5 free things to see in Western Mass.
Whether you’re visiting the region’s many colleges or just playing tourist, Western Massachusetts is an interesting destination. There are towns dating back three centuries, main streets that seem simultaneously old-fashioned and trendy, and lots of bucolic rural scenery, from small farms to fall foliage. The area is about a two-hour drive from Boston and three hours from New York City.
Best of all, many local attractions are free. Here are a few.
BRIDGE OF FLOWERS
This lavishly landscaped pedestrian bridge over the Deerfield River in Shelburne Falls was built in 1908 for a trolley and became the Bridge of Flowers in 1929. Blooms in early fall include dahlias, hibiscus, allium and echinacea in a riot of purple, pink, yellow and orange. The bridge closes right before Halloween and reopens in spring.
Just around the corner, visit a local “geological wonder”: naturally round potholes ground out of granite during the glacial age by stones gyrating in whirlpools of water.
POET’S SEAT TOWER
This stone tower in Greenfield offers a 360-degree panoramic view from the top, especially lovely when autumn colors peak. Arched openings offer additional views as you climb several flights up.
A sign at the site says the tower, built in 1912 to replace an older wooden one, honors Frederick Tuckerman Goddard, a “gifted solitary poet” who studied nature and was “admired by Emerson, Hawthorne and Tennyson.”
Located on Mountain Road, it’s a bit tricky to find. Look for a small parking lot by the side of the road with a partly obscured sign at the trailhead. You can park there and walk in, or drive the paved path and park at the tower.
So why is Western Massachusetts nicknamed the Pioneer Valley? Well, long before 19th-century pioneers settled the American Midwest, colonists from New England headed to a 17th-century frontier here, 100 miles west of Boston. This wilderness was also a setting for the French and Indian War. One of the most famous attacks took place in Deerfield on Feb. 29, 1704. The settlement was destroyed, dozens of settlers — including children — were killed and more than 100 were taken captive by Indians and marched to Canada.
Today Historic Deerfield is dotted with markers commemorating the massacre, including a mass grave in the old cemetery for 48 men, women and children that bears the words “The Dead of 1704.” You’ll have to pay admission to see a “hatchet-hewn” doorway that bears scars of the attack and is now displayed amid other treasures in Memorial Hall, and you’ll also have to buy tickets to tour Old Deerfield’s 18th-century buildings. But you can soak up plenty of chilling history and historic architecture just by walking around, visiting the cemetery and reading the markers. Also free is the Channing Blake Footpath past a working farm with pigs and cows.
In nearby South Deerfield at 25 Greenfield Road, Yankee Candle’s massive flagship store houses a candle museum, Bavarian Christmas village, animatronic elves and a mini-Black Forest where snow falls every few minutes.
BOTANIC GARDEN OF SMITH COLLEGE
Northampton is known for its hippie vibe and funky downtown strip. It’s also home to Smith College, where a small but lovely botanic garden includes landscaped paths, a pond with a heron sculpture and a Victorian greenhouse called Lyman Conservatory at 16 College Lane. Lyman hosts a chrysanthemum show Nov. 1-16.
THE BELLE OF AMHERST
Many famous writers and artists have lived in the region, including the reclusive 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson. You can tour her home in Amherst for a fee, but it costs nothing to pay your respects at her grave in West Cemetery on Triangle Street. Look for the Dickinson family plot in the middle of the cemetery surrounded by fencing. Her tombstone reads, “Called back,” a phrase she used shortly before her death and one that suggests she was never entirely of this world.
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