Ask anyone west of 495 (or if you live in Central Massachusetts, west of the Mass Pike/84 split) and they may think the entire state is tilted. Certainly, the eastern half of Massachusetts commands the most attention and publicity, leaving the left-most third underappreciated and under-explored for all it has to offer — and it has a lot to offer.
Certainly, there is much family fun to be had on the eastern shores from Salisbury to Provincetown, but a drive west delivers a host of indoor and outdoor adventures in art, culture, nature, education, shopping, and much more.
Here is just a sampling of fun family gems found throughout The Pioneer Valley and The Berkshires.
The Pioneer Valley
Heading west on the Mass Pike, take a right just past Chicopee and grab Route 91, which extends north into Vermont and south into Connecticut. Route 91 North brings you into the heart of The Pioneer Valley and the college towns of Amherst (UMass Amherst, Amherst College, Hampshire College), Northampton (Smith), and South Hadley (Mount Holyoke).
Children’s Museum at Holyoke: Open Tuesdays through Sundays, the museum offers hands-on, interactive exhibits where families can learn together about art, science, and the world around them, all for the very affordable price of just $7 per person (kids under 1 are free). childrensmuseumholyoke.org
Holyoke Heritage State Park: The 8-acre, history-based state park occupies the site of the William Skinner Silk Mill, which was lost to fire in 1980. The visitor’s center offers exhibits about paper manufacturing and the city’s industrial and cultural past, and the landscaped grounds provide picnicking and views of the city’s canals and mill buildings. The Holyoke Merry-Go-Round, the Children’s Museum at Holyoke, and the Volleyball Hall of Fame (volleyball.org) are also located in the park. More info on the park can be found at: mass.gov/eea/agencies/dcr/massparks/region-west/holyoke-heritage-state-park.html
Holyoke Merry-Go-Round: Located alongside the Holyoke State Park Visitor’s Center, the carousel (known as Holyoke’s Happiness Machine) offered its first ride in 1929 and is still spinning today. Rides are $2 or six for $10, and it is open year-round. holyokemerrygoround.org
Holyoke Mall at Ingleside: If you need to power shop, this large mall offers nearly 200 stores, a food court, several restaurants, and events. holyokemall.com
Odyssey Bookshop: Take a stroll around the Mount Holyoke grounds, then walk across the street to this locally owned, 53-year-old independent bookstore. The large children’s section is loosely grouped by age, ability level, and topic. And if you’re looking for suggestions, there’s no better person to ask than someone who works at an independent bookstore. odysseybks.com
Mount Holyoke College Art Museum: The museum offers two programs for families. The self-guided Look and Learn can be used with children of all ages and provides close-looking prompts and information for five different works of art that will help a family deeply engage with select objects on view. Animals and Funny Faces are Art Seek scavenger hunts designed for shorter visits and can help children enjoy the galleries while learning.
Look Park: Technically named the Frank Newhall Look Memorial Park, this private, nonprofit space spans 150 acres and offers a host of special events and family fun, including playgrounds, minigolf, bumper boats, waterspray park, walking trail, picnic sites, zoo, a steamer railroad, and more. Open year-round, the park sustains itself on admission fees: $7 on weekdays and $9 on weekends.
Smith College Museum of Art: Every second Friday of the month is family-focused at the museum, offering hands-on art-making, guided tours, and more (smith.edu/artmuseum/Events/Second-Fridays). Children 18 and under are always free, and adults are just $5 (free on Second Fridays). smith.edu/artmuseum
Downtown Northampton: The area provides a great opportunity for strolling, browsing, and buying. The second Friday of each month (from 5 p.m.-8 p.m.) is Northampton Arts Night Out, a chance to enjoy diverse visual and performing arts downtown. artsnightout.org
Norwottuck Rail Trail: This 11-mile path links Northampton, Hadley, and Amherst along the former Boston & Maine Railroad right-of-way. The level terrain provides safe passage for pedestrians of all ages and abilities. mass.gov/eea/agencies/dcr/massparks/region-west/norwottuck-rail-trail.html
The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art: A must-see, the nonprofit is the only full-scale museum in the country devoted to the art of the picture book. The Carle collects, preserves, presents, and celebrates picture books and picture book illustrations from around the world, housing more than 13,000 objects, three art galleries, an art studio, a theater, picture book and scholarly libraries, and educational programs and events. In honor of the Make Way for Ducklings’s 75th anniversary, the museum is showcasing the art of author/illustrator Robert McCloskey through Oct. 23, It is also celebrating Beverly Cleary’s 100th birthday with the exhibit, “Louis Darling: Drawing the Words of Beverly Cleary,” through Nov. 27. carlemuseum.org
Emily Dickinson Museum: Located on two acres in the center of Amherst, the museum celebrates the poet’s life and work, and offers guided tours of her home, The Homestead, and her brother’s home, The Evergreens. While adults are charged a fee for tours, children under 17 are free. emilydickinsonmuseum.org
Beneski Museum of Natural History: Found on the Amherst College campus and always free, the 1,700-specimen museum features fossil skeletons, an extraordinary collection of dinosaur footprints, and just inside the front door, a massive skeleton of a wooly mammoth. The museum offers family “field guides” with age-appropriate language about the museum’s collection geared toward different grade levels. amherst.edu/museums/naturalhistory
Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory & Gardens: Closed only twice a year (Thanksgiving and Christmas), Magic Wings is an 18,400-square foot facility that includes an 8,000-square-foot glass conservatory filled with butterflies, moths, and tropical vegetation. If you need a little warmth in the non-summer months, this is the place to go as it’s heated to an 80-degree tropical-like environment year-round. magicwings.com
Yankee Candle Village: Fragrance fans can visit the mothership of New England candles at Yankee’s flagship store. In addition to sporting 400,000 candles in 200 scents, it offers a Christmas room, where it snows every 4 minutes; a magic castle; interactive candle-making; a candy shop; seasonal events, and much more. yankeecandle.com/about-us/visit-our-village-stores/south-deerfield-events
Historic Deerfield: Located in Deerfield, this authentic 18th-century New England village features beautifully restored museum houses with period architecture and furnishings, demonstrations of colonial-era trades, and a world-famous collection of early American crafts, ceramics, furniture, textiles and metalwork. Kid-Friendly Deerfield offers hands-on exhibits and guided tours for young explorers. historic-deerfield.org
At Greenfield, those on 91 North should hang a left on Route 2 West to take the famous, 69-mile Mohawk Trail, which ends in The Berkshires. But before you do, make two stops in the city first.
Greenfield Games: Located in the Main Street Historic District, the store is the largest of its kind in Western Mass and offers an impressive variety of board, dice, card, strategy, educational, and tabletop games, puzzles, and more. Whether you want a small Rubik’s Cube or a large roleplaying game complete with miniatures, it’s worth the stop for browsing and finding what could be a new family game night favorite. greenfieldgames.com
Federal Street Books: Just a couple blocks up from Greenfield Games is this book-lover’s paradise, a two-floor, well-organized used bookstore, jam-packed with hardcover and paperback titles. Fun, funky art is displayed on walls and hangs from the ceilings, and adults and kids could spend quite a while hunting for favorite — or new — titles, all for a bargain used price. facebook.com/Federal-Street-Books-195234420507457/
The area is world-famous for many offerings: the scenic, winding Mohawk Trail; its vibrant arts and music scene, from Tanglewood to the Williamstown Theatre Festival; and its idyllic renderings of small-town America via Stockbridge resident Norman Rockwell, among much more. However, the area is about to gain even more notoriety via a recent major announcement. Author J.K. Rowling revealed that in her Harry Potter universe, there is one wizarding school located in the United States: Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which is located “at the highest peak” of the very real Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts, which rises up from the Berkshires.
Mass MoCA: The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in a massive 26-building converted factory complex, previously home to a major textile printing business and later an electronics R&D and production company. Opened in 1999, the museum is one of the largest centers for contemporary visual art and performing arts in the country. Families may be especially interested in Kidspace, a child-centered art gallery, and ArtBar, a hands-on studio. Families are invited to drop in to make art that is thematically connected to current MASS MoCA exhibitions. The FreshGrass music festival, held Sept. 16-18, will feature family music- and art-making events. massmoca.org
North Adams Museum of History and Science: Offering free admission, the museum offers a model of the solar system that’ll have the kids playing astronaut, a train set to make the kid in you drool, a full-sized model of the Fort Massachusetts Barracks Room that’ll have kids and adults playing fort together, as well as exhibits on local history, Anasazi Indian artifacts, architecture, and much, much more. northadamshistory.org
The Hairpin Turn: If you take Route 2 into the city, you will drive the famous hairpin turn. Make sure you pull over to the observation area to check out the city of North Adams below, as well as the mountainous portions of southern Vermont and northwestern Massachusetts, including Mount Greylock, Mount Prospect, and Mount Williams.
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Williams College and Spring Street Shopping: The town is not called “The Village Beautiful” for nothing. The grounds of the country’s leading liberal arts college are simply gorgeous, begging to be strolled and photographed. Head down Spring Street for a series of eating and shopping pleasures, including the very fun Where’d You Get That? gift shop (wygt.com).
The Clark Art Institute: Better known as “The Clark,” the museum’s collection features Renoir, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Degas, and countless other paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, photographs, and decorative arts from the Renaissance to the early 20th Century. The organization places a high value on education and offers families sketch pads for young artists, as well as Looking Closely Cards, especially designed to encourage children to view the paintings and contemplate what they see. clarkart.edu/visit/families
Mount Greylock State Reservation: At 3,491 feet, Mount Greylock provides dramatic views of The Berkshires and the surrounding 60 to 90 miles on a good day. (Muggles are unable to spy Ilvermorny Castle, which is “concealed from non-magic gaze by a variety of powerful enchantments,” according to Pottermore.com.) You can drive to the peak late May through Nov. 1. mass.gov/eea/agencies/dcr/massparks/region-west/mt-greylock-state-reservation-generic.html
Ramblewild: Its Tree-to-Tree Adventure Park is the premier aerial park in the Berkshires, set on 10+ acres in the middle of the forest. The experience offers eight obstacle courses where adventurers journey from tree to tree at various heights throughout the forest, encountering elements such as high wires, zip lines, balancing logs, rope ladders, cargo nets, suspended bridges, and more. The experience is open to anyone over age 7 and 55 inches tall. ramblewild.com
Norman Rockwell Museum: This iconic American original called Stockbridge home for the last 25 years of this life and has become synonymous with the area. The museum houses the world’s largest and most significant collection of original Rockwell art, as well as more than 100,000 photographs, letters, and other rare mementos. It offers audio tours, guided gallery talks, and programs and events for families throughout the year. nrm.org
Main Street: The town’s main thoroughfare is as picturesque and New England as it gets. Park the car and walk around, take pictures, and browse through the many unique offerings on Main and Elm streets, from galleries and restaurants to gift shops. Watch traffic go by while sitting on the porch of the famous Red Lion Inn, and don’t miss Williams & Sons Country Store. Which it offers penny candy, jams, and much more.
Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas: The scene was immortalized in Rockwell’s 1967 classic of the same name, which the town recreates every December, right down to the same color, make, and model antique cars in their proper places. The first weekend in December is a three-day (this year Dec. 2-4), town-wide celebration, featuring family events, concerts, a candlelight walk, a visit from Santa, entertainment, and more. stockbridgechamber.org/visit/stockbridge-main-street-at-christmas/