They may not know it, but Americans have Woodrow Wilson to thank for the preservation of more than 84 million acres across the U.S. On Aug. 25, 1916, the President signed an act that brought 35 national parks under the management of one federal entity. Today, these and more untouchable lands comprise the properties of the National Park Service.
NPS celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and it has never been a better time to visit one of these natural and historical wonders, whether you’re spending time in Boston or further afield in the surrounding region.
From April 16 through April 24, NPS hosts its annual National Park Week, during which visitors can participate in special activities and events. Plus, the park service waives all entrance fees.
Of the more than 400 national parks, 16 are situated in Massachusetts. They vary widely, from the sandy horizons of Cape Cod’s National Seashore to a 17th-century iron foundry on the banks of the Saugus River to the mountainous Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
Here’s our guide to the 10 local standouts.
Boston National Historical Park
Very little green grass grows here. Instead, this national historical park set on 43 acres in the heart of downtown Boston focuses on the Revolutionary War and landmarks tied with the city's naval history. Key attractions include Faneuil Hall and Charlestown Navy Yard (there are NPS visitor centers here), Bunker Hill Monument, and Dorchester Heights in South Boston.
Faneuil Hall, 1 Faneuil Hall Square, Boston, MA, 617.242.5642
Charlestown Navy Yard, Boston, MA, 617.242.5601
John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site
The second son—and future U.S. President—of Irish Catholic Bostonians Rose and Joe Kennedy was born here in 1917, the family’s first homestead, where they lived from 1914 to 1920. JFK spent his childhood exploring the 'suburban' Brookline neighborhood. While JFK ultimately won his country's top seat in government, the Kennedy and Fitzgerald families were already steeped in politics at the time of his birth.
83 Beals St., Brookline, MA, 617.566.7937
Cape Cod National Seashore
Serene stretches of sandy coastline cut off from the outside world by towering sea cliffs comprise this protected area at the outer reaches of Cape Cod. Grey seals swim in the waters just off Head of the Meadows and Coast Guard beaches. The park harbors more than 450 species, many of which are rare or endangered, like the Piping Plover. Visitors can spend the day at one of six beaches, go for a hike along marsh, swamp or forest trails or through protected sand dunes, and check out the Highlands Center, a former Air Force base.
Park Headquarters, 99 Marconi Site Road, Wellfleet, MA, 508.771.2144
Salt Pond Visitor Center, 50 Nauset Road, Eastham, MA, 508.255.3421
(open May 1-Oct. 31) Provincelands Visitor Center, 171 Race Point Road, Provincetown, MA, 508.487.1256
Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site
This yellow Georgian mansion was first owned by Loyalists and then occupied by General George Washington from July 1775 to April 1776, a timeframe when he commanded the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Some 60 years later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived here for four decades, during which time he became a prolific writer and national literary figure. When the home is closed in the off-season, history buffs are invited to tour the grounds.
105 Brattle St., Cambridge, MA, 617.876.4491
Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area
One of Boston's best-kept secrets is its Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. Of its 34 member islands, only some are open to the public. From May to October, a ferry takes passengers from the mainland to Georges Island, the park's hub, where Fort Warren is a spectacular and spooky landmark begging to be investigated. From Georges, catch a shuttle boat to Spectacle Island or smaller islands like Bumpkin and Grape.
New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park
Trek an hour or so south of Boston to the country's number one fishing port, a city that in the 19th century was the world's most prominent whaling port. The whaling industry is the focus of this national park, with topics ranging from international travel to men escaping slavery. Free guided tours in season. Further points of interest include the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the Schooner Ernestina.
33 William St., New Bedford, MA, 508.996.4095
Springfield Armory National Historic Site
The nation’s first armory preserves the world's largest historic U.S. military small arms collection just a couple hours to the west of Boston. Notably, black powder firearms (like muskets) were produced here for troops during the War of 1812 and the Civil War; the armory that was begun by George Washington finally closed production in 1968. Today, visitors can explore original buildings and a museum.
1 Armory Square, Springfield, MA, 413.734.8551
Boston African American National Historic Site
The park service’s Black Heritage Trail winds through the Beacon Hill neighborhood, a residential area for Boston’s 19th-century African-American community. Visit such significant sites as the African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School to learn about the Underground Railroad and the abolition movement. Ranger-led tours start up in May.
Beacon Hill, Boston, MA, 617.742.5415
Minute Man National Historical Park
Occupying nearly 1,000 acres across Lincoln, Lexington and Concord, Minute Man National Historical Park features a wealth of landmarks associated with the American Revolution. Perhaps the most prominent, North Bridge is the site of the romanticized "shot heard 'round the world" of April 19, 1775. The Battle Road Trail walking path connects places like the Paul Revere Capture Site and the Hartwell Tavern, an authentic Colonial-era home where park rangers demonstrate musket firings.
Minute Man Visitor Center, 250 North Great Road, Lincoln, MA
North Bridge and North Bridge Visitor Center, 174 Liberty St., Concord, MA
Salem Maritime National Historic Site
Many properties make up this national park set in the heart of Salem, Massachusetts. Popularized for its witch-culture, Salem also boasts a rich maritime history—and has since the days when New England was first settled. Explore Derby Wharf and walk out to its historic light station, or board the world-traveled merchant vessel Friendship. A number of 17th- and 18th-century historic homes, an armory, the U.S. Custom House, and Henry Prince’s West India Goods Store are other points of interest within the history-rich park.
2 New Liberty St., Salem, MA, 978.740.1650