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Mount Norwottuck and the Horse Caves

Horse Caves at Mt Holyoke State Park
Horse Caves at Mt Holyoke State Park

On Saturday, I headed out for a hike in Western Massachusetts in Mount Holyoke Range State Park, just south of Amherst College. I was accompanied by my regular day hiking partner, Nature Ninja, and two new hiking friends Luke and Grant, author of the NewEnglandOutside blog.

The Mount Holyoke Range is one of my old haunts and I used to walk the trails here frequently when I was a graduate student in Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts, in nearby Amherst. A number of major trails systems run through the area including the 114 mile Metacomet-Monadnock Trail (M&M) which is now part of the 220 mile New England National Scenic Trail, extending from Guilford, Connecticut to Mt Monadnock, in New Hampshire. The trails here are suitable for families with children, passing over gently rolling hills and through light forest, though there are more challenging hikes too, like the Seven Sister’s Traverse.

Yesterday, we started our hike at the Notch Visitors Center located off Rt 116 in the mountain pass below Bare Mountain, and headed east towards Mt Norwottuck on the M&M. I used to climb Norwottuck frequently when I was I was a student, and it has great views of the entire Pioneer Valley.

Rattlesnake Knob
Rattlesnake Knob

Back in my student days, there used to be a metal fire tower on the summit of Norwottuck, the highest peak in the Holyoke Range at 1101 ft. It’s gone now, but there’s still an old bunker dug into the basalt rock of the peak that was designed to withstand a nuclear attack. Grant said it was still in use, but as a book depository, by Amherst College.

Descending to the east, we climbed down to the Horse Caves at the base of Norwottuck. These are a group of overhanging ledges with some good scrambling and people sized cracks to explore. The Horse Caves are also a site of historical significance, dating back to Shays’s rebellion in 1787, when Massachusetts farmers revolted against crushing taxation by the Massachusetts government. It is said that some of the farmers camped at the Horse Caves after being defeated by the Massachusetts Militia. It’s no wonder that Massachusetts is often referred to as Taxachusetts, to this day.

After a while the bugs started getting bad, mostly chiggers, but even some mosquitoes, so we left the caves and started hiking again in an effort to outrun them. Eventually, I stopped and put on a long sleeve jersey to protect my arms. I don’t mind putting 100% Ben’s DEET on in such circumstances, but none of us had brought any along.

Despite the bugs, it is a great relief to be hiking again in warmer weather. Just last weekend, Nature Ninja and I were wearing crampons and postholing on the western face of Mt Washington in New Hampshire amidst blow downs and spruce traps, in a failed attempt to summit Mt Clay. I love winter hiking, but even I am ready for winter to be over.

Skunk Cabbage
Skunk Cabbage

As we walked, Luke, pointed out a number of plants that were growing up out of the forest duff including Trillium, Wintergreen, and Fiddleheads. I admire people who know how to identify wild plants and know things about them. It’s not something I’ve been exposed to much, or something feel I can teach myself from a book. However, when friends have shown me how to identify plants in the woods or explain how they can be used, I am able to retain the information indefinitely.

After leaving the Horse Caves, we continued on the M&M trail, into new territory for me. This part of the trail, farther away from the Visitor Center, is not as well maintained as the more traveled paths closer to the Notch, but is still quite pleasant. In addition to regular painted blazes, the trail has numbered plaques nailed to the trees so visitors can easily find their location without needing to use a compass.

After a few hours of walking we improvised a loop back to the Visitors center, getting back under cover just as it started to rain. It was nice meeting some new hikers and another New England blogger, in person, something I hope to do more of in the coming months. This wasn’t our normal survival challenge or soul cleansing death march, but Nature Ninja and I had a nice day, stopping in at a great farm stand to buy some local greens and cheeses, before heading back home to Boston.

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  1. Phillip,

    It was great hiking with yall. Hiking for the sake of hiking without deadlines and set routes was a nice change of pace.

    • Hi Folks,
      It’s great to read about your adventures in what I’ve called my back yard since the 60’s and 70’s when I was a kid exploring what mother nature had to offer. There’s so much of Norwattuck that people on a day hike have yet to experience and if you ever want a guide with all the right stuff my dogs and I would love to have you along for the ride. I grew up in Granby off of Batcherlor St. and one of the hidden gem trails to the hills that not everyone knows, just send me a message and I’d be glad to show you some of the hidden paths that perhaps me and Shay would only now about……of course a few other of my adolscent tribe may remember? Cheers and keep on hikiing.

  2. The bunker that you write of is dug into Bare Mountain which is across the highway from the Visitor’s Center. Norwottuck has no bunker. Otherwise, the story is an interesting read.

  3. I Loved the Metacomet trail and have done it entirely from MT Monadnock to the hanging hills of Meridan Ct, of course a piece at a time.

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