The Norwottuck Rail Trail: A great recreational asset of the Pioneer Valley Reply

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A jogger on the rail trail with tunnel under Spruce Hill Road in Hadley.

I regularly drive under an overpass of the Norwottuck Rail Trail on Snell Street in Amherst to and from my office at Sawicki Real Estate on University Dr., but had never taken the time to explore it.  So when a free sunny Sunday afternoon created an opportunity to do so, I loaded my 15-year-old mountain bike and made my way to the office.


According to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s website, the Norwottuck Rail Trail is eleven miles long and runs from Warren Wright Road in Belchertown, through Amherst, through Hadley, and across the Connecticut River into Northampton, where it joins a network of other bike paths.  As the name suggests, the trail is a converted railway. It was once part of the Boston and Main Railroad, which was built in 1887 and connected Boston and Northampton.

The trail’s name was given for the Native American population who are believed to have once occupied the lands around the Connecticut River, the Norwottucks. 

Because it was once a railroad right-of-way, the Norwottuck Rail Trail is flat, making it ideal for walking, bicycling, rollerblading, jogging, and when there is snow on the ground, cross country skiing.  Despite running parallel to Route 9, which is the commercial center of Hadley, there are plenty of pastoral views to enjoy along the way.  Motorized vehicles are prohibited.

Hiker takes in the view along the rail trail. This photo was taken on the fly while riding my bike.

Hiker takes in the view along the rail trail. This photo was taken on the fly while riding my bike. (click to enlarge)

On my journey, I picked up the rail trail on Snell Street near Amherst College.  Because my office is located along a bike path that runs from UMass to the trail, I could park my car at the office on University Dr., across the street from the path.  Once on the trail, a marker indicated to me that I was starting at mile 3.   There is also parking at Warren Wright Road in Belchertown and at Station Road in Amherst, if one wants to start their journey from the eastern end of the trail.

Once I found the right mid-range gear for my journey, I settled into my pace and took my hands off the handlebars to free them so that I could take pictures with my phone.  It was also more comfortable to ride this way than hunching over that using handlebars required.  Although I didn’t have to struggle up any hills, I couldn’t coast down any either.  My legs were always moving, while I took the occasional picture with my phone, managing to get a few usable pics taken on the fly.

I rode by different people of different ages enjoying a variety of activities: small children with their parents riding their little bikes, seniors walking and talking, young people walking and talking, joggers too winded to talk, rollerbladers with headphones on, and one guy just seemed to be walking back from one of the many stores just off the trail.

There are several places to stop and rest along the way.  The first street that I crossed was South Maple Street in Hadley where a sign stated that the trail was made partly of recycled glass, which seemed like a less-than-ideal material for a surface for rubber tires filled with air, but it obviously wasn’t the only material used.  At the same stop, others were enjoying some ice cream from a place immediately adjacent to the trail.

My goal was to cross the Connecticut River and I didn’t have much time, so there was not time to dilly dally and on I went.  Further down the trail, I made my way through a tunnel under Route 9 just past where Lowes is in Hadley.  This was the most significant grade change of my entire ride, but not significant enough for a gear change.

Site of a 17th century palisade in Hadley.

Site of a 17th century palisade in Hadley. (Click to enlarge.)

When I arrived at West Street, I stopped for a history lesson.  I had been down West Street in my car before and always wondered about the large common that runs between West Street and North Street.   It always seemed to me that a common wasn’t its original purpose based on the context.  According to a plaque near the trail at this location, my archaeologist instincts didn’t fail me as it stated that the common was once part of a 17th century palisade.  This fact is probably well-known by those that live here.

The plaque reads:
“In 1676 this common and most of its buildings were surrounded by a palisade built of split logs at least 3 fingers thick and 8 feet high. This fortification was one mile long by 40 rods wide.  Hadley was then a frontier outpost which felt threatened by Native American attack.”

Bridge over the Connecticut River into Northampton from Hadley. (Click to enlarge.)

Bridge over the Connecticut River into Northampton from Hadley. (Click to enlarge.)


After a little while longer, I made it to the old iron bridge and crossed the Connecticut River into Northampton at Damon Road.  According to one source, the Norwottuck Rail Trail was extended west in 2007 from Damon Road and Elwell State Park, where there is parking available, to Woodmont Road.  From there, it is a short ride away from the Northampton Bike Path.  I mention this because the commonwealth’s map of the trail does not include the western extension.

The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission conducted a survey of the trail in 2003, which can be found by clicking here.

I look forward to riding the entire trail soon as my ride was not that challenging, nor did it take that long.  The Norwottuck Rail Trail is certainly a great recreational asset of the Pioneer Valley and is another benefit of living here.  Next time, I will need to remember pack a sandwich and more water.  Perhaps I’ll try rollerblading next time as well. 

If you are planning on buying or selling a home in the Pioneer Valley, make your first call to Michael Seward at 413-531-7129 or email: michael.seward@comcast.net.

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