Explore the 10.6-mile Norwottuck Rail Trail
Among the most widely used recreational resources in the Pioneer Valley is the Norwottuck Rail Trail. It is a Massachusetts state park built on an abandoned Boston & Maine rail bed that runs from Belchertown through Amherst and Hadley, and across the Connecticut River into Northampton. It is enjoyed not only by cyclists, but by walkers, joggers, birdwatchers, roller bladers, and in winter, snowshoe’ers and cross country skiers.
Opened to the public in 1993, the trail was originally 8.5 miles long, but has been lengthened at both ends to its current 10.6-mile length. The westernmost parking area at Elwell State Park, is close to Interstate 91 and the city of Northampton, and therefore is popularly considered the trail’s starting point. However, the designers set up mileposts that begin at the Station Road Parking Area in South Amherst, and that is our point of reference for the map below.
Norwottuck is an Abenaki word meaning “in the midst of water,” and it is an apt title. The rail trail extends from the wetlands of Lawrence swamp, in sight of the profile of Mount Norwottuck on the Holyoke Range, and across the striking steel truss bridge over the Connecticut River.
One feature introduced by the Norwottuck’s designers has been less than popular. Recycled bottle glass was added to the paving mixture to give it sparkle. While it does glisten in the sunshine, the “glassphalt” has been a pneumatic disaster, accounting for numerous flat bicycle tires. Cyclists are advised to pack a patch kit, at least until a $4-million repaving project scheduled to begin next spring is completed.
View Norwottuck Rail Trail in a larger map
Norwottuck Rail Trail
Norwottuck Rail Trail
Mile marks are measured from the Station Road Parking Lot, heading west towards Northampton.
- The first mile of the trail is highlighted by Poor Farm Swamp and a beaver pond to the right, and scenic Thistlebloom Farm on the left. Several conservation trails head off into the woods.
- Mile 2 will take you past the rolling hills of the Amherst College cross-country course to the south, and the College Wildflife Sanctuary on the opposite side. You may want to stop for a rest at the granite seat known as Grampa’s Bench near the 2-mile mark.
- Mile 3 passes by the Amherst College athletic fields, tennis courts and Orr Rink. To reach downtown Amherst, cut through the College at the tennis courts to Route 9, or continue through the tunnel under South Pleasant St. and exit just beyond. Amherst Common is a half mile to the north.
- A short ways past the Mile 3 mark, Swift Way, a bicycle path that leads to UMass, veers off to the right. Amherst Golf Course is ahead on the left. Look carefully and you will see a couple small trails past the golf course that lead to the lovely Larch Hill Conservation Area and Bramble Hill Farm.
- Mile 5 leads past the rear of the Hampshire Mall to a stop sign at South Maple St. in Hadley. You might want to stop into Maple Farm Foods on the right for a snack. Across South Maple St. is an entrance to the back parking lot of Mountain Farms Mall which features among other stores, a Whole Foods, Panera Bread, Eastern Mountain Sports, Barnes & Noble bookstore and a Walmart (there’s a Target at Hampshire Mall if you prefer).
- Midway through Mile 6, a tunnel takes you under heavily traveled Route 9, and into a blind curve. Heed possible oncoming trail users. Ahead on the right you will pass examples of the fertile farm fields that Hadley is famous for.
- Mile 7 crosses East St. in Hadley and a reddish renovated barn that houses a ballet school and 2 well-stocked used bookstores, Grey Matter Books and Troubadour Books. Bicyclists receive a 10% discount.
- Mile 8 passes two parallel West Streets and the Hadley Common before coming to an expanse of farmland on the right, enriched by eons of Conecticut River floods.
- Entering Mile 9 you will soon spot the pièce de résistance of the ride, the river crossing over a Lattice Truss Bridge, originally built in 1887, which offers spectacular views to the south and north. The bridge passes over the mostly unvisited Elwell Island and accesses the Elwell State Park parking area and the only official restrooms on the trail. Now in Northampton, you will cross busy Damon Road where there is a pedestrian and cyclist crosswalk. This westward 1.5-mile extension to the trail was added in 2007.
- The Norwottuck Rail Trail ends just before the live Pan Am Railways track on Woodmont St. in Northampton, 9.1 miles from the Station Rd. starting point. Plans are in the works to build a tunnel under the track and King St. (Route 5) to connect the Norwottuck Rail Trail with the Northampton Bikeway which follows the same rail bed past into Haydenville.