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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Hiking the Seven Sisters- Mount Holyoke Range, Massachusetts

I spent the month of November in a hiking rut and I needed to switch up my routine.  I needed some elevation, sunshine, and vistas in a new town to kick off the sunny November weekend.  

I wanted to stick to a 2-hour radius of home that way I could for-go hotels and keep it a day trip.  So on my quest for a new hike I did what any last-minute-lazy-hiker does: I hit google maps to do a little research and see what I could find.  Pretty soon, I stumbled upon the ridge walk among the Seven Sisters across the Holyoke Range in Western Massachusetts, a hike that appeared to be exactly what I was looking for.  Elevation, a good workout, vistas, summits, historical hotels and an overall great hike in a really fun town.  The hike itself was a treat and the college town of Amherst with its breweries and restaurants was an added bonus. Hike, a new town to explore and a few breweries? That is the Katie Wanders Way 

We jumped in the car and drove the two hours across the state of Connecticut and into Massachusetts to start our hike in Amherst. The plan was to follow the 6 mile hike along the ridge of the Mount Holyoke Range, following the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail (a section of the New England Trail) across 10 peaks, to the Summit House and end at another trailhead on Mountain Road. If we were feeling really adventurous we could retrace our steps back across the 10 summits (as the famous trail race does) or the more practical option: call an Uber which would take us the 6 miles back to our car at the opposite trailhead ($8, 10 minute ride).  And yes, we are practical (and sometimes lazy) hikers.  
Start of the hike:  at the Notch Visitors Center 

The Metacomet-Monadock Trail is a 114 mile long distance hiking trail maintained by the Berkshire Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club.  This trail starts at the Connecticut border, makes its way across western Massachusetts and ends at the New Hampshire border. This 114 mile trail commonly referred to as the M-M Trail is a section of an even longer trail network, the 215 mile New England Trail, a National Scenic Trail (Like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails) designated as such in 2009.  The trail starts at the edge of Long Island Sound on the Connecticut Coastline, in the little town of Guilford to be exact.  The trail makes its way through downtown Guilford before hitting the woods and heading north to the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border. I was excited to be hiking on another historic trail across beautiful Western Massachusetts where the Connecticut River continues south to the towns I grew up in.  While we were only hiking a small section, it's always fun to be hiking a section of a famous through-hike trail.

The Seven Sisters is the name for the 6-mile section of the M-M trail across Skinner State Park, starting in South Hadley/Amherst, Massachusetts. The trail gets its name from the seven distinct summits at or less than 1,000' (although there are technically 10 summits) that you climb up and down as you make your way from one end to the trail to the other.  In total, the trail climbs nearly 4,000' as you traverse the peaks in about 6 miles of distance.  This hike is also home to the Seven Sisters Trail Race, a technical single-track running race across this rocky and steep 6-mile section and back to do it all once more.  The trail makes its way from the edge of the Mount Holyoke Range State Park through Skinner State Park to another trailhead in off Mountain Road at the end of the park in Hadley.  

Basically, the state parks in this range are broken into two sections: Skinner State Park west of Route 116 and Mount Holyoke Range State Park east of Route 116 (we were technically hiking through Skinner State Park on this route).  You also pass the Holyoke House near the west end of the trail, a great spot to enjoy lunch and take in the views.  

Trail Map and  Link to Trail Map 

Trailhead 11500 West St in Amherst, MA, 01002 
Trailhead 2Mountain Road  
(leave a car at each trailhead or Uber back to Trailhead 1 approximately 6 miles)
Elevation:  between 2,600' and 3,700'
Distance:  ~ 6 miles 
Dogs:  Yes! Bring water for your dog
Kids:  No!  Steep climbs up rocky ridges that sometimes require you to use your hands to scramble up. 

Trail Map- Ridge Hike Source
Elevation according to the racing site

Trail Map and  Link to Trail Map 

We parked our car at the Notch Visitor's Center on Route 47, just north of Mt. Holyoke College.  There is a Visitor's Center with map and restrooms and a large parking area.  To reach the trail, you must cross the street (there is a crosswalk) where a white trail blaze and a few small signs mark the start here of the M-M Trail.   

Signage posted on the trees at the beginning of the hike 

We started the trail to the tune of constant gunfire as hunting season was in full swing and there had to have been a shooting range close by.  We tried to drown out the constant "ping ping ping ping" as we started up the first challenging section of the trail. 

In the first half mile alone, the trail gains 650', making its way from the parking lot at the Notch Visitor's Center to the first summit, Bare Mountain (1,000').  From here, you get your first vista down below before heading across to reach the Holyoke House.  The trail follows the ridge line, climbing and dropping between 50 to 300 feet across 10 summits (including the 7 Sisters).  The trail is well marked with a white blaze on the trees.  The white blaze is a little faded in some spots and while the trail is well marked, do pay attention as other trails (red, green and blue) intersect the M-M trail.  There is no water along the trail so if you are hiking with your dog, make sure you bring enough water for the both of you.  Also, keep your eyes open for signs on the trees, posting numbers in reference to locations on the map.  

White blazes mark the M-M Trail

First vista from Bare Mountain Summit (1,000')

Following the trail

By the time we hit the third summit, we noticed the odor in the air was changing fast.  The wind must have shifted and all the sudden, it smelled like we were hiking behind a port-o-potty.  The large farms in the area produce a large amount of manure and when the wind is blowing, you can smell it very distinctly 1,000' up on the peaks.  What was 
worst, the constant smell of manure in your nose or the consistent shotgun in the distance? We couldn't decide.  While the gun shots and manure tried to bring us back to reality, the trail took us deeper into the woods where we enjoyed the (almost) quiet and (sorta) crisp air.  The temperatures were in the high 50's and we were happy to be hiking in t-shirts at the end of November.  

Views of other peaks along the trail

Water pipe along a section of the trail

Interesting trail humor

By the time we were halfway through the hike the manure smell was strong and we were realllllly looking forward to reaching the summit house.  It wasn't that the elevation was terrible, but it came in steep rocky scrambly pitches.  We looked forward to the few flat stretches and used our hands to boulder up the steep sections.  We ended up stopping for lunch at the top of Taylor's Notch where we sat on a rock in the sunshine, enjoying lunch and the abnormal November weather. 

Vistas along the trail 

Stairs on a steep section of the trail

I loved that this one steep loose section had a ladder installed to help protect the natural vegetation and help hikers get up the steep slope.  This was also when we started seeing signs about private land.  Portions of the trail do go through private land and as you always should, be respectful of the land and carry in what you carry out. 

Private property signage

There are several vistas along the way, and at most of the seven sisters as you cross the ridgeline.  If you printed your map at home as I did, you will see that several trails intersect the white trail, and that some of the summits are parked with numbered signs on trees.  These numbers correspond to the peaks on the map and you can easily identify which of the 10 summits you are at on the trail. 

Another summit view along the ridge

Markers on the trees correspond with the map- usually marking a summit

Another summit view/vista 

Views along the trail 

At this point in the year the leaves were pretty bare which meant we had a clear view of the ridge line.  I imagine that while everything is beautifully green in the summer, your views are greatly diminished as the tree cover blocks the view.  Eventually, we crossed the notch, crossed the road and made the final ascent towards the Holyoke House.  The trail comes across a grass area with picnic tables overlooking the Connecticut River.  Just past this overlook, you come across a memorial to a 10 member air force crew that crashed on the mountain on May 27, 1944. The exact location of the crash is not given as some of the remains were never found.  

The bottom of the notch, crossing the road to the Summit House

Next you come across a small gazebo and the large Summit House on Mount Holyoke. Built-in the 1820s, this is one of the last remaining "Tip Top" houses in the Pioneer Valley. These types of hotels were once common in New England, but now only the summit house remains in Western Massachusetts. Another Tip Top house existed at the summit of Mount Washington, where guests could take the train up to the summit and stay at this New England hotel.

Views from the picnic area near the Summit House

Views of the CT River down below 

Memorial near the Summit House 

Gazebo and Summit House

This Tip Top House is now a museum, overlooking the Pioneer Valley and the Connecticut River. A tram once took visitors to the summit, but an auto road has replaced the tram. The museum is open during the summer season only. The auto road closes for the winter and hiking the trails or walking the road is the only way to reach the summit.

The Summit House was the final reward of the day. The interior is now a museum with a few preserved rooms. Its life as a hotel was done in by the Great Hurricane of 1938, though it had been in decline for a couple of decades once automobiles gave tourists more choice. In the 19th century, people came by train, a mile-long steamer ride upriver to the base of the mountain, and then a tramway (now gone) up the side of the mountain. During its first years of operation starting in 1854, the tramway was powered by a yoked horse walking in circles. A steam engine eventually provided the horsepower. By that time there had been a structure on the mountain for more than 30 years.

Many artists and writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry W. Longfellow, came to seek inspiration from and spread their praises for this dramatic perspective on the land, no doubt contributing to its popularity. Jenny Lind, the Swedish opera star who was also a pop culture figure, dubbed this mountaintop the ''paradise of America." A room preserved in the hotel is named for her.

Summit House

Posing at the Summit House

Views of the Pioneer Valley and CT River

Rocks along Titans Plaza

This was a great late fall hike with some challenging inclines in Massachusetts.  The vistas were worth the hike, and the views from the Summit House were beautiful.  The hike was a little smelly with the manure drifting over the range, and quite loud with the shooting range in the distance.  All in all, this was a great hike in a cool town with a lot of history. 

Sites I used to help plan my hike!


  1. Hi Katie. I'm Mark. Great article. I am hiking the 7 Sisterstomorow for the first time. It sounds like a challenge.

    1. Hello! I hope you had a great hike! Thanks for reading!

  2. Thanks for detailing the seven sisters hike, it's very helpful.

  3. Thank you for your kind words and for reading! Have a great hike!

  4. Hi Katie, Do you have an estimate for how long this hike took you? Trying to figure out how much of the day to set aside for this hike since it's getting darker earlier now. Thanks!

    1. Hello! Thanks for reading!

      I couldnt remember how long it took so I did a little more research. This family stated "For us, the hike was the thing. My wife, 9-year-old daughter, and our neighbor hit the M-M Trail at 11:11 a.m. and we got to the Summit House 4 1/2 miles away at about 3:33 p.m., both times, as my daughter likes to call them, ''moments of the day." In between were a lot of ups and downs." (from here:

      They only did 4.5 miles and it took them around 4.5 hours but that was with a small child. I would say count for around 5 ish with stops, moving at a conversational pace, and lunch. Typically, moving along a flat area you can do 20 minute miles. However this is not flat (ups and down) so I would definitely say more like a 30 minute avg is likely. I think you can do it definitely under 5 but its nice to budget the extra time!


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