PITTSFIELD -- Summer officially began June 21, but the Fourth of July weekend in the Berkshires heralds the summer cultural season.

A plethora of cultural activities are expected to take place this weekend, most notably the grand opening of the newly renovated Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown and James Taylor's return to Tanglewood in Lenox on Thursday and Friday.

There is also Pittsfield's traditional July 4th Parade, which typically draws a large crowd to the city's downtown corridor.

"The nice thing about July Fourth weekend is that everybody is up and running," said Lindsay Schmid, the director of marketing for the Berkshire Visitors Bureau. "Restaurants are running at full strength.

"The two big things are going to be the Clark and James Taylor."

Nationally, the American Automobile Association is predicting that 41 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more this weekend, an increase of 1.9 percent from last year. Of that total, 34.8 million are expected to travel by car, the highest level since 2007.

In New England and Massachusetts, the increase in the perentage of travelers is expected to be higher than it is nationally, at 2.5 percent and 3 percent, respectively. (AAA defines the holiday travel period from today through Sunday, July 6.)

"I think the reason is that the state offers so many great attractions that are a short, easy drive," said Mary Maguire, a spokeswoman for AAA Southern New England. "It gives people a lot of opportunities to take day trips."

Those traveling by car should expect to pay a little more for gasoline than they did last year at this time.

The average price for a gallon of unleaded regular gasoline in Massachusetts increased just 2 cents to $3.70 this week. But this is the first time in six years that state gas prices have been this high approaching the July Fourth weekend, according to AAA Southern New England. At this time last year, the average price for a gallon of unleaded regular in Massachusetts was 25 cents lower at $3.45.

Gas prices in Massachusetts are also 6 cents higher than they were a month ago. AAA Southern New England attributes the increase in this week's gas prices partly to the unrest in Iraq.

Whenever political instability occurs in oil-producing nations, it always results in higher prices at the pump, because that situation creates a "risk or fear premium" that adds to the price of gasoline, Maguire said.

With the exception of Friday morning, the weather in the Berkshires this weekend is expected to be nice.

Showers and thunderstorms connected to a cold front moving into the area from the Great Lakes are expected in the Berkshires Thursday night into Friday morning, said Warren Snyder, a meteorologist for the National Weather Center in Albany, N.Y.

"The Berkshires should clear out Friday afternoon, and it will be a gorgeous weekend, end of story," Snyder said. "The humidity will go down and the temperatures should be near or below normal from the high 80s to the low 50s."

The forecast isn't as promising for all of New England. Tropical Storm Arthur, which was off the coast of Florida on Tuesday, is expected to travel up the East Coast this week before turning into a small hurricane.

The storm will remain offshore, but is expected to bring unsettled weather to parts of eastern Massachusetts and Maine this weekend, and possibly high winds to Cape Cod, Snyder said.

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6224.
On Twitter: @TonyDobrow