September 21, 2016

Mountain Day? It’s the best.

Mount Holyoke College

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As Mount Holyoke College’s oldest tradition, Mountain Day is clearly doing something right — very right. As it has since it began in 1838, just months after the first students arrived on campus. As it has through evolutions in transportation, attire, rules (think chaperones and special permissions) and best-practices in picnicking.

Blog_MTNDay_1895_fresh_98_cliff.jpegMountain Day for firsties from the class of 1898

As it has through changes in timing (it was held in June until 1893) and destination — groups at one time began exploring other vistas further afield when transportation options expanded beyond horse-drawn carriages.

Blog_MTNDay_1940s_hay_ride.jpegA hayride kicks off Mountain Day in the1940s

Mountain Day has also endured through times of calamity. Fact: Since 1838, Mountain Day has been suspended just a handful of times — during the Civil War and in the aftermath of the 1896 fire that claimed the College’s original Seminary Building. Or tweaked to answer the call of patriotic duty: During the World Wars, many students spent the day helping local farmers.

Blog_MTNDay_1903_hats_at_top.jpegHats and a furry friend at the top, Mountain Day 1903

Mountain Day does what traditions do best: It combines symbolism (“Climb to new heights! Persevere! Ever onward!”) with camaraderie and good times (“Let’s go! In the footsteps of those before us!”). It’s highly anticipated (“Is it Mountain Day yet?!”), cloaked in secrecy (the date varies each year) and steeped in history (College founder Mary Lyon had a penchant for exercise and fresh air). And it celebrates our very sense of place: The stunning views atop Mount Holyoke (the College’s namesake) inspire awe, gratitude, wonder, reflection and peace.

Blog_MTNDay_1930_leather_coats.jpegA trekking trio on Mountain Day, 1930

At just shy of 1,000 feet, the Mount Holyoke summit offers panoramic views of the Connecticut River as it winds through the Pioneer Valley’s interlaced farm fields — and of mountains in three states. It’s a haven for leaf-peepers in fall and for bird watchers year round. It was one of the nation’s top tourist destinations in the 19th century, second only to Niagara Falls, and home to New England’s first horse-powered (later, steam-powered) tramway. And all of this — the westernmost peak of the Holyoke Range — is just four miles from campus.

Blog_MTNDay_1947_flannels.jpegFlannel-clad students at the top, Mountain Day 1947

It all starts with the ringing and swinging of the College’s bell. When the Mary Lyon Hall clock tower erupts in a prolonged metallic peal — at 7:00 am on a perfect fall day, for about five minutes, audible as it reverberates throughout campus — Mountain Day itself swings into motion.


Students know the facts: classes before 4:00 pm are canceled. Deadlines and obligations are put on hold. The entire student body embraces the gift that is Mountain Day. Shuttle buses bring students to the mountain’s base in Joseph Allen Skinner State Park. Merry groups ascend via a paved road or a wooded trail. Driving up the road is also an option. At the Summit House atop Mount Holyoke, students explore, congregate and relax. Ice cream? It’s eaten. Pictures? They’re snapped and shared. The view? It’s savored. The fall foliage? It’s an ephemeral elixir for the soul.

Find Mountain Day logistics here.

“Yay, it’s Mountain Day!” A spontaneous (!) cheer, circa 1955 (and note the white MHC blazer at far right)

Mountain Day grabs a hold of students and does not let go. Alumnae should be prepared to feel deep longing and intense waves of nostalgia each autumn, likely for the rest of their lives. To cope, since 2011 groups of alumnae have begun to gather around the world. They follow the day’s events via social media. And eat ice cream. Please pass the rainbow sprinkles. And Mountain Day on!

In full color: Mountain Day 2014

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The photos of Mountain Day, 1890s–1990s, are courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections.


Mount Holyoke is a women's college that is gender diverse: We welcome applications from female, transgender and nonbinary students. Mount Holyoke is a magnet for ambitious, independent students from around the world who embrace complexity, cultivate curiosity and resolve to become agents of change. Our tight-knit community is academically rigorous, intellectually adventurous and socially conscious. As one of the most diverse research liberal arts colleges in the United States, Mount Holyoke prepares students for leadership and cultural awareness on a global scale. Mount Holyoke graduates thrive in all fields, on all continents and in a vast array of languages.
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