Winning walks: the trails not to miss in our backyard

Silvio O. Conte Wildlife Refuge, in Hadley, Mass.Photo: Tristan Whalen

The other day, my mom asked me to go grocery shopping for her. I obliged, and set off for Whole Foods with a standard shopping list: bread, apples, milk, cheese, lunch meat, tuna, mayonnaise, peanut butter. Usually the task of finding these items, in a treacherous landscape of shopping carts and artisanal hard cider displays, is uninspiring.

The other day, however, it felt different. I felt excited. The sun was setting over the Hadley hills, flooding viscous color through golden corn, and after shopping, I was going to the boardwalk.

I have become acquainted with this area’s many trails in the last year and a half, as my girlfriend and I have hiked and walked all over Amherst. She, and the visually arresting nature itself, have converted me from a non-hike or walker into a consummate lover of nature.

Through this exploration, I’ve learned to appreciate the sanctity of the outdoors, and have experienced the stress-relieving nature of walking. I have come to love the historical intrigue and whimsy of these trails, and the people who frequent them. Here I have compiled a list of what I consider to be the four best trails for walking in the Amherst area.

  1. Buffam Falls Conservation Area

Buffam Falls is a 2.3 mile loop trail on North Valley Road in Pelham. The trail leads to the convergence of two streams and Buffam Falls itself.

The main trailhead is on North Valley Road, but there are several entrances to the trail elsewhere in Pelham. Walking Buffam Falls is like walking in a fairytale kingdom: one can’t help but wonder whether Shakespeare’s inspiration for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” came from woods as secretive and vibrantly alive as these.

Walking parallel to Buffam’s cool, rushing water on this trail is meditative. It will rejuvenate you.

  1. Robert Frost Trail

The Robert Frost Trail is a 47 mile long footpath that runs through Massachusetts’ Connecticut River Valley. The trail runs from the base of the Connecticut River in South Hadley all the way to Ruggles Pond in the Wendell State Forest. Six miles of this trail run through Amherst, with several trailheads, the most significant of which is on Station Road.

The South Amherst section of the Robert Frost Trail is very flat, and while boards and bridges over small bodies of water are scattered throughout, the easily discernible, well-marked trail is easy to find.

Unlike Buffam Falls, the Robert Frost Trail has a mix of scenery, which includes evergreen and deciduous foliage, and open, untilled farmland. This trail is best for walkers who want choice, offering three mile, five mile, and 25 mile options. With ever-changing scenery and little variation in topography, this is a great trail for all walkers, casual or rigorous.

  1. Norwottuck Rail Trail

Growing up in Amherst, the Norwottuck Rail Trail (or, in Western Mass parlance, the “bike path”) can feel all too familiar. For many of us, it’s a place we’ve gone rollerblading, biking, or running for as long as we can remember. When I first started walking on the bike path, I was jaded: I thought I knew everything it had to offer. I was wrong. In the last year, I’ve discovered a whole world of wildlife and culture that the Rail Trail has to offer. Jane O’Connell, a South Amherst native and bike path lover, loves the many “regulars” who frequent the bike path, “everyone from dog walkers and runners to birdwatchers, who come with massive cameras and binoculars. Everyone on the bike path is really friendly and fun to chat with,” she said. O’Connell mentioned that there are many small trails that section off from the bike path, each with their own quirks and character. “There are a number lovely side trails. Great for letting your dog off the leash,” she said. In addition, the bike path is an incredible tool for inter-Amherst travel: it stretches from Belchertown through Hadley and Northampton to Easthampton. “The bike path makes the area feel more connected,” said O’Connell, who frequently rides her bike into Northampton.

  1. Silvio O. Conte Wildlife Refuge

Number one on our list is the Silvio O. Conte Wildlife Refuge, or as I like to call it: the “boardwalk.” Nestled in the woods adjacent to Moody Bridge Road in Hadley, this one-mile walk is on a raised wooden pier. Its path is lined with benches and small pavilions where one can look out over a variety of nature scenes: a marshy swamp with turtles sunbathing on rocks, tall golden reeds in the shadow of the Hadley hills, and a densely wooded valley, to name a few. The boardwalk has the added advantage of being handicap accessible.