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Long, short, flat, uphill, all are paths to pedal in the Pioneer Valley

By Maggie Freleng
Globe Correspondent / October 2, 2011

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Freckled with farms, forests, dirt roads, covered bridges, and reservoirs, the Pioneer Valley is a haven for cyclists. If a road is not a designated bike path, it is almost sure to be bicycle friendly, with cafes, scenic overlooks, wooded rest stops, swimming areas, and state parks along the way. Local bike shops are abundant in Western Massachusetts, as are cycling events that cater to all levels. From the more difficult Ess Curves in Shutesbury to the easygoing Norwottuck Rail Trail, one of these 10 routes is for you.

■ Canalside Trail Bike Path in Greenfield is flat, fun, and a great family ride. Park at the designated spot for the path. The trail crosses over the Connecticut on a bike-only rail bridge and continues on a flat, wooded trail until it reaches the Connecticut River Canal. From here the path is open and follows the canal until it ends at Unity Park, where children can enjoy the playground and adults the landscape. Under an hour, free.

■ Riverside Greenway Bike Path Starting in downtown Greenfield, set out on a short ride to the Greenfield Swimming and Recreation Area in Murphy Park. There enjoy the natural swimming area with sandy beaches, swings, picnic tables, bike racks, restrooms, showers, and grills. The trail connects the Greenfield-Montague Loop with the Canalside Trail Bike Path, completing the loop for a longer ride north through Gill and southern Vermont. Under an hour or half day, $3-$8.

■ Manhan Rail Trail A new rail bridge over Route 10 now offers a way for cyclists to take a bike-only path from Northampton to Easthampton. Starting in downtown Northampton off Conz Street, follow the shady path through Acadia Wildlife Sanctuary. Fork either right toward Easthampton or left toward Mount Tom State Reservation. Right takes you to the historic town of Easthampton for food and shopping, while left takes you to the famous Connecticut River Oxbow and Mount Tom’s hiking trails. A few hours, free.

■ Norwottuck Rail Trail and Northampton Bikeway Extending from Belchertown to Amherst and connecting in Northampton to the Northampton Bikeway, this trail is perhaps the most traveled route in the area. Start in Amherst heading through wooded areas, farms, and the former rail bridge connecting Northampton to Hadley over the Connecticut. In Northampton center, check out the galleries, record stores, and boutiques. Continue onto the Northampton Bikeway, picking up off King Street to Look Memorial Park in Florence, where you can picnic, pedal boat, visit the zoo, bumper boat, or mini golf on the 150 acres. A few hours, Look Memorial Park entry Mon-Thu $5, Fri-Sun $7. Activities charge additional fees.

■ Quabbin Reservoir in Ware is a popular cycling spot in the valley, appealing to people of all ages and cycling levels. Take a 2-mile climb to the Quabbin Reservoir Observation Tower and relax in the fields at the top that overlook the valley. Or, take the kids on a flat half-mile ride over Winsor Dam to the Quabbin visitors center. For people looking for more of a challenge, a 9-mile loop around the Quabbin Hill Road peninsula is the perfect ride. Under an hour or a few hours, free.

■ Montague Bookmill Loop Don’t let this 30-mile ride intimidate you; the route is fairly flat, running parallel to the Connecticut on windy, woodsy roads past farms, mossy rock faces, trickling waterfalls, and shaded rest stops. Start at Esselon Café in Hadley before setting off on the Connecticut River Bikeway, Route 47, to the Montague Bookmill in Montague, offering a cozy hangout to read “books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.’’ Outdoor seating makes this a great spot to stop and relax. For valley bikers, this ride is one of the most popular. Half day, free; lunch at the Bookmill $10.

■ Skinner through the Notch Starting either at Skinner State Park or Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery in Hadley, head south on Route 47 through open farmland to historic South Hadley Center. Endure a 500-foot climb to the Notch visitors center to rest, hike, or just pass by on your mile descent to the spacious Bay Road. For a great fun detour take Moody Bridge Road past fields, wooded rest stops, and mountain landscape. At the end continue on Bay Road back to 47 South. For your reward, head to the top of the state park and relax at the Mount Holyoke Summit House overlooking the valley from a 935-foot elevation. Half day, free; lunch at Barstow’s $8.

■ Ess curves If you are an experienced rider looking to climb over 1,000 feet, this is for you. Starting in downtown Amherst follow Main Street into the tiny town of Pelham for a wooded, back-road, uphill climb to Route 202. On 202, take a scenic break overlooking the majestic Quabbin Reservoir before continuing to Prescott Road in Shutesbury, where the much-needed 7-mile winding downhill awaits. The Quabbin Reservoir Classic Road Race, a 120-mile annual race around the Quabbin, highlights Route 202. A few hours, free.

■ Franklin Loops For a full-day trip starting in downtown Shelburne Falls, visit the Bridge of Flowers and the Glacial Potholes before heading in any direction to explore covered bridges, beautiful architecture, spectacular farms, scenic overlooks, state reservations, hairpin climbs, and historical sites. Take the Buckland-Ashfield Bike Route south through Conway and Ashfield or head west to Charlemont on the Western Franklin County Loop, or even head north to Colrain and Vermont on the Shelburne-Vermont Connector. Any direction leads to some of the best sights in the valley. Full day, free.

■ D2R2 Sampler This ride highlights some of the incredible D2R2 (Deerfield Dirt Road Randonneé) through a maze of dirt roads built for horse carts that have not been touched since the 1800s. The D2R2 celebrates 300 years of carriage roads in Franklin County catering to cyclists of all levels who want to enjoy a truly unique ride. Starting at the Eunice Williams Covered Bridge in North Greenfield, head north on Green River Road, following it most of the way for covered bridges, around hairpins, long stretches of stone walls, narrow lanes, and thousands of feet of climbing. Loop to finish in Historic Deerfield, a 330-year-old village along the Connecticut. Full day, free.

Maggie Freleng can be reached at