State Forests & Parks: Treasure for all to Enjoy

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.


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. Read the rest of this entry »

Geocaching & Letterboxing Support Learning and Outdoor Adventures as a Family

Geocaching and Letterboxing: Outdoor Adventures that Practice Mapping Skills & Support Discovery of Place

Have your kids ever fantasized about finding buried treasures? Adventure-loving kids’ fantasies can become realized by participating in geocaching and/or letterboxing, activities that lead explorers to a hidden treasure of sorts. Though geocaching and letterboxing are slightly different activities, they’re fairly similar and both use maps and landmark clues to lead participants to a specific location, where a hidden box contains a log (where visitors can add their own notes) and perhaps some small treasures. Both activities support children’s development of map skills and test their minds with riddle-like clues, and hidden letterboxes and geocaches are always outside – meaning that adventuring to find one will likely lead to additional learning about the local landscape.

Geocaches are everywhere – a simple search can turn up more nearby geocaches than your family has time to find! Designed with technology in mind, geocaches are defined by their geographic location – meant to be identified using GPS. However, it’s possible to use maps and clues in order to find geocaches, too – the activity doesn’t necessarily depend on the use of technology while you explore. (Keep in mind, however, that some caches may be more difficult to find than others if you forgo the use of GPS.) The techy-est of families may even choose to download a geocaching app, which turns Apple devices into cache-finding tools that allow for easy access to caches in over 185 countries… though part of the fun of geocaching lies in the adventure itself, so the ease with which you’d like to find the caches depends on what your goals are for the activity!  Read the rest of this entry »

Searching for Nests & Animal Tracks in Winter

Stalking Winter Nests & Wildlife Tracks
Family Outdoor Adventures

“Because robin nests are fairly large, and so well built, they are one of the easiest to spot after the nesting season. Look for them in shrubs and on horizontal branches in the lower halves of trees.”

During the cold months of winter, many of the creatures often seen during the rest of the year have migrated south, are tucked away in burrows for most of the winter, or have become even better at hiding so as not to be easily spotted against the snow. But their signs are still there and a lot of fun searching for! Looking for signs like tracks, scat, dens, and nests is a fun and educational way to learn about the habits of wildlife living near you.

To inspire families into winter tracking expeditions, Mass Audubon offers an online list of the Top 5 Nests to Spot in Winter! The list includes information on the American Goldfinch, American Robin, Baltimore Oriole, and Chipping Sparrow, as well as Eastern Gray Squirrels, who builds nests high up in trees as well. The nest list not only shares information on spotting and identifying five different nests, it also includes facts about the nest’s structure, specific reasons for why each nest is created the way that it is, and interesting facts.

Identifying nests together with your family can teach them a lot about the habits of each bird species, and can help them develop a greater awareness of the many animal signs present around them. Mass Audubon also has Winter Walk Bingo Cards families can download and print that would make for fun this winter while searching for nests and other signs of wildlife.

Maybe even take Kurt’s advise and after a week of constant ten degree weather, head to the wetlands and explore an area otherwise not easily accessible outside of winter. Read more in his post, “The Ripple: Winter Wetlands.”

Looking for organized activities to do together while looking for nests and other animal tracks, here are some upcoming events in January worth checking out:

[Photo credit: (ccl) carfull…Wyoming]

5 Hikes for Families in Western MA State Forests and Parks

Take a Hike!
Explore the State Forests and Parks of Western MA

Outdoor explorations can also supplement students’ studies of local ecology – bring a field guide and learn to identify the many different trees, flowers, etc. that you discover.  (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Explore the hills of Western Massachusetts – spend an afternoon hiking at one of the many local state forests and parks!  The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) offers families an outline of hikes at numerous locations all over the Hilltowns and Berkshires, including the DAR State Forest (Goshen, MA), Western Gateway Heritage State Park (North Adams, MA), Pittsfield State Forest (Pittsfield, MA), Mohawk Trail State Forest (Charlemont, MA), and the Tolland State Forest (Otis, MA).

Their guide, Take a Hike! Explore the State Forests and Parks of Western MA,  shares information on finding and following trails, as well as length of hike, difficulty, and interesting highlights that families can see, explore, and learn about on each trail.  Hikes make a great summer adventure for families, but are also great through the fall (until it snows, then break out the snowshoes!) and in spring, as leaves begin to appear.  Explore the many different hikes suggested, and find a family favorite!

Outdoor explorations can also supplement students’ studies of local ecology – bring a field guide and learn to identify the many different trees, flowers, etc. that you discover.  To check out the hikes, download their guide,  Take a Hike! Explore the State Forests and Parks of Western MA.


Golden Guides from St. Martin’s Press are beginner field guides that offer an introduction to different outdoor classifications that are easy to used for any family just starting their outdoor explorations together. Pick up a guide on a particular topic your kids are interested in exploring while hiking our local state forests and parks, and go on a quest together to find and identify parts of our natural habitats:

Green Mama: Aerial Adventure Parks in Western MA

Hilltown Families Contributing Writer

Never Felt Greener

Aerial Adventure Park at Jiminy Peak in Hancock, MA. (Photo credit: Kelly Bevan McIlquham)

“We were really green today.” That’s what my daughter said to me one day early in spring after we had spent the majority of the day outside being active. We had even forgone the car that day and bicycled to and from our destination — the lake, less than a mile away.

I don’t think I’ve heard those words since. Not that we didn’t spend a lot of time outdoors this summer. How couldn’t we? The weather in the Berkshires was absolutely amazing. But much of our time (when we had time) was spent lounging on the dock or riding around in the boat dragging a skier or tuber or knee-boarder behind us.

We were active, but not the “green” active my daughter was so excited about that day. The kind of active that gets you outside, among nature and trees. The kind of active that involves hiking or biking or some other kind of physical activity that leaves you feeling refreshed and exhilarated and frankly (I know this might sound a little cheesy), but one with the outdoors.

Zipping from platform to platform whets an appetite for adventure. (Photo credit: Kelly Bevan McIlquham)

Well last week that all changed. I spent a day with John Ireland and Lisa Conroy, the owner and director of programming and training respectively at Absolutely Experiential, a local company that designs, builds, inspects and repairs challenge courses, aerial adventure parks, and zip line canopy tours. Not sure what any of things are? Think zip lining through the trees suited up in a harness and clipped onto a belay wire: canopy tour. Or wearing that same harness and clipping into that same wire, but this time navigating a variety of obstacles like rope ladders, cargo nets and zip lines all on your own, and 10, 15 and 20 feet above the grown: aerial adventure park.

These attractions, especially the aerial adventure parks, are a fast-growing trend and I was interested in finding out what all the fuss was about. So John, Lisa and I ventured to Jiminy Peak in Hancock, MA to try out their aerial adventure park which the company installed and Jiminy opened this spring.

In meeting up with the pair, one of my first questions, obviously, was: Why are these parks suddenly cropping up all over the place?

“Kind of what has happened is Europe, they’re big in the parks and down in South America and the Islands they’re big in the canopy tour,” John said. “There’s an emergence of both the adventure parks and the canopy tours in this country, and I think it’s because people are experiencing the canopy tours down in South America and the Islands coming back and saying, ‘those are so cool,’ and then people over in Europe visiting there and experiencing the adventure parks and coming back and saying, ‘man those adventure parks are cool,’ and (the resorts, etc.) seeing this wide open market. And now they’re exploding.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Spring Time Outdoor Adventures for Kids: Monday Afternoon’s in the Hilltowns

Registration Form

Outdoor Adventures for Kids in the Hilltowns
Spring 08 Afternoon Program

A nine week Monday afternoon (4pm-5pm) adventure program for kids ages 5-7 at the TMO Base Camp in Chesterfield, MA, starting April 7th and ending June 16th, 2008. Led by Program Coordinator, Timothy Vogel of Tekoa Mountain Outdoors.


Through age appropriate activities, young kids will explore their surrounding environment on foot and in a canoe while learning about ecology through outdoor adventures and activities. This nine week program will lead young Adventurers into the discoveries of spring while experiencing hikes, fishing and canoeing around the scenic 500 acre Base Camp in Chesterfield, MA. As spring arrives, bringing us April Showers, our young Adventures will explore vernal pools as the peepers emerge, make rain sticks to celebrate the season and hunt for insects. In May our young Adventures will go fishing while learning about fish habitat and local wildflowers and plants. And as we approach the summer months we’ll bring out the canoes and learn the basics of paddling and canoe safety. Our last day will conclude with a make-your-own ice cream social by using a tin can! Participants are asked to dress for the weather.


April 7th, 14th & 28th

Week 1 – Monday (04/07/08 )

We will be starting off our spring session by making Rain Sticks and sharing their origins. Our young Adventurers will make a traditional Rain Stick out of materials found in their environment, and like people of other cultures, imitate the sound of rain. Having originated in South America and attributed to many cultures, the Rain Stick is a tubular rattle that has been used by many diverse cultures in various ways and played by children throughout the world.

Week 2 – Monday (04/14/08 )

As spring slowly arrives, our young Adventurers will trek down to the stream to explore our streams and surrounding areas. And there’s more than meets the eye! Upon closer look, we’ll identify different aquatic insects, animals and plants while discussing their importance to our ecosystem. Please bring shoes that can get wet and a change of clothes. Magnifying glass and reptile/insect ID books would be handy too.

Week 3 – Monday (04/28/08 )

As their environment warms up, insects begin to emerge. We’ll identify bugs that fly, swim, crawl and even slither near our watershed while learning their value to our environment. Our young Adventurers will explore under logs and rocks while discovering which insects are useful and which ones we should avoid. We’ll also discuss how to keep ourselves safe from tick and mosquito bites while being adventurous outdoors. Please bring shoes that can get wet and a change of clothes. Magnifying glass and insect ID books would be handy too.

May 5th, 12th, & 19th

Week 4 – Monday (05/05/08 )

We are fortunate to have a rich resource of fish habitat in Western Massachusetts. For the next two weeks our young Adventurers will discover respectful fishing practices. We will learn about tying knots and casting a line while taking a look at different types of bait. We’ll also be discussing hook safety and fish habitat. Fishing poles and gear will be provided. Participants are welcome to bring their own poles too.

Week 5 – Monday (05/12/08 )

We’ll continue our fish explorations as our young Adventurers are introduced to the TMO/MA Angler Education Program. We will continue with learning the basics of fishing, simple biology, fish habitat, fishing gear safety, and courteous fishing habits while instilling respect for fish and their environment. Fishing poles and gear will be provided. Participants are welcome to bring their own poles too.

Week 6 – Monday (05/19/08 )

April shower’s bring May flowers, including Dutchman’s Britches, Trillium, Yellow Violets, and Trout Lilly’s. May is an excellent time to identify wildflowers, plants and trees while discussing how we can avoid poisonous plants while being adventurous outdoors. We will hike around the 500 acre Base camp, and see what April showers have helped to bring to life while discussing their importance to our ecosystem. Participants are welcome to bring along a plant press and ID books.

June 2nd, 9th, & 16th

Week 7 – Monday (06/02/08 )

Our young Adventurers will take to the water for the next two weeks. We will access the waters here at the Base Camp and learn safety skills around the water and canoes. Wearing provided personal flotation devices (PFD), we’ll learn all the different paddle strokes and proper techniques while paddling around our beautiful 60 acre wild and scenic Scout Pond. Please bring shoes that can get wet and a change of clothes.

Week 8 – Monday (06/09/08 )

Our young Adventurers will conclude their canoeing experience, beginning where we left off last week. Wearing provided personal flotation devices (PFD), we’ll continue to practice our canoeing techniques and safety skills as we explore our watershed on canoe. Please bring shoes that can get wet and a change of clothes.

Week 9 – (06/16/08 )

Our last day will conclude our Hilltown Families Spring 08 Program with our young Adventurers playing outdoor games and making their own ice cream by using a tin can! They will learn how to construct their homemade ice cream maker from materials brought from home and follow through by making their very own to enjoy. And ice cream social will follow.


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Suggested Events 12/15/07 – 12/21/07


(c) Hilltown FamiliesWhat a snow storm! Think about all the fun outdoor adventures your kids will have this weekend either skiing, sledding or snowshoeing. Which reminds me to remind you about the upcoming afternoon program this winter, Outdoor Adventures for Kids in the Hilltowns. Hilltown Families (that’s us!) has collaborated with Tekoa Mountain Outdoors to offer a ten week Monday afternoon (4pm-5pm) adventure program for kids ages 5-7 at the TMO Base Camp in Chesterfield, MA, starting January 7th and ending March 31st, 2008. Led by Program Coordinator, Timothy Vogel of Tekoa Mountain Outdoors. If you’re interested in participating be sure to sign up soon. Click here for more information.

We wanted to thank this week’s Suggested Events sponsor, Lui Collins (see banner below) and to let readers know that she is now offering a kids movement class for older kids, ages 5-7, called Kids’ Jam. My daughter was in her class this fall and loved it! Click on the banner to discover more about this new program and her other programs too.

Lui Collins

  • Become a Sponsor
  • To find out how you or your business can help support Hilltown Families by becoming a sponsor, drop us an email or give us a call at 413.296.0096 for more information. We’re offering very reasonable rates throughout the holiday season. By having individuals in our community and area businesses become sponsors, Hilltown Families can continue to offer a weekly list of suggested events, a weekly podcast, updated resources, articles and much more.

    • Submit an Event

    If you have a family-friendly event or educational program happening in Western Massachusetts that you’d like to let us know about, or would like to submit your event to the Hilltown Families calendar of Suggested Events, email Sienna at Comments are warmly welcomed!

    Local forecast | Get directions | Free Museum Passes | School Closings & Delays

    Events Happening in the Hilltowns

    Saturday 12/15

    8am – FAMILY RADIO – While traveling around town, tune-in to WXOJ 103.3 FM in Northampton, MA, from 8-10am to hear fabulous family-friendly music on Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child. [All ages] (Free)

    9:30am-11:30am – MOTHER’S GROUP – Mocha Moms, a nationwide support group for stay at-home mothers (part time and full time) of color, will be meeting at the Forbes Library in Northampton, MA. [Mother's] (Free)

    10:30pm – GINGERBREAD HOUSE – Come make gingerbread houses at the Granby Library in Granby, MA. 413.467.3320[Families] (Free)

    1pm – VICTORIAN HOLIDAYS – A Victorian Holiday Craft Celebration will be held at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, MA. Come make Victorian holiday crafts, including lanterns and cards. 413.322.5660 [Families] (Free)

    3pm – WORLD DANCE – The Nataraj Dancers will be doing a holiday performance of Indian dances at the Forbes Library Community Room in Northampton, MA. 413.587.1011 [Families] (Free)

    3:30pm – WORLD DANCE – A Balkan Dance Party will happen at the Whately Dance Barn in Haydenville, MA. Dance workshop begins at 3:30pm. Potluck supper at 6pm. Dance party at 7:30pm 413.549.6748 [Families] ($)

    5pm-8pm – HOLIDAY HAYRIDES – Look Park in Florence, MA, is offering a tour of their holiday lights display on a horse drawn hayride. [Families] (>$)

    7pm – YOUTH THEATRE – Youth Theatre Ensemble presents The Reluctant Dragon at the Northampton Center for the Arts in Northampton, MA. A tale about a peace-loving dragon who prefers tea parties, poetry & afternoon naps over fire-breathing and destructions. 413.584.7327 [Ages 2 & up] ($)

    7pm – SOLSTICE CELEBRATION – A Winter Solstice Celebration will be happening at the Center for Cultural Evolution in Colrain, MA. Music, stories, theater. 413.624.5140 [Families] (Donation)

    Read the rest of this entry »

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