by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent

Last month I discovered the Massachusetts Central Rail Trail. A friend of mine from college – Karen – lives in Northampton, MA. Just down the road from her house is a municipal bike path – a former railroad bed that has been converted to a paved trail, for use by cyclists, joggers, inline skaters, and just about anyone else traveling by foot. The trail extends west from Northampton in two branches – north to Williamsburg and south to Southampton – and also east to the Connecticut River. From there, the path takes a new name – the Norwottuck Rail Trail – and continues through Hadley and Amherst, into Belchertown.

Karen and I wanted to attend an event in Amherst. Concerned about parking, we decided to ride our bikes there. This became an even more appealing notion when we realized it was Earth Day.

Setting off, Karen informed me that we’d be taking a brief detour through a neighborhood. Northampton’s trail system involves several road crossings, which are easy enough to navigate, thanks to crosswalks and ample signage. Our detour took us around a construction site that will soon produce a tunnel to bypass the very busy King Street. After that, it was a short distance to the Connecticut River.

If you’ve spent any time in the Pioneer Valley, you are probably familiar with the spot where the bike path crosses the Connecticut. It’s at the intersection of Routes 9 and 91, where the traffic on Route 9 almost always slows down, funneling onto a narrow bridge. Over to the north side, there’s another bridge (originally for the railroad) that’s hard to miss. At the west end of it is the Elwell Recreation Area (446 Damon Road), which is home to a good-sized (and free) parking area with maps and restrooms.

I learned on our ride that the Norwottuck Rail Trail is part of a larger network, the Mass Central Rail Trail. The 11-mile Norwottuck segment – constructed and maintained by the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation – is one of three completed segments of a recreational trail that will eventually go all the way to Boston.

In 1887, the Central Massachusetts Railroad Company built a railroad that extended from Boston to Northampton. It was leased to the Boston and Maine Railroad, and in its heyday – the 1920s – there were three round-trip passenger trains, and plenty of freight trains too. When he was Governor of Massachusetts (prior to becoming the United States’ 30th President) Calvin Coolidge would use the Mass Central line to travel to the State House from his home in Northampton.

Railroad usage diminished in the late 20s and early 30s with the rise of cars and trucks. The Mass Central suspended its passenger service in 1932, and sustained significant damage in the Hurricane of 1938, however freight trains continued to use the line until 1979. In 1985, the state acquired the railroad property that is now the Norwottuck Trail, and in 1993 it was reopened for recreation. It was named for the Native American tribe that inhabited the area prior to European settlement. “Norwottuck” means “in the midst of the river.” A mountain by the same name is visible in the distance.

Travelling from Northampton to Amherst along the Mass Central line offers some interesting perspectives. Along King Street you pass by commercial areas that were once served by the railroads. In addition to the dramatic river crossing, you see agricultural lands still very much in use, but also big box stores and industrial buildings with impressive ventilation systems (not surprisingly, the soda factory had a distinctly sweet smell). There are residential areas and conservation lands along the way, plus the occasional coffee shop or restaurant. Every mile is marked, as are the town lines, plus there are numerous benches where you can stop to rest. We only traveled as far as the Amherst College campus, but Karen told me next time we’d continue toward Belchertown, where there is some especially lovely scenery.

The Norwottuck Rail Trail traverses mostly level terrain. The pavement is in great shape, so it makes for a pleasant, easy ride. Additional parking areas are located at Railroad Street in Hadley and Station Road in South Amherst.

Now that I’ve experienced the Norwottuck, I’m eager to see the other segments of the Mass Central Rail Trail. It is very much a work in progress. Extending through 24 communities, it includes sections that have been complete for a long time, as well as many still under development. There are currently 25 miles open “officially,” with another 60 in “protected status” – owned by state agencies, cities and towns, land trusts and conservation commissions.

The Norwottuck section is impressive but it sounds like the Wachusett Greenway has even more to offer. This 30-mile expanse opened in 1999 in West Boylston. It has been expanded over the years and currently extends through the towns of Sterling, Holden, Rutland and Oakham. Another, smaller, section is the 2-mile Community Path in Somerville.

Additional rail trail systems in Massachusetts include the 5-mile Ashuwillticook (from Lanesborough to Cheshire); the 3.7-mile Canalside (from Turners Falls to Deerfield); the 11-mile Nashua River Trail (Ayer, Groton, Pepperell, Dunstable); and of course the 22-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail (from Dennis to Wellfleet).


Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 20 years of nature columns, visit