Mass Central Rail Trail (Norwottuck Branch)

Massachusetts

At a Glance

Name: Mass Central Rail Trail (Norwottuck Branch)
Length: 10 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Hampshire
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: Massachusetts

About this Itinerary

The Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts offers the perfect combination of stunning scenery, quirky college towns, fine-dining, world-class museums and opportunities for outdoor exploration. For biking enthusiasts, the newly improved Norwottuck Rail Trail (NRT) is the ideal route to immerse yourself in the diversity and excitement of this region. From your base in the lively town of Northampton, enjoy a pleasant day biking past farms, wetlands, charming villages and over the Connecticut River on an old railway bridge.

The 11-mile Norwottuck Rail Trail (also known as the Norwottuck Branch Trail and sometimes the Mass Central Section of the Norwottuck Rail Trail) runs from Northampton through Amherst before ending in Belchertown. Once the route of the Boston and Maine Railroad, today the former rail corridor is still an asset for the region as a popular trail for commuters, students and leisure bike riders. In 2013, a two-year rehabilitation project improved the oldest sections of the trail to make the route more accessible. Before setting out, check this website for any ongoing projects that might affect your ride.

Northampton is a dynamic town known for its thriving arts and music scene, historic downtown, unique diversity of shops and restaurants and home to Smith College. Located in the heart of the downtown area is the Hotel Northampton. Built in 1927, and today a member of Historic Hotels of America, this Colonial Rival property was filled with an impressive number of antiques by Lewis Wiggins, the hotel’s founder. Much of this furniture can still be seen today throughout the hotel in the hallways, restaurants and the lobby. A distinguishing feature of the property is Wiggins Tavern, constructed to resemble an early American tavern and featuring carved paneling, hand-hewn beams and stone and brick hearths. The 200-year-old tavern still exists in remarkably similar shape to the original, and no visit is complete without enjoying a meal here.

Bike rentals are available in Northampton at Northampton Bicycle. Located within a short walking distance of the hotel, the shop offers cruisers, road bikes and tandems.

Day 1

After enjoying a hearty complimentary continental breakfast at the Hotel Northampton, fill your water bottles and head out to the Norwottuck Rail Trail, less than 1 mile away. Bike north on King St., follow the first right on Edward Square and turn right at the intersection with North Street. Follow North Street over the train tracks and bear left; take another left on to Woodmont Rd., and look for the Elwell Recreation Area trailhead on your right. Here you will find the only trailside facilities along the route.

View from the Trail

Soon after setting out on the NRT, cross over an old railway bridge that spans the Connecticut River. This eight-span steel lattice truss bridge provides an ideal vantage point from which to view the surrounding area and sets the tone for what will be a spectacular ride. On the far side of the bridge is the small village of Hadley, which was founded in 1659. The route that the trail follows passes through beautiful farmland and the old Hadley Common, where cows once grazed. If you are in need of a second cup of coffee or a cool drink, turn right off the trail at the intersection with West Street and head down to Russell Street to the Esselon Coffee Roasting Co. The shop can fulfill any food or drink cravings you may be having: coffee and specialty teas; full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu, including falafel, lamb gyro, gourmet burgers and an assortment of baked goods.

Farther along the NRT, you’ll pass Amherst before continuing to trail’s end in Belchertown. The last section is particularly scenic, passing farms, conservation land and the Lawrence swamp. Look for the beavers in the swamp close to the trail. The trail ends at a parking lot at the intersection with Warren Wright Road. Turn here and retrace your path back to Northampton. Along the way, stop and spend some time exploring Amherst.

Home to the University of Massachusetts, Hampshire College and Amherst College, Amherst is a thriving New England village. To reach the center of town, turn right at the S. Pleasant Street exit off the NRT. Amherst College will be on your right as you head down S. Pleasant Street toward the town common. There are many dining options ranging from traditional sandwich and pizza shops to cozy bistros. Take in the street life as you relax on the patio at Bistro 63 at Monkey Bar & Grill, and try the mini tapas platter, vegetable frittata or gorgonzola burger (63 S. Pleasant St.). Or enjoy an overstuffed prosciutto and parmesan baguette sandwich at The Black Sheep Deli (79 Main St.). If you want quick and healthy, stop by Pita Pockets (103 N. Pleasant St.) for a filling and delicious gyro, falafel or chicken kabob.

After lunch visit the Emily Dickinson Museum (280 Main St.) where the poet lived for most of her life. Wander around the Beneski Museum of Natural History, home to the world’s largest collection of dinosaur tracks, including “Noah’s Raven,”tracks discovered in nearby South Hadley in 1802 and the first dinosaur fossil collected in North America. Also on the Amherst campus, find the Mead Art Museum. Featuring a diverse collection, the museum is known for American art, including notable works of the Hudson River School.

As you return to Northampton, consider taking a diversion to Flayvors of Cook Farm. This trip is 1.7 miles (3.4 miles roundtrip) south through farmland on S. Maple St. in Hadley but worth the extra biking if you appreciate good old-fashioned homemade, farm-fresh ice cream. Cook Farm is a family dairy in operation since 1909 and offers some of most refreshing and delicious ice cream around. Try Debby’s Downfall (salted caramel with sea salt truffles and pretzels), Hadley Mud (Mocha with brownie pieces) or a traditional cone of strawberry or chocolate. Enjoy your well-earned treat before heading back to the NRT.

A view of an old railway bridge

If, after arriving back in Northampton, you regret not getting that fresh ice cream cone, Herrell’s, located around the corner from Hotel Northampton, is the place to go. With more than 200 flavors such as jalapeno, cheesecake cream, malted vanilla or chocolate pudding, this popular shop has a flavor for everyone.

Northampton and Amherst both have a plethora of restaurants that suit every taste and budget. After a long day of biking and sightseeing, consider one of these local favorites for a delicious and relaxing dinner.

At Ibiza Tapas and Wine Bar in Northampton, enjoy a taste of Spain with small plates of such “modern”specialties as Nevat cheese with figs and walnuts, avocado and beet, lamb stuffed piquillo pepper and octopus on potato foam. Or stick with the more traditional flavors of Serrano ham, marinated Idiazabal cheese or olives and almonds. Pair with a glass of Spanish red wine from the extensive wine list.

Located in a restored carriage house circa 1894, the Northampton Brewery has fresh brewed IPA or stout on tap and delicious burgers and fish and chips. Stop by for a relaxing evening with a refreshing pint at the oldest operating brewpub in New England.

One of the most elegant restaurants in the region, 30 Boltwood in Amherst, is fine dining inspired by “contemporary wine country living.”The refined menu features natural, local, farm-fresh ingredients. Enjoy a wine from their extensive selection and pair with one of the specialties, such as Lucki 7 Farms Pork Loin, rack of lamb or filet mignon.

Day 2

Stroll the grounds of Smith College and visit the Botanical Gardens. Founded more than 100 years ago by the college’s first president and designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, the garden and conservatory hold an impressive array of plant species and provide a tranquil refuge in which to enjoy them. Also on the Smith campus, visit the acclaimed Museum of Art, which holds a diverse art collection, including works by Edgar Degas, Gustave Courbet, Cezanne, Monet, Seurat, John Singer Sargent and others.

Catch a performance at the highly regarded New Century Theatre. Considered to be one of the best regional theaters in the country, the company has staged works by playwrights such as Wendy Wasserstein and produces new works, area premiers and classic dramas and comedies. The Theatre is in residence at the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts at Smith College each summer.

Visit one of the oldest movie houses in America to see an independent film or catch a musical performance. Hosting a wide range of performing arts and film presentations, The Academy of Music Theatre opened in 1891 as the first municipally-owned theater in the country. Today, the venue provides a step back in time with its majestic interior and Renaissance Revival architectural-style.

Explore more bike trails! From Northampton it is possible to reach other rail trail routes that will take you in different directions. The Francis P. Ryan section of the Norwottuck Rail Trail runs 4.9 miles from King Stret in Northampton and continues to the suburb of Florence through residential and light industrial areas. The 9-mile Manhan Rail Trail follows two former rail corridors to Easthampton, passing through thickly forested areas and skirting residential development. Both are popular trails and provide an opportunity to see other parts of Northampton and the surrounding area.

Attractions and Amenities

Accommodation/Lodging
Outfitters/Bike Shops

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