Boston Harbor Islands

Harbor That Island Feeling In The Northeast

By Ann Dermody

Photo of the USS ConstitutionThe USS Constitution stands watch over Boston Harbor. (photo by Sarah Musumeci (courtesy of Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism)

Their advertising slogan is "Minutes Away. Worlds Apart" and for busy urbanites in the nearby bustling metro area, the Boston Harbor Islands certainly live up to that mantra. A mere hop, skip, and a jump — or make that a short boat ride — away from Boston — 30-plus islands form a wilderness of 1,600 acres and 35 miles of undeveloped ocean shoreline. Of these, about a dozen islands are easily accessed, and from a boater's perspective, several stand out, making it an easy getaway for those with trailered boats.

Bruce Jacobson, superintendent for Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area (NRA), says boaters are very welcome and cites fishing, camping, and hiking the island trails as some of the most popular activities for boaters and foot passengers alike. "Visitor services are provided May through October and whenever the mood strikes is the best time to visit," he claims.

A slight drawback with any group of islands is that boaters have to launch from the mainland and public ramps around the Boston area are not exactly abundant. At the good ones that do exist, boaters are well-advised to try and launch outside of peak times, unless they're prepared to wait awhile. Stories of boaters hitting the ramps at the crack of dawn or even the night before are not unheard of. Each ramp tends to be run and maintained by individual towns and different rules or fees may apply, so it's best to check at each one. Leaving your trailer overnight isn't a problem at most of the ramps but, again, check before you do so and make sure you're parked in a designated spot. Some of the most popular public ramps include the south shore's Hingham Harbor across from Button Island and the Weymouth Back River ramp in Weymouth. Winthrop, north of Boston across from Logan International Airport, is another good bet.

"The best current information for ramps is available from the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game's office of Fishing and Boating," says Bruce Jacobson. Check

Once you're on the water, Jacobson says a highlight is the cityscape of Boston fading behind you as you approach Georges or Spectacle Islands. Jacobson also points out that Boston is a commercial harbor, traversed by huge tankers and other commercial vessels. "At times, the entire harbor is closed for security reasons and we don't recommend the use of personal watercraft."But don't be put off by the water traffic around the city. Locals say that even though this NRA is right beside a sprawling metropolis, and some of the popular and well-known places fill up quickly, you can still find your own quiet cove to spend a relaxing weekend.

Approximately 30 moorings serve the Boston Harbor Islands, located in safe anchorages just off Long, Peddocks, Gallops, Georges, and Rainsford Islands. Reservations are recommended, especially for weekends and peak periods such as Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day. Fees start at $15 for four hours, $25 for overnight, and $35 for 24 hours. Season passes are also available but have some restrictions and aren't available for the popular Georges Island.

The other great option for boaters is to anchor off the islands for free; Grape, Bumpkin, Lovells, and Peddocks Islands all have docks that allow drop-offs. You anchor off the shore and use dinghies to get back in. Boaters can use the dock at Georges Island on a first-come, first-served basis during daylight hours. If you'd rather dock at a marina, then your only option is Spectacle Island, which offers day or overnight slips. Day rates are a reasonable $20 for vessels less than 30 feet, and overnights will cost you $1.75 a foot.

Fishing is another big draw to the islands. The Harbor is one of the few areas along the Massachusetts coastline that offer good sportfishing all year round. Recreational fishing for striped bass, mackerel, winter flounder, and bluefish are also popular, and many of the harbor islands offer excellent shore fishing locations. Visitors can also rent fishing equipment on Spectacle Island.

Mel Harris is a local who keeps his 22-foot shallow-draft boat in Winthrop. He ferried his late friend, the fishing writer Jack Gartside, around to every river and fishing hole in the area when he was writing his book "The Flyfisherman's Guide To Boston Harbor" in Boston Harbor. "From right in Winthrop Harbor to out near the airport, and up several of the rivers, there's some great fishing here," he says. "The fish show up in early May and stay until the second week of November. It's a long season, helped by the fact that parts of the harbor are very deep and cold so the fish stay around. It might not be so comfortable on a boat in November, though," he adds.

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Know Before You Go:

Pets are not allowed on any of the islands accessible by boat. Private boaters may not land on Thompson, Moon, Long, or Gallops Islands but you can anchor off Gallops. (See map) Visitors may bring grills to the islands; however a carry-on/carry-off policy exists that means all items brought on the islands must be taken off, including any charcoal briquettes, new or used. Georges Island has several stationary grills.

There are indoor bathrooms with plumbing on Spectacle Island. Georges Island has composting toilets, and will have brand new facilities this year. Lovells, Peddocks, Grape, and Bumpkin Islands have recycling composting toilets.

Rustic camping with a view of downtown Boston is one of the most popular activities.

Reservations are necessary and can be made by calling the Ranger line on 617-223-8666. Camping for individuals costs $8 per night.

Boston Harbor Islands map


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