State Forests & Parks in Western MA

So Much Fun for So Little Money
Massachusetts State Forests & Parks

In the extreme southwest corner of Massachusetts is a cluster of state parks noted for their spectacular scenery and breathtaking views, including Mount Washington State Forest. Adjacent to the state forest is Bash Bish Falls, one of the state’s most dramatic waterfalls. Cascading water tumbles through a series of gorges, and then plummets some 60 feet into a sparkling pool below. One of the many “so much fun for so little money” locations the DCR manages.

“Come out and play!”  “Find yourself in a state park.”  “It’s your nature.”  These are some of the phrases Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has used over the years to invite visitors to Massachusetts state Forests and Parks.  They are all true. Here’s another one:  “So much fun for so little money!” It’s unofficial, of my own invention, and so true, too.

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation – the state forests and parks – kicks its recreation season into high gear in June.  Plan a visit.  Plan lots of visits.  Let’s talk about the “so much fun” part first.  “For so little money” is covered later in this article.

SO MUCH FUN

The first thing to know about your state Forests and Parks is that there are lots of them – approximately 150 sites throughout Massachusetts. They range from small “pocket parks,” such as playgrounds, in eastern Massachusetts, to several thousand acre forests in western Massachusetts.   October Mountain in Berkshire County, at over 16,000 acres, is one of the largest.

The point is this:  Each park is special in its own unique way, whether it is a geologic wonder, like Natural Bridge‘s marble formations in North Adams; or the state’s highest peak, Mt. Greylock State Reservation, in Lanesboro; or waterfalls like the 80-foot Bash Bish Falls in Mt. Washington; or even re-claimed forest land, such as Erving State Forest and many of our other state forests.

The DCR website, www.mass.gov/dcr,  gives a nice overview of the agency and a glimpse of individual parks, including relevant information such as driving directions and what the park offers visitors.  There are several ways to search out parks for exploring.  I recommend selecting by park name or by geographic region (click “Find a Park” on the home page) or by type of activity that interests you (click on “Activities” on the home page).

Family Adventure Packs

How many times have you asked yourself, “I wonder what that tree (or bird or wildflower) is?” Have you ever explored a field or a pond to see the little critters that make it their home?  DCR Family Adventure Packs are here to help!  Borrow them while you visit state parks that have interpretive staff.  Each pack has the tools and tips you need to get up close and personal with nature in a safe-but-fun way.

Great Parks Pursuit

Build great memories with the Great Park Pursuit challenge! Form a “team” consisting of your family, or a group of friends or your scout troop.  All you need is at least one adult and one child to make a team.  Details on how to register can be found at the DCR website in mid-June.

Healthy Heart Trails   

I cannot tell you how often this has happened:  Someone comes up to me and says, with a bit of embarrassment, “I would like to take a walk, but I’m not in good enough shape!”  I certainly understand the feeling and want everyone to know that the DCR has walks and trails for all.  We’ve given a special designation to some 70 of them state wide, “Healthy Heart Trails.”  Nearly half are wheelchair accessible. Twelve are in the four western counties.  As the name suggests, they are typically short and relatively flat, such as the .3 mile walk at DAR State Forest from the fishing pier to the campground, along the hemlock-draped shore of Highland Lake. Healthy Heart Trails are also ideal for families with younger kids who might find an inclined hike a bit of a challenge.

Suggested Self-Guided Hikes 

Ready for a bit more of a challenge?  The DCR has lots of hiking trails throughout Massachusetts state parks.  Here is a nice assortment  of “Self-Guided Hikes” in western Massachusetts.  You can also find a list for Central MA too. These brochures gives an overview of each hike including what makes each one “worth the trip.” Most are rated moderate, such as a walk to Balance Rock at DAR State Forest in Goshen, MA.  If you are up for something strenuous, the brochure suggests Thumper Mountain at Mohawk Trail in Charlemont, with “a breathtaking view at the top of Todd Mountain.” Try it yourself and decide whether it’s the steepness or the view that takes your breath away.

Becoming an Outdoor Family Campout Weekends

This is the summer to try camping!  DCR offers four “Becoming an Outdoor Family” campout weekends at four state campgrounds.  Campsites are set aside in one section of the campground for participating families to share the experience and learn together.  This is your opportunity to learn about setting up your campsite, including tent placement and onsite considerations/logistics, building and extinguishing a proper campfire, and tips on campground cooking through demonstrations. Self-guided and interpreter-led activities will be offered, including a classic fireside or amphitheater program on Saturday evening. More information will be posted to the DCR website in weeks to come.

Universal Access Programs

DCR leads the nation in providing accessible facilities and recreation opportunities in our State Forests and Parks.   As one example, many of DCR’s picnic groves have wheelchair-accessible tables; many of the swimming beaches have a way to get the wheelchair to the water and back. Recreational programs with special equipment, such as adapted bicycles in the summer and sit skis and skates in the winter, allow families to enjoy the outdoors together.   Visit DCR’s Universal Access Program for the full scoop.

FOR SO LITTLE MONEY

DCR makes it easy to not spend a lot of money to have fun with options for day-use, overnight camping and free opportunities.

Day-Use Vehicle Admission ranges from $2 on weekends and holidays at some of our scenic or historic parks, to $5 daily for parks with freshwater swimming beaches, $6-$8 at Quabbin Reservoir fishing gates, up to $9 at ocean beaches. Season passes, good for the calendar year at any day-use facility, are just $35 for Massachusetts residents and $45 for out-of-state vehicles.  Quabbin Reservoir fishing gates have their own, separate season pass, $50.

Overnight Camping Fees range from $6 for primitive camping up to $19 at full-service coastal campgrounds with water and electricity.  Cabins and yurts range from $20-$50. An additional reservation fee applies.  For more information, call 877-422-6762 or visit  www.ReserveAmerica.com for reservations.

There are also a number of free opportunities: Some libraries lend out passes to DCR parks, the same way they lend out library books for a period of time; Cars with handicapped placards are admitted free to day use facilities; and Massachusetts residents age 62 and over can obtain a senior citizen pass which waives the day-use charge at state parks (except Quabbin fishing gates) – so get your pass and bring the grandkids! For more information on park day use fees, annual passes, and waivers,  check MassParks Pass on the DCR website.

So now you know the skinny on all the fun to be had at MA State Forests & Parks and how you can enjoy them on any budget! Visit these local gems soon, and often!  Start – or renew – a family tradition or playing, finding nature, or finding yourself in your state forests and parks. You’ll be glad you did.


Gini Traub is a regional educator for DCR, primarily serving parks in the Connecticut River Valley and western Worcester County.

[Photo credit: (ccl) Tom Walsh]

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