I have found that all Massachusetts State Parks are diverse and unique in their own way. We have started exploring Massachusetts state parks this summer and so far, we love what we’ve seen. Come along and find out all that Massachusetts has to offer in its state parks.
No matter the season you explore, the Massachusetts State Parks offer miles of trails to explore and discover. There are also lots of programs to learn about park history, birds, plants, animals, and the forests, be sure to take advantage of them when you visit.
Table of Contents
Massachusetts State Parks north of Boston
I will break down the parks in the different areas in the state.
Essex Country State Parks
Maudslay State Park
Maudslay State Park is the remains of the Moseley Family estate and abuts the Merrimack River. The family estate became part of the state parks in 1985, and we are all the luckier for it. This park in Newburyport has gardens from the 19th century with a rose garden, a rhododendron dell, an azalea swamp plus a flowering pond. I really want to go back in the spring to see the flowering pond with all the water lilies and all the gardens in bloom.
I came across the foundation of the old estate house which didn’t seem all that large especially when they call it an estate. However, I also came across a well and a carriage house where they kept the old cars. The building isn’t open to exploring but even from the outside, it looks marvelous. Built in the old cedar shingles style with big arched doors for the cars. On both sides of the carriage house are 6-foot-high walls also built using cedar shingles. I’m not sure but I can imagine these walls were built to shield the view of the cars from the main house.
This state park is quite beautiful with open fields, arch stone bridges, walks along the river, and gardens. Even now in November, the grounds are extraordinary. Although the gardens were all done for the season, I can just imagine how beautiful the park is in the spring and summer when everything is in bloom.
The trails and carriage roads are perfect for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Come back in winter and you can use the same trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Halibut Point State Park
Halibut Point State Park is the second quarry my family has visited. Although different from the slate quarry of Bomoseen State Park in Vermont, Halibut Point is beautiful in its own right.
Halibut Point makes up what used to be the Rockport Granite Company and the Babson Farm Quarry. Although it took until 1981 for Massachusetts State to purchase the land and added it to its roster of state parks, the town of Rockport first purchased some of the lands back in 1934. This is just a few years after the Rockport Granite Company went bankrupt after the great depression.
The U.S. military has had a part in this park as well. The US Army Corp of Engineers built what is now the visitors center and museum for their long-range weapons testing site. The tower is built with a steeple to look like a church. This design is meant to disguise the tower during WWII. After the war, the US Air Force uses the site as well as MIT’s Lincoln Labs for a top-secret radar project.
Now you can take a self-guided tour around the quarry to see the different parts of the granite operation. Although you can’t swim in the quarry the ducks seem to love it. The state park is right on the rocky shoreline of Rockport and has some beautiful places to hike and have a picnic along the coast. They say on a clear day you can see all the way to Mount Agamenticus in Maine, some 70+ miles away.
Middlesex Fells Reservation
Although this park is called a reservation it is one of Massachusetts’s great state parks to explore especially since it’s close to Boston in the town of Medford. You will love hiking to Wright’s Tower to get a commanding view of the Boston skyline. If you’re lucky the tower will be open on your visit, it was for ours. The tower is a great place to watch the sunrise or sunset.
The quickest trail to Wright’s Tower is the fire road path that starts at the parking lot on S Border Rd, which is exit 33, RT-28 off I-93. If you have younger kids in your group, I suggest hiking to the tower via the fire road. Of course, if they are avid hikers use the trail. There are some rocks to hike through but they should be able to make it. Just be sure to stick to the trail.
The Skyline trail is another wonderful trail to see the park. This is a long trail at 6.9 miles but there are many places to enter and exit the trail along its path. If you have the time you will love this hike with all its views. This trail also leads to Wright’s Tower.
In addition to hiking trails, fire roads, and single-track trails, this Massachusetts state park has a few ponds to explore. Although the ponds are not for swimming you can take non-motorized boats on Spot Pond. You can rent a rowboat, canoe, or kayak to explore the pond and its three small islands. Many birds and other animals call these islands home. The boathouse isn’t far from the first donated land to make up the Fellsway, Virginia Wood.
Breakheart Reservation is another great park close to Boston. This park is right off RT-1 in Saugus. RT-1 has many restaurants and stores along the route so take advantage of this and eat and shop in the area.
This park started with the purchase of 600 acres in 1934 by the Metropolitan District Commission. All part of President Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, the camp served as a Civilian Conservation Corps. 250 men worked in the park planting trees, creating roads, getting rid of gypsy moths, and other jobs.
I love the three play areas this park has. The younger kids play structure with a slide and climbing area and the older kid and adult area with more gymnastics-type equipment. The third playground is at the beach by Pearce Lake.
This park has large paved roads for easy walkability as well as strollers. However, if you are able to venture onto the paths, they are wonderful and lead you to parts of the park you won’t see by staying on the paved roads. There are two ponds within the park with picnic benches scattered along trails and pond edges.
The park has two ponds, Silver Lake and Pearce Lake. Silver Lake is quiet and beautiful but you cannot swim here. Pearce Lake is larger and you can swim in designated areas along the coast. Being able to swim in the lakes makes this one of my favorites among Massachusetts state parks.
Trails are very well-marked and easy to follow as you make your way around this park. To enhance your visit, check in at the ranger station to see what they are offering. Ainsley’s Girl Scout troop has participated in a ranger program as well as a ranger hike at this park. All the girls really enjoyed learning about this Massachusetts state park so close to home.
Camp Nihan Educational Center within the State Parks
Camp Niham is a great educational center to bring groups to and is located on the edge of Breakheart Reservation. The educational center offers programs for schools and non-profit organizations as well as camping. A great way to take advantage of learning about Massachusetts state parks.
Sandy Point State Reservation – State Parks
Sandy Point is the beach at the far end of Plum Island in the town of Ipswich. I love that Massachusetts has included Sandy Point as part of the state parks, it truly is a wonderful place. This beach is wonderful with soft sand, grassy dunes, and wide vistas of the Atlantic Ocean and Plum Island Sound. Although this beach can be busy during the summer months, in early autumn there weren’t many here and I got to enjoy the space practically to myself.
Sandy Point and Plum Island are also home to the piping plover, a migrating bird that nests on this stretch of beach. We were lucky enough to visit in November when the beach was open to visitors. If you ever do go exploring and see signs to ‘keep out’ due to birds nesting or other animal breeding areas, please obey the signs. We don’t want these animals to become extinct. Unfortunately, we as humans have been encroaching on their space since we arrived. You can see this at the other end of Plum Island.
Before your visit check the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to see if the beaches are open for you to visit. Their website also has some fun activities for kids to learn all about our resident piping plover.
To get to Sandy Point you drive down a very bumpy dirt road for 7 miles. This drive is through the Parker River Wildlife Refuge. This wildlife refuge was started in the 1930s when the Massachusetts Audubon Society bought 1,500 acres for a bird sanctuary. Later in 1941, the US government bought an additional 3,000 acres which include Grape Island to make up the wildlife refuge.
There are a few places along the road to stop to view the marshlands and look for birds. I highly recommend stopping where ever you see a spot. There really isn’t a ton of parking. There are some lookout towers you can climb to get a sweeping view of the beach and sanctuary.
Georgetown-Rowley State Park
Georgetown-Rowley State Park, Willowdale State Park, and Bradley Palmer State Park all connect. If you want you can hike the Bay Circuit Trail, Bay is short for the Bay State which is Massachusett’s nickname. This Bay Circuit Trail is quite beautiful, meandering through the three parks and if you have the time, I definitely recommend it.
Georgetown-Rowley has over 1,000 acres to explore within the two towns. This park contains many wetland areas where you can find turtles, ducks, and other animals who live there. In fact, in one area the water took over and created a new wetland area killing all the trees. We couldn’t get over how many birds made this new area their home. We found countless birds’ nests on the tops of the dead trees, very amazing to see the wildlife adapting to the surroundings.
In the winter months, this park is open for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. If you’d like to snowshoe just make sure not to walk in the skiing tracks. Exploring Massachusetts state parks in all seasons is a wonderful way to see the landscape change.
Willowdale/Cleaveland Farm State Forest
Willowdale State Forest is between Georgetown-Rowley and Bradley Palmer State Parks. The Willowdale Estate is actually within Bradley Palmer State Park but this park is the grounds of the Estate. The land and estate were donated by the owner, Bradley Palmer, a Boston lawyer in 1937 & 1944 to the Massachusetts State Parks Department.
Willowdale Forest is in the town of Ipswich and is where the family would exercise their horses. We saw several horse groups out for a stroll in the forest. Make sure to stand to the side and be calm and still as the horses pass. You certainly don’t want to spook a horse. I plan to take the girls back next spring for a trail ride through the woods, I know they will love it.
The Ipswich River runs along Topsfield Rd with a few parking areas for you to get out and enjoy the river. All non-motorized boats are allowed there. The river is calm and meanders north through the town of Ipswich to the Atlantic Ocean and Sandy Point State Reservation, a beautiful beach.
Bradley Palmer State Park
Bradley Palmer was a wealthy Boston lawyer who built a ‘summer cottage’ on land here in Topsfield. This small cottage is now a wedding and event venue. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see a wedding here in the fall with all the beautiful colors all around the happy couple? They also give house tours. I will have to look for a showing in the future as the house is breathtaking. The Willowdale Estate was built in 1902 and is a beautiful example of an Arts & Crafts style mansion.
There are some great trails within this park as well as wide open fields. In one field we even found a built-in horse jump. I would love to see a show jumping competition on the grounds here. I’m sure it would be spectacular.
There is a great water and spray park within the park near Highland Road. This area is busy during the summer months with families coming to cool off and take advantage of enjoying the park and its picnic grounds. Can you see the moon in the picture above?
After the summer months, Bradley Palmer State Park Road which connects the two sides of the park together is closed to cars and locals use the road as a great running track. Many moms were running with strollers along the road. However, for us, we got off this ‘main road’ and went into the woods to enjoy the wildlife and quiet of the forest.
Harold Parker State Forest
Harold Parker State Forest is located in Andover and offers camping, hiking, boating, and even a soapstone quarry and a historic mill site to explore. This park boasts 35,000 acres and 11 ponds for you and your family to enjoy.
Although the origin of the name of this park isn’t fully known, the land was one of the first parcels to be bought by the state for the ‘CCC’. Since the land had been ‘logged-over’ the first priority was to plant trees and dam rivers to make ponds.
My family especially enjoyed this park. The trails were nice and wide and well maintained and searching for all the ponds was fun. We plan to bring our kayaks the next time we come. There are just so many places we would like to explore from the water. Each pond was different and piqued our interest.
There is a pavilion and swimming along Berry Pond with a nice sandy beach. Between the beach and such nice paths to bike along, I think we will be back to enjoy this park some more.
This park also has great wide trails great for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. They even offer ice skating on the ponds if the weather permits.
Safety Tips when Hiking in State Parks
My first safety tip when hiking is to make sure you have enough water for your whole hike. Some advice I received when I first started hiking with the Appalachian Mountain Club is to plan out your trip so you have the water you need. Thirst is a sign of dehydration. We should also note that when you are dehydrated injury can happen more easily. Staying hydrated is most important when hiking. You should be drinking every 20 mins, at least, and when half your water is gone, you need to turn back so you don’t run into a problem.
Food is also another important aspect to consider. High-energy food such as the historic ‘gorp’ with nuts, dried fruits, pretzels, and chocolate helps with quick energy as well as sustained energy. However, if you are doing a long hike, more than a few hours, make sure to bring a sandwich or other food for more sustainability. It’s very hard to hike when you are hungry.
Other essentials to make sure to bring when hiking are a fully-charged cell phone, a map of your full hike, a compass, a first aid kit, a pocket knife, a flashlight, a whistle, as well have sun protection, and insect repellant.
Pin For Later – State Parks
More Massachusetts State Parks To Come
I hope you have enjoyed the parks we have explored so far. As we continue to visit more parks I will update this post. And please, let me know which state parks you’ve been visiting so I can add them to my list when I visit your state.