Despite the presence of hurricane remnant Hermine, who had parked herself in the Atlantic near New England and refused to leave, Sue and I drove north in early September do some bicycling. We managed to ride four bike trails, three of them new to us.
Norwottuck Rail Trail
The trail crosses the Connecticut River on an old railroad bridge.
Length: 11 miles
The Northampton-Amherst area of central Massachusetts is home to many colleges and universities, as well as an extensive system of interconnecting bike trails on former railroad lines that link that city and town and many of those institutions.
I am completely confused about the proper names of these trails, exactly where one trail ends and another begins, and even how long some of them are. The various maps and sources I consulted offered conflicting information.
You can transfer to a bike trail that leads you downtown and crosses Main Street on another old railroad bridge.
We biked the Norwottuck Rail Trail (Mass Central Section)—or is it the Norwottuck Branch of the Mass Central Rail Trail? It is either 10 miles long (says TrailLink) or 11 (says a park map). I am at least sure that it runs from Northampton to Amherst and then several miles beyond.
All that confusion aside, it’s a very nice trail. It appears well maintained and has good directional signage and trail maps along the way. The crossing of the Connecticut River on a converted rail bridge is perhaps the trail’s most scenic delight. Connecting to other trails from where the Norwottuck (apparently) ends in Northampton is easy—once you figure out how to do so. Be prepared to consult Google Maps or rely on the kindness of strangers. We did both.
The Connecticut River from the bike trail.
East of Northampton, the trail runs mostly through rural countryside and past the town of Amherst and Amherst College. You can take a spur trail, the Swift Connector, about 2 miles north to the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Farther on, the Norwottuck becomes more remote and passes by a swamp preserve before ending at a small parking area.
We stayed at a Hampton Inn in South Hadley, just east of Northampton and a short bike ride to the trail. Maple Farm Foods, a large market right beside the trail midway between Hadley and Amherst, is a good place to stock up on food or treats or to enjoy a picnic on the tables outside.
East Bay Bike Path
The bike bridge over the Barrington River.
Bristol, Rhode Island
Length: 14 miles
Our driving tour of coastal Rhode Island led us to Bristol, a historic town on Narragansett Bay and the starting point for the East Bay Bike Path, which runs north to the city of Providence.
On the afternoon we arrived, Hermine was making her stormy presence known. The sky kept shifting from brightly cheerful to darkly threatening, the path was soggy in places, and it started to rain as we neared the far end of the trail. So weather dampened our impression of the East Bay Bike Path.
Contrary to most bike paths, pedestrians here are supposed to walk toward oncoming bicycle traffic in the same lane. [Photo: TrailLink]
The trail begins along the bay front in Bristol, runs north past neighborhoods and marshes into the neighboring towns of Warren and Barrington, and then alongside the Providence River into South Providence. It ends at India Point Park across the river. We turned around a mile or so from the end.
Except for jarring cracks in some spots, the trail seemed in fairly good shape. Interpretive exhibit panels about areas we passed stood alongside the path here and there. But I would have liked better directional signage in some places, an occasional trail map, and especially mile markers, which the trail inexplicably lacked.
Pomham Rocks Lighthouse is an especially photogenic site along the trail. [Photo: TrailLink]
My rear derailleur began shifting poorly, so we stopped at The Bike Shop, right beside the trail in Warren. The helpful folks there found a fraying cable and replaced it on the spot.
We stayed at a Best Western in nearby Seekonk, Massachusetts, and returned to Bristol the next morning to drive and walk around. I was quite taken by this compact, charming, walkable, and bikeable town. I’d like to return in better weather to give the East Bay Bike Path and Bristol another look.
Cape Cod Rail Trail
This beach on Seymour Pond south of Brewster makes a nice rest or picnic stop.
Length: 22 miles
We had biked the Cape Cod Rail Trail before, but it’s always worth revisiting. The trail runs from South Dennis to South Wellfleet, and a spur trail branches off toward Chatham at the only rotary (traffic circle) for bicycles I have ever encountered.
We stayed near the northern end of the trail at the Viking Shores Motel in North Eastham. This inexpensive, comfortable motel sits right beside the trail between Miles 18 and 19. A few cycling miles to the north is Marconi Beach. A few miles to the south via local roads is Nauset Light Beach, Coast Guard Beach, and the Cape Cod National Seashore Salt Pond Visitor Center.
Marconi Beach near Wellfleet, part of Cape Cod National Seashore.
On the afternoon we arrived, we biked the 4½ miles to Marconi Beach. The next day we headed toward Nauset Light Beach, but never got there. The neighborhood roads early on this weekday morning were clogged with buses and cars going to and from the local high school. We detoured toward the seashore visitor center and then found our way back to trail, which was blessedly quiet and empty.
We biked south past Nickerson State Park to the ponds between Miles 5 and 6. The trail goes through pine woods, passes salt marshes, and connects town centers. Tucked within the neighborhoods along the way are lots of cozy little shingled houses I could imagine living in.
Nickerson State Park lies close to the midpoint of the trail.
The trail itself is wide and smooth. Drivers invariably stop for you at the many street crossings. In a few places where you approach a crossing, a sensor sets off a flashing yellow light to alert oncoming vehicles. It’s a model rail trail, and probably jammed with bicycles and pedestrians in summer.
We didn’t reach the bicycle rotary or ride the other fine bike trails we’ve ridden through Falmouth to the Woods Hole ferry and along the Cape Cod Canal—something to look forward to next time.
Zim Smith Trail
Victorian cottages in Round Lake Village.
Ballston Spa, New York
Length: 9 miles
Despite an enviably rich retirement schedule, our friends Tad and Lea, who live just south of Saratoga Springs, New York, graciously agreed to host us on short notice as we headed home. This gave us the chance to ride one of their favorite local trails with them.
The Zim Smith Mid-County Trail begins at Ballston Spa, southwest of Saratoga Springs. We got on it a few miles away at Shenantaha Creek Park, where there’s a large parking lot and restrooms. The trail is largely shaded, rural with lovely scenery, and paved for much of its length. It turns to smooth gravel a few miles from its southern end. There are plans to extend the trail about 3 miles east to Mechanicville on the Hudson River.
We could only peek inside the auditorium to see the 1,900-pipe Ferris Tracker organ, the oldest and largest of its kind in the United States.
Shortly after heading south from the park, we left the trail to explore adjacent Round Lake Village. Born as a Methodist camp meeting site in the late 1800s, Round Lake reminded us of sections of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard and Ocean Grove on the New Jersey Shore. Attractive small Victorian cottages and buildings line the quiet streets. The village centers on the impressive Round Lake Auditorium, which used to host revival meetings and now serves as a performing arts venue.
After we reached the end of the trail, we doubled back to Ballston Spa, the other major attraction on the route. The center of Ballston Spa is about a mile ride on local streets from the trailhead. Along the way we passed some big Victorian houses, stopped to sample the spring water flowing from a public tap, and had a leisurely dessert lunch (the best kind!) at Coffee Planet, a café right at the center of the thriving downtown.
Coffee Planet: a great spot for coffee and dessert.
Sue said she liked this trail better than the East Bay Bike Path in Bristol. I didn’t agree, but I did really like exploring Round Lake Village and Ballston Spa. And any rail trail ride is always more enjoyable with good friends.
David Romanowski, 2016