Caution: As of July 2013, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) and Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) are working together to rehabilitate the Norwottuck Rail Trail from Northampton to Belchertown. The work will be extensive, including: repaving, widening, enhancing road crossings, improving access, adding parking, re-decking bridges, and upgrading trail signage. Detours are needed; for information and updates on the repair work, visit the DCR website.
Stretching east from Northampton, the 10-mile Mass Central Section of the Norwottuck Rail-Trail connects the towns of Northampton, Hadley and Amherst. Part of the Connecticut River Greenway State Park, the route takes in a variety of landscapes, from rural farmland to residential neighborhoods and light industrial districts.
You'll set out across New England's longest river, the Connecticut, on a magnificent 1,492-foot iron bridge. (Head west to pick up the Francis P. Ryan Section of the Norwottuck Rail-Trail. Pay attention to the detour signs, which guide you to a safe track crossing until an underpass can be built.) This span parallels Calvin Coolidge Bridge, named for the mayor of Northampton who would become the country's 30th president. Once you're across the river, look for Mount Holyoke rising in the distance. Approaching Hadley, the trail parallels State Route 9 through farmland. In town, you'll pass the former Hadley railroad station and wind through historic Hadley Commons, where farm animals once grazed.
About 3 miles along, you'll reach a bicycle and inline skate rental shop beside an ice cream and smoothie bar. Nearby is the Hampshire Mall; shoppers will delight in direct bicycle access to the stores. After the mall, the trail continues until the Belchertown trailhead, at which point you come to State Route 116. Here you'll have an opportunity to hop off the trail for a short trek north into Amherst, home to the University of Massachusetts and Amherst College.
Just shy of downtown, a connector trail leads to the 2-mile UMass bikeway, a student commuter path. The onward Norwottuck Rail-Trail crosses beneath SR 116 to the Station Road trailhead and Amherst College on the left. Station Road used to mark the end of the trail, but today an extension stretches another mile east along an active rail corridor. Along the way, two trestle bridges carry you over Mill River and East Street, and you will find connecting trails to the Southeast Street access point and parking lot, as well as to hiking trails.
The trail's final stretch skirts wetlands and ponds that promise excellent bird-watching. Along this section you can access the Caroline Arnold Walking Trail, which has a bird-blind.
To reach the Northampton trailhead at Elwell State Park, take Interstate 91 to Exit 19 and continue straight from the ramp onto Damon Road. After about a block, turn right into the trailhead parking lot at Elwell State Park.
Amherst offers a choice of parking locations: near the town common and town hall, within easy reach of the Belchertown trailhead at State Route 116. To reach trailhead parking at Southeast Street and Mill Lane, follow State Route 9 to Southeast Street. Turn right and proceed about a mile.
The Station Road trailhead lies 1 mile farther east; follow Southeast Street to Station Road and turn left into the parking lot.