Blackstone River BendPhoto Credit : Chelsea Ouellet
Sponsored by Discover Central Massachusetts.
Central Massachusetts offers something for everybody in its vast public parks, reservations, and natural areas. Whether your favorite way to spend a summer day is walking in the woods, kayaking on a river, observing birds, cycling a rail trail, viewing a mountaintop panorama, going fishing, or just stopping to smell the flowers, you’ll find your happy place here.
Note: Although parks and other recreational spaces across Massachusetts have largely reopened to the public, visitors should always check in advance before making travel plans, and follow recommended public health procedures when out in public.
Some wilderness spots are surprisingly close to busy downtown Worcester. The Cascading Falls Loop, off Olean Street, offers both a brisk hike over hilly wooded terrain and a waterfall. Look for wildflowers in the spring, and vary the length of your hike with several different loop options. Some of the trails lead on to Boynton Park.
Prospect Park in Shrewsbury is on the grounds of the former Whittall estate, perched at the town’s highest point. The grand mansion is gone, but the views — over Lake Quinsigamond and as far north as Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire — are some of the finest in Central Massachusetts. Today the beautiful formal gardens are overgrown, with only the stonework hinting at their former grandeur, and more than two miles of woodland and scenic trails crisscross the 71-acre grounds. For old photos of the mansion and gardens, stop at the information kiosk.
The town of Sturbridge has preserved much of its original farmland as open space, and one old farm is now the 84-acre Heins Conservation Land. The old Stafford Turnpike, once the only road between Worcester and Hartford, cuts across the land to form a 1.2-mile walking trail through open fields and woods; two shorter trails also explore the old farmland.
To add some history to your woodland hike, follow the loop trail through the Tantiusques Reservation and find the remains of a graphite mine that was first used by the Nipmuc and later to extract graphite for manufacturing pencils. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places. Another Native American site can be reached by a hiking trail in Opacum Woods. Follow the Blue Trail around Opacum Pond and through a hemlock forest to find an ancient rock shelter near the southern loop.
Also in Sturbridge, the Grand Trunk Trail follows the former railroad bed beside the Quinebaug River. Designated as a National Recreational Trail, the route is flat and wide, providing ample room for bicyclists and walkers, with plenty of shade in the summer and benches for sitting and simply enjoying the river scenery and bird life.
Hikers looking for something a bit more strenuous will find a more challenging trail in Wells State Park, where one of its 10-plus miles of trails climbs to Carpenter Rocks, a granite outcrop with views above the treetops. The park’s Mill Pond Trail forms a one-mile loop designated a “Healthy Heart Trail,” with an easy-to-moderate activity level. More trails web this 1,470-acre park. Other climbs that pay off in sweeping views include Lookout Rock, overlooking the Blackstone River in Northbridge.
The Boston skyline is part of the view from Wachusett Mountain, the 2,006-foot landmark of Wachusett Mountain State Reservation. The park’s 3,000 acres are covered in hiking trails through environments that include forests, high meadows, fields, a bog, an outstanding example of old-growth forest, and a glacial erratic called Balance Rock. There’s a lot to discover here.
Although all these walking and hiking trails have interesting environments to observe, some have especially interesting natural attractions and opportunities for wildlife viewing. Part of the well-marked trail system in Douglas State Forest leads to a boardwalk through a rare Atlantic white cedar swamp, where gnarled, moss-covered roots form the floor and cedars form a dark ceiling above.
Purgatory Chasm in Sutton illustrates another type of natural phenomenon: the action of the glaciers as meltwater released suddenly and scoured the landscape during the last Ice Age. Granite cliffs tower 70 feet on either side of the trail, a route marked by caves and unusual rock formations.
At Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Bolton, trails lead through 171 acres of gardens and natural landscapes atop a drumlin overlooking Mount Wachusett. Collections of ornamental, edible, and native plants demonstrate ways to grow species that thrive in New England’s climate. Although the gardens are at peak bloom in the spring, there’s something to enjoy here in any season, not to mention a world of inspiration for home gardeners. Go for the gardens, the walking trails, or the view — or to learn more at one of the frequent classes.
New England’s largest urban wildlife sanctuary is in Worcester, at Mass Audubon’s Broad Meadow Brook, where five miles of trails roam through more than 400 acres of forest, fields, and marshland. Interpretive signs point out habitats for some of the 164 bird species and 700 varieties of plants found here.
Also in Worcester, The EcoTarium has a lot more to offer besides its interactive indoor exhibits. Watch the river otters in the pond and take the Vibram Walking Trail around the more secluded lower pond to observe fish, turtles, and other wildlife — sometimes including great blue herons. The Meadow Trail reveals native plants and the butterflies and birds they attract.
Not all the region’s outdoor activities are land-based, and the abundance of lakes, rivers, and ponds invite water sports of all kinds. Douglas State Forest has a swimming beach with canoeing, kayaking, and fishing at Wallum Lake. Westville Lake in Southbridge offers bass fishing, and the Quinebaug River above the dam is stocked with trout for fly-fishing; two boat launches allow canoes and kayaks access to the lake and river.
In Charlton, Buffumville Lake has a 300-foot-long beach with barrier-free fishing platforms, a dock, and put-in for launching motorboats, canoes, and kayaks. Other state parks, including Moore State Park in Paxton, have facilities for fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. From the River Bend Farm visitor center in Uxbridge there’s canoe access to the historic Blackstone River, where the Industrial Revolution began.
However you like to play in the great outdoors, you’ll find a place to do it in Central Massachusetts.