Top 10 National And State Parks In New England

16 June 2015
Read Time: 7.6 mins

From surfing, to hiking, to island-hopping, New England's national and state parks have it all.

Tackle the Appalachian Trail in Maine, follow old smugglers' routes in Vermont, walk in the thoughtful footsteps of Thoreau in Massachusetts, visit a lighthouse at Cape Cod or try a pony party at Rhode Island.

Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia was decreed the first national park in the eastern US, in 1919, and retains its elemental charm, with rugged granite cliffs, teeming tide pools and wild islands dotting the north Atlantic.

Sections of the park are off-limits to cars and a network of horse-drawn carriage trails are still in use. It covers about half of Mount Desert Island, a rocky prominence of land divided into two lobes by the Somes Sound, and nearby smaller islands.

Parts of the park appear untouched by people, while others have been developed for centuries: the island was first settled in 1609 by the French and during the Gilded Age, the country’s wealthiest families built vacation mansions in and around Bar Harbor, a pretty town that is the heartbeat of Acadia.

To see one of the park’s more primitive places, take a ferry from Stonington to Isle au Haut. With a lighthouse, a campground and over 16 kilometres of hiking and biking trails, this rocky island is the perfect Maine coast getaway.

Top tip Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain is the highest point on the east coast – at 466 metres – and the first place in the US to see the sun rise. You can hike up Cadillac along a moderate four-mile trail or drive to the summit, from April to December – weather permitting.

Baxter State Park, Maine

Hiker descending Mount Katahdin. Hiker descending Mount Katahdin. Photograph: Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

Baxter state park in northern Maine is home to Mount Katahdin, an impressive 1,600-metre peak that marks the northern end of the Appalachian Trail.

Hikers attempting the entire trail between Maine and Georgia will either begin or end their journey on the summit of Katahdin, making this park a prime place for witnessing and sharing personal trials and triumphs of the 3,500-kilometre footpath.

Hiking to the summit of Katahdin is not for the faint of heart. The trail is steep and rocky and includes a section nicknamed the “knife edge” that is only a metre wide with sheer cliffs on both sides.

Baxter also offers over 320 kilometres of hiking trails for all abilities. Camping is allowed in the park: in tents, cabins, bunkhouses and lean-tos. Reservations are recommended.

Top tip Baxter is a great place to be a trail angel: these are good samaritans who help people hiking the Appalachian Trail by giving them food, water or a ride into town for supplies. Whether you set up an elaborate victory barbecue or simply hand out a few extra candy bars along the way, there’s no easier way to make a stranger’s day than by feeding a hungry hiker.

Mount Washington State Park, New Hampshire

View of Mountain Washington from the summit of Mountain Adams. Mount Washington from the summit of Mount Adams. Photograph: Alamy

At 1,917 metres, Mount Washington is the highest peak in the eastern US, and is home to a weather research station called the Mount Washington Observatory; fitting since the summit is notorious for having some of the world’s worst weather, including a world-record wind speed of 372 kilometres an hour (a record held from 1934 to 2010).

The summit and observatory can be reached on foot, and by car and cog-train, with the road to the top usually open from mid-May to mid-October, weather permitting.

A number of trails, including the Appalachian Trail, run up and around Mount Washington, with backcountry huts available for overnight stays.

Modelled after similar shelters in the Alps, the largest of the eight huts can host up to 90 people. Bunk reservations are recommended; most huts include dinner and breakfast in the price.

Top tip The Presidential Traverse runs for 37 kilometres over the summits of Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson, Mount Adams and Mount Madison. The hike demands good weather and hiking experience, as it’s remote and often exposed, but step for careful step, it’s one of the most scenic trails in the country.

Rye Harbor State Park, New Hampshire

Rye Harbor, New Hampshire. Photograph: Eliot Elisofon/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Surfing in New Hampshire may sound far-fetched, but the small state does have 29 kilometres of coastline, including several prime surf spots.

One of the best sites for catching the swells is Rye Beach, just south of Portsmouth.

Depending on the weather and waves, Rye’s waters can play host to an assortment of surf styles, and abilities – ranging from long-boarding and short-boarding to stand up paddle-boarding. Several local surf shops in Rye and Portsmouth offer rentals and lessons.

Non-surfers will enjoy Rye’s sandy beaches, calm swimming areas, volleyball nets and bocce ball courts.

On the south side of the park, a rocky section of coast is dotted with tide pools, while the north side has a pebble beach, sand dunes and a freshwater marsh.

No camping is available at Rye, but recreational vehicle (RV) and tent sites can be found at Hampton Beach state park to the south, as well at as several private campgrounds along the coast.

Top tip The Seacoast Science Center, in Rye, offers an educational, hands-on marine coast experience, with museum displays, touch tanks and regular family events, such as concerts and sea-to-table fundraising dinners. Open daily from March to October with limited hours in the winter.

Burton Island State Park, Vermont

Burton Island state park The sixth Great Lake at Burton Island

Sometimes called the sixth Great Lake, Lake Champlain drains most of Vermont’s Green Mountains, as well as New York’s Adirondack Mountains to the west.

Stretching south from the Canadian border and forming the Vermont-New York state border, Champlain’s deep open waters, secluded bays and numerous islands offer a variety of boating opportunities.

One of the best places to experience Champlain’s waters is Burton Island state park, near Saint Albans. No cars are allowed on the 253-acre island: it is reachable by boat, either in a canoe or the 10-minute long passenger ferry ride that runs from Kamp Kill Kare state park on the mainland.

Several kilometres of well-signed scenic trails help you visualise and understand the island’s history: it was covered by glaciers, then became a peninsula, was inhabited by Native Americans, became a farm and is now a state park.

Top tip If you want to stay overnight on Burton Island, plan ahead. The campground offers 26 lean-to shelters and 17 tent sites but reservations are recommended and can be made up to 11 months in advance. The park also rents row boats, canoes and kayaks. Keep an eye out for “Champ”, Lake Champlain’s mythical version of the Loch Ness monster.

Smugglers’ Notch State Park, Vermont

Smuggler's Notch. Photograph: Glenn Van Der Knijff/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

For centuries this narrow, cave-riddled pass through the Green Mountains in northern Vermont was used as a smugglers’ route to and from Canada.

In the early 1800s, an embargo act forbidding trade with Canada presented a severe hardship for northern Vermonters, since Montreal was closer than other markets in the US. Many local people continued illegal trade, herding cattle and transporting goods across the border.

Later, the Notch served as an important link on the Underground Railroad, providing safe passage for escaped slaves to Canada. And during prohibition, liquor was smuggled from Canada over the improved road, first built to accommodate cars in 1922.

Today, the scenic state highway 108 runs through Smugglers’ Notch. The road is closed to cars in the winter, when the area attracts snowmobilers and skiers.

During the summer, there are 20 tent sites and 14 lean-to shelters, as well as caving opportunities and hiking trails. A section of the Long Trail, which runs for 437 kilometres north-south through Vermont, passes through the park on its way north to Mount Mansfield, the highest point in the state.

Top tip Near the Stowe and Smugglers’ Notch ski resorts, Smugglers’ Notch state park also offers another form of winter recreation: ice climbing. Those willing to ski or snowshoe a few kilometres up route 108 in the winter will find spectacular ice formations, which can be ascended using ice axes and crampons. Each January, the park hosts the Smuggs Ice Bash, an ice-climbing festival.

Walden Pond State Reserve, Massachusetts

The beach area of Walden Pond. The beach area of Walden Pond. Photograph: Gail Oski/AP

The way Henry David Thoreau wrote about his two years of simple living at Walden Pond, in east-central Massachusetts, made him sound like a hermit at a remote outpost far from civilisation.

In reality, his cabin was only a short walk from the town of Concord and less than 20 miles from Boston. Today, a replica of Thoreau’s cabin sits in the state reserve – the original, occupied by Thoreau in 1865-66, is long gone.

There is a green space around the pond itself, and it is a popular canoeing, kayaking and swimming spot in summer. The pond, which is over 30 metres deep, is actually a kettle hole, a deep depression left behind when a chunk of ice was dropped by a retreating glacier around 15,000 years ago. As the chunk of ice melted, it created Walden Pond.

No streams flow in or out, rather it gains water from underground aquifers on the east side and loses water to the aquifer along the west side.

Top tip Thoreau was a great believer in taking long, slow, daily walks. Follow in his footsteps along the three-kilometre Pond Path, which runs around the kettle hole and past the cabin site, now marked by a large pile of rocks in a grove of oak trees on the north shore.

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Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

Old Harbor Life Saving Museum, Cape Cod. Old Harbor Life Saving Museum, Cape Cod. Photograph: PR

Jutting out into the Atlantic like a raised fist is Cape Cod’s narrow spit of sand, much of which is protected within the bounds of Cape Cod national seashore.

In the winter, the Cape can be downright ghostly, occupied by a handful of hardy year-round residents. In the summer, it comes alive with visitors descending on the beaches, towns and islands – but despite its popularity, moments of solitude can be found within the dunes and cranberry bogs.

During the Cape’s heyday, hundreds of ships came and went daily from Provincetown, Welfleet and other port towns. But not all vessels made their way home safely: dangerous and constantly moving shoals just offshore have claimed thousands of boats.

The stretch of coast between Chatham and Provincetown has been nicknamed the Graveyard because of the more than 3,000 shipwrecks.

This legacy is preserved at Cape Cod national seashore in 18 dune shacks, which once served as warming huts for the coastguard patrols. Some shacks are now private getaways, while others are part of an artist residency programme that provides short- and long-term housing for painters, poets and photographers.

Top tip Cape Cod’s reputation for sinking ships led to the erection of nearly two dozen lighthouses, starting in 1857. The oldest and tallest is the Highland Light, one of the few remaining working lighthouses on Cape Cod. Guided tours are available near North Truro.

Goddard Memorial State Park, Rhode Island

Goddard Memorial State Park Photograph: Joe Bar/flickr

Rhode Island is the smallest state in the union and the second most-populous per square kilometre but it still has its fair share of green spaces.

Goddard Memorial on Greenwich Cove and Greenwich Bay in Warwick, is one of RI’s most popular spots for hiking, horseback riding, picnicking, golfing, swimming and canoeing. Just south of the capital of Providence, Goddard is an urban park that preserves a sprawling estate once owned by civil war veteran Robert Goddard.

The park offers spacious lawns, fields and forests, including an arboretum that has exotic species of trees from all over the world. There is also a nine-hole golf course, equestrian competition facilities and a performing arts centre. No camping is available.

Top tip One of the best ways to experience the park is on horseback. Nearly 20 miles of bridle trails wind through it. C and L Stables in Goddard offers guided trail and beach rides, as well as pony parties, private lessons and summer riding camps.

Connecticut Valley Railroad State Park, Connecticut

Essex Steam Train & Riverboat Rail Road Locomotive. Essex Steam Train & Riverboat Rail Road Locomotive. Photograph: Alamy

Once upon a time, steam locomotive was the most efficient and stylish form of transportation in New England.

At Connecticut Valley Railroad state park, in Essex, visitors can still revel in the joy of 19th-century railroading. The Valley Railroad Company leases the linear state park from the state and offers an original railroad station from 1872, steam locomotives and vintage train cars.

The Essex Steam Train and Riverboat excursion begins with a 19-kilometre steam train ride along the scenic Connecticut river. Passengers disembark the train and board the Becky Thatcher riverboat for a float to the historic East Haddam swing bridge.

The train returns passengers to the Essex Depot about 3½ hours later. The railyard at the Essex Depot is an attraction in itself, featuring vintage and historic trains and train cars.

Top tip Enjoy a taste of train travel aboard the Essex Clipper Dinner Train, a 2½-hour ride featuring a seasonal four-course meal prepared onboard and served in a restored 1920s Pullman dining car.

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This article was written by Mary Caperton Morton from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Mary Caperton Morton

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer. She is currently traveling the backroads from New Mexico to Alaska, writing and living out of a tiny Teardrop camper. When she’s not at the keyboard she can usually be found outside - hiking, climbing mountains and taking photographs.