Everyone knows about the Norwottuck bike trail, which runs from Northampton through Amherst and out to Belchertown. Right off that trail, very close to Amherst center, is a small network of dirt roads and trails where I've managed to string together a good 15 or 20 minutes of fun for that moment when I'm passing through town and want a real nature break.
To access it, turn off South Pleasant Street/Route 116 into the driveway for Amherst Farmers Supply, and take an immediate left onto the bike trail.
About a mile east on the trail, at the very end of the Amherst College tennis courts, turn left onto a wide dirt road, and then follow the main road, bearing right at the maintenance shack you'll see in front of you. You'll start climbing, and also playing with the various surface ingredients -- wonderfully packed dirt; loose, marbly gravel; and packed, flinty stones. (I recommend at least 28 mm tires.)
Keep climbing past the small pen of adorable pigs, and then 'round the bend after the buzzing beehives:
About 50 yards later, you'll top out and receive your reward: A panoramic view of the Amherst valley and the Pelham hills, from a lovely clearing with a picnic table.
The worn stone steps I found at the opposite side of the clearing made me wonder if Fort Hill had an actual military structure on its summit at one point.
The table is in a nice shady spot with a light breeze, which dispels the heat and mosquitoes. If you return to the main road and continue down the other side of the hill, you'll end up at the junction of Southeast Street:
I recommend, however, retracing your path back down the hill a little, just past the piggies, and finding the opening in the trees on your left. You'll enter a small network of walking trails that creates a swoopy descent back down to the bike trail. One of the trails will dump you onto the bike trail right where you left it; enjoy poking around until you find that one.
From there, take a left onto the other end of the main dirt road. Soon, you'll see a gate set in the trees on your right. Take this delightful little trail through the woods back up to the entrance of the Farmers Supply, and voila! You're back where you started.
No muss, no fuss -- you don't even have to break a sweat to get a little dirt action, quietude, and a splendid view, right off the center of Amherst, on a nice summer day.
It pays to poke around.
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