In the Hoosic River valley, surrounded by mountains, the smallest city in Massachusetts grew up as a manufacturing base for the region in the 18th and 19th century.
Over time North Adams has reinvented itself as a crackling furnace of creativity, sparked by the opening of the world-class Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in 1999.
At this institution, grand industrial buildings have been given a new lease of life, and this is a story repeated across North Adams, where water-powered mills are now home to artist studios, markets, restaurants, distilleries, and a multitude of other small businesses.
While there’s a cultural feast in town, North Adams is embedded in magnificent nature, with waterfalls, a unique marble natural bridge, the highest peak in Massachusetts and tons more close by.
1. MASS MoCA
An historic industrial complex in North Adams has been turned into the largest contemporary art museum in the United States.
These factory buildings and courtyards have become lofty galleries and performing arts venues, at a nexus point for painting, music, sculpture, dance, photography, film, and theater, and discipline-defying collaboration.
MASS MoCA’s signature is the kind of transformative, large-scale installation that would be impossible at a conventional museum.
One remarkable ongoing exhibition is the Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing Retrospective, featuring more than 100 monumental drawings produced by the artist throughout his career, from 1969 to 2007.
Performance is central too, with more than 70 shows a year, from contemporary dance to avant-garde theater and silent movie screenings soundtracked by live music.
2. Natural Bridge State Park
Just east of downtown Adams the Hudson Brook tumbles through rocky terrain, rich with marble and a host of minerals, including quartz, pyrite and calcite.
Here, torrents of glacial meltwater rushing down the broom at the end of the last Ice Age carved a unique natural bridge from the 550 million-year-old marble bedrock.
At Natural Bridge State Park you can marvel at this formation, as well as the delicately hewn walls of the gorge, descending 60 feet.
The park is partially on the site of a former quarry, and features something else that is totally unique in North America—a man-made dam composed entirely of white marble.
3. North Adams Downtown Cultural District
Beyond Mass MoCA, North Adams is suffused with art, both static and live, with a year-round calendar of live performance.
The downtown area is a kind of outdoor gallery, with historic brick walls adorned with dazzling murals by international artists.
Along Main Street, check out installations like the bus shelter designed by Victoria Palermo, and the parklet by Kathline Carr.
A lot of this creative flair comes from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, responsible for the DownStreet Art initiative in the center, while also hosting a gallery of its own.
Something that makes North Adams a cultural destination for every season is the sheer quantity of public events, with more than a dozen, from the Fall Foliage Festival and Parade in October to the bustling Downtown Celebration in August.
4. Windsor Lake
The city owns this picture perfect lake and surrounding wooded parkland, a couple of miles from downtown North Adams.
Windsor Lake is a convenient spot for outdoor recreation, without heading off into the mountains. In the summer you can come by for hiking, swimming, fishing and boating, and there’s an acclaimed 18-hole disc golf course in the woods west of the beach area.
On Wednesday evenings from early June to the end of August, Windsor Lake hosts the free Concert at the Lake series, and you’re invited to bring picnic blankets, lawn chairs and a bite to eat. In winter the park’s trails are groomed for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
5. Mount Greylock State Reservation
Much of the northwestern corner of Massachusetts is occupied by the 12,000-acre Mount Greylock State Reservation.
When it was created in 1898, this became the Commonwealth’s first forest preserve, spreading across six different towns, including North Adams.
The goal for most visitors is Mount Greylock itself, which at 3,491 feet is the highest peak in Massachusetts. On a clear day you can see almost miles, into five different states.
The peak is traversed by the Appalachian Trail, and you can hike from Phelps Avenue in North Adams along the trail to the summit.
If you’re driving to the peak you can stop at the Adams Overlook, for a stirring view east to see the town of Adams framed by the Hoosac Range.
6. Mohawk Trail
North Adams is on a traditional Native American trade route crossing a big slice of what is now Northwestern Massachusetts, linking tribes on the coast with those in today’s Upstate New York.
Now, much of that time-honored trail is on Routes 2 and 2A, making its way over the Hoosac Range and along the Deerfield River and Millers River.
With jaw-dropping views of the Berkshires, volumes of history and roadside attractions, this is one of the region’s great drives.
North Adams is near the western end of the trail, and you can make the short drive to Williamstown, home of the world-renowned Theatre Festival.
Head east and you’ll soon come to the Whitcomb Summit, the highest point on the trail at 2,173 feet, with vistas reaching a long way into Vermont and New Hampshire.
7. Hoosac Range Trail
Heading east out of North Adams on the Mohawk Trail you’ll find the trailhead for a memorable hike along the ridge of the Hoosac Range, a branch of the Berkshire Mountains.
Heading south, this is a three-mile out-and-back trail, and the final destination is Spruce Hill, commanding dramatic vistas to the west, over Mount Greylock and North Adams.
There are scenic ledges all the way, with strange vegetation, warped by years of winds and ice, so you don’t have to walk the whole three miles.
Less than a mile out, Sunset Rock is also spectacular, and like Spruce Hill, is wreathed with wild blueberries in summer.
On the Mohawk Trail, near the trailhead you can pause at the Top ‘O the World overlook for an awe-inspiring view eastwards, across Florida State Forest and beyond.
8. Cascade Waterfall
Another fine slice of natural beauty on the city’s doorstep is a waterfall and gorge, reached via a trail that starts a mile west of downtown North Adams.
The Cascade Waterfall is on Notch Brook, and the trail follows this watercourse south from near its mouth on the Hoosic River for a 90-minute out-and-back hike. This leads to the foot of the falls, beneath the gorge’s formidable walls.
The waterfall bounces down a stairway of ledges from a height of 45 feet, and is either a gossamer curtain of water, or a torrent, depending on the season and rainfall.
A lot of work has gone into keeping this blissful spot clear of road traffic and development, and today the space is managed by the Trustees of Reservations of Western Massachusetts.
9. Western Gateway Heritage State Park
Making its way through the namesake range, the Hoosac Tunnel was almost 25 years in construction, from 1851 to 1875 and to this day is the longest active transportation tunnel east of the Rockies.
To say this was a challenging project is an understatement, as there were four tunnel segments that needed to be aligned.
As time ticked by, an initial projected cost of $2 million snowballed into $25 million. The history of the tunnel is recounted at the Western Gateway Heritage Park, laid out on a former railroad yard in North Adams.
Here you’ll discover the colossal impact of the project, as well as the considerable human cost, with 200 lives lost during construction.
10. Appalachian Trail
Arguably America’s greatest hiking trail, the Appalachian Trail crosses North Adams on its epic, 2,200-mile route from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Maine’s Mount Katahdin.
The trail makes its way along Phelps Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue on the west side of the city and climbs from the valley into Vermont’s Green Mountain Forest in the north, or the Mount Greylock State Reservation in the south.
North Adams is the northernmost settlement on the trail’s Massachusetts section, and hikers have a chance to take a hot shower, sleep in an actual bed, stock up on supplies, or dine out, before the prospect of several days in the wilderness of the Green Mountains.
11. Bright Ideas Brewing
This craft brewery opened at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2016. What began as a local operation for museum-goers and North Adams residents has grown into a regional operation, distributing to package stores and restaurants around Western Massachusetts.
There are a dozen beers on tap at the taproom at any time, with an accent on hoppy IPAs, but also with much to offer people who like malty ales and lagers.
There’s always some kind of event here, be it live music, trivia nights, movie screenings or televised sports events. In terms of food, you’re free to order from one of the many restaurants around North Adams.
12. Berkshire Art Museum
A recurring theme in North Adams is historic buildings with new roles, often as a platform for the arts. This is the case with the Berkshire Art Museum, which was founded in 2012 by the Barbara and Eric Rudd Art Foundation.
June through October, the main building at 156. E Main St presents an assortment of temporary and permanent exhibitions, including Eric Rudd’s Rudd’s Lexan/Iceberg and Robotic sculptures.
Also part of the museum is an historic Gothic Revival church building, housing an enormous, integrated work of contemporary sculpture with 150 life-sized figures, 250 figures in bas-relief, and a memorial to 9/11.
The museum has a calendar of public programs, receptions, lectures, and guided gallery tours.
13. Greylock Works
Backdropped by Mount Greylock this 19th-century textile mill complex has been put to new use as a multi-use campus with a communal feel.
Greylock Works features 50 lofts with mountain views, a co-work space, a craft distillery, a culinary lab, and provides eye-opening event space in its Engine House and Weave Shed.
A good time to check this place out is on weekends when you can call in at the distillery, crafting gins and rums in small batches using ingredients foraged in the Berkshires.
The Break Room restaurant meanwhile can be described as the works’ living room, with a sustainable and seasonal menu, drawing on local agriculture.
14. Norad Mill
Another imposing repurposed mill in North Adams is the Norad Mill in Braytonville, unique because its 1860s Italianate exterior has hardly been altered in the last 150+ years.
At the peak of production in the 1870s the mill had 50 looms and employed almost 300 people. In the 2010s the building was purchased by a commercial developer, and a wide diversity of tenants have moved in.
At the time of writing there were artist studios, an independent publisher, a coffee roastery, a yarn shop, a recording studio, beauty practitioners, and an enormous event space, along with the Norad Cafe, for pastries, bagels, sandwiches and more.
15. Downtown Celebration
North Adams has a social calendar that would put most cities to shame, and whenever you come there’s a good chance you’ll coincide with a public festival or performance.
One event that takes place in the height of the summer is the Downtown Celebration, when the vibrant heart of downtown North Adams is closed to road traffic for an evening party.
A host of organizations, local businesses and other groups take part, bringing an extravaganza of live music, great food, contests and giveaways, against the city’s magnificent mountain scenery.