When most people head to Massachusetts for a vacation they usually join the traffic jam “down the Cape” or the masses in Boston. They’re missing out on the state’s best-kept-secret destination, however, which is good for you because it means unspoiled natural spaces with zero crowds. This ultimate weekend escape spot is Western Massachusetts, and here’s what you should see when you go:
Mount Holyoke Range State Park
Western Massachusetts has some of the state’s best hiking, and once you’re in the area, the trails are really simple to access. The well-maintained Notch Visitor Center with plenty of free parking is just a quick drive from downtown Hadley. There are tons of different trails to choose from, whether you only have an hour for a quick walk or want to summit a mountain. The trails are clearly marked with blazes denoting the way, making it easy to stay on path. Even if you have limited time (or motivation) there are some trails that can be done in under an hour but will still reward you with sweeping summit views.
Hitchcock Center for the Environment
Whether you want to save the world, meet a (friendly!) snake, or just learn something, the Hitchcock is a worthwhile stop. Perched atop a hill in rural Amherst, the center offers rolling views of the environment that it’s trying to preserve. Take a tour and glean a few eco-tips that you can put into practice at home, or sign up for one of the many educational classes on offer. The building alone is a point of interest as it’s taking the “Living Building Challenge” to get a Living Building Certification, which will mean that they’ve met 20 performance imperatives (such as using nontoxic building materials for all 9,200 square feet of the center, net zero energy and water, etc.).
Connecticut River Greenway State Park
Don’t be fooled by the name–the Connecticut River Greenway State Park is one of Massachusetts’ newest state parks. With over 12 miles of protected shoreline, there are plenty of places to explore either by boat, bike, or foot. You’ll find plenty of access points to the river, as well as lots of little places to stop and picnic, so you won’t find any spot too crowded.
Norwottuck Rail Trail
Miles of smooth, flat pavement wind through a canopy of trees, beside farms, and through quaint towns. This is how biking should be. The former Boston & Maine Railroad is now a bike path that connects Northampton, Hadley, and Amherst, and makes for a great 22-mile (round-trip) taster of the towns just off of the path. Although busy, the trail was far from packed when I went on a warm late-summer Saturday, making it a nice change from more popular trails, like Cambridge’s sometimes-overwhelmed Minuteman Path. Bring your own bike or rent one from Northampton Bicycle (located not far from the starting point).
Western Massachusetts is home to five major colleges, so you could be forgiven for thinking that the downtown area would be overrun with rowdy students and dive bars. I was pleasantly surprised by Northampton’s charming downtown, where the streets are lined with unique boutique shops, locally sourced eateries (like top-rated Bistro Les Gras), and craft cocktail bars. On a balmy summer evening, people of every age spilled out of storefronts and into the open, outdoor spaces, like Pulaski Park, which is illuminated by lights to create a free and safe gathering place after dark.
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