South Taconic Mountains, Connecticut

Connecticut's South Taconic Mountains have bald peaks, deep, forested gorges, and trees as old as the Mayflower.
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Connecticut's South Taconic Mountains have bald peaks, deep, forested gorges, and trees as old as the Mayflower.

Little Known Fact: The Mount Frissell Trail in the South Taconic Mountains accesses the highest point in Connecticut at 2,380 feet

After hiking up 1,300 feet, we had finally reached the rocky bald of Alander Mountain. I was noticing the ripe blueberries and scrub oaks that created a low, dense wall along both sides of the trail, when George leaped back and let out a strangled cry. I edged forward and spotted a huge rattler ready to strike.

"What now?" I asked, surveying the impenetrable brush.

"It's his mountain!" George pointed out.

I tapped my walking stick on a stone slab in front of the alarmed snake, hoping to scare it off. Instead, the rattler slithered straight at me, and I hastily retreated to safety. Then the snake turned, crossed the trail, and disappeared into the brush. Behind the spade-shaped head was a long, slow-moving body, thick as a baseball bat. We tiptoed on, two men beating the hell out of every trailside blueberry bush, until we reached the safety of the Alander Mountain cabin.

"Who says there's no wilderness left in the East?" asked George, taking a deep breath.

The South Taconics are wild, a roughly rectangular highland area of isolated 1,800- to 2,600-foot peaks straddling the state lines of Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut. Taconic summits offer spectacular views: west to the Catskills, southwest to the Hudson Highlands, and north to Mount Greylock, the tallest mountain in Massachusetts. Between the region's bald peaks are deep, forested gorges cut by cascading streams and laced with more than 60 miles of blazed trails.

Two primary paths run parallel from north to south. The 15.6-mile South Taconic Trail follows the western escarpment, weaving back and forth from eastern New York state into western Massachusetts. The eastern escarpment is traversed by a 16.5-mile section of the Appalachian Trail that begins in Connecticut and stretches along precipitous cliffs through Massachusetts. Side trails descend from both the South Taconic and Appalachian Trails into the many deep ravines; Bash Bish and Race Brook Gorge are the two most notable.

The morning after our rattler encounter, George and I hiked south to Brace Mountain in New York's Taconic State Park. Along the densely wooded Ashley Hill Trail in Massachusetts we found bear scat and deer and raccoon tracks. Stone walls, like islands in a sea of waist-high ferns, reminded us that wilderness had only recently reclaimed the area.

Brace and South Brace Mountains, both more than 2,300 feet in elevation, are worthy destinations. Rock bluffs are decorated with swirling patterns of white quartz that dazzle like ice in the sun. Normally the peaks offer stunning views, but today from South Brace we could barely see Riga Lake, which was shrouded in mist. At noon, we headed east on the Mount Frissell Trail, reached the highest point in Connecticut at 2,380 feet, and encountered the tri-state border intersection, marked by a granite obelisk.

In late afternoon we intercepted the Appalachian Trail at Sages Ravine, where we spent the night under a loose canopy of treetops and sky. That's when the deep, natural silence of the South Taconics sunk in. Other than the faint sound of high jets, no artificial noise penetrated the woods.

On our final day we followed the AT north from Sages Ravine. At Bear Rock Falls, a small stream skids off vertical rock into the shifting fog of the valley below. We ascended the 2,365-foot summit of Mount Race, enjoyed its spectacular 360-degree view, then climbed 2,602-foot Mount Everett, the highest point in the Taconics.

To end our long Taconic weekend, we drove along back roads to Bash Bish Falls. Carved from a 200-foot-high granite and schist cliff, these falls were first described by Amherst geologist Ed Hitchcock in 1841 as "the most remarkable and interesting gorge and cascade in Massachusetts." We shared the short, steep trail to the base of the falls with Sunday-afternoon tourists. It was then, in the noisy crowd, that we remembered the calming quiet of the Taconics we'd left behind. For three days we'd savored the silence of hemlock groves and windswept balds. So do the Taconics qualify as wilderness? The solitude speaks for itself.

Contact Information:

Mount Washington State Forest

East Street

Mount Washington, Massachusetts 01258

(413) 528-0330

Location:

The Taconics form a mountainous highland where the borders of New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut meet. Mount Washington State Forest and Mount Everett Reservation encompass much of the Massachusetts Taconics. Taconic State Park is in New York State. Tiny, undeveloped Riga State Park is in Connecticut.

Getting There:

The Taconics are 125 miles from New York City, 145 miles from Boston, and 50 miles from Hartford. New York Rt. 22 parallels the west ridge, and Massachusetts Rt. 41 the east. Rt. 344 penetrates the mountains at Copake Falls. Secondary roads give access to the highland interior.

Seasonal Information:

Contact the forest office for details.

Wildlife:

Deer, bears, raccoons, and snakes are common in the Taconics.

Insects:

Contact the forest office for details.

Plant Life:

The South Taconics are dominated by towering hemlocks that fill the gorges and filter the sun's rays through the dense canopy. A tiny grove of hemlocks in Massachusetts' Mount Washington State Forest contains the oldest trees in the state. One tree has been scientifically dated to 1620. The inaccessible Taconic ravines protected these virgin giants from the charcoal burners of the 18th and 19th centuries, when the mountains were stripped of trees to fire local iron mines.

Brace Mountain's desolate top is typical of a Taconics summit: windswept, grassy, tufted by high-bush blueberries, mountain laurel, scrub oak and birch.

Facilities:

The 4,500 acres of Massachusetts' Mount Washington State Forest offer beautiful primitive campsites on the Ashley Hill Trail, and a well-kept backpackers' cabin at Alander Mountain.

The Appalachian Mountain Club provides well-kept, designated campsites along the Appalachian Trail.

Taconic State Park, covering 5,000 acres in New York State, has major campgrounds at Copake Falls ((518) 329-3993) and Rudd Pond ((518) 789-3059).

Parking:

Contact the forest office for details.

Permits:

No permits are required, but register at the park headquarters when camping at the campground.

Policies:

Contact the forest office for details.

Hazards:

Contact the forest office for details.

Leave No Trace:

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

The "New York Walk Book" highlights major trails and is available from:

New York-New Jersey Trail Conference

232 Madison Ave.

Suite 908

New York, NY 10016

(212) 685-9699.

The conference also sells an excellent waterproof map.

Maps and trail guide for the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut and Massachusetts are available from:

Appalachian Trail Conference

Box 807

Harpers Ferry, WV 25425.

Other Trip Options:

Contact the forest office for details.