By Chris Maza
There are plenty of benefits to hiking and you don’t need to go that far to enjoy them.
There’s of course the exercise and the benefit of fresh air as well as the fact it can be done at little to no cost, but it also offers a unique opportunity to see some of the gems of Western Massachusetts you otherwise might not have any idea were there.
Such was the case for my wife and I when we found ourselves in Chester at the behest of a friend to check out the Keystone Arch Bridge Trail (KAB Trail).
In terms of hiking, the trail is not overly challenging when compared with hikes along the Monadnock-Metacomet Trail, for example, but the pay off is definitely worth it.
The main trail, measuring 2.5 miles, runs primarily along the Westfield River, offering spectacular, picturesque views and photography opportunities. Upon entering the trail, hikers are greeted with a charming, scenic waterfall, rewarding travelers for making the trip right off the bat.
But the biggest treat is the trail’s namesake – a series of Keystone arch bridges, the first ever built in America, that helped create the Western Railroad, which in the 1800s was the longest and highest in the world. The bridges vary in height, the tallest standing an impressive 70 feet above the river.
While the first of the bridges, the double arch bridge is easily accessible from the entrance to the trail located on Hebert Cross Road off of Route 20 in Chester, the others are more like hidden treasures along the route, each with its own unique attributes, including height.
The trail actually takes you over the bridges – in fact while looking for a bridge present on the map, I suddenly realized I was standing on it – but several offshoot trails allow hikers to go down to river level to see them. Exercise caution on these trails, however, as they tend to be much steeper than the main trail. Views of the river valley and surrounding terrain are also extremely impressive and ensure that even those unable or unwilling to venture down the smaller trails will appreciate the hike.
The trail also takes you through an old quarry site, which has resulted in an impressive profile of the area’s geology.
Slightly off the trail as well is what remains of an artist’s colony that was built in 1961. While an old clock tower is all that remains of the buildings, it is an interesting side trip as you can see where the colony had been carved out among the trees, as well as signs of a developing forest with young trees back dropped by mammoth ancestors. This is private property, so use common sense and respect.
While taking the time for several stops to view the bridges and other scenic parts of the trail, the hike in its entirety took the two of us roughly 2 ½ hours, but the trail is extremely well marked in most areas with blue blazes and features informational signs at various points. While it can be narrow in spots, the majority of the trail is well-suited for groups, including those with children or animals.
The water was extremely low on our trip, but according to literature on the area, that section of the Westfield River is popular among kayakers who are fond of rapids, as well as fishing. There are also several areas where the water is slow moving, making it ideal for swimming and several trail-goers we passed on the mid-80 degree day we hiked donned bathing suits.
There is also hunting in the area, so hikers are advised to be aware of the timing of their hikes and avoid the trail during shotgun deer season, which starts on the Monday after Thanksgiving and lasts for two weeks.
It is important to stay on the established trails as much of the land surrounding the trail is private property and an active railroad still runs through the area with tracks very close to parts of the trail.
For more information on the trail – including a map – or the bridges themselves, visit http://keystonearches.com