New England is famous for its foliage. One great spot for leaf-peeping is the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts. And while you’re there, the Pioneer Valley offers dinosaur tracks, candle making, college visits, historic towns and museums, and lots of other things to do when your eyes are exhausted by color. Your path is along Routes 116 and 5, north and south halfway across Massachusetts. This is an idyllic location for leaf peeping with grand vistas, lakes, parks, and a multitude of deciduous trees.
In fact, sometimes the colors are just too much, like this view across Lake Arcadia in Belchertown.
So, you come for the foliage, but there are lots of other things to do while you’re here if you start getting overwhelmed–the way people sometimes do with the art in Florence.
There are, of course, the colleges. The Pioneer Valley is home to five outstanding colleges: Mount Holyoke (women), Smith (women), Amherst, Hampshire, and UMass Amherst. You can choose the school that suits your personality and sense of beauty, but take classes at any of the five schools. The PVTA bus links the campuses. They are among the most beautiful classic colleges you will ever see, with trees, lakes, old brick buildings. This is at the lovely Mount Holyoke, the first of the famous “Seven Sisters” of the Ivy League.
Maybe you’re not ready for college yet, or you’re finished with that phase of life, then how about dinosaur tracks? The Pioneer Valley was once home to small herds of roving carnivorous dinosaurs who left footprints in the sandstone 190 million years ago along what was a subtropical swamp. One place to see them is called, appropriately enough, Dinosaur Footprints. This is the first place that dinosaur prints were scientifically described and the very tracks are still here to be seen. You park along Route 5 in Holyoke and then take an easy walk north from the entrance to the footprints. Dinosaur Footprints is open daily April 1 to November 30, sunrise to sunset.
If you would like to OWN a dinosaur footprint, then the place to go is Nash Dinosaur Track Site and Rock Shop, formerly known as Nash Dinosaurland, off Route 116 in South Hadley.
This is an eccentric shop full of reasonably priced dinosaur footprints that the family has carved out of the rock formation in the backyard. You can get an innie or an outie footprint. For a minimal price ($3.00 adults/$2.00 children) you can walk out on the rocks to see where the tracks come from.
Nash Dinosaur Tracks is open 12-4 on Sunday, 10-4 Monday-Saturday except Wednesday, when it is closed. Here is a nice history of the discovery of dinosaur tracks in North America–starting only a mile from Nash Dinosaur Tracks. A dinosaur footprint is an excellent graduation gift for your student in the Pioneer Valley. Or a gift for any reason. Here’s mine–it’s an outie.
Some of the colleges have dinosaur tracks on display as well. Amherst has the first specimens to be found in the Valley. Here is a wall at Mount Holyoke.
EMILY DICKINSON’S HOUSE
Emily Dickinson lived in this house in Amherst for her entire life, except for a few homesick months she spent down the road at Mount Holyoke College. You can take a guided tour of her house from March through December, Wednesday through Sunday. There are several different options for tours, including one that visits her brother’s house next door. It is fun to walk through the garden and see the views and hear the birds that inspired her poetry. Prices vary from $5 to $12. For more information, see here.
As you drive north on Rt. 116, you will drive by this mountain between the Southern Pioneer Valley, where the colleges are, and Deerfield. Drive to the top and take a look at Mt. Sugarloaf State Reservation.
When Rt. 116 runs into Rt. 5, head north on 5. One nice change of pace from the leaves is Historic Deerfield, an outdoor history museum made up of 12 houses ranging from 1730 to 1850 situated at the crossing of the Deerfield and Connecticut rivers. Eleven of the houses are on their original sites. With your admission, you can take either a guided or self-guided tour of each house. The houses that require guided tours run them at different times so you have to keep you eye on your watch and dash from house to house so as not to miss the tour. The guided tours do give a wonderful history of the occupants and draw one’s attention to architectural detail that might otherwise be missed. There are furnishings, including handmade coverlets, handpainted wallpapers, and odd furniture, the purpose of which must be puzzled out. One of the houses is home to an extensive silver and metalware collection, including work by Paul Revere. Here is a map of the village. The homes are open during the “regular season” daily mid-April through late December, except some holidays, from 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Check your dates before going. During the regular season, admission is $14.00 for adults, $7.00 for youth (6-17), and free for under 6. Tours can sometimes be made by appointment during the winter. No photography in the houses.
Even the non-historical houses on the street go all-out with autumn decor.
While in Deerfield, don’t miss the Memorial Hall Museum, right around the corner. It is a history museum with exhibits such as a door showing a Native American attack, pictures of prize cows, and, my favorite, textile work. There is a form of embroidery known as “Deerfield Embroidery” and many examples are on display.
I also enjoyed this quilt made up of show ribbons–now that’s an idea of something to do with all those prizes from the county fair, soccer teams, music contests, or, as my niece says, an “award for breathing!”
The Museum is open for weekends in May, then June through the beginning of November it is open Tuesday – Sunday, 11 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Admission is $6.00 for adults, $3.00 for students (6-21). The tiny shop includes embroidery kits – both crewel and cross-stitch. These are also available online here and here.
YANKEE CANDLE FACTORY
Okay, we have to say it. Everybody goes to the Yankee Candle Factory in South Deerfield once. You’ve got to take your opportunity to cast your hand in wax, dip a candle in multiple colors, buy a Christmas ornament or Polish pottery. It’s loud, it’s crowded, it’s touristy. But, okay, it’s kind of fun.
WHERE TO STAY
We love the Black Walnut Inn in Amherst.
Each room is different and welcoming and a little bit eccentric. We adore creeping up the narrow stairs to the Carhart Room, built in 1745, where the original family slept. Breakfast is outstanding. This is where I discovered Red River cereal, but there are lots of other, more indulgent, homemade treats available. The innkeeper, Marie, is friendly and warm.
There is always at least one dog. Our favorite is Nutmeg.
Another alternative is renting a cabin from vrbo. Here is cozy Abigail’s Cottage in Belchertown, right across from Lake Arcadia–a great place for a family reunion with gorgeous views of foliage.
It also features oodles of unusual reading material.
WHERE TO EAT
You can’t miss Judie’s in Amherst, home of the most outstanding popover ever, cheerful painted tables, and a colorful decor featuring work by artist in residence, Donna Estabrooks.
Another favorite is the Amherst Brewing Company, a casual restaurant which serves seasonal craft beer and delicious comfort food.