In the wooded hills of north Central Massachusetts, Athol is a small town of 12,000 on the banks of the Millers River, a tributary of the Connecticut River.
The river is a uniting feature for the town, and its sister, Orange, and sets the scene for an annual canoe race between the towns every spring.
With hundreds of participants each year, the Athol/Orange River Rat Race draws crowds of several thousand to the banks.
Downtown Athol has been given a facelift in the last few years, and is full of life in summer with events like Fourth Friday.
There are several places around the center where you can appreciate the beauty of the Millers River, while the town-owned Bearsden Forest Conservation Area protects a magnificent stretch of riverfront just upstream.
1. Downtown Athol
Something that will grab you about Main Street in Athol is just how pretty the view is. The town’s main artery is framed by the steep wooded sides of the Millers River valley, which sit in the background to the east and west.
There’s a lot of fine architecture to admire too, especially in the bold outline of the Pequoig Hotel, constructed in 1894 and serving its original purpose until just after WWII.
Downton Athol has been the scene of revitalization efforts since the 2010s and has a small but growing assortment of locally owned businesses, for homewares, gifts, flowers, video games, collectibles, and more, along with dining choices, and one of the best public libraries for miles.
If you’re in town on the Fourth Friday of the month, Athol’s retail core is taken over by a family festival, with live entertainment, activities for kids, and extended hours for local businesses.
2. Bearsden Forest Conservation Area
Many towns around Massachusetts have conservation areas, but few have the scale or beauty of the Bearsden Forest, set on a loop in the Millers River with some of the town’s highest peaks.
This parcel covers more than 1,500 acres, with ten miles of trails providing a wealth of different experiences in nature.
You can survey the massive Thousand-Acre swamp, hike up Round Top for majestic vistas of the rivers and distant mountain ranges, or you can trace the river itself, pausing at the mouths of Buckman Brook and Thousand Acre Brook.
If you know where to look, there are intriguing signs of human habitation all around, in a system of old stone walls and a spectacular cut-through ledge.
3. Millers River Park
In the early 2010s the library trustees purchased additional land abutting the Millers River behind the Athol Public Library.
Following a landscaping project, this has been turned into a gorgeous and fully accessible little oasis in the heart of the town.
Millers River Park has been developed sustainably, using only native plants that require minimal water and care.
You can check out The Very Hungry Caterpillar, where there’s a butterfly garden with a pair of giant boulders unearthed when this land was being excavated.
The park’s amphitheater meanwhile is composed of granite blocks that were originally part of the old South Main Street Bridge.
4. Athol/Orange River Rat Race
Every April a unique event takes place on the Millers River in Athol and Orange, bringing thousands of spectators to the riverbanks.
This is the Athol/Orange River Rat Race, in which more than 200 canoes compete in a grueling 5.2-mile sprint.
Organized by the Athol and Orange Lions Clubs, the race sets off from the Alan E. Rich Environmental Park in Athol, MA, and the finish line is Riverfront Park in Orange.
There’s a party atmosphere among the spectators, and a schedule of side-events throughout the day of the race, including a 5k run, a promenade along Main Street in Athol, and an award ceremony at the finish line in Orange.
5. Alan E. Rich Environmental Park
At any other time of year, the start line for the Athol/Orange River Rat Race is a lovely place to be.
This is especially true in the spring, summer and fall, when the Alan E. Rich Environmental Park is the perfect spot to launch a canoe.
Here you’re at the beginning of the Millers River Bluetrail, a six-mile paddle trail along a tranquil stretch of this watercourse.
The park itself is conservation land, with a short walking loop, plantings of native species, and picnic tables where you can soak up the peace and natural splendor for a while. In late summer look out for damselflies perched on the rocks in the river’s shallows.
6. Silver Lake Park
An easy walk north of Athol center, Silver Lake Park is surrounded by residential neighborhoods. Despite being less than ten minutes on foot from the town hall, this space doesn’t get a ton of visitors.
At the center is the eponymous, spring-fed lake, stocked regularly with trout. Come in the summer and you can make the most of the large beach and swimming area, patrolled by lifeguards and tested for water quality every week.
Among the other amenities are a playground, picnic area, boat launch, a skating area and three regulation ballfields.
7. Fisher Museum Harvard Forest
Athol’s center is ten minutes from Harvard University’s ecological research forest, established in 1907 and encompassing 3,000 acres dedicated to the study of forest ecosystems.
You can get a sense of this important work at the Fisher Museum, open to the public for free since 1941.
The main exhibit here is a set of 23 world-renowned dioramas crafted in the 1930s. The first seven of these show the changes to the central New England landscape in the 230 years from 1700 to the early 20th century.
The remainder depict 20th-century forest management techniques, along with the challenges facing conservators, from fire to erosion.
8. Newton Reservoir
Dating back to 1904 and traced by scenic oak-pine woods to the south of the Bearsden Forest Conservation Area, the Newton Reservoir was Athol’s main water supply until 2000, and is now decommissioned.
Starting at the parking lot at S Royalston Rd, this is a fabulous place to come for a hike. The scenery is breathtaking at any time of year, but is magnificent in spring when wildflowers like lady slippers are in bloom on the forest floor.
Near the dam you can also seek out the remnants of the original mud huts that housed the immigrant workers that built the reservoir at the turn of the 20th century.
9. Millers River Environmental Center
Founded in 1963 by Robert Coyle, a science teacher at Athol Junior High School, the Athol Bird & Nature Club has evolved into a thriving non-profit organization, helping people appreciate the rich natural resources of north Central Massachusetts.
In its 60+ years, the club has amassed rich ornithological collections, and since 1999 these have been on display at a former four-room school building on Main Street, dating back to 1889.
You can visit to know more about the natural bounty on Athol’s doorstep, and the building is an anchor for the club’s programming, including field trips, nature walks and more.
Many of these educational experiences are led by David H. Small, a former student of the founder, and a recognizable conservation leader in demand across the region.
10. Red Apple Farm
Founded in 1912, Red Apple Farm has been in the same family since it was purchased by Carolyn and A. Spaulding Rose in 1929.
In summer and fall the farm becomes a lively agritourism hotspot, with all kinds of rural experiences awaiting you.
July through October you can pick-your-own produce, with blueberries, raspberries, potatoes, popping corn, apples, pumpkins and gourds a few of the varieties available.
The farm store is open all year, with a fantastic array of homemade and locally sourced products, from apple cider donuts to seasonal decorations.
A new addition is Brew Barn & Cidery, also open all year, pouring craft beer and Red Apple Farm’s hard cider, paired with live music and homemade bites like the farm’s own BBQ.
11. Rabbit Run Trail
Athol is a few short miles north of the largest inland body of water in Massachusetts, the Quabbin Reservoir. Until this was built in the 1930s there was a railroad running right through where the reservoir is now.
The Springfield, Athol and North-eastern Railroad opened in 1873, linking Springfield with the Vermont and Massachusetts Railroad in Athol.
Today you can walk or ride along two miles of the railbed, with a half-mile section of the trail taking you through the South Athol Conservation Area where intersecting trails lead you along historic cart roads and to the top of Rice Hill.
12. Athol History Trail
To mark the Bicentennial in 1976, the Athol Historical Society put together an enthralling history trail zigzagging through the town, leading to 24 sites that tell the story of settlement in the 18th century and later development.
The original buildings have been lost to time, but if you’re keen to know more about Athol’s early days you can download a pdf brochure for the trail from the society’s website.
You’ll visit fascinating spots like Athol’s early meetinghouses, a toll gate on the 5th Mass Turnpike, a trail walked for centuries by Native Americans, a hiding place on the Underground Railroad, Athol’s first burial ground, the town’s stagecoach stop, and much more.
13. Flat Rock Disc Golf Course
This 18-hole disc golf course was established in the quiet southern part of Athol in 1999. The course is private, and was laid out by a couple in the woods around their residence.
With all of the holes bordered by trees, Flat Rock Disc Golf Course is a test of technique and precision.
To remind you that you’re in a rural idyll, barnyard animals come into view on some of the holes. As you play, also look out for the unique tee signs and sculptures designed by the owners.
14. Athol Cinemas 8
This cozy local multiplex theater opened at the North Quabbin Commons shopping center in 2017. A big thing going for Athol Cinemas 8 is the comfortable reclining, leather-upholstered seating installed in all of the auditoriums.
These are all relatively small, and watching a movie is a bit like kicking back in your own living room.
Wednesday is the day for discounted tickets, although prices are typically much lower than at bigger corporate theaters. Athol Cinemas 8 is part of the “Your Neighborhood Theatre” chain, with locations in small towns across New England.
15. Ellinwood Country Club
Open to the public, there’s a well regarded golf course in stunning countryside by Route 202 in Athol.
Something interesting about Ellinwood Country Club is that the course was designed by two different course architects, Donald Ross and Geoffrey Cornish.
This gives the track a lot of variety, not least because Cornish and Ross’s 9s are intermingled. You’ll know you’re playing a Cornish hole by its large and flat green, while a few challenges include doglegs in dense forest and a lot of water hazards.
The signature hole is the 11th, where a beautiful little brook makes its way alongside the fairway before cutting in front of the green.