Into the Woods: Nature Walks
Western Mass, Naturally
Though every season has its charms, New England fall inspires a unique brand of beauty and enjoyment. It's a reminder that nature is as busy as we are, particularly between the warm months and the cold. It's a perfect time to venture out into the many natural wonders of Western Mass.
Through Mass Audubon (see particularly its busy Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, a hub of activity) and other organizations, it’s easy to find learning opportunities in the area, so any list will be a little incomplete – think of these as good starting points for exploration.
A, well, natural place to start is Amherst's Hitchcock Center for the Environment, where you'll find meandering trails in a bucolic setting, and an emphasis on education. You can hit the trails, or peruse an online menu of courses and experiences to help adults and kids gain a clearer understanding of the place where we live, and the other creatures that live here.
North of Amherst, in Franklin County, you can pay a visit to the Bitzer Fish Hatchery, one of five hatcheries in the state. Take a self-guided tour to see Brook, Brown, Rainbow, and Tiger Trout in several stages of growth before they're released into the state's waterways.
Come spring, you can see another part of the fishy voyage in Turners Falls, at the Fish Ladder. It’s there that migrating fish get past the Turners dam by making their way up pools, each a foot higher than the last. There’s even underwater viewing through large windows. From April through November, you can enjoy the kid-friendly Anadromous Fish of the Connecticut River Fishway Quest, a searching ramble through the area that offers nature and history lessons.
For a full immersion into the natural, cultural, and industrial history of the river, don’t miss Great Falls Discovery Center, also in Turners, housed in mill buildings on a four-acre site where you can learn, enjoy a picnic, and if you’re lucky enough, spot an eagle (they hang out in nearby Barton Cove).
Also in the northeastern end of Franklin County, you’ll find a second spot that, like the Hitchcock Center, offers plenty of activity and educational programs – Northfield Mountain. In the winter months, it’s a cross-country ski haven. But it’s also got access to the Connecticut River, and has a full calendar of trail-centered activities, from yoga to photography (and you can even hit the trails on horseback, if you’ve got a ride).
In Greenfield, don’t miss a hidden gem: Highland Park. It’s near downtown, but not easily stumbled upon. It’s in a neighborhood just to the east of downtown, and part of the literal highlands that also include the landmark Poet’s Seat tower (itself well worth a visit for its views). Like many spots, Highland Park trails where you can hike or bike, or in season, break out the cross-country skis. But the particular draw for nature lovers is its Trees of Highland Park Walking Tour. By the end of this tour, put together by the Greenfield Tree Committee, you will have seen great examples of many trees that inhabit our region, from hemlocks to maples and birches. The park also includes a pond where fishing is allowed (with certain restrictions).
To inhabit even higher ground, head west up the Mohawk Trail. A right turn near Shelburne will take you to Apex Orchards, a great place to get your New England fall on. It’s an especially big hit for the kids, who can pick their own apples, and check out animals. Shelburne Falls sports the well-known Bridge of Flowers, and the nearby High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary walking trails provide a lovely spot to take in westward views.