JOURNEYS; Shostakovich, Or Shooting the Rapids?
IT'S around 3 on a Sunday afternoon in early August. Hundreds of people are stretched out on blankets that cover acres of rolling hillside, picnic baskets unpacked, wine bottles opened and the strands of Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 wafting over the crowd. It's another perfect day at the Tanglewood music festival in Lenox, Mass.Around the same time, nearly 30 miles to south, a group of hardy souls are having an epiphany of their own. After a roughly three-hour climb that has taken them, sweating and grasping for the nearest water bottle, through dense pine forests, they have finally reached the 2,239-foot summit of Alander Mountain, just outside Sheffield, Mass., and are taking in the breathtaking view of the lush farmland that stretches all the way to the blue-tinged Catskill Mountains in the distance.That's the great thing about the Berkshires, a 950-square-mile area of western Massachusetts that encompasses the rugged terrain of the Mohawk Trail to the north, the hayfields and dairy farms near Ashley Falls to the south, and everything in between. Although the area is probably best known as the summer home for the Boston Symphony Orchestra (which has been coming to Tanglewood for 65 years) and other cultural attractions, it's also a land of extraordinary beauty and variety, offering almost untold opportunities for outdoor activities.The choice is yours. Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 or shooting the rapids on the Deerfield River? Kenneth Lonergan's ''This Is Our Youth'' at the Berkshire Theater Festival or grappling the narrow edge of a East Mountain trail with your toes, trying to thrust yourself up to the next finger hold? Touring Edith Wharton's home, the Mount, or getting those quadriceps pumping on a bike ride up Mount Greylock?The Berkshires offer activities for almost every skill level, whether you're a serious hiker or a Sunday stroller, whether it's your first time on a horse or your hundredth.The following adventure guide to the Berkshires breaks down each activity into two categories: the ''family friendly'' excursion, suitable for people of varying skill levels who just want to have a good time together, and the ''hard core'' outing, intended for adults and older teenagers in excellent physical condition with a good deal of experience in the sport.HikingFAMILY-FRIENDLY TRIPBenedict Pond (Great Barrington); one-and-a-half-mile loop; the hike takes approximately one hour at a moderate pace.Silence. That's probably the first thing you'll notice as you take a tranquil walk around a postcard-worthy pond. There are no watercraft buzzing around, no motors breaking the silence of the woods.This is a perfectly flat trail with no incline at all. Beaver dams and bunny hutches dot the small tributaries off the pond. Children will enjoy the treasure-hunt aspect of following the blue triangles that mark the trail approximately every 100 feet. (There should be no fear of getting lost. But just to be sure, pick up a well-marked brochure at the trail's start.) Bring a pair of binoculars to spot the hawks and eagles soaring overhead.HOW TO GET THERE -- From the town of Great Barrington, drive east on Route 23 and make a left onto Blue Hill Road. Proceed 2.1 miles and make a right at the Beartown State Forest sign onto Benedict Pond Road. Drive four-tenths of a mile to the picnic and parking area. (Parking is $5.)HARD-CORE TRIPAlander Mountain/Bash Bish Falls (Mount Washington); seven miles; at least three hours.The Alander Trail spans fields studded with so many wildflowers that you'll feel as if you've dropped into a painting by Monet. Clamber through the hemlock and laurel forests to get to the summit; it's worth the steep (and sometimes tricky) uphill climb. The views at the top are breathtaking, stretching all the way to Albany. Bear right and look for the white blazes on the north ridgeline for your descent, which follows the steep cliffs of Bash Bish gorge.Legend has it that Bash Bish, an Indian maiden, was accused of adultery and sentenced to go over these falls strapped to her canoe. Just as she was about to plummet to her death, she was rescued by a swarm of butterflies. Alas, you will not have such a light-footed descent. The trail by the falls is treacherously steep, composed of an almost-sheer rock cliff. Though swimming is technically prohibited -- people have been killed diving into the pools -- you will spy numerous lawbreakers enjoying a quick cool-down. Or perhaps they are just baptizing themselves. This is more than a hike; it's practically a religious conversion.HOW TO GET THERE -- Take 41 South from South Egremont and follow the sign to Mount Washington and Bash Bish Falls (to the right past the pond). If you are taking two cars, which is recommended, turn right on the signed road at the church before the Mount Washington State Forest headquarters and park at Bash Bish Falls's upper parking lot. Park the second car at the state forest headquarters. If you don't have two cars, consider doing only half of the hike to avoid an additional four-and-a-half-mile hike back from the falls to the parking lot.CyclingFAMILY-FRIENDLY TRIPMain Road, Tyringham; five miles; one hour.Set in one of the prettiest valleys in the Berkshires, this rural hamlet (a ''hinterland settlement,'' as the Tyringham town sign accurately proclaims) is dotted with dairy farms and haystacks. Many of the houses here date back more than 200 years.Look for the gingerbread-style art gallery on the left side of Main Road. On the right, across the valley, the yellow and red houses in the mountains are original buildings from a 19th-century Shaker village. At Ashintully, gaze up the hillside and try to find four white pillars, all that remains of the old mansion that burned down in 1952. (You can visit the gardens on foot if you like.) This loop does have some inclines, but youngsters can dismount and walk up the hardest one, at Tyringham-Monterey Road.HOW TO GET THERE -- From Route 102 east out of Stockbridge, make a sharp right onto Main Road before the entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike in Lee. Drive four miles to park behind the Tyringham post office on your right.HARD-CORE TRIPMount Greylock State Reservation, Lanesborough; Stony Ledge Trail; approximately seven miles round trip, two to three hours.At 3,491 feet, Mount Greylock is the highest peak in Massachusetts, and though the trail is marked by switchbacks, which allow you to catch your breath along the most difficult stretches, be prepared for a steep incline at the end.If you hike up Rockwell Road north from the parking area for 1.8 miles, you'll roll up to a picturesque overlook of virgin forest. At the directional signs, veer left on the unpaved Sperry Road for a mile and a half. The trail dead-ends at Stony Ledge with panoramic views of the wilderness area.HOW TO GET THERE -- From Route 7 north in Lanesborough, turn right onto Rockwell Road into the park. Turn left at the visitors' center and proceed for three and a half miles on Rockwell Road to the Jones Nose trailhead and parking area.Horseback RidingFAMILY-FRIENDLY TRIPUndermountain Farm, 400 Undermountain Road, Lenox; (413) 637-3365.For children too young for a trail ride, Undermountain Farm offers pony rides at its stables. Vacationing children who want more exposure to riding and horse care may want to take advantage of the stable's weeklong summer camp for ages 7 and up.HARD-CORE TRIPJohn Drummond Kennedy Park, Lenox; four to five miles; one hour.Undermountain Farms also offers one-hour trail rides for adults and children 12 and older who have some riding experience. There are more than 10 miles of blazed trails rated for technical difficulty with short climbs and descents. The Main Trail is a wide track with good footing for horses. Though you'd be able to explore more if you had your own horse, the one-hour tour will still steer you by the most popular sights in the park: the pond, a balancing rock and a natural-fed spring. From the scenic overlook, try to spot Ventfort Hall, a red brick mansion in Lenox that you may recognize from the movie ''The Cider House Rules.'' It's now a museum of the Gilded Age.Rock ClimbingFAMILY-FRIENDLY TRIPThe Rocks, East Mountain, Great Barrington; half-day outing.A great introduction to rock climbing for children 8 and up is the beginners' excursions offered by Appalachian Mountain Gear. At the top of the highest climb, you'll get a bird's-eye view of the after effects of a recent tornado along Route 23 and on the back side of the Butternut ski basin. (Difficulty levels begin at 5.0, which is a flat hike, and go up to 5.14, which is nearly vertical, not to mention almost impossible.)Take a beginners' class near Reservoir Rocks, where you'll learn basic safety, rope-handling skills, and top-roping techniques. Within an hour, you and your little ones will be scrambling up the rocks faster than a billy goat. Then you'll move on to the more challenging part of the mountain, where stone outcroppings tower sky-high.HOW TO GET THERE -- Appalachian Mountain Gear (www.amggear.com; 413-528-8811) is at 684 South Main Street (Route 7) in Great Barrington.HARD-CORE TRIPKoyaanisquatsi, East Mountain, Great Barrington; half-day outing.At this level of climbing it's best not to think about the views. You mainly stare at the rock ahead of you and try not to look at the abyss below. This is one of the hardest climbs out there, rated at 5.10. ''Koyaanisquatsi'' is an American Indian word meaning ''out of balance,'' which you certainly will be if you try this climb. The Zen of the trip lies in finding the right handholds and footholds. But it's not all terror. There's an exquisite stroll through the high grass to get to the rocks, one in which the heady smell of wildflowers and heather provide a serene prelude to the climb ahead.HOW TO GET THERE -- Though a map of the East Mountain climbs is in the works, the best way for visitors to learn about specific locations and difficulty ratings is to visit Appalachian Mountain Gear before starting out. To go directly to the mountain, take Bridge Street in Great Barrington, make a right onto Pine Street and then park on Quarry Street.White-Water RaftingFAMILY-FRIENDLY TRIPLower Deerfield Float; seven miles; half-day.Zoar Outdoor, a white-water rafting company in Charlemont (www.zoaroutdoor .com; 800-532-7483), offers a variety of excursions at every thrill level. This float trip (no white water) is for novice rafters ages 5 to 10. (Older children will want to try the more thrilling Zoar Gap section of the Deerfield River, with some light paddling and a bit of white water.) The trip past North Adams on the Mohawk Trail is staggeringly beautiful, full of twists and turns and photo opportunities on the mountainside. Once on the river, there is plenty of time for splashing and swimming. Because there is no white water to attract the droves of paddlers, you may have this part of the Deerfield to yourselves. Look for herons, hawks and beaver dams. A picnic supper awaits your group at the end of the day.HOW TO GET THERE -- Take Route 2 (the Mohawk Trail) from North Adams to the town of Charlemont. Zoar Outdoor is on the left side of the highway, at 7 Main Street.HARD-CORE TRIPThe Deerfield River's dry way; four miles; three hours on the river.Zoar Outdoor runs day trips for rafters ages 14 and up on this dam-controlled section of the river. Originally a dry waterbed, the water level is now kept high for the hydroelectric plants in the area. Because the flow is man-made, you're guaranteed Class III to IV white water. Prepare yourself for foam, foam and more foam. This route offers a lot of technical paddling with precious little float time to appreciate the lush vegetation around the river.RESOURCESFor Directions, Maps and StoresBefore heading off to the Berkshires, consider picking up the following books, which have excellent maps and trail directions. The shops listed below will provide all your needed equipment, for sale and for rent, and the salesclerks are particularly knowledgeable about the area.Hikes and Walks in the Berkshire Hills, by Lauren R. Stevens, Berkshire House Publishers (1998).Mountain Biking Southern New England, by Paul Angiolillo, Falcon Publishing (1999).Arcadian Shop, 91 Pittsfield Road, Lenox, Mass., www.arcadian.com or (413) 637-3010.Mountain Goat Outdoor Shop, 130 Water Street, Williamstown, Mass., (413) 458-8445.