By Daniel Hales
Have you been to the Turners Falls canal -- which I think of as a little slice of Venice in western Massachusetts? I first experienced it on a magical, moonlit stroll with friends after one of the legendary fashion shows at Suzee’s Laundromat. However, I soon found that the canal is equally enchanting by the full light of day. Whether for exercise or enjoyment, biking or birdwatching, leaf-peeping or lounging, you need to make the canal connection. Best of all, the canal is only part of the package.
Franklin County is a treasure trove for bicyclists, but its crown jewel may be the beautiful 3.7-mile-long Canalside Rail Trail, built partially on old railroad beds. You can begin "riding the rail” at either McClelland Farm Road in Deerfield or Unity Park in Turners Falls. Parking is available at either end if you’d like to drive your bike to a trailhead. I tend to start at the Deerfield end, mainly because the parking lot is adjacent to the East Deerfield Train Yard. If you’re a trainspotter like me, you’ll love this picturesque spot for watching locomotives and freight cars. The McClelland Farm Road bridge over the Boston & Maine tracks at the west end of East Deerfield Yard provides the perfect perch for photographing trains.
This is exactly what I did on my first bike-ride of 2021, a sunny, 50 degree day in March. Once I got my freight pix fix, I hopped on my Schwinn Sportabout and headed down the paved path past some picnic tables. I quickly came to the trestle-bridge over the Connecticut River; built in 1880, it offers stunning vistas on either side. To the left, you can see the mouth of the Deerfield River and, further upstream, the General Pierce Bridge connecting Greenfield and Montague. The right side of the bridge looks downstream past a scattering of rocky shoals. Beyond the bridge, the path continues on Masonic Avenue, Rod Shop Road, and Solar Avenue: all very quiet side-streets with minimal traffic. From Solar Avenue, I crossed Montague City Road and continued on Depot Street, passing another small parking area.
At the end of Depot Street, I picked up the bike path again, and rounded the first bend, behold: the tranquil waters of the Turners Falls Canal came into view. From here, most of the trail continues along this lovely canal. There are several picnic tables and benches along the canal where you can linger and watch swans, geese, ducks, herons, cormorants, swallows, and other birds that frequent the canal. On my ride, I was astounded by how many flocks of different birds were gathered and peacefully co-existing in the canal.
There are several small bridges over the canal, the first, at 11th Street, leading to “The Patch” a Turners Falls neighborhood nestled along the canal. A few of the canal bridges are closed to the public; the rest are portals to strange and wonderful places to explore. There’s also an array of old factories and mills across the canal, which are striking for their beautiful brickwork facades. At the end of the canal, you’ll see the path up to the Great Falls Discovery Center (and downtown Turners Falls) on the right, before passing beneath the Gill Montague Bridge.
Next you’ll find the Turners Falls Fish Way, where you can (and should!) view a variety of migrating fish when it’s open from mid-May to mid-June. As long as I live, I will never forget the incredible sight of a lamprey suctioned to the glass. Finally, the trail arrives at Unity Park, where you’ll find plenty of room to picnic along Barton Cove: a stretch of the Connecticut River that widens to a calm, lake-like expanse due to the dam built parallel to the Avenue A bridge. Unity Park also boasts a playground, skate park, and a basketball court. At the end (or beginning) of the trail is another parking lot, as well as my favorite place to hang out after a bike ride, the remains of an old bridge foundation. This is also a popular spot for those who want to cast a fishing line.
The Canalside Rail Trail can be enjoyed year round. I passed numerous bikers, walkers, joggers, and a lone skateboarder on my inaugural ride of the year. I later learned that a friend I passed was on a first date... which led to a second date. Surely the rail trail deserves some of the credit for his success. And on my ride back, I stopped again on the trestle-bridge just as a bald eagle soared over the river.
Check out downtown Turners Falls before or after your ride. As COVID reopening permits, grab a bite at The Rendezvous or Upper Bend Cafe + Bruncheonette. Or do some shopping at Loot Found + Made, Buckingham Rabbits Vintage, or Richie Richardson's Fab. Or even stay for a show at the Shea Theater Arts Center!
Try gravel bike trails in Franklin County or the thrilling Thunder Mountain Bike Park at Berkshire East. Find great biking in the rest of Franklin County here. Or let Frontier Cycling Tours or River's Edge Cycling show you around.