Off the Beaten Path: Shelburne Falls, Mass.

Boston and Cape Cod certainly have their attractions–think lobster, beaches, history—but Massachusetts doesn’t end at the shore.

Head west into the mountains, and there’s a completely different landscape to explore.  Aside from the transportation hubs and the occasional college town, the villages are tiny, picturesque, and sometimes, fading away.  Not so in the berg of Shelburne Falls, nestled along the Deerfield River.

Massachusetts Route 2 winds its way through some of the most picturesque scenery we’ve seen, much of it along the river valley, but now and then scaling a mountain ridge for a spectacular view.  Get off I-91 at exit 26 (Greenfield) and head west for about 30 minutes and you’ll see the turnoff for Shelburne Falls (see interactive map below).  The sign says glacial potholes, half-mile.  You may know what glacial potholes are.  We did not.  The smallest are the size of a bowler hat, and the largest bigger than a football field in diameter.  Shelburne Falls has the largest concentration of them in the world.

We’re not much for shopping, but this little town lured us in, first with the fudge and ice cream shop across the street, then with the old textile mill converted to an artist co-op.  In the mill we found the extraordinary glass sculpture of local artist Josh Simpson.  Simpson is best know for making glass planets, intricate with apparent life on the surface, ranging from an inch in diameter to the one hundred pound wonder he created for the Smithsonian Institution.  A film in the gallery tells about the special equipment invented to make it and the several local glass artists who came together to help.

Crossing the river is the bridge of flowers.  This abandoned vehicle bridge has been planted with a lavish garden along both sides, and foot traffic crosses amid the flowers and flowering trees with the river rushing below.  It’s closed in the winter, but beautiful for three seasons.  There are several good eateries in town, at least one with a dining room hanging over the river, and several venues that feature live local music.  Charlie King and Bill Harley, bit well-known folk artists, live locally and can sometimes be heard performing.

If you visit in the late winter, the local sugar shacks will be in full operation.  This is the heart of maple syrup country.  Several of the operations offer pancake breakfasts, and it’s an experience to walk through the steam of the boiling sap and sit down to a hot plate of flapjacks covered with syrup that’s just minutes old.  The sugar shacks are hubs for local produce as well, offering free-range meats, local cheeses, preserves, and fresh bakery goods.

Not too far down the road is the Montague Book Mill, a used book store with the motto “Books You Don’t Need In A Place You Can’t Find”  Grab a cup of coffee from the little café downstairs, find a spot in the sun on one of the many couches scattered around, and spend a day reading whatever tickles your fancy from the endless shelves.  Just outside the back door is an equally enjoyable used music store called Turn It Up!

This is a winter ski area and a summer resort area, so you’ll find tourist prices in effect year round.  Local campgrounds are a bit tight, but there are two lovely camping areas at Mohawk Trail State Forest, perched on a mountainside and convenient to all the attractions of the area.  There are also several nice pull-offs along the river, which may or may not be good for overnight parking.  There were no signs posted.  Visit western Massachusetts, in any season, and you won’t be disappointed.