Skinner State Park is open; Summit House remains closed

Jesse Carter, Superintendent of Skinner State Park

HADLEY – Skinner State Park opened a week late this season, and there’s a new supervisor in charge, but the historic Summit House atop Mount Holyoke here remains closed to the public until wholesale repairs are made to the building’s expansive porches.

Although the park’s access road off Route 47 in was scheduled to open May 1, it was closed for a week, until the arrival of a new supervisor, Belchertown native Jesse Carter.

For the past three weeks, though, gates to the vehicle access road have been open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, and the park – located within the 3,000-acre Holyoke Range State Park – is open to hikers from dawn to a half-hour past dusk. During open hours, bathrooms located in the ground floor of the Summit House will be open, Carter said.

Skinner Park has long been among the most popular tourist spots in the Pioneer Valley. From the Summit House and other areas of the park, visitors can see Northampton, Hadley, Amherst, South Hadley and Holyoke below, several mountain ranges and peaks to the west and north, and the skylines of Springfield and even Hartford to the south.

But the historic Summit House – which opened in 1851 as the Prospect House and was severely damaged by the 1938 hurricane – was recently deemed unsafe because of deteriorated porches, spokesmen said.

When first contacted by Northampton Media, a spokeswoman for the Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which owns and operates the park, said it was only the porches that need work, and that an engineering assessment must be done before the project goes out to bid.

On May 28, though, another spokeswoman suggested it might be quite a while before the Summit House reopens, since the agency is reexamining the entire Skinner State Park for possible upgrades. DCR spokeswoman Catherine Williams said the agency is now conducting “a comprehensive review” of the park, from the porches to parking, handicap accessibility and other issues.

View of the Connecticut River Valley from the Summit House on Mt. Holyoke

“DCR is in the midst of working on a review and a structural assessment of what needs to be done,” said Williams. “It’s an ongoing renovation project.” Because the project scope has widened, she said, estimating when the building will reopen is impossible, because “it might involve other things beside the deck.”

For Carter, who has been hiking the park trails since he was a kid, this new posting as the recreational facilities supervisor is a wonderful promotion, despite his disappointment over the popular Summit House’s indefinite closure.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” Carter said last week. “I’ve hiked this mountain range hundreds of times (and) I know how important this location is to folks in the valley.”

Carter, who worked as assistant superintendent of the Tolland State Forest in East Otis during 2008-2009, said his new post had been vacant since January and that it includes supervising not only the Mount Holyoke Range State Park – including the Notch Visitors Center on Route 116 in Amherst – and the Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke. That 2,082-acre park includes a variety of trails, Lake Bray and other recreational areas.

Interior of the 1851 Summit House

Carter, 33, graduated from Belchertown high school and from Westfield State College, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice. Originally wanting to be a fish and game warden, Carter has worked a number of other park jobs over the years: The Quabbin Reservoir, the Cape Cod National Seashore, Sylvan State Park in Colorado and, most recently, at Hampton Ponds State Park in Westfield.

Two weeks on the job here, Carter’s mission got even tougher when his assistant supervisor quit to accept another job. And last week a powerful thunderstorm with high winds knocked down a number of trees, forcing Skinner Park to close for several hours. “The transition has been stressful,” Carter admitted.

Despite the pressure he’s been under, Carter said he looks forward to the long hours needed to maintain and oversee “this beautiful park that I’ve been entrusted to manage.”

And he has faith that the DCR will do the right thing by ensuring the Summit House porches are safe before allowing the building to reopen.

“I know the department is doing everything conceivable to get the ball rolling,” he said.

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