The thick of it: Get the most out of mud season in New England

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Some call it the fifth season. But most New Englanders endearingly call it "mud season."

It's the period between winter and spring when melting snow and ice turns dirt roads and hiking trails into a muddy mess. And forest and conservation officials say New England states are in the thick of it.

But they also say not to fret over a little mud.

"Generally with the change of seasons, when we're in-between, people aren't sure what to do outside," said Joanna Ballantine, western region director for the Trustees of Reservations. "They will go to the movies instead. But for a lot of the trustees' properties, spring is one of the most magical times of the year."

Matt Sisk, deputy commissioner for Massachusetts Department of Conservation (DCR), noted New England states this year had a limited amount of snowfall, which could mean less mud.

"We still had cold temperatures, but didn't have anywhere near the cold or snow we saw last year," he said. "I don't think [mud season] will be as prolific as it was last year."

Sisk said only two DCR sites are officially closed for hiking and mountain biking from March 1 to 31, and both are in eastern Massachusetts. Sisk said those policies are in place to ensure no one gets hurt.

"Our first concern is people's safety," said Sisk.

Although no state parks in Western Massachusetts have a restriction, Sisk noted places like Pittsfield State Forest are large. And unlike other parks in dense, urban areas, it is more likely to be farther away from main roads.

"If you get three miles in and things start to get a little hairy, you're that much farther away from being rescued or able to communicate," he said.

For that reason, Sisk said, he and others encourage people to use common sense when on the trails.

Ballantine recommends dressing in sturdy shoes that you don't mind getting dirty. Dressing in layers would also be a good call, she said, with New England weather being infamously unpredictable.

"Plan on bringing a jacket with an outer shell, like a windbreaker," she said. "And wear a fleece or vest underneath."

Top it all off with a hat and gloves, which will come in handy since afternoons can cool down fast.

Vermont's Green Mountain Club advocates "responsible use of the state's hiking trails during mud season," according to its website. Sensitive alpine vegetation on the summits of Mount Mansfield and Camel's Hump are vulnerable to damage and those trails are closed from April 15 to the Friday of Memorial Day weekend.

The club suggests always walking through the mud, not around it. If a trail is so muddy you need to walk on vegetation, turn back and look for another route.

Walk on trails with southern exposure, as south-facing slopes dry out first in spring.

Ballantine said Bartholomew's Cobble in Sheffield, Mass., is great for morning wildlife tracking. One can hear the "spring peepers."

Another opportunity is to head to Naumkeag in Stockbridge, Mass. Starting April 1, visitors can take in the home's gardens and panoramic views.

In Northern Berkshire, one could visit the iconic reservations — Field Farm and Mountain Meadow in Williamstown, Mass.

"Both tend to be muddy, but relatively easy to navigate this time of year," she said.

Visit Mountain Meadow to take in the early spring wildflowers. Bird life in March is lively, Ballentine said, and one can see bluebirds in the early morning and late afternoon.

Among southern Vermont trails recommended by the Green Mountain Club are those in Woodford State Park, Emerald Lake State Park Trail and the Equinox Preservation Trust in Manchester, Vt.

Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979


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