New England is home to many big-name state parks, but just as appealing are the parks with fewer crowds and a quieter appeal. Here are seven under-the-radar New England state parks where you escape to the great outdoors.
By Yankee Magazine
May 17 2021
West Quoddy Head Light | Lubec, MainePhoto Credit : Maine Office of Tourism
If you don’t want to compete for space with Baxter’s knife-edge hikers in Maine or Franconia Notch leaf-peepers in New Hampshire, there are many lesser-known New England state parks to visit, and they all come with the bonus of fewer crowds. Here are seven hidden state park gems that Massachusetts-based veteran travel writer Steve Jermanok recommends for a restful retreat.
The narrowest of New Hampshire’s famed notches, Dixville Notch is now part of a namesake state park, replete with waterfalls, flume, and hiking trails. At only 127 acres, it’s by far the smallest park on this list—but take a hike up to the ledge known as Table Rock, and you’ll quickly see why it made the cut. The two options to the top are the moderate 1.5-mile Table Rock Trail and the more strenuous 2.8-mile Three Brothers Trail; many hikers combine the routes in order to visit Huntington Falls on the way. Table Rock itself sits like a gangplank over sheer walls of rock, and for those not queasy about heights, it’s a stunning place to picnic and peer over the cliffs to Route 26 below.
At 16,500 acres, October Mountain State Forest is the largest green space in Massachusetts. One trip to these dense woods and lost ponds, and you realize why locals would like to keep this park their secret. Set in high-plateau country, with elevations ranging from 1,800 to 2,000 feet, it’s an ideal place to cool off in summer. There’s a relatively easy nine-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail that’s suited to family hikes, while Buckley Dunton Reservoir beckons to anglers. Wildlife in this part of the state is abundant: Chances are you’ll see deer, beavers, maybe even a bald eagle.
A former railroad bed is now the 36-mile West River Trail, more than two miles of which runs through this 772-acre park and is dotted with nine nature stops. Accompanied by the rushing music of the West River, you’ll meander through a forest of birch, hemlock, spruce, ash, and maple. The payoff is spectacular Hamilton Falls, which tumbles down 125 feet of granite ledges, making it one of Vermont’s highest waterfalls. Expect to find dog walkers (pups are permitted everywhere except swimming areas), horseback riders, mountain bikers, and joggers enjoying the level trail. And if it’s a warm day, you can take a dip in Salmon Hole, a classic swimming hole located by the parking lot.
In 1907, Edward and Mary Harkness moved into their 42-room Italianate mansion, Eolia, on the Connecticut shoreline. It was the crown jewel of a 230-acre property that also boasted a working farm and gardens. When Mary Harkness died in 1950, she bequeathed it all to the state, noting in her will that the grounds be used “for the purpose of promoting good health.” By all means, help fulfill Mary’s edict by strolling the paths through the gardens; in May, this is quite a treat, thanks to the profusion of perennials. The great expanse of lawn slopes down to the shore, perfect for a walk amid sand and shells. If you’ve registered for a day license and brought your gear, you can head to the rocks to lure stripers and blues. Prefer picnicking to fishing? Find a spot on the manicured grounds, enjoy a peaceful meal, and dream of the Gilded Age.
At some 14,000 acres, Arcadia Management Area is Rhode Island’s largest green space, and it’s all yours to explore. Hop onto your bike and in moments you’ll be alone on the 30-plus miles of trails in a shaded forest, riding past ambling creeks and quiet fishing holes. A prime destination is gorgeous Breakheart Pond, the largest body of water at Arcadia, which you can circumnavigate; for a longer ride, try the 13-mile perimeter trail that loops the park. But it’s not just for pedalers. Anglers, boaters, hunters, hikers, and horseback riders are welcome here too—and there’s plenty of room for them all.
Set atop soaring cliffs carved by pounding surf is Quoddy Head State Park’s best-known attraction: the 49-foot-tall candy-cane-striped West Quoddy Head Light, erected in 1858. Perched on the easternmost point of the contiguous U.S., this lighthouse is the reason most people visit Quoddy Head State Park, to snap an Insta-worthy photo and then go off on their merry way. Don’t make that mistake! Across its 532 acres, Quoddy Head offers some of the best shoreline trails in the state. A favorite is the Coastal Trail, a four-mile round trip that leads through forest while still providing amazing ocean views. The crisp scent of pines mingles with sea mist as you hike to such attractions as Gulliver’s Hole, High Ledge, and Green Point, which offers paths down to a beach. Across the Quoddy Narrows, you can gaze at the rugged shoreline of New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island. Watch for fishermen returning from their mornings at sea, seals sunning on the rocks, and bald eagles overhead.
After exploring Quoddy Head, hop in the car for the second half of this “two-fer” recommendation. Thirty minutes away lies Cobscook Bay State Park, which has a few short hikes of its own but is best known as an oceanside camping haven. Plus, given that the average tidal change here is 24 feet, clamming is a popular pastime in season: Dig one peck per person, then sit around the campfire for a good old-fashioned clambake.
A longer version of this list originally appeared in the May/June 2021 Yankee feature “Under-the-Radar New England State Parks.”