The Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts are considered one of the premier leaf peeping destinations in the United States. Every October, the trees put on a dazzling display of fall foliage to the delight of camera-wielding tourists like myself. But what else is there to do in the Berkshires besides look at the leaves? Plenty! The area has long been a bastion for artists like Edith Wharton and Norman Rockwell, who found inspiration in the charmingly small town of Stockbridge. Read on to discover the some of the best attractions in western Massachusetts.
The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home
Edith Wharton was an accomplished American writer and the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. She was a prolific author, penning 40 books in 40 years, including her two most famous novels: The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. In both, Wharton examines the strict moral and social codes of 19th century New York high society. Born into that world of wealth and privilege, she grew increasingly frustrated with its strict rules and double standards, especially in regards to women’s expected behavior. She preferred the quiet confines of The Mount, her private estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, where she could breathe in corset-free comfort. In fact, she did most of her writing in bed!
While The Mount looks lavish to my untrained eye, it was actually revolutionary for its lack of excess. Wharton created a home that was bright and airy, in stark contrast to the dark and heavy Victorian style that was popular at the time. She designed the gardens following the same unpretentious principles and was enormously pleased with the result, even bragging to friends about her landscape gardening skills. Can you blame her? I think I could be inspired to write a novel in such a dreamy setting.
Norman Rockwell Museum
Norman Rockwell is another iconic American artist who called the Berkshires home. For fifty years, Rockwell presented his idealized vision of New England life as illustrated covers for the Saturday Evening Post. These scenes often featured freckle-faced boys getting into mischief and quintessential American activities like baseball and family vacations. But Rockwell also tackled more serious issues facing the nation, such as entry into WWII and de-segregation. I appreciate that he challenged gender norms with works including The Young Lady with a Shiner and Rosie the Riveter. Many of his magazine covers and paintings are on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, where he lived and worked for 25 years.
Stockbridge, Massachusetts was founded by English missionaries in the 1730s, but Norman Rockwell put the town on the map. His depiction of Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas became an instant classic. Today, aside from the cars and tour groups, the town appears little changed since being immortalized in 1967. The white-washed shops exude country charm and rocking chairs on the front porch of the Red Lion Inn beckon the weary. I skipped the lengthy wait for dinner at the Inn in favor of a more contemporary meal at Once Upon a Table bistro. The proprietor of a nearby chocolate shop said it was the best restaurant in town and, based on my delicious gnocchi, I believe her!
The Mohawk Trail is a scenic drive through Massachusetts’ so-called Pioneer Valley. It follows Route 2 over a Native American trade route, hence the name. The trail’s symbol is a large bronze sculpture of a Native American called “Hail to the Sunrise,” but I somehow drove past without seeing it. I did stop for the “Elk on the Trail,” a WWI memorial erected by the Order of the Elks. The Mohawk Trail stretches for 63 miles through the Berkshire foothills, past charming towns and breathtaking scenery. All the remaining attractions I mention below can be found on or near the trail.
The Mohawk Trail begins in the Berkshires near Mount Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts. From the summit of 3,491 feet you can supposedly see five states, though they all looked the same to me. The drive to the top was much more exciting, with gorgeous scenery around every turn. I was stunned to find myself nearly alone on the road, especially in peak foliage season.
Bridge of Flowers
My favorite stop on the Mohawk Trail is the Bridge of Flowers. In 1908, a trolley bridge was built across the Deerfield River connecting the towns of Shelburne and Buckland. But by 1927, automobiles had rendered the trolley obsolete. Rather than see the bridge torn down, the local women’s club decided to turn it into a public garden. The bridge has been covered with flowers ever since. I visited in October when the dahlias were out in all their glory. To see what’s blooming at other times, check the Bridge of Flowers website. If you are looking for a great place to have lunch in Shelburne Falls, I recommend the West End Pub. I ordered the Cape Cod fish sandwich with a side of broccoli slaw and it was absolutely scrumptious!
A short walk from the Bridge of Flowers is another interesting sight, the glacial potholes of Salmon Falls. These rock formations were carved 14,000 years ago during the last Ice Age, when water flooded the area and eroded the bedrock. Today it looks like a river of marble. The Deerfield River still flows, but has been dammed near the potholes. The salmon that gave the site its name are long gone.
French King Bridge
Continue driving east on Route 2 and you will cross the French King Bridge. This iron span was erected in 1932 and promptly named one of the most beautiful bridges in America. But it’s the view of the Connecticut River you really want to see. There is a small parking lot on the western end and a pedestrian walkway so you can safely access the bridge.
Where to Stay in the Berkshires
I based myself at the Wyndham Bentley Brook near Hancock, MA. This cozy-but-affordable resort is centrally located in the Berkshires within driving distance of every place I mention above. And a nearby restaurant called Powder Hounds has some of the best clam chowder in New England!
If you have more time in the Berkshires, consider taking a day trip up to Bennington, Vermont. This charming town is packed with fun things to do and is only about a 45 minute drive from Hancock. Check out my Bennington guide for more details.
Are you ready to plan a getaway to the Berkshires?