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Broad perspectives

Ups and downs of the Mount Holyoke Range include unexpected peak experiences

The stretch of the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail that follows the ridgeline of the Mount Holyoke Range offers diverse terrain and a destination gratifying for both the splendor of the scenery that has drawn artists and poets there for two centuries and a sense of history.

We started at the visitors center at the ''notch" where Route 116 bisects the range at the southern end of Amherst. We ended at the Summit House at the crest of Mount Holyoke. About 150 years ago, this elegant lodge and its view of the meandering Connecticut River was arguably the second most popular tourist destination in the country, after Niagara Falls. At one time, according to Tammis Coffin, Skinner State Park interpreter, the hotel had 40 rooms, a banquet hall, and New England's first tramway. Today, it is a small museum.

This notoriety carries with it a paved road and parking lot. We deposited one car there in the morning, then drove another car to Atkins Fruit Bowl near the notch for breakfast and picnic shopping. Atkins is a cross between a supermarket and a farm stand, and sells fancy coffee, cider doughnuts, fruit and other produce, deli meats and cheeses, healthy drinks, fresh bread, and imported chocolate.

We didn't tarry at the center, which is more like a classroom for the biology and natural history of one of the few ranges in New England that runs east-west, the result of 200-million-year-old lava flows. The southern slope supports oak and hickory forests like those of lower latitudes. The northern face favors hemlock, white pine, birch, beech, and maple. Some of the so-called ''balds" along the way lend themselves to tall grasses more common to the prairies out west.

For us, the hike was the thing. My wife, 9-year-old daughter, and our neighbor hit the M-M Trail at 11:11 a.m. and we got to the Summit House 4 1/2 miles away at about 3:33 p.m., both times, as my daughter likes to call them, ''moments of the day." In between were a lot of ups and downs.

Hiking the Seven Sisters, another name for this section of the Mount Holyoke Range, is a series of ascents and descents, tightly packed and, though steep in places, fairly short.

Heading west from the notch, the first half mile is almost straight up to two panoramic views. One looks north over Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts to a horizon that stretches all the way to Vermont and Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. To the south, you see the runways of Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee and then Springfield and Hartford, their tallest buildings directly in line with each other.

At 1,014 feet, Bare Mountain, the first peak of the day, is the highest, but not by much. Mount Hitchcock, less than a mile farther on, with a dip and a climb, is 1,002 feet. But you might not notice because there is no break in the trees and by then, you are in the woods.

We encountered our first fellow hiker, Jeff Nadeau of Chicopee, admiring his town from above on Bare Mountain. He comes up to ''clear his head," he said. ''It's a shame more people don't do this hike. All this beauty is in their backyard, but they don't take advantage of it."

Further on we met a trio, two of whom were speed hikers who passed us on their way to the Summit House. While some people park a car at each end of the trail and hike it one way, many park at one end and hike out and back. It's a full day but certainly doable for someone in reasonable shape. The third member of the trio, Kevin Burns of Westfield, wanted to conserve his energy for a music gig he had that night.

''We were originally going to do it as a car-to-car hike, but they talked me into this," he said. His solution was to turn around after two hours and let his friends rejoin him on their way back. He made it about two-thirds of the way and had time to stop and reminisce about having done this hike last winter in snowshoes.

Our pace was relaxed but steady. We stopped for lunch at 1:11 (yes, a ''moment of the day"), near a large boulder in the woods. The second half of the hike brought us into some new ecosystems, grassier and more open. It also brought a faster succession of ups and downs and a faster succession of outlook points, each with a new angle on the world below.

A small box attached to a tree contained a ''trail diary" and a pen in a zip-locked plastic bag. One entry from a few days earlier was from a parent ''hiking the trail with the boys, pretending we're Native Americans surveying our land." Another was from 45- and 50-year-old siblings who had hiked the trail together 30 years ago and were back to ''build new memories."

At the bottom of the last descent, we crossed the access road to the Summit House. On our last climb, we passed grills and picnic tables arrayed on a partially cleared slope. There is also a memorial to a 10-member Air Force crew that crashed on the mountain on May 27, 1944. The exact location isn't given because some of the remains were never found.

The Summit House was the final reward of the day. The interior is now a museum with a few preserved rooms. Its life as a hotel was done in by the Great Hurricane of 1938, though it had been in decline for a couple of decades once automobiles gave tourists more choice. In the 19th century, people came by train, a mile-long steamer ride upriver to the base of the mountain, and then a tramway (now gone) up the side of the mountain. During its first years of operation starting in 1854, the tramway was powered by a yoked horse walking in circles. A steam engine eventually provided the horsepower. By that time there had been a structure on the mountain for more than 30 years. The only way to get to the Summit House now is by car or foot.

Many artists and writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry W. Longfellow, came to seek inspiration from and spread their praises for this dramatic perspective on the land, no doubt contributing to its popularity. Jenny Lind, the Swedish opera star who was also a pop culture figure, dubbed this mountaintop the ''paradise of America." A room preserved in the hotel is named for her.

Mount Holyoke College was named after the mountain, which itself is named for Elizur Holyoke (1624-76), one of the first Europeans to survey the area. Over its whole history, said Coffin, ''this mountain has always been more famous for the view from it, than the view of it."

Before leaving, we met another trio of hikers, a Smith College student with her aunt and uncle visiting from New York. They had left their car at the notch, mistakenly believing they could summon a taxi by cell phone from the Summit House. With more planning, that might have been possible, but on short notice they couldn't get one of the handful of cabs that operate just under the mountain in Northampton, to make the trip.

We gave Andrea Brunhoelzl a ride back to their car. She had done this hike years earlier and liked it.

''It combines nature and history," said Brunhoelzl, 50, ''I like hikes where you can see water, because it gives you a sense of geography." On the flip side, her niece, who skulls for Smith on the Connecticut, will now be able to look up at the range and say, ''I hiked from there to there."

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All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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