The Charles River meanders 80 miles through 23 Massachusetts cities and towns, taking its time to reach the Atlantic Ocean. But make no mistake: this is not a lazy river.
The Mighty Charles is the most famous urban river in New England. That’s why we’ve rounded up 15 destinations for you to enjoy everything this stunning waterway has to offer. Whether you enjoy hiking, kayaking, sailing or just exploring, you will never run out of opportunities to love these dirty waters.
1. Longtime locals remember the “lost” half mile between the Museum of Science and the Charlestown Bridge. The unused space has been cleared and is now used as North Point Park, an 8-acre green space with a wide pedestrian walkway, bike path, large playground, water feature, and an open field for exercise or picnicking. It also includes a flat waterway on the Charles that you can explore by kayak, and is adjacent to the Lynch Family Skatepark, where skateboarders, BMXers, and skaters get into action. Stay tuned for the swim park work in progress.
2. Charles River Canoe & Kayak used the Charles with Paddle Boston, the kayak rental program with five locations on the river – two in Newton plus locations in Waltham, Boston and Cambridge. Kendall Square has the best view of the city if you pass upstream under the Longfellow Bridge, but Allston Dock is surprisingly green to be in the city. They also offer a shuttle ride from their Newton location, with a drop-off for a 10 or 10-mile disposable paddle back to Nahanton Park.
3. For a picnic with lots to see, head to Allston’s Herter Park, with a variety of spots to bring a blanket, sit in the shade under an old tree and take in all that’s going on both on the river and in the park itself goes. With a community garden, playground, fountain, large open lawn that attracts volleyball and badminton players, and canoe and kayak rentals on the Charles River, there’s plenty to do. When nothing to do is something to do, grab a pint at Night Shift Brewing’s outdoor beer garden Thursday through Sunday and unwind at one of the many live performances, films, plays and other events along the Charles.
4. Between the BU Bridge and Pleasant Street, Magazine Beach Park is Cambridge’s second largest park at 15 hectares. Aside from the nearby history (an 1818 granite powder magazine, the oldest building on the Charles River Basin; and the Riverside Boat Club’s 1912 boathouse, the last remaining workers’ club on the river), there’s a free Olympics at the Outdoor -size swimming pool complete with a newly restored bath house. Relax under a tall tree and enjoy the river breeze, or challenge yourself with the new Math Trail across the footbridge (opening July 24), a colorful graphic and digital experience for kids and adults alike.
5. Follow the dr. Paul Dudley White Charles River Bike Trail from the Museum of Science to the Galen Street Bridge in Watertown for a scenic 17-mile loop along both banks of the Charles River. The bike and pedestrian path is named after a renowned cardiologist known for his advocacy for preventing heart disease through exercise, diet and weight management. To shorten your drive or walk, turn at one of the many bridges – cross the Mass. Ave. Bridge for a four-mile loop; turn at the River St. Bridge for a seven-mile loop; or go all out with a 10-mile loop over the red brick arches of the Eliot Bridge.
6. Arguably the most famous area along the Charles is its Esplanade. This grassy stretch of green is on the Boston side (wave to Cambridge across the water) and is accessible via footbridges. It’s always full of people who want to combine city and nature. Whether enjoying a picnic, jogging through the park, taking a sailing class, or letting the kids climb the Playspace, the recreation area is popular for good reason. Its crown jewel is, of course, the DCR Hatch Memorial Shell, an iconic venue that hosts concerts and films.
7. With the little ones in tow, visit Hemlock Gorge, a small wild area in Newton Upper Falls that is home to the Echo Bridge, a scenic arch that connects the two banks of the Charles. Check out the platform under the bridge and test the sound bouncer, which is said to return up to 15 reverberations of the human voice. But don’t scare away the fish. Children love to insert a snake at several points above the dam.
8th. The Charles River supports one of the largest blueback herring runs in the Commonwealth. Watch the migratory fish, including river herring and allice shad, that spawn in the river below Watertown Dam each spring. The second of many dams along the river, it supports the waterway in its role as a donor to population restoration efforts in the Neponset and Ipswich Rivers.
9. Gardening can be hell. Because of this, ongoing comprehensive cleanup of invasive species along Hell’s Half Acre’s “urban wilderness” was required to maintain it as a great place for hiking, bird watching, and enjoying the great outdoors. The 7 1/2 acres along the Cambridge bank of the river’s multipurpose trail are well frequented by walkers, joggers and cyclists. Wondering what “invasive species” means? Check out this guide to plants (both desirable and undesirable) growing along the Charles.
10 The 600-acre Cutler Park Reservation in Needham and Dedham is part of the Natural Valley Storage Area and protects the largest freshwater marsh on the middle Charles River. Hike boardwalks out into the wetlands and islands for bird watching. There are also drumlins (long hills carved by glaciers), eskers (river beds formed in a glacier) and Kendrick Pond.
11. Located in Wellesley just over the Natick border, Elm Bank Reservation has it all: meandering hiking trails that follow the curve of the Charles River, beautiful fields and even sprawling gardens owned by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. It’s a great place for hiking, bird watching and dog walking. Check out the giant European beech tree at the top of the hill if you’re feeling adventurous.
12. The trails that wind through Sherborn’s Rocky Narrows (also known as the ‘Gates of the Charles’) offer beautiful views as the river moves slowly between ancient rock faces and steep forested slopes. The overall reservation is superbly preserved and the passage really makes you feel more in touch with nature. While there is a moderate climb to the lookouts, the site also contains easier trails with ground-level views of Mount Charles, making it great for all types of hikers.
13. Mass Audubon’s Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick has 9 miles of trails along the Charles through marshes, woodland and meadows that are stunning in any season. There is always an abundance of wildlife (more than 175 bird species have been spotted), and the beautiful marsh boardwalk is a must. There are also many bridges, benches and trails along the Indian Brook and the Charles.
14 If you’ve seen a new island in the middle of the Charles in Cambridge, downriver from Longfellow Bridge, it’s no mirage. The floating wetland will be there for two years while a Northeast research group collects data to understand how adding additional habitat affects the local food chain. View the undulating habitat from afar, whether on land or by kayak.
fifteen. The Watertown Riverfront Park and the Braille Trail is set in miles of parkland on the Charles, just steps from the Perkins School for the Blind. In addition to hiking and biking trails, river views, open spaces, and athletic fields, the park features a unique accessible quarter-mile loop known as the “Braille Trail.” Visually impaired and blind people can experience nature independently, guide wires guide visitors along the path, while a “sensory garden” features fragrant native plants, trees with interesting bark texture, and tactile and auditory elements such as boat-shaped benches. a musical marimba bank and a poetry engraving in Braille.
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