There’s so much to see in Massachusetts, with 15 units spanning the state. None of these are among the 63 National Parks, but there are plenty of National Historic Parks, Sites, Recreation Area, and a Seashore. There are even 3 national trails that pass through the state as well. So read along to learn about the beautiful National Parks in Massachusetts.
National Historic Parks
One of the unit types in the National Park Service, Historic Parks protect a variety of historical sites across the United States. These tend to be larger than the “historic site” designations and may include several sites, parks, and often sites across a larger geographic area. All of these protect some of the most important history of the United States.
Adams National Historic Park
Established in 1946, the Adams National Historic Park protects the “old house” of John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams. The house was the birthplace and residence of both of these important US presidents. The peacefield mansion as it is also called was an important architectural and historic place. Adjacent you can also visit Stone Library, home to over 12,000 volumes.
Visitors can explore exhibits and a film about the Adams’ family. There are guided tours and even occasional special exhibits. Visitors can tour the houses and grounds including the historic gardens and orchard.
Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park
Blackstone River Valley NHP preserves the Blackstone River Valley, an important historic site in the industrial history of the United States. The park spans Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and has sites across both states. Visitors can explore Slater Mill, Ashton Mill, historic canals, hike along the riverbanks, and learn about the important history of the site.
The visitor center has exhibits, a movie, and information on the site and lives of the people who lived here. The park is open year round but many of the specific sites (such as the mills) are only open seasonally. [ RI MA ]
Boston National Historic Park
This National Historic Park protects many of the important American Revolution sites around Boston. It’s not just one site but really just a way of grouping the sites into a specific park. It was designated this way in 1974 which helps to preserve and protect these sites for future generations.
The main place along here is the freedom trail that takes visitors along the important sites in the city. And one of my favorite historical things in the city. Explore places like the old meeting house, old state house, paul revere house, bunker hill, and old north church.
The park maintains two visitors (at Faneuil Hall and Charleston Navy Yard) which has lots of information on how to explore the sites, a movie, bookstore, and ranger information.
Boston African American National Historic Park
Established in 1980, the Boston African American NHP is dedicated to sharing the important heritage of African Americans in Boston. Located in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, the park showcases the importance of the area to the community in Boston.
The city and area was important in the fight for rights of Black Americans including helping to fight slavery and other injustices. There’s several places along the black heritage trail including the African Meeting House (one of the oldest black churches in the US), Abiel Smith School (19th century segregated school for Black children), George Middleton House (oldest house in Beacon Hill), and more.
The park is run in conjunction with a local Museum of African American History (which runs the Abiel Smith School and African Meeting house), and they do require admission. The museum and park do run occasional programs and talks about the history and community.
Lowell National Historic Park
Lowell National Historic Park showcases the importance of the industrial history of the town of Lowell. The town with ist water-mills and can-do attitude was a center of textile manufacturing in the 19th century. Nearly 200 years later it’s history is still important, and in 1978 it was designated in the National Historic Park it is today. You can visit the mill museum, and see some of the machines (be sure to ask for a demonstration!).
There’s also walks along the canals, and a large area of buildings, statues and more commemorating the history. The visitor center also has a movie, information, exhibits on the people and technology, and even info on famous residents and visitors like Kerouac and Dickens.
Minute Man National Historic Park
Commemorating the opening salvo of the revolutionary war, Minute Man commemorates the “shot heard round the world”. The park protects sites in and around Lexington, Concord and Lincoln and many parts and important historic sites across these places. You can even visit the important north bridge, where that shot was heard.
Visitors can walk the battle road trail, the 5 mile trail between Lexington and Concord, the Wayside (home to Samuel Whitney), Barrett’s Farm, and more. The park is just stunningly beautiful as well and a fun place to explore or even just relax the day away. There’s even occasional events and re-enactments that you can view at times around the year.
New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park
Opened in 1996, the New Bedford Whaling NHP was built to highlight the whaling heritage of both the town and the era of whaling in the world. The park includes information not just about whaling but about the people of the area, migration, underground railroad, art, literature and more. There’s even aspects that highlight the area’s connection with the venerable book “Moby Dick”.
The city that lit the world, which while these days has some hard history on whaling, was so important to life and society of that time. The visitor center and buildings include exhibits, movies, artwork, and more on the topic and is free to visitors too.
National Historic Sites
National Historic Sites include some of the most important historic places in the United States. These include homes of presidents, prominent people, cultural icons, and more. These tend to be more focused than historic parks but not always. The following are the incredible ones within Massachusetts.
Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site
Established in 1979, this National Historic Site preserves the legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted, an influential American landscape architect. He is considered as the foremost park maker in the US, with such important designs as Central Park in NYC and Emerald Necklace in Boston.
There were approx. 6,000 works across 47 states (as well as Canadian provinces). These include works in National Parks, campuses, and public spaces.
Located on his former estate in Brookline Mass, the house was also his office for this work as well. Visitors to the site can explore his home, office, exhibits about his work, and understand his approach to urban and landscape planning. The park grounds are open year round but certain buildings and exhibits are seasonal.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site
Established as a NHS in 1967, the site protects the birthplace and childhood home of the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy. The house was purchased by JFK’s father in 1914 prior to his marriage to Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald.
The house is located in Brookline at the time a up and coming suburb of Boston. The house was sold and then repurchased again by the Kennedy Family in 1966. The house was restored to model its 1917 appearance.
Visitors to the site can explore through the home including the basement, living room, dining room, master bedroom, nursery, and more rooms in the house. The house is open for self-guided and ranger led tours and visitors can also explore the grounds of the house as well. The site is free to visitors.
Longfellow House Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site
Established in 1972, Longfellow House, located in Cambridge, was the former house of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and served as Washington’s revolution headquarters.
Visitors can explore the gardens, attend seasonal events, tour the house, explore exhibits, watch a movie, and otherwise learn about the house, activism, and Revolution history. The Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow House is an impressive example of Georgian architecture.
Visits to the interior of the house are only by guided Ranger Tour. Reservations are made for same-day either by walk-in or phone reservation (617-876-4491). Tours and access to the park are free.
Salem Maritime National Historic Site
Established in 1938, Salem Maritime National Historic Site consists of 12 structures along 9 acres of historic Salem waterfront. The park preserves hundreds of years of maritime history in the region.
Sites along the area include Derby House, Derby Wharf, Hawkes House, Narbonne House, Customs House, and the West India Goods store. There’s also a lighthouse to check out, a tall-ship to visit, and of course the grounds you can explore as you wander.
The visitor center has exhibits, information, film, and gifts at the Salem Armory. There’s also a store at Waite & Peirce that includes various maritime and historical timeframe goods that you can purchase.
The park grounds are open year round while many of the building’s hours change seasonally.
Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site
Located outside Boston, Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site, is one of the oldest iron works in the US. The site was born in the 1600s on the banks of the Saugus river and operated from 1646 to 1670. The current site includes a reconstructed black furnace, waterwheels, forge, rolling mill, and more.
The site is known as the birthplace of American steel and visitors can explore the historic buildings across the park. From the blacksmith shop, casting shed, furnace, forge, mills, there’s quite a bit for visitors to explore on the site.
The iron works house is the only surviving building from the 1600s and also houses the visitor center for the site. The site includes a museum, rangers, information on the site (and nearby sites), movie and bookstore.
Springfield Armory National Historic Site
Established in 1974, the Armory was an important site for US innovation in engineering and military armaments. The site is the first US armory and also the site of the largest collection of US small arms.
Visitors can explore the grounds of the site and the armory museum, there’s plenty to see from historic weapons to lovely strolls through the area. You can also check out (from a distance) the army beehive as well! There’s a few historic buildings to wander by at the site as well.
The collection is one of lots of interesting gunpowder, edged, and other small armaments. As well as other machines in relation to the armory and war and early US history. There’s also a video and gift shop at the museum as well.
Definitely worthwhile to learn about the history here, explore the grounds and gardens, and even have a picnic among the tables on the site too.
Other National Park Units
The above National Historic Parks and Sites make up the bulk of the units within Massachusetts. Beyond that, the following two are the other units within the state, one recreation area and a seashore.
Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area
Comprising 34 islands and peninsulas in Boston Harbor, the National Recreation Area abounds with interesting activities for visitors to the site. Established in 1996, the park is a combination of federal, state, city, and non-profit managed areas to protect all this wonderful land.
Many of the islands have some really interesting places to explore. Like Fort Warren on George Island, Fort Andrews on Peddocks Island, hiking opportunities on many of the others. There’s an opportunity for hiking, birdwatching, boating, and exploring on the various islands. There’s even a ferry service to a couple of the islands for those who don’t have boating access.
Since many of these islands and peninsulas are managed by various groups, you’ll need to do some research for some of the islands if you want to explore. Some like Thompson Island have limited unescorted access on certain days to the public
Cape Cod National Seashore
Established in 1961, the Cape Cod National Seashore protects 68 sq. miles of beautiful Cape Cod nature. This includes over 40 miles along the east coast of the cape as well.
The park includes lots of hiking trails and beaches along the coast as well. Several are within the boundaries of the seashore and open to the public to explore. There’s even opportunity for areas with 4WD beach driving as well.
Visitors can hike, bike, swim, sunbathe, drive, kayak, and more within the park. There are even places to rent within the park as well for your vacation and group. However, these do tend to book up quickly so explore them on recreation.gov.
National Trails are historic, scientific, and nature trails across the United States. These trails often cross several states and can even be thousands of miles long.
Most National Trails are not fully administered by the National Park Service and often have multiple agencies and private organizations managing all or part of the trail.
Appalachian National Scenic Trail
One of the most famous trails in the US and possibly the world, the AT as it is affectionately called spans nearly 2,200 miles from Maine to Georgia along the Appalachian Mountain Range. Conceived in 1921 and completed in 1937 the trail is managed by the NPS and maintained by over 30 trail clubs along its span.
Hundreds of thru-hikers and thousands more shorter hikes touch the trail each year. About 90 miles of the Appalachian Trail pass through Massachusetts. Included on the trail are Mount Greylock (which inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick) and passes through some charming towns in the state. [ CT GA MA MD ME NC NH NJ NY PA TN VA VT WV ]
New England National Scenic Trail
The 235 mile trail connects Connecticut to Massachusetts (north to south) from the Mountains of Connecticut to the shores of Long Island Sound. The trail connects three trails, the Mattabesett Trail, Metacomet Trail, and Metacomet-Monadnock Trail. The highest point in Massachusetts, Mount Grace, at 1,617 feet is also the highest point on the trail. [ CT MA ]
Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Scenic Trail
In the Year 1781, French General Rochambeau joined Washington’s Army in Yorktown VA in an effort to fight the British Army. With Support of French Naval Vessels, the Army moved Troops hundreds of miles in what would be the largest troop movement of the American Revolutionary War.
This trail protects parts of the original trail that Americans used to travel to Yorktown from as far away as New Hampshire. The historic trail has sites to visit from Massachusetts to Virginia.
In Massachusetts you can explore the Boston Historical Park above which is along the trail in this state. [ CT MA RI NY NJ PA DE MD VA DC ]