By DIANE BRONCACCIO
What’s more appealing than than bicycling by historic houses and pastures dotted with cows? Or pedaling alongside meandering streams and vibrant fall foliage? Franklin County, Massachusetts offers up the New England landscapes of your dreams. Breathe in the fresh air and see it all close up, along the many bike trails running through the small towns and countryside.
The Franklin County Bikeway criss-crosses the region with roughly 240 miles of bicycle routes, including both non-motorized bike/pedestrian trails and designated bike lanes along streets and highways.
You’ll find designated bicycle loops and routes suited to every skill level.
“I would like to say we’ve got the best cycling in America,” Gary Briere of Rivers Edge Cycling says of Western Massachusetts. “You could find more dramatic landscapes, but what we have here, in Western New England, is this beauty and this ‘bicyclible’ scale. You can go from Northampton to Deerfield or Turners Falls – a 20-mile distance – and stop for coffee or a lunch in a village center.”
“We have the kind of attractions and services that cyclists need, and welcoming businesses and local foods that cyclists really enjoy,” he said.
Before starting Rivers Edge Cycling with his wife, Maureen, Briere spent 30 years working with state parks, promoting outdoor activities there. “This is where I wanted to be,” he said. “It’s really hard to find the kind of magic we have here,” he says.
Rivers Edge offers both custom tours and scheduled annual tours, which are posted at: www.riversedgecycling.com, although these are on hold during COVID-19. The tours include a Riverway Ride, which is an inn-to-inn weekend exploration of the Connecticut River Valley. Brooks, Books and Waterfalls is a 23-mile trip that includes the Sawmill River, the Connecticut River and the Montague Book Mill. The Back Roads and Main Streets tour is an eight-day, four state 300-mile trip. Rivers Edge has seen bicyclists come from all over the United States, as well as from Canada and Australia. Briere says the rides are tailored to individual needs. Also, Franklin County has several motels and bed-and breakfasts to accommodate those coming for more than a day’s ride.
While the above rides may currently be on hold, there are however COVID-safe bike tour options to choose from such as those from Fronteir Cycling Tours. "My riding, and the reason I started Frontier Cycling tours, is to highlight and show the great cycling routes in Franklin County and Western Massachusetts that most riders might not think about," says owner Ryan Boeding. "There are the tried and true, never a let down paved roads, punctuated with the Franklin County byway bike signs, but also the off the beaten path gravel roads some might not know about. It is easy to get lost in a sense, and just enjoy the ride, finding a place to stop for a coffee or beer when you come across a place. Even the coop in North Leverett is a nice stop as you're bumping along Rattle Snake Gutter and Montague Roads riding gravel."
Frontier Cycling offers a diverse range of routes and rides to choose from. All rides are customizable according to the experience you wish to have and Ryan likes to talk with each group ahead of time and discuss personally your experience and comfort on a bike. Here are some of his local tour ideas.
Maps of all Bikeway Routes in Franklin County, produced by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, available at the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, offer several bike “loops” along with detailed information about the mileage and difficulty of each route. Also available are online bike maps of the Connecticut River Byway, eastern Franklin County, western Franklin County, and central Franklin County.
Eastern Franklin County
The south eastern section of Franklin County (Leverett, Sunderland, Deerfield, and Montague) offer many road miles of level pedaling along riverfronts, and villages. For instance, the Leverett-Amherst loop, 13.4 intermediate miles, travels from Millers Falls Road through Montage Center and connects to North Amherst. The River Road Route (18.7 miles) begins at the southern end of the Canalside Trail Bike Path near the East Deerfield Railroad Yard, where there is a parking lot, and travels on River Road over the Deerfield-Sunderland bridge, connecting to the 9.4 mile Connecticut River Route, between Montague Center and Route 47 in Sunderland.
For a rigorous, advanced climb, take the 16-mile Franklin County-Vermont loop beginning at West Gill and Hoeshop roads, traveling north to Vermont and looping back to Mount Hermon Station Road.
Central Franklin County
In central Franklin County, there are intermediate bike touring loops through Greenfield and Turners Falls. An easy and interesting ride is the 3.6 mile Canalside Rail Trail. It crosses a few vehicular roads, but is mostly all bikes and pedestrians, from the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls to Deerfield. This trip offers glimpses of Turners Falls’ 19th century industrial architecture, the Connecticut River, the Power Canal and plenty of redwinged blackbirds in summertime, through a long stretch of meadows.
Greenfield has a 7.2 mile Leyden Road-Plain Road loop that includes the Riverside Greenway Bikepath, from the end of Woodard Road to Nash’s Mill Road, ending near the Green River Swimming Area. This stretch of paved path is out of vehicular traffic, while the rests of the loop is on shared roadway.
Western Franklin County
Western Franklin County, at the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, is hilly and offers a more challenging terrain for advanced riders. The 31-mile West County loop begins at Route 112 in Ashfield, traveling downhill into Buckland and Charlemont, along the Deerfield River. From Charlemont, it follows 8A into Plainfield, then heads east onto Route 116, which leads back to Ashfield.
Downhill & cross-country
The Berkshire East Mountain Resort in Charlemont offers beginner-to-advanced downhill biking at its Thunder Mountain Bike Park. Ride the ski lift 1,000 vertical feet; then take your downhill bike on whichever trail is suited to your skill level and sense of adventure. Berkshire East rents downhill bikes, which have hydraulic disc brakes, strong suspension, knobbier tires and are designed for downhill use.
“When we opened, we were voted ‘Top Bike Park in New England’ on MTVParks.com. We have beginner-to-expert trails, including natural terrain as well as machine-built trails and jumplines,” says bike park director Gabriel Porter-Henry. “We’re currently building new trails, including an advance pro-jump line. We’re (also) a full-service mountain bike park.” Lessons are available to inexperienced downhill bikers, and the network of trails is set up as a progression, for people to use as their skills improve.
With the Deerfield River running right through town, Charlemont has become an outdoor adventure center with whitewater rafting, kayaking, fishing and zipline treetop tours, among other activities. In recent years, at least 30 miles of public mountain bike trails have been carved out the wooded hills from Berkshire East through the property of Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, a whitewater rafting and zip line resort. Some of these bike trails were laid along old ski trails that are no longer used, said Lessels. Members of the New England Mountain Biking Association also helped to build the trails. These trails are open to the public, but they are self-guided trips. Trail maps may be seen at Berkshire East and Zoar Outdoor. Both businesses have lodging and camping sites for those who want to extend their stay.
When biking further east, Riverside Picnic Area provides a perfect place for a rest and rejuvenation spot during a summer or fall bike ride. Located in Northfield along River Road and the Franklin County Bikeway, the riverside picnic tables and rest rooms offer a scenic spot to refill water bottles, stretch your legs and enjoy the beautiful Connecticut River. The area is open Memorial Day through Columbus Day and run by FirstLight Power.
Just across Route 63 from Riverview is Northfield Mountain’s Visitor Center and extensive trail system. (Please check hours of visitor center operation before visiting) Enjoy a quiet mountain top rest with three state views before an exhilarating descent. Perfect for the adventurous mountain biker, the hilly terrain offers over 20 miles of well-maintained trails. Choices include challenging uphill routes, thrilling downhill rides and meandering across the mountain’s forested trails.