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.

The Islands

Georges Island:

Boaters can dock on Georges Island on a first-come, first-served basis to explore Fort Warren. The Civil War-era fort used for training Union soldiers and later as a prison for captured Confederates dominates the Island and is open to the public from May to mid- October. Park rangers offer guided tours and nautical programs. Fort Warren has an added appeal for children, a reputed ghost called the Lady in Black. Many visitors take a picnic lunch and relax under a shady tree or on the grassy parade ground. A free water taxi is available to the other islands.

Photo of the marina at Spectacle IslandThe marina at Spectacle Island

Spectacle Island:

Just 15 minutes from downtown Boston, Spectacle Island is the only one that has a marina, making it a good starting spot from which to explore the islands. It also has a "green" visitors' center run on solar energy and keeps a small fleet of solar-powered electric vehicles on the island. Throw in two sandy beaches, supervised swimming, and several miles of walking trails and you've got a boater's paradise.

Lovells Island:

Characterized by its curved beaches and diverse wildlife, visitors to Lovells can enjoy exploring the remains of Fort Standish and walking along trails through dunes and salt-marsh woods. It also boasts some of the best views of the outer harbor, 11 campsites, and a good swimming beach.

Peddocks Island:

At 188 acres, Peddocks Island is one of the largest, and contains the remains of Fort Andrews, active to the end of World War II. The island has 10 campsites and a visitors' center that offers island walks and fort tours.

Photo of Georges Island, Boston Harbor, MassachusettsView from the ferry as you approach Georges Island.

Bumpkin Island:

As its name suggests, Bumpkin offers a country escape filled with wildflowers growing along trails that lead to the remains of a children's hospital and a stone farmhouse. One group and 10 individual campsites are available on the 35-acre island.

Grape Island:

While it may not have any grapes, wild blackberries, bayberries and rose hips are abundant throughout the island's 50 acres. It's one of the few Boston Harbor islands without historic structures, but it has several picnic areas, one group and 10 individual campsites.

The Inside Track

Like many who grew up in the region, Bill Reardon's parents fostered in him a love of the water and boating from when he was six years old. Reardon, who serves on the advisory council for the park, lives in the town of Hingham on the south shore, in a house overlooking the harbor.

"When my parents married just before the war, they asked for money to buy a sailboat rather than housewares," he says. "I grew up on boats in the harbor and I just love this place. Because it's a consortium of federal, state, city, and private agencies, it really is the only park of its kind in the country."

Reardon owns an 18-foot runabout and says one of his favorite places to visit is the east side of World's End in Hingham Harbor. World's End is a peninsula that contains a 251-acre park made up of four elongated hills called "drumlins" that jut out into Hingham Harbor. The town of Hingham operates up to 30 moorings, though very few are guest moorings.

It's a popular local hotspot in the summer with upwards of 300 boats tucked in there during weekends. "You'll see lots of boats rafted up together and people hanging out barbequing," says Reardon.

"Spectacle and Georges Islands are also great places to visit by boat and you can drop a hook at several of the islands. I often take the grandkids and go out to Georges Island for a day trip to walk through the historic Fort Warren," he says. "The other great thing is that even though it's very popular because Boston Harbor is large, it's not wall to wall with boaters when you get out into the islands. July 4th through Labor Day is obviously the most active for boaters, but you can often get longer in the season than that. I don't usually pull my boat until Columbus Day," says Reardon.

Water-skiing is another popular activity that Reardon's grandkids are able to enjoy. "There are two good locations in my area of Hingham Harbor. One is to the left of Ragged Island and another northeast of Langlee Island, between that and World's End." 

This article was published in Summer 2010 issue of Trailering Magazine.

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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