eat new england

In Massachusetts' Nashoba Valley, Apple Orchards Are Just the Beginning

From Westward Orchards and Kimball’s Fruit Farm to Johnson’s Drive-In and Conrad's Drive-in Seafood, this hilly pocket of Massachusetts makes for an ideal -- and short -- road trip from Boston

One of the most beautiful parts of New England begins right on Boston’s doorstep, yet so many people don’t even know much about it. Indeed, the Nashoba Valley region of the state includes some of the outer northwest suburbs of the city, making it a very short ride from Route 128, and for those who love the fall traditions of apple picking, farm stands, country stores and old-fashioned roadside restaurants, there are few places better for all three in the region.

To some, the name “Nashoba Valley” may conjure up nights of taking lessons at the ski area by the same name in Westford, but the name itself actually represents a large area northwest of Boston that includes such peaceful farming communities as Harvard, Bolton, Stow, Littleton and Pepperell along with the more suburban-feeling Acton and Westford and the historic railroad town of Ayer.

Nashoba Valley also includes the tiny towns of Boxborough, Dunstable, Lancaster, Shirley, Townsend, and Fort Devens — the latter of which used to be the site of a military base — and for those who like the feel of Vermont but don’t want to travel that far, Groton is a gorgeous community with countless historic homes and structures along its attractive main street and twisting side roads.

Nashoba Valley Winery/ Marc Hurwitz

To many, the Nashoba Valley region is all about apple orchards, which are scattered throughout the area, and when it comes to picking, there is something for everyone here; bustling family-friendly spots such as Honeypot in Stow, Bolton Spring and Nashoba Valley Winery in Bolton, and Carlson in Harvard are where you want to go for endless rows of apples and various products from their shops (Nashoba Valley Winery also has an array of beer, wine, and spirits, while Carlson has a hard cider taproom).

Kimball Fruit Farm/ Marc Hurwitz

For those looking for a bit more peace and quiet, Westward Orchards in Harvard, Kimball Fruit Farm in Pepperell, and Carver Hill Orchard in Stow should give you a bit more elbow room while enjoying the slower pace of these lesser-known orchards. All of the places mentioned above have stores or farm stands and you can’t go wrong with any of them, but a few highlights include the wonderful apple cider donuts at both Honeypot and Westward, the rustic charm of Bolton Spring’s country store, and the fantastic selection of heirloom apples and tomatoes at Kimball Fruit Farm.

Westward Orchards/ Marc Hurwitz

If you like visiting farm stands and roadside food spots but aren’t really looking to do any apple picking, there are definitely plenty of other options in the Nashoba Valley area. Small Farm in Stow is a friendly little place that includes a tiny farm stand where you can get various fruits and vegetables, and it’s about as peaceful a spot as you’ll find.

Another under-the-radar spot is Harper's Farm & Garden, a farm stand in Lancaster that has been around forever and is a great place for pumpkins and corn. A busier place (and on the outer edge of Nashoba Valley in Hudson) is Ferjulian’s Farm, a family-run business that includes a produce market and a greenhouse area with countless plants available.

Acton-Boxborough Farmers Market/ Marc Hurwitz

The Acton-Boxborough Farmers Market is a terrific place to find local fruits, veggies, and other food items, and this year it has moved from the center of West Acton to a playground area just east of Idylwilde Farms and just north of the center (open Sundays only, by the way). Speaking of Idylwilde Farms, if you want to do one-stop shopping but also purchase local products, this gourmet food market is something special, as is a similar spot a bit east of Nashoba Valley in Concord called Verrill Farm, which also offers specialty food items and produce. Finally, further east but only about 15 minutes from the start of the Nashoba Valley area is the Farm Store at Codman Community Farms in Lincoln, a charming little self-service shop that is completely off the beaten path and which carries local meats, cheeses, honey, maple syrup, bread, and more.

Plenty of good eats can be found at some of the apple orchards, but half of the fun of going apple picking is finding a local restaurant to dine at afterwards, and Nashoba Valley does have its fair share of dining spots, both hidden and well-known. One of the most beloved places in the region for food is Johnson’s Drive-In in Groton, a classic roadside joint with a terraced patio area out back and a rustic dining area indoors, and if you like hot dogs, burgers, fried chicken, and ice cream, this may be one of your best options around.

Conrad's Drive-In Seafood/ Marc Hurwitz

A similar retro eatery can be found on the western edge of Nashoba Valley in Lunenburg, where you’ll find Conrad's Drive-In Seafood, a decades-old spot nestled in the woods that offers everything from chowder to lobster rolls to fried clams to baked scallops, and yes, they have ice cream, too.

Speaking of ice cream, Kimball Farm (not to be confused with the aforementioned Kimball Fruit Farm in Pepperell) has three locations in the region — in Westford, Lancaster, and Carlisle — and the Westford location has become an institution of sorts, a sprawling complex that includes ice cream, food and drink, mini-golf, batting cages, and a country store.

Kimball Farm/ Marc Hurwitz

If it’s music you want, Bull Run in Shirley is an iconic spot that has featured countless local and national acts over the years, and they have some live streaming music events this fall while also offering a mix of classic American and New American fare along with beer, wine, and cocktails.

An interesting option in the region has been born out of the pandemic that has hit everyone so hard this year, with Patio in the Park now open on weekends adjacent to the historic Harvard General Store in Harvard, and interestingly enough, this is the only dining option in the center of this quaint town—and what an option it is, as it has that rural community dining feel that you might find in the tiny villages of Northern New England. Expect to find sandwiches, steaks, desserts with local ingredients, and beer and wine at this unique outdoor dining spot, and call in advance, as reservations are necessary as of this writing.

Patio in the Park/ Marc Hurwitz

Between apple picking, farm stands, produce markets, and restaurants, there’s a good chance that you may need to walk off some of the food you eat while out and about, and fortunately, outdoor activities abound in the Nashoba Valley region. One of the better options is Willard Brook State Forest on the Townsend/Ashby line, a vast conservation area that sits on either side of Route 119, which becomes a very twisty and hilly road at this point. Bubbling brooks, scenic waterfalls, several ponds, and a campground can be found at this under-the-radar spot, which encompasses more than 2,500 acres not too far from the New Hampshire border. A much smaller but beautiful space is the Acton Arboretum, which is a great option if you’re running short on time and this is a place where you can enjoy a book or a bite to eat while sitting on a bench and viewing the many trees and plants that make up this park just off Route 2. If you have a bike, the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail is a must, cutting through a number of communities including Westford, Carlisle, and Acton, and you may catch some good foliage here toward the end of apple picking season.

Acton Arboretum/ Marc Hurwitz

Massachusetts is known for a lot of things related to food, including its cranberry bogs, maple syruping areas, shellfish beds, and yes, its apple orchards, and while orchards can be found throughout the state, Nashoba Valley is where you’ll find some of the best ones not only in the Commonwealth, but in all of New England. Combine this with roadside farm stands, country stores, farmers markets, and restaurants, and it’s easy to see why those in the know make annual trips to this wonderful area come September and October.

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