Best state parks in Massachusetts

More than 150 sites make up Massachusetts’ superlative network of state parks, encompassing a diverse array of landscapes and historic sites.

With so many outstanding choices it’s impossible to choose a definitive list of the best state parks in Massachusetts, but here are several you really shouldn’t miss.

Do I have to pay to enter Massachusetts state parks?

All state parks are free to enter, though many popular sites charge daily parking fees, some year-round and others seasonally.

These fees are significantly higher for out-of-state visitors than for Massachusetts residents, with residency determined exclusively by the vehicle’s license plate. Massachusetts residents can purchase an annual park pass online. It’s valid for one calendar year; Both a Massachusetts driver’s license and a Massachusetts license plate are required.

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Get a view of the lighthouses at Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park © David L. Ryan / Boston Globe via Getty Images

Boston Harbor Islands National & State Park

Best state park for history

Thirty-four islands and peninsulas in and around Boston Harbor comprise this park, a blend of urban and wild nature managed in partnership by various agencies. Narrated harbor cruises are an excellent way to see the scenery, and lighthouses including Boston Harbor Light, the oldest continuously operating light station in the United States.

Passenger ferries run to islands where you can swim, hike, view wildlife and explore historic forts. On the mainland, Deer Island in Winthrop provides fine views, as do several parks on the South Shore. There’s a visitor center on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston.

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Middlesex Fells Reservation

Best state park for suburban hiking

Just six miles north of Boston, Middlesex Fells spreads across 2,575 acres of rocky, hilly land covered in pine and mixed hardwood forest. The more than 100 miles of trails include the popular Skyline Trail, a rugged route that ascends several steep outcrops, rewarding the effort with panoramic views of the Boston skyline.

Other trails of varying difficulty, many of them also suitable for mountain bikers, traverse woodlands and wetlands past numerous ponds including several large reservoirs. In the eastern Fells, Spot Pond Reservoir has kayaks, canoes and rowboats for rent.

Autumn Trees at Walden Pond
Explore the landscape that inspired Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond © Mick Roessler / Getty Images

Walden Pond State Reservation

Best state park for literary inspiration

Henry David Thoreau famously spent more than two years living in a cabin in the woods at Walden Pond in Concord, an experience recorded in his 1854 classic Walden. At Walden Pond State Reservation, you can explore the landscape that inspired Thoreau, visit an exact replica of his cabin and see the footprint of the vanished original.

Walden Pond itself is a deep kettle pond formed by glaciers over 12,000 years ago. A scenic path circles the pond and takes about an hour to hike. In summer, the beach at the east end is a popular swimming spot.

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Blue Hills Reservation

Best state park for multisport activities

This sprawling park encompasses more than 7,000 acres in five different towns, about 10 miles south of downtown Boston. Roughly 125 miles of multi-use trails ascend the park’s hills, skirt the edges of ponds and meander through forests, meadows and wetlands.

There are panoramic views including the Boston skyline from the rocky summit of Great Blue Hill, topped by a stone observation tower and a weather observatory and science center.

Swimming is allowed at Houghton’s Pond, which has seasonal facilities and lifeguards. In winter, there’s cross-country skiing on park trails (snowfall permitting) and downhill skiing at the Blue Hills Ski Area.

A WW2 submarine lookout tower and an old granite quarry above a body of water at Halibut Point State Park in Massachusetts.
Halibut Point State Park is a top birdwatching destination © Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

Halibut Point State Park

Best state park for birdwatching

At the northern tip of Cape Ann, Halibut Point State Park is the site of a granite quarry that closed in 1929, leaving behind a 60-ft deep pit that quickly filled with water from underground springs. Trails lead around the quarry through oak-conifer forest to scenic viewpoints on the rocky headland and down to the tidepools below.

The state park, together with the adjacent Halibut Point Reservation, is a top birdwatching destination, especially in fall and winter, when many seabirds feed in the productive waters just offshore. A fire-control tower from World War II houses a visitors center with exhibits about the park’s natural and cultural history.

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Moore State Park

Best state park for spring flowers

Moore State Park in Paxton, northwest of Worcester, contains the remains of a thriving village with grist and sawmills that once harnessed the power of Turkey Hill Brook. A reproduction of the first sawmill now stands on the foundation of the original built in 1747.

The park is particularly lovely in spring when its many rhododendrons and azaleas bloom. In the autumn, the colorful foliage provides a scenic backdrop for the mill buildings, pretty waterfalls and the covered bridge across the dam that regulates Eames Pond at the heart of the park

Purgatory Chasm State Reservation

Best state park for intriguing geology

Dramatic geology is the attraction at this small state park in Sutton, southeast of Worcester. Its centerpiece, Purgatory Chasm, is a quarter-mile-long glacially carved rock cleft with walls up to 70ft-high and large boulders scattered helter-skelter across the ground.

Squeeze through the deep, narrow gap called Fat Man’s Misery and hike to other rock formations with names like Devil’s Pulpit, Lover’s Leap, Devil’s Coffin and Devil’s Corn Crib. Sturdy footwear is essential.

Bish Bash Falls is a popular summer swimming hole in the Berkshires, and the tallest waterfalls in Massachusetts
Head to Massachusetts’s highest waterfall at Bish Bash Falls State Park © lightphoto / Getty Images

Bash Bish Falls State Park

Best state park for waterfall views

In Massachusetts’ southwest corner, the state’s highest waterfall tumbles 80ft into a clear pool in a deep, forested gorge. Seeing it is the main reason to visit Bash Falls State Park. From the parking lot on Falls Road in Mount Washington, it’s a short but steep hike – 0.6 miles round trip – that can get slippery.

For an easier option, drive across the border into New York to Taconic State Park. From here the hike is longer – about 1.5 miles round trip – but the descent is more gradual, though still somewhat rocky and uneven.

Natural Bridge State Park

Best state park for natural wonders

In tiny Natural Bridge State Park in North Adams, Hudson Brook flows beneath the only natural white marble arch in North America, a 30ft-long, 15ft-thick formation carved over 13,000 years ago by rushing meltwater from receding glaciers.

Along the sides of the deep, steep-sided gorge are glacial potholes, further evidence of ancient geological forces. Open seasonally, the park also contains remnants of a marble quarry that operated here from 1810 to 1937. Left behind was a white marble dam – also unique in North America – with a picturesque waterfall.

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Mount Graylock State Reservation

Best state park for lofty views

Massachusetts’ highest point, 3,491ft Mount Greylock, dominates its namesake park in the state’s northwestern corner. Year-round trails range from easy walks through forests and former farmlands to more challenging hikes to the summit, with views reaching as far as 90 miles.

Climb the lighthouse-like Massachusetts Veterans War Memorial Tower for even more panoramic vistas. The auto road to the summit is open from mid-May through October; be prepared for traffic if you’re driving up on an October weekend, since the Berkshires are a popular fall foliage destination.

Cape Cod Trail with sign and cyclist
Take your pick of hiking and cycling trails in Nickerson State Park © Antony Souter / Alamy Stock Photo

Nickerson State Park

Best state park for families

For many people Cape Cod means sandy beaches, tidal salt marshes and picturesque lighthouses. Nickerson State Park in Brewster presents a different side of the Cape, with 1,900 acres of pine and oak forests and eight freshwater kettle ponds, several of them stocked with year-round trout.

Hiking trails meander through the woods and loop around Cliff Pond and Flax Pond, which have swimming beaches as well as canoe, kayak and paddleboard rentals. A paved bike path connects to the 25-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail. The park also has more than 400 campsites including six furnished yurts.

Mount Holyoke Range & Skinner State Parks

Best state park for hikes and spotting hawks

In the Connecticut River Valley south of Amherst, Mount Holyoke Range State Park and Skinner State Park together protect a series of forested peaks running east-west and reaching heights of up to 1,106ft. The many outstanding hiking options include the Seven Sisters Trail, a rugged eight-mile ridgeline hike that’s part of the 215-mile New England National Scenic Trail.

In fall, migrating hawks – sometimes numbering in the hundreds – are commonly seen swaring on updrafts where surface winds hit the mountainsides. The Summit House, a former hotel atop Mount Holyoke, is one excellent viewing spot.

Quabbin Reservoir

Best state park for wildlife

Covering 39 sq miles, Quabbin Reservoir provides drinking water for 40 percent of Massachusetts and attracts abundant wildlife including white-tailed deer, bobcat, coyote, fox, wild turkeys, hawks and bald eagles. At the southern end, Quabbin Park has scenic views, a visitor center, hiking trails and an observation tower.

When Quabbin was created in the 1930s, four towns were emptied, displacing 2,500 people. A cemetery at Quabbin Park holds thousands of bodies moved from graves in the flood zone. To see the eerie remains of one of the towns, make the four-mile round trip hike from Gate 40 east of Quabbin to Dana Common.

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