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How to Visit the Boston Harbor Islands and What to Do

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When I, a native New Yorker, suggested to my husband, a born and raised Bostonian, that we take the kids on a day trip to the Boston Harbor Islands, he told me with his rich accent it didn’t go” from them. That was 10 years ago, when our children were 7 (twins) and 4, and since then our family has made almost annual visits to these little known but fascinating islands.

“I have always blamed [lack of awareness] on the topography of our city,” said Kathy Abbott, president and CEO of Boston Harbor Now. “Unless you’re lucky enough to work in one of the skyscrapers in the southeast corner” of the city, you don’t see the islands.

The Boston Harbor Islands consist of 34 islands and peninsulas, seven of which are typically accessible by two three-deck public passenger ferries that make multiple trips daily. You can buy a ferry ticket (online or at the terminals in Boston or Hingham) that lets you hop on and off as much as you want for a day. Due to the pandemic, the ferry schedule has been changed this year and they only stop at Spectacle, Georges, Peddocks and Thompson islands – three times a day at Spectacle and Georges, six times a day at Peddocks and once a day in Thompson. (If you have a private boat or kayak, public anchorages are available at Peddocks, Spectacle, Georges, and Gallops Islands.) You can hike, swim, attend special events, and learn about the islands’ history. four of them – Bumpkin, Grape, Lovells and Peddocks – have campgrounds. (Only Peddocks is open for camping.)

This year, Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park celebrates its 25th anniversary as a national park and its 50th anniversary as a state park. He has awarded grants to 12 nonprofit organizations to create meaningful events for the community; you can check the schedule at bostonharborislands.org/calendar before visiting.

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Each island has its own personality. “Each of them has a different story and a different feel,” Abbott said. Three of our family of five’s favorite islands are Bumpkin, Georges and Peddocks because these islands allow us to have adventure, explore history and have a spooky experience. Before visiting the islands, I always check the timetable at each stop to avoid getting stuck. Before the pandemic, you could visit three islands in one day.

Bumpkin Island is small but has a rustic and adventurous feel. Instead of taking the ferry, some people get there by kayak from nearby Hull. We appreciate the serene, crowd-free setting. When we visit, we bring breakfast or lunch and have a peaceful picnic at one of the tables. We like the tangled grass trails which are wide and allow us to easily walk past the staghorn sumac shrubs and succession trees. Butterflies usually flit around us as we follow the wildflower-strewn path around the island. At the highest point of 70 feet we can still see the Boston skyline, about 10 miles from Bumpkin.

During our visit, we always go to the main attraction of the island, the remains of a stone house, and pose for a photo under the arch. According to the self-guided brochure provided by a park ranger at the entrance, the structure dates from the early 19th century. After its use as a house, it became a boiler room for a children’s hospital. There are nearby remnants of the hospital, which was leased by a local philanthropist from Harvard University for children with severe physical disabilities. During World War I, the US Navy used the hospital as a training station, abandoning it when the war ended. It reopened briefly in the 1940s and then burned down.

Georges and Spectacle are the two most popular islands for tourists and Bostonians. We always take the ferry from Hingham which is closer to Georges so we usually visit this island. But once we took the longest drive to Spectacle to check it out. Spectacle is only about a 30-minute ferry ride from downtown Boston, and visitors can enjoy the beach and five miles of trails with views of the Boston skyline. Every Sunday in July and August, Spectacle hosts bands for the “Jazz on the Porch” series, held at the Visitor Center. “You can spend an afternoon sitting in the Adirondack chairs on the porch on a Sunday and listening to live jazz,” Abbott said.

However, if you go to Georges Island, “then you have a story day,” Abbott said. The main attraction here is Fort Warren, which held Confederate prisoners and was a training facility. She cited Fort Warren’s importance as a military installation actively engaged in the Civil War.

When we visit Georges we try to plan at least two hours on the island so we have time to explore the prison cells, cannons and watchtower. Even though we know the story, we love to read about the Lady in Black, the ghost of Melanie Lanier, who tried to free her imprisoned Confederate husband but was captured and killed, and is said to haunt the fort. The dark tunnels in the huge stone buildings of the fort still give us a spooky and haunting vibe, but the kids love it.

Peddocks Island is famous for its biodiversity. Habitats on Peddocks include closed canopy forests, woodlands, shrub thickets, abandoned fields, salt marshes and a brackish pond, and we enjoy walking around and noticing the habitats change. The island is home to around 220 plant species, including over 100 native and exotic species.

Being in the middle of the Boston Harbor Islands, Peddocks is also a hub for many animal species that use the islands, such as deer and coyotes that swim between the mainland and other islands. Birds that use the island as a stopover include the American oystercatcher, for which the islands in Boston Harbor are one of their northernmost breeding grounds, and the islands are home to several colonial nesting species, such as the tern Pygmy. Over 2,000 species of terrestrial insects and invertebrates have been recorded on the islands, along with 451 intertidal and marine species and over 200 bird species.

On this island, you can bring your own tent and camp overnight or rent a yurt. But plan ahead: yurts are so popular that they book up quickly, and even if you’re bringing your own tent, you must make a reservation first.

The most famous aspect of this island is that some scenes from the 2010 thriller “Shutter Island” was filmed there. Look for Peddocks in the opening scene of the film. The author of the book that inspired the film, Dennis Lehane, based the novel on his childhood visits to Long Island, an island in Boston Harbor now off-limits to visitors.

During our visit, we explore the fort and the scenic hiking trails. Enclosed structures and overgrown vegetation give the creepy impression that Martin Scorsese probably hoped for in the film.

Abbott said when tourists come to Boston, she hopes they’ll think of the islands as well as the Red Sox, Fenway Park and the Freedom Trail.

“Our vision is of a vibrant, welcoming and resilient port that benefits everyone,” said Abbott.

Maguire is a Massachusetts-based writer. Find her on Twitter: @CherylMaguire05.

Reach the Boston Harbor Islands from Boston Ferry Terminals (66 Long Wharf) and Hingham (28 Shipyard Dr.). Costs $24.95 per adult; $17.95 per child; $22.95 for seniors, students and military; and free for children under 3 years old. Visit bit.ly/boston-islands-ferry for timetables.

Camping is available Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights through Labor Day weekend. Bring your own tent and camp overnight or rent a yurt. Prior reservations required. Boston Harbor Islands camping fees are $8 for Massachusetts residents, $20 for non-residents; yurts $55 for residents, $140 for non-residents. There is also a $4.50 booking fee.

Program “Be a Junior Ranger”

Before your outing, download a booklet with activities for children to do to become a junior ranger. Once there, the rangers also lead programs, which include guided tours, arts and crafts activities, and more. Free.

This series takes place on Spectacle Island and runs on Sundays in July and August. Free. The other islands also host events, which can be found at bostonharborislands.org/calendar.

bostonharborislands.org/volunteer

People can volunteer to maintain island trails and habitat areas, or to greet visitors and answer questions. Check the website for opportunities.