Note: Five years ago as part of my job with a local paper in the Berkshires, I toured the region looking for some of Berkshire County’s best swimming holes — some obvious, some our county’s best-kept secrets. Here’s what I found way back then. For a complete list of places to swim — lakes, ponds, swimming holes, beaches and more visit our directory list here.
THE BERKSHIRES — It is no surprise that with unpredictable gas prices, people are opting for vacation destinations a little closer to home — me included — which is why I jumped at the chance to research local swimming holes when asked by my editor. I envisioned my “cool mom” status returning the next time my children began whining because they were hot, tired and bored. When the persistent cries of “Can we go on vacation somewhere?” reared their ugly heads, I would throw on my cape, hand-crafted with beach towels of course, and with one simple statement, “Pack your bags. We’re going to the beach,” send the twins running with glee for their swimsuits and towels, the mere presence of a shovel, pail and the possibility of a pile of sand sending my 6-year-old into hole-digging, sandcastle-building ecstasy.
The first stop on my search for the “perfect” swimming hole was the Internet. I figured in this day and age, a simple Google search of Berkshire County beaches or Berkshire County swimming holes, or something along that line, would bring up an extensive list of local lakes, ponds and rivers. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
I searched individual town Web sites, lake names that I knew and eventually let my fingers do the walking, and called the local town halls, chambers of commerce or visitor’s center.
There was a nice list of lakes at the Berkshire Visitors Bureau Web site, but it was far from complete and didn’t give any details as to the amenities, beach status, fees, etc. that I was looking for.
After two days of phone calls and compiling lists, I chose a few county beaches to visit and spent the next week visiting these sites with my children.
Richmond Pond, Richmond
Our first stop was the Richmond town beach at Richmond Pond. I spent a few summers after college lifeguarding, teaching swimming lessons and cleaning up goose poop at the beach and was curious to see if it had changed at all.
Immediately, I noticed the post and rail fence running parallel to the shoreline and a rolled-up bundle of florescent orange snow fence leaning against it. A quick interrogation of lifeguards Aimee LeBlanc and Jenna Plant informed me the fence was meant as a deterrent to the geese. Hanan Caine, who was visiting the beach with his daughters Talia, 5, and Ellie, 1, said the fence had been put up about four years ago to help tackle the very same goose poop problem I had encountered almost 15 years ago.
“We stopped coming because of the geese,” Caine said. “We returned with the kids when the gates went up.”
The goose poop hasn’t been a deterrent to frequent beachgoer Lori Green, a 12-year resident of Richmond, who was at the beach with her 8-year-old daughter, Aimee.
“It’s so intimate and easy to watch the kids play here,” Green said. “It’s a beautiful and safe setting, and a very good secret.”
It was very peaceful at the pond, but I was informed this isn’t always the case. In fact, last year when Onota Lake was closed because of unsafe water conditions, the beach was inundated with Pittsfield residents, Plant said. And although a resident beach sticker is required, I was told the policy wasn’t strictly enforced as long as people weren’t “annoying or bothersome” to fellow “beachers.”
Plant also said the beach is pretty busy during July and August, but if you want to enjoy some of the peace and quiet I experienced during my visit, pick a weekday, because the weekends get pretty crowded.
The swimming area is roped off, and there is a permanent standing dock off the shoreline and a floating dock for more capable swimmers about 50 yards to 75 yards away, but my kids weren’t interested in swimming because of the cooler temperatures. They did, however, have a great time wading in the water up to their knees and attempting to catch fish with a discarded Cool Whip container they found in the car.
If you are looking for a quiet, well-guarded family beach, this is the beach for you. The only negative that I found was the lack of a bathroom or changing room. For those brave souls who just can’t hold it, or aren’t up for “a wade in the lake just to ‘cool off,'” there is a lovely portable toilet on the grounds, but my children and I try to avoid those at all costs.
I was also informed that the “forbidden” rope swing (further down the shoreline and away from the lifeguards) still exists for the teenagers who like to test their Tarzan-like swinging skills, but do so at your own risk. If you get caught, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Plunkett Reservoir, Hinsdale
Our next visit was our hometown beach at Plunkett Reservoir in Hinsdale. I hadn’t visited this beach since I used to go there with my husband (before we were married or even dating actually) to swim to the small island in the middle of the lake and back, helping him train for summer biathlons.
The first day we stopped by the beach it was cold and windy and very much deserted, but we sat at the small round picnic tables and ate our Teo’s hot dogs, and once again my children searched for fish. There was a nice little beach house on the grounds. My mother informed me later that it used to serve as a snack bar and changing area “years ago.” Also, there is a portable toilet on the other side of the shed which, thankfully, was not permeating sewage stench into the air, because my car was parked right next to it. The beach is right next to the main road, but it’s Hinsdale and not all that busy, except on parents weekends at the neighboring camps.
We did return to the beach a few days later when the sun was shining and found a few families enjoying the beach and the water. I ran into Melinda Walton, the wife of a high school friend of mine, who was there with her two children, Quinn, 4, and Zander, 3, and Tim Noble, 6. She was very helpful and gave me the beach “low down” while my children (and hers) played in the sand and water.
Walton informed me the shed was owned by the Hinsdale Lions Club and was still opened and used as a changing room, but the rest of the beach was maintained by local volunteers.
“Every year Todd (her husband) and Wayne (her father-in-law) mow the grass and paint the tables,” she said. “Linda Yarmey puts the ropes out herself.” Melinda also said new sand is brought in every year, making a great play area for younger kids.
Jennifer Dow was there with her children Brandon, 12, and Brynn, 4, and once again I was informed that this little beach was one of the town’s best-kept secrets. “We grew up in Pittsfield, but my mom always brought us here,” Dow said. “She grew up on this beach, I grew up on this beach and now my own kids are growing up here.”
The beach was quiet, peaceful and very clean. There are geese around because I saw them on the first day I was there, but they seem to stay away from the beach, as there were no sign of them at all, or maybe that’s just because the volunteers do such a great job keeping it clean.
The beach house is a great addition, because having access to changing rooms is a plus. Now if we could just get the snack bar back and a real bathroom, it would be perfect.
Lake Garfield, Monterey
The day was muggy and overcast, but that didn’t keep us from enjoying Lake Garfield in Monterey.
There were no swimmers or families hanging out at this small stretch of beach, but the beach was occupied by Valerie Zantay, a lifeguard and member of the town’s Parks and Recreation Commission, and the Puntin family from Monterey. They were raking the large stretch of sandy beach and grassy areas along the shoreline to get rid of the – yup, it was here, too – goose poop. “There is a big goose problem here,” Zantay said, but added that she was looking into goose deterrent options. I took it upon myself to share with her what I had found out about successful measures at Richmond Pond, and she shared a few of her own.
But, according to Zantay, the goose poop doesn’t seem to be keeping people away; a steady stream of people visit the beach on a daily basis. “The beach gets very crowded,” Zantay said.
Brian Puntin, who was on hand with his wife, Jamie, and daughter, Rachel, said they were helping Zantay with the raking because the family used the beach so much that they thought they “should help and clean it up.”
Jamie Puntin, who has lived in Monterey with her family for 10 years, said much of the family’s summers have been spent at the beach. “We live at the beach all summer,” she said. “We love it. It’s a beautiful beach.”
We were also informed of the annual summertime Friends of Lake Garfield party, which this year will be held Aug. 16. Members make it their mission to educate people about lake preservation.
No one was ready to swim at Lake Garfield, and we didn’t want to get in anyone’s way during the cleanup, but you can tell there is definitely a strong sense of ownership and community at the beach, and despite the geese, the beach is clean and very well maintained. I wished we had had more time, because I could imagine building great big sand castles and our family’s signature sand shark in that great stretch of sandy beach.
My only negative was, again, the portable toilet, just a pet peeve of mine, and it was very close to the main road. But a nice hedgerow separated the beach from the parking area and road, and again, these small-town roads see few cars anyway, making Lake Garfield a definite stopping point on any beachgoer’s top list of swimming holes to visit.
Benedict Pond, Monterey
I must say that of all our beach stops, Benedict Pond in Beartown State Forest in Monterey was definitely one of my favorite beaches. It is a little out of the way, but so are most places in Berkshire County. But just driving up to this beautiful, secluded little pond had such a serene, tranquil feel about it that I instantly forgot I was working, and just wanted to plop down and spend the afternoon. The grass was freshly mowed, the beach area sandy and there seemed to be no geese, or goose poop for that matter, in sight.
There were only a couple of families inhabiting the beach that day, but they were friendly and happy to tell me why Benedict Pond was their favorite swimming hole, although they were a little concerned about people learning about “this hidden little secret” in the paper, wanting to keep this little gem all to themselves.
Carole Quinn of Lenox said she “makes it up the mountain” to Beartown a couple of times each season, and on this particular day was there with her 3-year-old granddaughter, Karina Baver. “It’s such a beautiful setting and the hiking trail around the pond is great,” Quinn said. When asked about other swimming holes she visited in the area, Quinn was quick to tell me about Lee Beach on Laurel Lake and Deirdre Consolati, who she said has recently helped to restore the beach, adding beautiful Adirondack chairs and cookout areas. There are also two lifeguards on duty, making it more relaxing for the safety-conscious parent.
But back to Benedict Pond … Chris Drumm of Lee has been coming to Benedict Pond for years and said that you can find him there with the kids three to four times a week. His sister, Brenda Burgos, said you can’t beat the flush toilets and the changing room and the fact that the water is extremely clean. “One of the nicest things is that when you come out of the water you don’t come out smelling like ‘swamp thing,'” she said.
Burgos also said that during the summer, she and her family love to bring the kayaks and fishing poles with them, and just spend the weekend hanging out, swimming, fishing and kayaking. There is also a waterfall a little way down the shoreline from the beach where Drumm said the kids like to catch salamanders and crayfish.
For me, the entire beach just had such a nice feel to it. The sun even escaped from the clouds for the first time all day, making the clean, clear water even more appealing.
But most of all, there were clean bathrooms and changing rooms, a definite plus in my book. It may cost you $5 dollars for a day pass, but in my book it is well worth the small fee. Drumm said he usually opts for the season pass, only $35 for Massachusetts residents and $45 for nonresidents.
York Lake, Sandisfield
The drive alone would lead me to recommend a trip to York Lake, regardless if you are a swimmer or not. The winding, rural roads are dotted with the occasional old farmhouse with fieldstone chimneys that run along the outside of each house as well as stone walls that extend for miles before disappearing into the woods that inhabit most of Route 57 and 183 (a history buff would surely find a few treasures of their own on these back roads). And then, out of nowhere, a sign emerges from the trees, pointing your way to the Sandisfield State Forest.
A favorite of residents, York Lake is no bigger than Plunkett Reservoir or Benedict Pond, which for some reason surprised me, because I envisioned it as a great expanse of fresh water in the middle of this vast forest. There are the same daily use and season fees as at Benedict Pond, but again the presence of a changing room and bathroom made my eyes alight with joy and the fee well worth it.
The grounds are well kept, and there is an enormous stretch of grass to play on before you get to the small sandy area that my youngest enjoyed digging in, making a large trench to the water below.
However, for some reason the ground was extremely soggy, and we had to layer towels under us to keep the moisture from seeping through to our shorts. But my aunt, who lives a few miles away from the beach, tells me the beach is a favorite of her boyfriend, whose sister and niece just happened to be at the beach that day. They seemed to be having more fun fishing than anything else, something that in my kids’ eyes would rate a beach high up on any list.
I wish I had visited York Lake earlier in my trip, because, frankly by this point, I was just plain beached out and ready to go home. I hadn’t even packed a lunch, so I couldn’t enjoy one of the numerous picnic spots with grilling areas and tables that are there for the beach families to enjoy.
Go to the beach!
I never made it to Stockbridge Bowl, but Carole Quinn, who I met at Beartown, also recommended the town beach there. “You need a sticker there though,” she said. “But if you go before it officially opens, that’s a great beach, too.” According to Quinn, it officially opens “sometime after school lets out.”
I was able to talk briefly with Stockbridge Bowl Association President Gary Kleinerman, whose organization’s mission is to promote the protection and enhancement of the water quality of Stockbridge Bowl and to preserve its ecological, economic, recreational and aesthetic value. He confirmed that you do, in fact, need to be a resident to use the town beach but also said that Gould Meadows is a great area to hike and swim around the Bowl.
I’m also sorry to say that there were a number of other beaches on my list that I didn’t make it to because of the uncooperative weather: Onota Lake in Pittsfield, Windsor Lake in North Adams and the beach at Margaret Lindley Park in Williamstown (which my editor and her 2-year-old found adorably clean and family-friendly, even if there is only a portable toilet) are just a few, but I’m sure there will be a few “heat emergencies” that will lead me to discover some of the other swimming holes in Berkshire and Bennington counties.
I also know that the next time the cries of boredom ensue, I have a few more tricks up my sleeve to calm the natives and make everyone cooler and saner for the rest of the summer.