A Day Trip to the Boston Harbor Islands

I’ve been intrigued by the Boston Harbor Islands ever since I first noticed them on a map, little green puzzle pieces against the blue background of Massachusetts Bay. A National and State Park, managed by nearly a dozen federal, state, and local agencies, the area is comprised of 34 islands. Many have names that call out for exploration: Bumpkin, Button, Grape, Hangman, Snake, Moon. But only a handful of them are accessible to the public, seasonally, via ferry from Boston or Hingham. (An additional few are attached to the mainland and therefore accessible by car.)

As much as I wanted to see every island, I quickly realized that because of the ferry schedules, it would be quite stressful – and perhaps even logistically impossible – to visit more than two in one day. Because my friend and I wanted to see some historic sites and nature, but weren’t up for serious hiking or lying on a beach, we decided to spend a few hours on both Spectacle and Georges Islands. These are the most built up of the accessible islands, with the most amenities and more than enough options to occupy us in the short time we had. They’re also relatively close to Boston.

Depending on what type of activities you prefer – and how relaxed you want your day to feel – visiting just one island might be a better choice. You might also want to choose an island with fewer amenities, or one that’s more remote. Some islands are more suited for camping or swimming, others for hiking or kayaking, so it’s important to research exactly what’s available at each location before spontaneously hopping on a boat.

Spectacle Island, named for its supposed resemblance to a pair of glasses, has a small beach and several hiking trails. We walked the relatively flat 1.7-mile perimeter trail, which winds above the island’s rocky seawall between the water and fields of wildflowers. We also took advantage of the snack bar, or perhaps the snack bar took advantage of us; my friend’s hot dog was just okay, and my 11-ounce water cost $3. (On the plus side, it came in a box!)

On Georges we investigated the hulking, haunting remains of Fort Warren, which covers almost the entire island. Built in the decades leading up to the Civil War, it was used as a training facility for Union soldiers and a prison for Confederate officers and officials. It was decommissioned in 1947, and now has an abandoned, post-apocalyptic feel.  After wandering around its granite walls and through its spookily empty rooms, we checked out the small museum and then relaxed by the beach in Adirondack chairs, watching passing boats and gulls.

The Boston Harbor Islands have long and sometimes curious histories. They have been utilized for hundreds of years by Native Americans, early colonists, the U.S. Military, the City of Boston, and various individuals and groups. They have been grazing lands, campsites, garbage dumps, hospital grounds, private residences, and hideaways for law-breakers and hermits. Even today, they have very diverse uses. Some are home to nesting birds, others to lighthouses (and yes, you can take a lighthouse tour.) Most are parkland, though a few are closed to the public, and some can only be reached by private boat.

I had no preconceived notions about what the islands would be like, yet I was surprised by them. At some moments I felt like we were almost lost in a distant wilderness. At others it seemed we were still in an outlying neighborhood of Boston, with the skyline visible nearby and the constant roar of low-flying planes in and out of nearby Logan Airport.

As we headed back to the city, I felt satisfied that I’d finally checked the Harbor Islands off my list. But then, as the ferry navigated between the darkly wooded shapes of other islands in the bay, I was intrigued all over again. I’d only seen two islands, after all, and who knew what surprises the rest might hold? Suddenly it seemed that there were endless shores to land on, and endless future trips to plan.

Info & Tips

-Tickets are available through the Boston Harbor Islands website. The site is confusingly laid out, but it provides ferry timetables and information about each island, plus park rules and other helpful information.

-A ferry ticket includes a trip from the mainland to a specific island at a specific time, plus whatever inter-island travel and return trip you choose. 

-Buy your ticket ahead of time if you can. The islands are a popular destination for locals (including groups of school children) and ferries can fill up. My friend was able to snag discounted tickets through her Boston-area library. There are also a few free ferry days each year, for those with a flexible schedule.

-Don’t plan too strictly around ferry arrival times; our boat to our first island left Boston fairly late, leaving us less time to look around. The inter-islands ferries seemed more punctual and efficient.

-Bring your own food and water. There is a limited selection for sale on the two islands with visitor centers (and on the ferries), but it’s mostly unhealthy and expensive.  

-You must carry off everything you bring on to the islands, meaning there are no trash cans except for snack bar packaging.

-Ferries run in any weather, unless conditions become dangerous. But this is not a trip I’d want to take in the rain. If at all possible, schedule your visit for a dry day, and change your reservation if the weather shifts.


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