From outdoor thrills to cultural adventures to locavore feasts, this Massachusetts getaway has it all — within easy reach.
By Yankee Editors
Mar 19 2023
Among the most photogenic of Franklin County’s many crops, sunflowers in Whatley cast their spell over a camera-toting visitor.Photo Credit : Franklin County Chamber of Commerce
By Andrea E. McHugh; sponsored by the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce
In the light of an early spring morning, the glint of metal sap buckets hanging from centuries-old maple trees may catch your eye as you drive the two-lane roads that wind through Franklin County in northwestern Massachusetts. Carrying on a tradition that goes back five generations, the Williams family gathers and boils this liquid gold to stock the shelves with maple syrup, maple cream, and maple candy at their post-and-beam sugarhouse in Deerfield, where they also invite visitors to pull up a seat for maple-season breakfasts.
Historic, rural, and welcoming, the Williams Farm Sugarhouse is emblematic of what makes Franklin County so special. In this bucolic region that lies less than two hours from Massachusetts’s biggest cities, forests and farmland nestle against classic villages lined with 18th- and 19th-century buildings, and you may even spy a covered bridge or two over a winding river. But this is also a place to embark on outdoor adventures, enjoy rollicking live music, discover finely made artisan food and crafts, and much more. Franklin County is that rare slice of Americana that also pulses with fresh and diverse experiences, drawing visitors to explore these hills and river valleys brimming with things to do throughout the four seasons.
As the most rural area of Massachusetts — not to mention home to the greatest number of state forests — Franklin County is one of the best destinations in the Commonwealth for soaking up natural beauty. It’s little wonder that New England’s first official scenic highway, the Mohawk Trail Scenic Byway, runs right through this county, offering up vistas that allow even amateur photographers to capture next-level images.
One of the westernmost towns along Franklin County’s section of the Mohawk Trail is Charlemont, a bona fide outdoor playground perched on the banks of the Deerfield River. At its heart is Berkshire East Mountain Resort, where the top-notch skiing and snowboarding action gives way in warmer months to guided whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and ziplining (plus the Thunderbolt, one of the longest mountain coasters in the world). At nearby Zoar Outdoor, thrill seekers can soar above the tree canopy on a three-hour guided zipline tour, or navigate class II and III whitewater in the Zoar Gap — or do both in one day! Rounding out the Charlemont adventure scene is Crab Apple Whitewater, offering full- and half-day experiences for everyone from families to experienced rafters.
For those who prefer to keep their feet on solid ground, a hike to Mount Sugarloaf’s south summit rewards you with sweeping views of the Connecticut River Valley — a captivating vista whether blanketed by budding spring trees or painted in the vibrant hues of foliage season. Northfield Mountain Recreation Area, meanwhile, offers 26 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and, when the snow falls, cross-country skiing.
Moving down the adrenaline scale, the Barton Cove campground is a prime spot for launching a canoe or paddleboard for a lazy afternoon on the Connecticut River, while golfers can get in some playing time amid stunning scenery at the award-winning 18-hole course at Crumpin-Fox Golf Club. Or, you could simply stand still and let nature’s wonders come to you, at the Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory, filled with some 4,000 exotic and domestic butterflies fluttering all around.
Immerse yourself in early American life and architecture as you stroll among the 18th- and 19th-century clapboard houses along a street laid out in 1671 at Historic Deerfield, a preserved Colonial village. For an even deeper dive into the natural, cultural, and industrial history of the Connecticut River Valley, head to Great Falls Discovery Center, housed in a former paper mill complex and surrounded by riverside gardens and lawns. Past and present merge at the Montague Bookmill, a landmark 1842 gristmill on the banks of the Sawmill River that now holds small independent businesses, most notably a namesake used bookstore where the reading nooks are as delightful as the creaky wooden floorboards underfoot.
There are literal bridges to the past in Franklin County, too, with more than half a dozen covered bridges gracing its waterways. Among these, Burkeville Bridge (also called the Conway Covered Bridge) earns bragging rights for being both the longest and oldest covered bridge in the region. However, the most-visited historic span here is wide open to the sky, and for good reason: The beautiful Bridge of Flowers, a 400-foot-long walkway across a c. 1908 trolley bridge, is covered with flowers, bushes, and trees that offer an ever-changing palette of color from spring into fall.
But Franklin County’s culture scene isn’t only about the past, thanks to its flourishing communities of artists and artisans, along with top-drawing festivals and performance venues. Catch a show at the intimate 1794 Meetinghouse, or join the lively crowd at the Green River Festival, which draws thousands of music lovers to the Franklin County Fairgrounds each summer to experience what the New York Times has hailed as one of its “50 essential musical festivals.” And come fall, the fairgrounds host the merriment of the Franklin County Fair, the oldest continuously operating county fair in the country, now just shy of its 175th anniversary.
Once called “the breadbasket of New England,” the Connecticut River Valley boasts some of the most productive agricultural land in the nation. In Franklin County, that rich soil has made for a thriving community of farms and orchards that both welcome visitors and power the region’s farm-to-table dining scene. Consider the abundance at Apex Orchards, which for seven generations has grown everything from peaches and pears to blueberries and kiwi, though it’s best known for its apples (along with its gorgeous hilltop views). Apples more broadly are at the center of Franklin County’s famed craft cider scene, which is celebrated each November at Franklin County CiderDays, the longest-running cider festival in the nation. The lineup of demonstrations, tastings, and tours puts a spotlight on local producers like West County Cider, founded almost 40 years ago and still fermenting and bottling ciders in the cellar of the family farmhouse — yielding a perfect expression of Franklin County terroir.
Acclaimed wineries and distilleries also have deep roots here. A visit to Berkshire Brewing Company, for instance, is about more than just sampling top-notch IPAs, stouts, and porters; you’ll also rub elbows with the very folks who crafted your beer, and maybe even have a chance to preview brews not yet made available to the public. Another popular stop is Cameron’s Winery, which has long been known for its award-winning fruit wines; more recently it opened the Back Room Brewing Co., situated literally off the back of the brewer’s c. 1824 home. And, of course, no beer lover should miss Tree House Brewing Company, which has been ranked among the best breweries in the world.
Farm-to-fork is par for the course in Franklin County, where you can settle in for seasonally inspired meals prepared by talented chefs — at places like Champney’s Restaurant & Tavern, Watershed Restaurant, and Hope and Olive, to name a few — or stock up on produce and prepared foods right at the source, at the region’s many farmstands and porch stores. There’s an impressive array of ethically raised meats on offer at the family-run Diemand Farm (where they’re also happy to sell you homemade meals, soups, and desserts), while the 50-acre, certified-organic Kitchen Garden Farm can load you up with made-from-scratch chili sauce, srirachas, tomato puree and sauce, and spices and herbs.
Situated within easy reach from cities such as Boston, Worcester, and Springfield, Franklin County is a prime spot for day-tripping all year round. But there’s so much to see, do, and eat that you’ll want a weekend (or longer) to take it all in. Take advantage of the many lodging opportunities here for a more leisurely stay, ranging from country inns to modern hotels to campsites. The extra time will not only allow you to explore more of what Franklin County has to offer, but let you truly unwind, enjoy family and nature — and return home invigorated and inspired.
Start planning your visit to Franklin County today, at MoreToFranklinCounty.com.