The Boston Harbor Islands are one of Boston’s hidden gems, despite being just a short ferry ride away from downtown. Activities include everything from exploring old forts to swimming to hiking. You can camp overnight on four of the islands, visit the nation’s oldest continually used light station, and enjoy clambakes, live musical performances and even plays. Since the ferry service starts back up for the season with free rides to Georges Island on May 9, here’s an overview of what the islands have to offer.
General Island Info
The Boston Harbor Islands National Park area is comprised of 34 islands and mainland parks. Eight islands are accessible to the public via seasonal ferryboat service. The others vary in size and remoteness; some are accessed only by private boat or specialty charter and three are currently closed to the public. Ferry service runs from Boston beginning in May, with service from Hingham and Hull starting up in June. The season ends on Columbus Day.
The best known island, Georges is the 39-acre home to Fort Warren. The fort, a National Historic Landmark, was built in 1833 and served by turns as a training ground, a patrol point, and a Civil War prison. You can learn all about it at the visitor center, where a short film is offered, and then explore on your own or take a guided ranger tour. In spring and summer, fishing clinics, musical performances, theatrical shows, and even vintage 1860s baseball games played by costumed teams are among the activities. Georges Island is a frequent stop for the island ferries and provides a jumping-off point for other islands.
While the beach may be a bit rocky (bring water shoes!), swimming at Spectacle Island is a treat, with the most amazing views. Lifeguards are on duty in season. Over the centuries, Spectacle has served as fishing and hunting grounds for native peoples; grazing lands for livestock of colonial settlers; a quarantine station in the 1700s; and a popular recreation spot in the 1800s. It was even a horse-rendering factory site and garbage dump in the early 1900s. Eventually, it was rehabilitated into a recreation area again when clay and sediment from Boston’s Big Dig construction project was used to seal over the landfill. Activities include scavenger hunts, jazz bands, clam bakes, fishing clinics, kite-flying workshops, and much more. There are 2.5 miles of trails and Spectacle Island offers the highest viewing point of any of the islands, at 155 feet.
Peddocks Island, at 184 acres, is one of the largest islands in the park. It boasts historic structures, hiking trails, unique geologic features, and is also home to active cottages that serve as private residences. There’s a welcome center, restrooms, picnic areas with grills. This is also one of the islands where you can camp overnight. The hiking trails go by a marsh, a pond and coastal forests and the park rangers advise that there is a lot of poison ivy.
This is another popular spot for overnight camping, with six small campsites (max. capacity 6 each) and two group campsites (max. capacity 50 each). You have to book way in advance to secure a spot, but once there the remote island offers unsupervised swimming, a chance to explore the crumbling gun batteries, bunkers, and foundations of Fort Standish, and plenty of peace and quiet.
Little Brewster Island
Boston Light, built in 1716, is the oldest continually used light station in the U.S. and is part of the Brewsters, a group of the outermost islands in the park. It’s also an active U.S. Coast Guard navigational aid facility, so the lightkeeper’s house off limits. You can, however, take a three-hour Boston Light Climbing Tour that includes a boat cruise, commentary on history, geography, and more from a park ranger, and a chance to climb the 76 steps up Boston Light’s tower.
Another island which offers tent camping, 54-acre Grape Island, has an abundance of wild berries, which means an abundance of birds. Don’t forget to bring a camera. The island almost doubles in size to 101 acres at low tide. There are picnic areas, wooded trails and guided ranger walks in season. A unique “wild edibles” tour is a great option.
Among other things, Bumpkin was home to American Indians, a fish-drying operation, tenant farmers, a naval training camp, and polio patients. Today, there are 10 campsites (max. capacity 4 each) and one group campsite (max. capacity 25). The island is composed of a central drumlin, elevation 70 feet. Two group picnic areas on the southwest side of the island offers excellent views of the Hingham Islands, Sarah, Ragged, Langlee and Worlds End, Slate, Grape and Sheep Islands, while an outlook shelter on the northwest side offers views of Boston, Peddocks, and Hull.
Home to Outward Bound programs and other school and youth groups, Thompson Island is only open to the public on summer weekends. You can explore on your own, take a tour into the salt marshes or go with a guide to learn about history of the island. An events and conference center also offers catered clambakes, company outings, parties, weddings, and meetings.
Drive to an Island? Yes, you can! World’s End, Nut, Deer and Webb Memorial islands ( peninsulas or connected to the mainland through beach erosion) can be visited on your own schedule and each has a variety of hiking trails, picnic spots, and great views.