7 Hikes in the Footsteps of American Artists

July 16, 2015
Jerry and Marcy Monkman; right: Thomas Cole, courtesy of metmuseum.orgCole’s “Oxbow” (inset) and its real-life counterpart.

For centuries, American painters have filled galleries with stunning vistas of natural landscapes. Before the Internet and even photography, their works effectively served as the public’s window to remote, wild areas. The artists found their inspiration on the trails, on the coast, in valleys, and lakeside, and in doing so created a uniquely American school of landscape art. Artists flocked in such large numbers to the White Mountains during the 19th century that Winslow Homer devoted a painting to them: Artists Sketching in the White Mountains. Present-day hikers can follow in their footsteps and visit these seven locations, from coastal Maine to the Shenandoah Valley, where artists found their muses.

Champlain Mountain  |  Bar Harbor, Maine
In 1844, Thomas Cole, a preeminent 19th-century American landscape artist, and his pupil Frederic Church perched their easels on the coast of Mount Desert Island. They were drawn there by the dramatic scenery and rustic primitivism. Cole’s View Across Frenchman’s Bay from Mount Desert Island After a Squall and Church’s Fog off Mount Desert inspired fellow painters and vacationers alike to visit the area that would become Acadia National Park. Today visitors can hike the Beechcroft Trail, along the eastern coast of the island, up Champlain Mountain. Summit Huguenot Head, Champlain’s smaller companion, before making the final push to the top of Champlain. From the peak, look across Frenchman’s Bay to Schoodic Peninsula, the same views Cole and Church depicted. Park in the ME Route 3 roadside parking lot, just south of the Sieur de Monts entrance.
DISTANCE: 2.4 miles round trip
INFO: Discover Acadia National Park, 3rd ed. (AMC Books)

Prouts Neck  |  Scarborough, Maine
Winslow Homer painted many of the famous seascapes for which he is remembered today at his home and studio on Prouts Neck. He in turn inspired N.C. Wyeth and Wyeth’s son Andrew to focus their own artistic visions on the coast of Maine. Homer’s home and studio, where he relocated from New York City in 1884 and spent the rest of his life, has been preserved as a museum. Follow Homer’s footsteps down the Cliff Walk, a short path along the coast where the artist would often stroll. The property is now owned and managed by the Portland Museum of Art.
DISTANCE: About 1 mile round trip
INFO: Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast (AMC Books); Portland Museum of Art

South Moat Mountain  |  North Conway, N.H.
Moved by the untamed wilderness and epic beauty of the remote White Mountains, 19th century artists traveled to the peaks of northern New Hampshire in droves. Their exhibitions gave viewers across New England an idea of the mountains’ dramatic scale. Mount Washington was an obvious destination, though many artists found their inspiration in other areas, such as Conway, Gorham, and Franconia and Crawford notches. Benjamin Champney, founder of the Boston Art Club where many White Mountain artists exhibited their work, was especially enamored of North Conway. His work Moat Mountain from North Conway is a jewel of the period. Hike South Moat Mountain, about 15 miles northwest of Conway, N.H., for 360-degree views of the Whites. Start at the southern end of the Moat Mountain Trail for a moderately steep hike to the summit, located on Passaconaway Road.
DISTANCE: 5.4 miles round trip
INFO: White Mountain Guide, 29th ed. (AMC Books); Best Day Hikes in the White Mountains, 2nd ed. (AMC Books); White Mountain Guide Online

Elephant Head  |  Crawford Notch, N.H.
In 1839, Thomas Cole made his mark in Crawford Notch, painting A View of the Pass Called the Notch in the White Mountains. Another artist, Frank Shapleigh, was artist-in-residence at the Crawford House in Crawford Notch from 1877 to 1893. His summer studio is now a bunkhouse on the grounds of the AMC’s Highland Center. Park at the Crawford Depot or the Highland Center and hike the Saco Lake and Elephant’s Head trails, an easy jaunt that provides wide views of the notch. The trail begins on the opposite side of U.S. Route 302.
DISTANCE: 1.2 miles round trip
INFO: Best Day Hikes in the White Mountains, 2nd ed. (AMC Books); White Mountain Guide Online

Monument Mountain  |  Great Barrington, Mass.
Beginning in the early 19th century, Monument Mountain became known as a refuge for painters and writers alike, due to both its relative ease of access and magnificent natural landscape. An 1815 poem by William Cullen Bryant earned the mountain its name. In the years since, the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts have inspired artists of all kinds, including writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Asher Brown Durand, a student of Thomas Cole’s, painted Monument Mountain, The Berkshires in 1850. In 1862, Aaron Draper Shattuck sketched the mountain in pencil, calling his work Monument Mountain. Follow the Indian Monument Trail, an easy hike along carriage roads, to the Squaw Peak Trail, a more strenuous connector that offers the best views of the area. Trailhead parking is available on Route 7.
DISTANCE: 3 miles round trip
INFO: Massachusetts Trail Guide, 9th ed. (AMC Books)

Holyoke Range  |  Hadley, Mass.
Thomas Cole’s View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow is considered a masterpiece of 19th century American landscape art. Seen as a response to European criticisms that American painters “lacked attentiveness to scenery,” the painting helped solidify Cole’s status and the uniqueness of purely American natural art. Hike a strenuous stretch of the New England Trail about 5 miles north of South Hadley. Park at Skinner State Park entrance on MA Route 47 and follow the trail, also known as the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, along a segment that provides a variety of beautiful vistas.
DISTANCE: 9 miles round trip
INFO: Massachusetts Trail Guide, 9th ed. (AMC Books)

Escarpment Trail  |  Windham, N.Y.
Perhaps the most famous of 19th century American art movements, and Thomas Cole’s lasting legacy, is the Hudson River School. Cole began creating a purely American style of landscape art as a 25-year-old, when he painted Falls of the Kaatterskill for his first exhibition. Inspired by Cole’s work, dozens of artists headed for the Catskill and the Adirondack mountains during the early-to-mid 19th century, and it was here that American artists established their creative identities separate from their European predecessors. Hike the challenging southwestern section of the 23-mile Escarpment Trail to see where Cole and his students made their mark. Park in the lot on North Lake Road off of NY Route 23A and take the trail past Kaatterskill and other locations made famous by the Hudson River School.
DISTANCE: 4.8 miles round trip
INFO: Best Day Hikes in the Catskills and Hudson Valley, 2nd ed. (AMC Books)

Thornton Gap  |  Thornton Gap, Va.
The Shenandoah Valley in southern Virginia, popular with recreation seekers, musicians, writers, and artists alike, offers countless opportunities for hiking and exploring. Armand Cabrera, a contemporary artist well known for his landscapes of Shenandoah vistas, is an artist in residence at Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Va. Follow stretches of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park through Crooked Run Valley and Thornton Gap, the inspiration for Cabrera’s Thornton Gap. A moderate climb to the top of Mary’s Rock takes you past abundant wildlife for beautiful views of the gap. Park at the Jewell Hollow Overlook at mile 37 on Skyline Drive and look for the cement marker at the head of the trail. Follow signs for the Appalachian Trail to the top of Mary’s Rock.
DISTANCE: 4.9 miles round trip
INFO: Best Day Hikes in the Shenandoah Valley (AMC Books)


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