The Taconic Crest Trail & The Hidden Gear
Harvey’s lake was the center of my adolescent social universe. If you’ve ever been there, you’d probably be amazed it was the center of anything, much less a universe. But to a skinny country kid out in the boonies, it offered everything: a basketball hoop, a grassy patch big enough to kick a soccer ball around, a ready supply of Mountain Dew, gathered friends, and the chance to see and maybe, just maybe, even talk to girls.
But there was a problem. It was almost ten miles from my house, and mom and dad weren’t keen on chauffeuring me around the countryside. And those ten miles weren’t some saunter along a rail trail. There was a mountain pass to be tamed. And this one was especially wild. It was a thousand feet of climbing all within about two miles. It was a brutal climb: especially during a hot and humid summer day on a bike laden down with beach supplies.
Once there, a typical day at Harvey’s involved juggling a soccer ball while that little blond headed Coppenrath kid threw up bricks on the nearby rim, talking with friends, leering at the girls and following in the footsteps of Jacques Cousteau by snorkeling through the seaweed forests out near the floating dock. By the end of the day I was exhausted. And I still had to make my way back over the mountain pass. That blessed mountain pass.
Making that climb early in the day with fresh legs was exhausting. Making it at the end of the day, with lead in my legs from the day’s adventures, taught me about the “hidden gear”: that reserve of energy you don’t know you have, until you had no choice but to find it and use it.
I’ve never used that hidden gear more than since becoming a bikepacker. And I always seem to need it in the Taconics of Western Massachusetts.
The Taconics are a sliver of mountains that run up from Connecticut to Vermont, providing the physical border between Massachusetts and New York. Like a wave, the land roils slowly upward on the New York side to the Taconic Crest, where it steeply plummets on the Massachusetts side into the river valleys of the Hoosic and Housatonic below.
My first taste of the Taconics came on my Bennington to Providence epic, where I suffered through some of the most difficult hours of mountain biking I had ever faced. But this time would be different. This time I would be starting where I had left off on the Crest Trail at Petersburg Pass. A paved road would take me most of the way to the top, in contrast to the muddy footpath I had last used to gain the ridge the last time. Surely it would be easier. Surely.
It was a hot summer day when I pulled into a spot in the wide parking lot just out of the center of Williamstown, Massachusetts. Although I was starting alone, I had arranged to meet a friend at the top of Petersburg Pass, and I was already running late. That meant I would need to push the pace on the long paved climb up to the pass. This was not ideal on a sticky summer day. I was able to avoid the sun for most of the ride out of Williamstown, but when I made the turn west to climb the pass, I was in the sun’s spotlight. Although forest lined both sides of the road, the surrounding trees were too distant to offer shade and gave no reprieve from the stifling heat as I labored upward. It could be worse, I thought: at least I was able to pedal my way up.
About halfway up the climb I found shade and stopped to take a drink. My phone buzzed as the message from my friend came in: he needed to cancel at the last minute. I was actually relieved. Now I didn’t need to push as hard up the climb. I could take my time.
At the top of the pass I admired the view, and readied myself for the rest of the climb to the ridge high above the road. Once, while traveling out to the Adirondacks I had stopped at the pass and explored the trails leading south by bike, making it all the way to the ridge above. I thought I knew what to expect, but my memories of lugging a thirty pound bike to the top hardly resembled the struggle I endured wrestling my sixty pound rig up the impossibly steep, crumbly doubletrack that led me south.
I had traded the blazing sun and smooth road for a crumbly shale littered shady doubletrack. While out of the sun, I was now off the bike, pushing it upwards in the now familiar: push, brake, step, push, brake, step - dance I had learned on my previous visit to the Taconic Crest.
Nearly half-way up, two hikers coming down looked at me incredulously as I wrestled my bike up the vertigo inducing slope. I might as well have been lugging a piano in their eyes. But I pressed on, with the hope that once I reached the crest, the path would settle and lazily surf the ridge southward. Perhaps I should have read their puzzled looks as a portent of things to come.
I finally reached the top of the climb and passed the spot I had previously visited with my unladen bike. I continued south, but rather than roll along smoothly, the trail dipped down into a hollow and then climbed again for over a mile, this time more reasonably, but still forcing me off the bike to push.
The word Taconic comes from the anglicanization of a phrase from the Lenape natives, meaning “in the trees”. And while forest dominated the landscape, it wasn’t the trees that were the most striking feature; it was the ferns. I have never in my life seen so many fern carpeted forest glens as I saw on the Taconic Crest. Everywhere I turned were fern covered fields and fern blanketed forests. Whatever the native word for “in the ferns” is, they should have used that to describe the ridge.
Finally at the highest point on my ride, I reached the summit of Berlin Mountain and was welcomed by a wide grassy field with 180 degree views of the ridge and valley below. It could not have been a more beautiful day and so I lingered there soaking up the views as I munched on a powerbar and some turkey jerky.
The doubletrack descended southward, and I found myself in another hollow with a steep climb back to the ridge ahead. You would think that doubletrack- an old road- would find the tamest way across the ridge, but this is not the case on the Taconic Crest. A lesson I had learned on my last visit hadn’t hit home- whoever built this doubletrack was more interested in drawing straight lines between the peaks than making easy climbing, which meant it charged straight up and down the series of smaller peaks that lined the ridge headed south. While the first ten miles from Williamstown to the top of Berlin Mountain had taken me nearly three hours (itself a glacial pace), the next ten would take even longer. I was off the bike more than on it.
To complicate matters, I was running low on water. I searched, to no avail, in each of the hollows for a water source, but only found milky tan puddles in the divots of doubletrack. The frogs could keep it. I wasn’t that desperate. Yet.
Somewhere near the aptly named Misery Mountain, while pushing my bike along a steep section for the umpteenth time that day, I was ready to call it a day and set up camp. As I leaned there against my bike, parched, sweat drenched, and legs shaking from the effort, I reached down and found my hidden gear. I was that twelve year old kid again, trying to make it home from Harvey’s Lake. Just a few more miles to the top.
On a knoll just short of the top of the last steep climb, I set up my hammock as the sun started to fade into night. I made a quick dinner, leaving just enough water for coffee in the morning, and prepared to climb into my hammock, when I looked down to spot the unmistakable splat of berry filled bear poop under my feet. Oh boy, sleep would be light tonight.
Despite the omen, no visitors arrived and day two started with a quick climb, and then a descent through more beautiful fern covered forests. At times the ferns closed in so thick I struggled to find the trail, but eventually I was back onto a steep doubletrack climb and into the familiar hike-a-bike routine. The climb was short lived though, and I was soon bombing down a thousand feet into the wide Kinderhook notch, where I found pavement once again in the Hamlet of Hancock. I crossed the state line into New York on Route 20 and found a small store in Stephentown where I refilled my water and loaded up on snacks.
As I rolled back East in the wide bike lane, the ridge loomed high above. I could see more hike-a-bike in my future. I briefly considered riding the road to the start of the rail trail in Pittsfield but the promise of a winding singletrack descent off the ridge was too much to resist.
Pavement carried me through a farm, and I started the climb in earnest under the shade of tall old growth as the pavement faded to dirt. Slowly but surely, I made my way up toward the ridge, until I snaked onto a ribbon of singletrack that veered off and switchbacked toward the top. “At least it’s not going straight up the fall-line”, I comforted myself as I braced for another sufferfest. And I was not disappointed as the next hour and half were downright brutal. Again drenched in sweat, I stopped on the trail contemplating my choice of leisure activity and wondering if there was an alternative route, but still that singletrack beckoned. And so I dug deep and found that hidden gear again.
I finally gained the ridge, and popped out onto road in Pittsfield State Forest, before finding a well travelled trail back into the woods. I saw my first hikers of the day- and first hikers since the couple near Petersburg Pass, as I collapsed onto a bench at a small lookout on the ridge. After devouring lunch, and draining another water bottle I started my descent down Turner trail. All the work I had put in to gain the ridge was now paying off- and it was well worth it. Switchback after switchback lulled me into a joyful trance until I reached the valley floor below. I rolled through the campground, and onto a playful winding trail through pine forest. The singletrack exited onto a residential road where I made my way around a lake, up a long paved climb and then down to trailhead for the paved Ashuwillticook trail. I was welcomed by beautiful views of the Taconic ridge rising in the distance as I sped north. Following the Hoosic River the trail eased slightly downhill the whole way. In Adams, I visited with my old friend who runs Village Bike Rentals, where I recounted the last couple of days’ adventures. The finale found me on a wide-shouldered but busy road into North Adams and then on to Williamstown where my car awaited.
The Taconic Crest is no rail trail cruise. There is no sauntering. There are only relentless waves of unforgiving climbs and unparalleled fern covered forests. There won’t be any soccer, basketball, or swimming holes. And especially no Mountain Dew vending machines. You might see a hiker or two, but the crowds of friends and cute girls are all likely someplace else. I guess what I’m saying is don’t go there to find the center of an adolescent universe. You won’t find it.
What you might find, however, if you’re lucky, is that hidden gear.
Here's the planned route:
MY GEAR LIST
Large Ziplock Bags
Feed Bag (Granola, Dehydrated Milk, Coffee, Sugar, Soup Mix, Cheese)
Extra Stans Notubes Fluid
Rear Flashing Light
Lafuma 30F Sleeping Bag
Wool Socks x 2
Wool Underwear x 2
Long Sleeve Baselayer
1 x Water Bottle filled with Electrolyte Mix
Snacks (Almonds, Gels, Waffles, Cliff Bars, Chocolate)
Watch Charger Cord
Phone Charger Cord
Hennessy Hammock Snakeskins 1” Webbing x2
The key to this route is keeping your weight as low as possible while still bringing enough layers to stay warm and dry and enough water to last overnight. Add in a stay at Pittsfield State Forest or even route yourself over to October Mountain State Forest and make this a three to four day epic.