Conservation areas, sanctuaries, trails, and reservations abound on the North Shore. This spring and summer, take some time out to explore some of these lesser-known corners of the natural world and discover oases of migrating birds, striking marsh views, and tranquil woodlands you might never have known were there. Here are a dozen suggestions to get you started.
The Atlantic Path runs for 2 miles along the Rockport shore, crossing 50 different public and private properties as it goes, thanks to Massachusetts’s unique public right-of-way laws and the efforts of a dedicated committee of town residents. Several well-marked access points let walkers easily explore different sections of the path. “It’s pretty spectacular, really,” says Monica Lawton, vice chair of the town’s Rights of Way Committee. “It’s a path that is terrific for just enjoying the experience and feeling the wind off the sea.”
At first glance, Coolidge Reservation may seem to be a typical charming North Shore stroll through woodlands and wetlands. But keep walking and you will find yourself emerging onto an unexpected open expanse of lawn sweeping down to the ocean and offering expansive views of the coastline. Side paths take you down to a secluded beach or up a hill for even more panoramic views.
Summer Street, Manchester-by-the-Sea,
Marblehead Rail Trail
To explore both historic and natural Marblehead, park downtown and head out onto the trails—4.1 miles in total. The north fork of the trail passes through two wooded conservation areas, skirting marshland and offering side paths down to the sandy shoreline before emerging in Salem.
Bessom Street, traillink.com/trail/marblehead-rail-trail
Old Town Hill
In the 1630s, Old Town Hill was one of the first areas cleared by settlers and provided grazing land for livestock. Today, the 168-foot promontory is home to raptors and marsh birds and provides views that stretch all the way to New Hampshire and Maine. Three miles of trails let visitors choose an easy stroll through the marsh or a more demanding climb to the peak.
Newman Road, Newbury, 978-526-8687, thetrustees.org
The tiniest property on this list, Nahant Thicket packs a powerful birdwatching experience into just 4 acres. Stroll the sanctuary’s boardwalk in the spring or fall and look for migratory species including warblers, thrushes, and vireos, or visit in the winter to glimpse loons, grebes, and other wintering seabirds. “This oasis for birds provides an amazing experience for people to see these species up close,” says sanctuary director Amy Weidensaul.
Furbush Road, Nahant, 978-887-9264, massaudubon.org
Goose Cove Reservation
The rock-strewn tree-lined shore of Goose Cove, an arm of the Annisquam River, is one of Gloucester’s most charming sights. A walk in the adjacent reservation lets you explore these areas up close. In the spring, cherry blossoms deck the woodland trails, and fishing egrets stalk the waters throughout the summer. If you look closely and get lucky, you might even spot the pawprints of otters in the tidal mud.
Washington Street, Gloucester, ecga.org
Ipswich’s most famed destination might be Crane Beach, but if your goal is a beautiful walk without the crowds, try Greenwood Farm and the 2.5 miles of trails that wind through the property. Your first impression will be of bucolic open farmland, but as you explore further, you will uncover a centuries-old historic house, expansive salt marsh views, and a dynamic tidal ecosystem.
47 Jeffrey’s Neck Road, Ipswich, 978-356-4351, thetrustees.org
Clipper City Rail Trail and Old Eastern Marsh Trail
The Clipper City Rail Trail lets walkers take in views of Newburyport’s charming downtown and its working riverfront while strolling past a dozen sculptural installations. Across the Merrimack River, Salisbury’s Old Eastern Marsh Trail offers historic stone walls, peaceful woodlands, and salt marsh views. The two trails are connected by a brief paved walk adorned with paintings by local artists.
Newburyport, Salisbury, traillink.com
Rough Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary
Sweeping views of the North Shore’s Great Marsh and a stunning variety of wildlife are the hallmarks of this property. More than 2.5 miles of trails and roads take visitors through upland woods, around salt pannes, and out to Sawyer’s Island, where viewers can spot ospreys coming and going from their nest platform. Visit in the fall to see the salicornia plants paint the marsh a blazing red.
Allyn Cox Reservation
This property has been a dairy farm, an apple orchard, and the summer home of noted painter Allyn Cox. Today, the reservation combines open fields, historic architecture, and beautiful salt marsh vistas. Easy trails wander near grassy wetlands, through wooded areas, and down to the rocky shore of the Essex River, an ideal spot for launching a kayak or canoe.
82 Eastern Avenue, Essex, ecga.org
Tompson Street Reservation
Tucked right off Route 128, this property offers several different walking and hiking experiences within its 320 acres. Climb the granite outcroppings of the Eagle Rock Trail for spectacular views of Cape Ann and the Atlantic, spot wildlife from the boardwalk of the Red Maple Swamp Trail, or wander any of the other trails that wind through the woodlands. “You could spend days exploring the vast trail network,” says Dave Rimmer, director of land stewardship for the Essex County Greenbelt Association.
Concord Street, Bray Street, or Essex Avenue, Gloucester, ecga.org
It takes a little doing to get to Thacher Island: You’ll need to either hop into a kayak or book a seat on a water taxi. But once you’ve made it to the 50-acre island off the coast of Rockport, you’ll be rewarded with the chance to ramble 3 miles of easy windswept trails or climb one of the island’s two 124-foot granite lighthouses. While you’re at it, soak in more than 400 years of history—the first known sighting of the island was in 1605, and it is named for the survivors of a tragic shipwreck who crawled ashore there.