson of the Dutch East India Company sailed up the river that now bears his name looking for the fabled Northwest Passage to the Pacific and Asia. As Peter W. Kick writes in his informative guidebook, AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the Catskills and Hudson Valley, members of Hudson’s crew called the valley “as fine a place as we have ever seen.” The river and the diverse landscape surrounding it have played important roles in American history, from a strategic role during the Revolutionary War to a starring role in the creation of the modern environmental movement. Klara Sauer, the former director of the conservation group, Scenic Hudson, has noted, “Had this continent had been settled from west to east, the Hudson Valley would be a national park today.”

We start in the Hudson Highlands, about 60 miles north of New York City, and follow the river north to the Shawangunks and the Catskills, touching on some of the region’s important roles along the way.

Storm King, Storm King State Park, West Point. The signature hike of the Hudson Highlands overlooks the Hudson River at the head of the Highland Gap. A few miles south along this deep and narrow section of the river, at West Point, American forces in 1778 forged the Great Hudson River Chain to keep British ships from advancing northward, changing the course of the Revolutionary War. A successful legal battle in the mid-1960s to keep a power-generating plant from being built on Storm King helped create the field of environmental law and set the groundwork for such national legislation as the Clear Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

The 6.0-mile roundtrip hike to Storm King on the Stillman Trail gets nearly all its 400 feet of elevation gain out of the way in the first mile, as it reaches the grassy summit of Butter Hill. At 1,380 feet, Butter Hill is 40 feet higher than the dramatic escarpment of Storm King. Butter Hill can be a good destination, but continuing the hike brings stunning views of the river and the Highlands — colorful at any time of year but especially in the fall. The hike’s excellent effort-to-reward ratio makes it a good choice for young hikers ready for a challenge.

Anthony’s Nose, Bear Mountain State Park. About 10 miles downriver from West Point, across the river from Peekskill, New York, an unusual child-friendly 4.0-mile roundtrip hike goes through a zoo, past a Trailside Museum, onto the earliest section of the Appalachian Trail (AT), built in the early 1920s, and up to ledges with spectacular views of the Hudson River.

In the fall, the AT carries few, if any, north-bound through-hikers. It’s a 1,360-mile walk from the trail’s beginning in Georgia to this historic section of the trail at Bear Mountain. At 124 feet above sea level, this trail also contains the lowest section of the Appalachian Trail. The hardest part of the hike is the short AT section, which starts in that low point and rises 700 feet in 0.6 mile. Leave the AT to follow the blue blazes of the Hudson River Trail along an old woods road to the open ledges of Anthony’s Nose. From here, you can look down on the exact site of the great chain mentioned in the Storm King hike.

Roosevelt Woods, Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Historic Site, Hyde Park.
The home of the 32nd president of the United States and home of the first presidential library also offers “wide, well-marked, and immaculately maintained ‘carriageways,’” which Kick says make perfect walking trails for children. Follow one of three trails (Meadow, Cove, or Forest), none more than 1.0 mile in length, or create longer loops through mature oak and hickory forests. Many of the trees were planted by Roosevelt and his father. These trails and others in the Hyde Park Trail network were originally built by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was started by Roosevelt shortly after he took office. Walking to the edge of the Hudson River may reward you with views of tankers and tug barges.

Poet’s Walk Romantic Landscape Park, Red Hook. About 25 miles upstream from Roosevelt Woods, just north of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, Poet’s Walk park offers 2.0 miles of open-space rambles and spectacular vistas of the Hudson River and the Catskills. The park also offers a view into the history of the country’s first school of art, known as the Hudson River School of landscape painting. In the mid-19th-century, this group of artists celebrated the Hudson Valley’s grandeur, and by extension the natural beauty of the young country. Their paintings — the blockbusters of the day — helped Americans see their country’s glorious landscape as worth preserving and helped lead to the creation of the national park system. After enjoying the views here, children may enjoy seeing similar Hudson River landscapes framed — in art museums. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, both have notable collections.)

The Trapps, Shawangunks, New Paltz. This easy trail along carriage roads provides an excellent introduction to what Kick calls “the scenic and recreational mecca of the mid-Hudson Valley.” The 5.0-mile roundtrip hike wanders beneath and above steep cliffs that are renowned among climbers for world-class rock-climbing routes. (Shorter hikes are also possible.) Especially on weekends, part of the fun of this hike comes from watching climbers work their way up the rock. The hike lies within the Mohonk Preserve, a 10,000-member nature preserve. You don’t need to be a member to hike the trails, but there are fees for parking and use of the shuttle bus between parking lots and the trailhead.

Kaaterskill Falls, Palenville. This hike is considered the most popular short hike in the Catskills. The two-tiered falls are the highest in the state, falling a total of 260 feet. Though the water coming over the falls may not be as spectacular in the fall as in spring or summer, the 0.4-mile trail into the falls will be much less crowded, making it more possible to see the falls as early Hudson River painter Thomas Cole saw them in the early 1800s. Now that the trail has been relocated farther from the base of the falls, the most dangerous part of this outing is the 0.2-mile walk along NY 23A to the trailhead.

My final post in this series will take us to urban walks and country rambles around Boston.

Learn more

You can find detailed descriptions of these hikes in AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the Catskills and Hudson Valley by Peter W. Kick. Many of these trails are maintained by the New York–New Jersey Trail Conference.

Images: Morning, Looking East Over the Hudson Valley from the Catskill Mountains, Frederic Edwin Church, 1848.
Falls of Kaaterskill, Thomas Cole, 1826.

Previous posts in this series:
Peak Bagging of a Different Kind
8 Classic Fall Hikes and Rambles with Kids in the White Mountains
5 Great Fall Hikes and Rambles with Kids in the Berkshires
4 Nature-filled Fall Hikes and Rambles with Kids in Connecticut

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

After-school Special: Keeping Kids Engaged in the Outdoors

School’s in. Summer’s out. The days are getting shorter. Homework routines and after-school activities are getting started. In the busyness of a new school year, one thing that can disappear from a child’s calendar is simple playtime outside.

When today’s parents and grandparents were children, most of them spent their free time playing outdoors. Today’s children, however, often have much less free, or unstructured, time, and spend far less of what they do have outdoors.

A number of organizations have been doing their homework on this issue, and their research increasingly attaches serious risk to “indoor” and “backseat” childhoods. Children in the U.S. currently average more than a full workweek—44.5 hours—in front of a computer, video game, or television screen each week. Changing demographics, traffic patterns, and safety concerns result in more children being driven to and from school and activities instead of walking. Nationwide, according to the Outdoor Foundation, fewer children are participating in outdoor activities each year, and many of those who do hike, bike, swim, and so forth, engage in those activities just once or twice a year. Elementary-school children spent 20 percent more time on homework in 1997 than in 1981. Schools, facing budget constraints and testing requirements, reduce or remove physical education classes and recess from the school day.

Meanwhile, obesity has quadrupled among U.S. children and tripled among adolescents in one generation, and more children are being treated for depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Researchers have known for many years that one of the best predictors of whether a child will maintain a healthy weight is time spent outside. More recent research suggests an even stronger connection between time spent simply playing outdoors and children’s physical and mental well-being. A 2003 study by Cornell University researchers determined that children who have regular access to nature are less likely to be depressed or suffer from behavioral disorders. Studies in the U.S., England, and Europe link “participating in nature” with better problem-solving, self-confidence, cooperation, and test scores. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children spend one hour a day on physical activity. Outdoor experts have extended that recommendation to call for a “green hour” of outdoor play.

Here are some ways to keep children playing outside during the school year:

1. Continue spending time together outdoors as a family. Parents and role models play a crucial part in whether children enjoy being outdoors. Paul Berry, chair of AMC’s New Hampshire Chapter, considers fall the best time to take children hiking: “The bugs are gone, the kids don’t get so hot and sticky, and the views are spectacular.” He recommends hikes to open summits, such as Mt. Monadnock, and to peaks with a fire tower, such as Mt. Cardigan.

2. Join in organized activities. AMC chapters offer family outings throughout the fall, and many local and state parks plan weekend or after-school activities, like the “Thoreau for Kids” program at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. AMC's Hike the Highlands Scavenger Hunt in southeastern Pennsylvania, like the quests, letterboxes, and geocaches organized by other groups, combines the fun of a treasure hunt with time outdoors.

3. Work together to address community-wide problems that discourage healthy outdoor play. Advocate for walkable, safe neighborhoods; natural play spaces; and school curriculums that include direct contact with the natural world and daily outdoor play.

4. Schedule “unstructured time.” As strange as that sounds, heavily scheduled children need the help of parents and other adults to get that “one green hour” of healthy outdoors time they need each day. Pam Hess, AMC’s education director, acknowledges the difficulty: “It’s hard to foster unstructured time. Time on sports teams is fantastic, but it’s not the same. Even when children are with us [in AMC programs], their time is often structured.” Nonetheless, she tries to spend an hour outdoors with her young daughter every day.

As an organization, Hess notes, AMC is “very concerned about the next generation of conservationists and future outdoor enthusiasts.” She’s read the research: People who spend time in “wild” nature as children are more likely to consider themselves environmentalists and to act to protect natural places.

Learn more
• AMC has recently released a fact sheet on the challenge of getting kids outdoors and AMC’s commitment to finding solutions.
• “Nurture in Nature” (AMC Outdoors, April 2008) A great overview of the “no child left inside” movement, using three AMC families as examples.
Children & Nature Network has compiled research on children and nature in three online “volumes,” with readable summaries and links to many of the articles.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

4 Nature-filled Fall Hikes and Rambles with Kids in Connecticut

With this third in a series of posts about great hikes with children around the Northeast, we travel to Connecticut. The 4 walks described here include a classic summit, child-friendly geology field trips, and uncrowded walks along Long Island Sound. Each hike offers an enjoyable and educational outdoor adventure for children and adults alike.

Mount Tom, Litchfield. “If you seek lofty views with minimal effort, this short hike is for you,” write RenĂ© Laubach and Charles W. G. Smith in AMC’s Best Day Hikes in Connecticut. The trail to the summit starts in Mount Tom State Park and follows yellow blazes through oak-dominated woodland, reaching the summit (1,295 feet) after 1 mile and approximately 400 feet elevation gain. Trail quiz: Identify 4 kinds of birches (white, yellow, gray, and black) and 4 rocks or minerals (schist, gneiss, granite, and hornblende) along the trail. Hint: You’ll find hornblende, a dark, lustrous mineral blend, in the stone observation tower at the summit.

Chatfield Trail, Killingworth. Young geologists (and the adults who love them) will find much to enjoy on this moderate hike (2.6 miles roundtrip, 135 feet elevation gain) through Chatfield Hollow State Park. Geological features are easy to spot, including ledge outcrops, banded rock cliffs, shallow caves, and glacial erratic boulders. Native Indian artifacts discovered in the area suggest that the overhanging ledges and boulders fields may have offered refuge and gatherings spaces. Pick up a map at the park entrance. There are many trails; you want the blue-blazed Chatfield Trail.

Hammonasset Beach State Park, Madison. This busy public beach, the biggest in Connecticut, quiets down after Labor Day. Three short trails, each about 1 mile in length, traverse different salt-water habitats, letting you choose whether to explore a salt marsh, the rocky shoreline, or sandy uplands. Several wooden platforms offer prime viewing for the fall bird migration — snowy egrets, tree swallows, warblers, cormorants, and many species of hawks, among others — and the 2,000-mile migration of monarch butterflies to Mexico. For the best viewing, go on a clear day when the wind is out of the northwest.

Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, Mystic. A natural history museum, nature center store, and wildlife sanctuary make this privately owned 300-acre preserve a good choice for those days when the weather is unsettled — or stormy tempests are brewing in small bodies. When the weather is good, follow intersecting loop trails for a level 2.3 mile ramble past ponds, ledges, and woodland forest. Outdoor flight enclosures contain barred and great horned owls, peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, and other raptors.

My next post in this series crosses over into New York, with hikes in the Catskills and the Hudson Valley. Before that, though, I’m going to sneak in a post on another topic I’ve been thinking about since school started. . . .

Learn more

You can find detailed descriptions of these hikes in AMC’s Best Day Hikes in Connecticut by RenĂ© Laubach and Charles W. G. Smith.

Previous posts in this series:
Peak Bagging of a Different Kind
8 Classic Fall Hikes and Rambles with Kids in the White Mountains
5 Great Fall Hikes and Rambles with Kids in the Berkshires

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Friday, September 11, 2009

5 Great Fall Hikes and Rambles with Kids in the Berkshires

This is the second in a series of posts about great hikes with children around the Northeast, describing accessible summits, classic fall hikes, and rambles to remember. I started in the north country with 8 kid-friendly hikes in the White Mountains. This post takes us south into Massachusetts, to the celebrated Berkshires.

One of the best descriptions of fall in the Berkshires was written 90 years ago by novelist Edith Wharton:

[T]he hills took on their first umber tints [. . .] Day by day the flame of the Virginia creeper spread to the hillside in wider waves of carmine and crimson, the larches glowed like the thin yellow halo about a fire, the maples blazed and smouldered, and the black hemlocks turned to indigo against the incandescence of the forest.

Nature, history, and culture are deeply intertwined in the Berkshires. Each of the 5 hikes below, going north to south, demonstrates that interconnection in a slightly different, and approachable, way.

Stone Hill, Williamstown. Here’s a hike that mixes the outdoors with art, architecture, and a college-town vibe. Stone Hill is the backdrop to the Stone Hill Center at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. It’s also the name given to a network of trails maintained by the art institute. A museum pass is not required to hike the trails, but why not follow a ramble on the several miles of trails with visit to “Through the Seasons: Japanese Art in Nature,” one of the current exhibitions at the museum (through October 18)? Or combine a hike with visit to the Williams College campus.

Spruce Hill, North Adams. The first reward for this relatively short hike (2.6 miles roundtrip) in the Savoy Mountain State Forest is a rocky perch (2,566 feet) with views of Mt. Greylock, the highest summit in Massachusetts, and the Taconics in New York. Better: on a clear autumn day (ideally after a cold front passes through), the chance to observe dozens or even hundreds of migrating hawks as they glide down the valley along the Hoosac range. Best: combining views and raptors with fall foliage.

Shaker Mountain, Hancock. A trail maintained by Boy Scouts starts and ends near a famous round stone barn in an historic Shaker community. Be sure to walk the trail counterclockwise to follow the Boy Scout blazes, which are green triangles inside white circles. Also be sure to check the schedule at the village: Among the autumn events are a county fair on September 26 and 27; and guided hikes on September 19 and October 10 that explore the history and daily life of the Shakers.

Ice Glen/Laura’s Tower, Stockbridge. Old-growth hemlocks and white pines tower over a rocky cleft. Nathaniel Hawthorne called the deep ravine and mossy boulders “the most curious fissure in all Berkshire.” Children may not want to leave the magical glen, which is a short walk (less than 0.5 mile) along the trail, but the full hike (1.9 miles roundtrip) reaches a 30-foot tower with panoramic views of the region. An AMC Outdoors article gives more details.

Alander Mountain, Mt. Washington. The splendid open rock summit of Alander Mountain, 2,250 feet, offers wide-ranging views of other peaks in the southern Berkshires, as well as the Catskill Mountains, the Taconics, and the Hudson River valley in New York and Connecticut. The 5.0-mile trail through Bish Bash Falls State Park well illustrates the transition from the mixed hardwoods and softwoods of the northern forest to the oak-hickory forest of southern New England. You’ll find the zones overlapping here — the deep greens and bright reds of white pine, hemlock, and sugar maples mixing with the yellows and browns of oak, beech, and black cherry. It’s an artist’s palette that combines all the colors of a New England autumn.

My next post moves deeper into the oak and hickory forests of southern New England, covering hikes with children in Connecticut. Southern New England has its autumn reds, too, but they’re primarily at ground level, with sumac and Wharton’s Virginia creeper.

Learn more
You can find detailed descriptions of these hikes in AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the Berkshires by Rene Laubach.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

8 Classic Fall Hikes and Rambles with Kids in the White Mountains

The weather in the White Mountains over Labor Day weekend was just about perfect, with cool temperatures and fair weather clouds during the day and a brilliant full moon at night. So far, that’s the same forecast looking forward: perfect hiking weather.

As I mentioned in my previous post, over the next two weeks I’ll be putting together lists of great hikes with children around the Northeast. I’m starting in the north country, because this is where fall flames first, and will follow the color and the warmth south through New England and New York.

I’ll describe accessible summits, classic fall hikes, and rambles to remember. I hope you’ll add your own thoughts to mine as we go along.

We start with the White Mountains, where the leaves are already changing color up high and in bogs down low.

Shorter and easier
Old Bridle Path to West Rattlesnake. This hike to a low-but-spectacular summit at the southern edge of the White Mountains is a classic first hike for children. At just under 2 miles round-trip and only 1,200 feet at the summit, it’s also a good hike for busy days or uncertain forecasts. On a bright fall day, you’ll likely share the trail, which is well-marked but eroded in places, but even on a crowded summit, you’ll still get a 360-degree view of New Hampshire’s lakes region, with the deep blue of Squam Lake below you and the fall colors of the Squam Range behind you.

Glen Ellis Falls. The roundtrip hike to this 64-foot waterfall near Pinkham Notch is under a mile — 0.6 mile, to be precise. But, as Robert Buchsman writes in AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the White Mountains, “Glen Ellis Falls is one of the most impressive falls in the White Mountains. It’s worth a visit even if you have an aversion to ‘tourist’ spots.” This hike is a good choice for toddlers and first-time hikers, and the pay-off extends beyond the falls themselves to exploring possibilities among the rocks and — if you’re lucky enough to catch Indian summer here — the pools below the falls. Jim remembers cooling off here during his days on the AMC trail crew, and says it’s “nirvana.”

Steeper but not too long
Arethusa Falls Trail and Bemis Brook Trail. The Arethusa Falls Trail in Crawford Notch rises steeply but quickly to the tallest waterfall in New Hampshire: Hikers gain 750 feet in elevation over 1.3 miles. Sugar maple and yellow birch line the trail at the start, giving way to balsam and spruce at the falls. The 200-foot waterfall at the end of the trail is named for one of the Nereids, the sea nymphs of Greek mythology. An option for very young hikers is the Bemis Brook Trail, which departs from the Arethusa Falls trail at 0.1 mile and passes by two smaller waterfalls over the next 0.4 mile.

The Roost. Evans Notch is the northern- and easternmost of the four notches in the White Mountains and the only notch that’s not in New Hampshire. (It’s in Maine.) The Roost is farther north still, a small peak (1,374 feet) that sits above the confluence of the Wild River and Evans Brook and the abandoned logging town of Hastings. Two trailheads offer similar, relatively little traveled, paths to the top. (The trail from the north is 0.7 mile, from the south 0.5 mile.) The effort offers sparkling water along the way, rewarding views, and a real feel of the north — lots of dark green mixed with the reds and yellows.

High reward to effort
Welch-Dickey. It’s easy to see why this is one of the most popular trails in the White Mountains. It’s close to the highway (less than 5 miles off I-93 near Waterville Valley) in central New Hampshire, and it rewards effort with the gnarled trees and ledges typically found on much higher summits to the north and, of course, sweeping views. Families with younger hikers may want to make a destination of the first overlook on Welch, several hundred feet below the 2,605-foot summit, for a roundtrip of about 2 miles. The full loop is 4.4 miles and 1,600 feet elevation gain.

Lonesome Lake. Seeing — or even swimming in — a tarn (a pond created by glacial scouring) is a fair reward for 2.5 miles and 950 feet in elevation gain, but the bigger reward for this hike is staying at an AMC hut. From hut or lake, the views of Mt. Lafayette are breathtaking — especially if you get to see a frosting of early-season snow on the Franconia Ridge amidst the fire-colors of autumn. (Full-service season for the Lonesome Lake hut ends on October 17, and the hut often fills completely on Saturday nights, but family rooms are often available on other nights.)

Family-friendly longer hikes
Lincoln Woods to Franconia Falls. If you want a walk in the woods without a lot of uphill or rocks, this is the hike for you. The trail follows an old railroad grade (used by logging companies from the late 1880s until 1946) along the west bank of the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River for 2.9 miles. A short (0.4 mile) spur trail and a level walk takes you to flat rocks at the base of Franconia Falls. Total roundtrip is 6.6 miles and 500 feet elevation gain — with plenty of cold water to soothe tired feet.

Pine Mountain. Pine Mountain is the northernmost peak of the Presidential Range. At 2,405 feet, it is quite a bit lower than its better known neighbors, but it provides excellent views for only moderate effort. This is also a good hike for inviting along another family or children's friends, because much of the trail is a wide unpaved road. If you’re looking for a ledge-y scramble, turn onto the Ledge Trail after 1 mile. Roundtrip is 3.5 miles and 750 feet elevation gain.

The Lonesome Lake hike, by the way, isn’t the only one that can be turned into an overnight: AMC’s Highland Lodge is a short distance from Arethusa Falls; and the Joe Dodge Lodge at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center is near Glen Ellis Falls and Pine Mountain. Several hikes are also near campgrounds.

Up next: Hikes in the Berkshires.

Learn more
You can find detailed descriptions of these hikes in AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the White Mountains by Robert N. Buchsbaum.

Arethusa Falls photo credit: Robert N. Buchsbaum

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Peak Bagging of a Different Kind

We’re coming into my favorite time of year to hike as a family.

The last few nights have been cool, and the days have finally lost that sticky feeling. This morning, for the first time in weeks, Virgil and Ursula wanted jackets on before they went outside. The cool, dry air makes for perfect walking. Even better, biting bugs are gone, or going. Best of all in this part of the world, the leaves are starting to turn. Even before August ended, I caught glimpses of bright red in the marshy areas, the swamp maples heralding the changes to come.

True, now that summer’s over — and once school starts, it’s over, regardless of what the calendar says — we no longer have long stretches of time for adventures. But we don’t need them. Living in New England, we’re always near great hiking.

Some of our best hiking memories are from the fall. Ursula and Virgil look for leaves with the brightest colors or most perfect shape, and we all play leaf tag, trying to catch falling leaves before they hit the ground. It looks so easy — just reach out and grab a leaf as it floats by — but it is amazingly, hilariously hard. Try it and see!

It’s a little easier to catch fall color at its peak. The weather that produces the most brilliant fall color is days that are sunny and cool and nights that dip toward but not below freezing. Each fall is different, but in general, color peaks at the end of September in the far north and up high, at the beginning of October at middle elevations, and about a week later in the valleys of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Coastal areas and lower elevations in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York hit peak color from the middle to the end of October.

Combining the two kinds of “peak-bagging” experiences — hiking mountains and tracking fall color — can create long-lasting family memories. But I also try to remember that the same conditions that create New England’s glorious foliage are conditions that require extra caution and care when I plan our family hikes. The days are shorter, and they cool off quickly once the sun is low in the sky. As the season progresses, the chance of snow increases, especially in the higher terrain. I always pack fleece jackets for fall hikes; at a certain point I start adding hats and mittens to the pile.

The kids have great memories of staying overnight at AMC huts in the fall. We’ve learned the hard way to remind them that the weather up high is not the same as the weather down low. Then they take pride in the alpine conditions and enjoy snuggling into their sleeping bags.

One final safety note: Hunting season also starts in the fall, although it’s mostly bow-and-arrow hunting (and some bear and moose hunting) that overlaps with prime hiking season. We see a lot of hunters on our road, so we have a collection of reflective biking vests and brightly colored bandanas that we all wear whenever we’re outside, including on the trail.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be posting descriptions of fall-season hikes, walks, and rambles (and a couple of overnights) around the Northeast that are good bets for families. I’ll start in the north country, where fall flames first, then track the warm front southward as the season tips toward winter.

Learn more
Check AMC hut or lodge availability. Fall weekends can be crowded at AMC huts and lodges. Lake of the Clouds and Madison Springs huts close in mid-September; full-service season for the other huts ends on October 17.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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