Spreading across a large area northwest of Worcester, Holden is a small but fast-growing town of 20,000 people.
There’s boundless open space, with thousands of acres of woods for public recreation within the town limits. These parcels of land, often with interconnecting trails, are looked after by the town or organizations like the White Oak Land Conservation Society.
You can hike along the railbed of the old Massachusetts Central Railroad, climb hills for exhilarating vistas, discover waterfalls, marvel at unique glacial erratics, or simply escape the world for a few hours on a remote trail.
The historic center of town is typically spare, but around Holden you can seek out some fantastic local businesses, making Belgian-style gourmet chocolates or bagels the traditional way.
1. Holden Center
At the intersection of Main Street and Highland Street you’ll be right in the 18th-century village center of Holden, where the public functions are still based. Holden Center isn’t a bustling commercial district, but demands a visit for its architecture.
All clustered close together and interspersed with some stately old houses are the Greek Revival Town Hall (1836), the First Congregational Church (1789), the First Baptist Church (1835), and the old Post Office building (1880).
Arguably the finest is the Damon Memorial Building, housing the Gale Free Library, built in a Romanesque Revival style with locally quarried granite and opened in 1888.
Opposite the First Congregational Church are the weathered headstones of the Old Burying Ground, established in the mid-18th century.
2. Trout Brook Recreation Area
These 660 acres in the north of Holden are on town conservation land, with a large web of trails for hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
There are more than 16 miles in all, and the main trail, accessible from the parking area on Manning St, is a light four-mile loop, with many side-trails if you’d like to extend or shorten your trip.
You’ll be met by a lovely little pond at the south end near the parking lot, traced by picnic areas and with a lodge that can be rented daily or overnight.
If you’re heading to Trout Brook for mountain biking, the trails are mostly easy or moderate and become quieter the further north you ride.
3. Stewart’s Chocolates
A remote stretch of Wachusett Street in Holden is an unlikely location for an acclaimed chocolatier, crafting European-style gourmet chocolates.
Stewart’s Chocolates is based here (1116) in his family’s adorable farmhouse, dating back to 1803. The shop opened in 2014, and offers a wide assortment of dainty bonbons made with premium ingredients, such as the finest Valrhona and Barry Callebaut chocolate.
The choice of beautifully presented flavors is almost dizzying, from vanilla lavender to tiramisu, orange ginger, lemongrass, cherry amaretto and strawberry balsamic.
At the time of writing, Stewart’s Chocolates was planning on becoming a bean-to-bar operation, exploring different sources of cocoa beans around the world.
4. Mass Audubon’s Eagle Lake Wildlife Sanctuary
On the western shore of Eagle Lake in Holden, the Massachusetts Audubon Society manages a 369-acre sanctuary, with sprawling wetland and big stands of mature forest with giant oaks.
On the shores of the pond you can spot a wide variety of waterfowl on their spring and fall migrations.
The mature woods meanwhile are a nesting habitat for the likes of rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers and great crested flycatchers, and you may catch sight of a barred owl sunning itself on a branch.
One of the best times to visit the sanctuary is towards the end of spring when the mountain laurel has delicate pink and white blossoms.
5. Cascading Waters
As we’ll see a little later in this list, the southern end of Holden on the boundary with Worcester is remote and undeveloped, offering lots of opportunities for secluded hikes.
Just over the line, the Greater Worcester Land Trust cares for several adjoining parcels, accessed from a parking lot on Olean St. On the blue-blazed Cascades Trail, the goal for most visitors is a sublime cascading waterfall dropping about 60 feet down a steep, wooded hillside.
If you want to continue your hike, the Silver Spring Trail and Meadow Ridge Trail usher you deeper into the rugged hardwood forest woven with beautiful streams and vernal pools.
6. Holbrook Forest
Close to Cascading Waters in the south of Holden there’s an assortment of conservation lands with interconnecting trails.
Here, Holbrook Forest is in the care of the White Oak Land Conservation Society, and has paths leading into Kinney Woods next door and south into Worcester via Cook’s Woods and Cook’s Brook.
What makes these spaces so special is that they’re on the southern margins of more than 3,000 acres of uninhabited wilderness, containing reservoirs for Worcester and so closed to the public.
This has allowed wildlife to flourish, which can be glimpsed on the trails in the conservation lands. Walking in the north of the 60-acre Holbrook Forest you’ll happen upon Cousin’s Rock, a distinctive glacial erratic composed of pegmatite, noted for its remarkably large crystals, which you can inspect up close.
7. Val’s Restaurant
In 1991 the 22-year-old Valorie James opened a little storefront pizzeria in Holden. Over the last 30+ years this has grown into a multi-award winning, full-fledged restaurant with a patio, function room and two lounges.
Val’s Restaurant is a vivacious community spot, with live music inside every weekend and on the patio in the warmer months. In terms of food, the selection is wide-ranging.
Val’s has earned accolades for its seafood, and there’s a bounty of New England faves like baked haddock and clam strips. But this is just one element, as you’ll find a variety of Italian, Greek and classic American options, from marinated lamb kabob to veal parmigiana.
8. Cournoyer Vegetable Farm
Just over the line in Paxton there’s a lovable farm and produce market, owned and run by the Cournoyer family for more than eight decades.
The stand is open June through October, selling more than 100 varieties of farm-grown fresh produce as it comes into season.
This includes tomatoes, peppers, chard, cabbage, carrots, parsley, cut flowers, corn, potatoes, broccoli, kale, lettuce and much more than we can list here. The selection is also augmented with locally produced orchard fruits, berries, apple cider and honey.
9. The Bagel Inn
Also in Holden’s contingent of fantastic local businesses is a bagel shop at 785 Main St that has been a fixture for more than 25 years.
The first thing to know about the Bagel Inn is that these gourmet bagels are boiled and hearth baked the traditional way, daily, from scratch, and using only fresh ingredients without pre-prepared mixes.
The bagels themselves, available up to a bakers’ dozen, come in every variety imaginable, whether you want ‘Everything’, or something less conventional like apple cinnamon crunch. There’s a choice of cream cheese spreads and breakfast sandwiches, served all day.
10. The Farm at SummitWynds
With majestic views of Wachusett Mountain, this scenic fourth generation farm in Holden has raised champion show horses since 1964.
Before that time this property was in fact a ski area, with a lodge, The Summit Tow, built at the highest point in 1945 and now serving as a barn.
As well as raising appaloosas and quarter horses, SummitWynds produces lavender, harvesting around 4,000 plants for beauty products, as culinary ingredients or simply for their flowers.
You can visit to see the lavender crop in bloom during the Lavender Farm Fest in late June, and there’s also a sunflower festival later in the season.
11. Holden Hills Country Club
Open to the public despite the name, this 18-hole course dates back to 1957, and is nested in a hilly and wooded landscape.
At just over 6,000 yards from the back tees, Holden Hills doesn’t play especially long, but that doesn’t mean you can expect a low score.
This is a technical course that needs good shot selection and sharp approach play thanks to its small and well-guarded greens.
Post-round you can hit the Players’ Retreat, with recliners, giant TVs, pinball, shuffleboard and pool tables, while the Holden Hills Grill serves comfort food like burgers and sandwiches and has a lovely shaded patio.
12. Oak Hill & Waterman Trail
Also along the Holden-Worcester line, close to Holbrook Forest is another natural area acquired by the White Oak Land Conservation Society in the 2010s. There’s a small parking area, at 785 Salisbury St.
This little tab of land by the road is the Waterman property, offering little indication of just how far into the woods the looping Oak Hill Trail will take you.
The path heads southeast into tranquil wooded scenery, with vernal pools and wetlands along Poor Farm Brook. Suddenly you emerge into civilization at the new housing development on Jordan Road, before returning to the woods as you loop back to the parking area.
13. Asnebumskit Ridge Trail
At 1381 feet, the summit of Asnebumskit Hill is right on the boundary between Holden and Paxton. This has a west-facing overlook, with a stirring panorama sweeping out for miles across Central Massachusetts.
There’s a parking lot near the top of the hill, but if you’re in the mood for an energetic walk you can also hit the trail on S Rd, just off Route 31 in the southwest of Holden.
From here you’ve got a tough but rewarding uphill hike, leaving behind the banks of Scott Brook for a parcel of young successional forest and then entering spectacular mature woodlands, with lush ferns in the undergrowth.
There’s an elevation change of more than 500 feet on this trail, but once you’re on the ridge the going is pretty light.
14. Mass Central Rail Trail
The Mass Central Rail Trail is on the former right-of-way of the Massachusetts Central Railroad, built between 1869 and 1883. When we made this list the trail could be broken down into six different pieces, and Holden is on the Oakham to West Boylston section.
You have a couple of options for an easy and safe walk or ride. Setting off at the Holden-Rutland town line at Route 68, you can travel west, as far as Barre without stopping.
Or you could park at River St or Wachusett St in Holden and make your way east through a mantle of hardwoods, past vestiges of old mills on the Quinapoxet River to the Wachusett Reservoir.
15. West Boylston Cinema
The nearest movie theater is just on the other side of I-190 in West Boylston. One of a few things going for the West Boylston Cinema is that it’s independently owned, while still having modern features like stadium seating, digital projection and digital sound.
With five screens, this theater opened in what used to be a grocery store in 1997, and shows first-run movies at a price well below big chain multiplexes.
When we put this list together, matinees and Tuesdays tickets were still just $6, and one of the neat things about the concessions is that there’s self-serve butter for the popcorn.