BY many measures, the view from the arched doorway of the cobblestone home on Bumpkin Island, off the Massachusetts coast, has most likely not changed much since the 19th century, when hay farmers lived there.
Now, as then, the sun dazzles off wind-streaked waves beyond a pebbly shore fringed with staghorn sumac and bayberry.
Yet in other ways, the landscape is startlingly altered, thanks to Boston’s skyline, whose clustered, gleaming high-rises jut from a flat horizon like Oz’s Emerald City.
The chance to see this striking juxtaposition is just one reason to explore Bumpkin or any of the other 33 islands and peninsulas that make up the 12-year-old Boston Harbor Islands National Park.
The islands — which range from windswept rock piles to sprawling masses of meadows and woods — can be savored as a tactile guidebook of the region’s history.
Garbage dumps, orphanages, poorhouses and prisons have given way to campgrounds, hiking trails, beaches and museums, though traces of the old uses are never that far away.
The military, too, had a huge presence there, even if actual combat never really took place as expected. The long wall by Bumpkin’s farmhouse, for example, is all that remains of a World War I mess hall that once fed 1,800.
But the best part of visiting the islands — by ferry, kayak, canoe or yacht — may be the ability to step onto rugged terrain within, or just outside of, city limits.
“You see the world, but you’re not part of it,” said Gary Conley, a Weymouth resident, who with two friends aboard had piloted his motorboat to Bumpkin. “You can travel 15 minutes and be completely away from the world.”
On pristine Grape Island, for example, where I first stopped in my kayak, civilization consisted of a wooden platform for tents and a few benches. A green canopy of aspens and birches sheltered wide, grassy paths.
Grape, like other islands, is a drumlin, a knob formed by glaciers that plowed clay against bedrock. (Beacon and Bunker Hills in Boston are more famous versions.)
Unlike many other drumlins nationwide, though, these are separated by water. On the drumlin known as Peddocks Island, visitors are greeted at the harbor by what remains of Fort Andrews, which was begun on the eve of the Spanish-American War and which today must be one of the eerier ghost towns on this side of the Rocky Mountains.
A rusted children’s bike lies at the pier’s base. Beyond loom red-brick Georgian-style buildings, with porches and Palladian windows — a collection worthy of a New England liberal arts college campus — though many are crumbling.
But the ruins are officially off-limits, from fear they might collapse, so visitors should head left, past a spectral church with peeling clapboard walls, down the paved path.
At the rusted chain-link fence dangling with candy-colored lobster pots lies a crescent-shaped beach, an excellent spot to enjoy lunch.
Many of the two dozen summer homes in the distance were built by a group of Portuguese fishermen in the early 20th century after they were kicked off nearby Long Island so Boston could build a home for unwed mothers.
Government attempts to move them from there over the years have been less successful, however, and some applaud the failure. “They’re the last remaining connection to the people who had homes out here,” said Christopher Klein, author of “Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands” (Union Park Press), published this summer. “You would lose a bit of living history.”
ROUGHER seas in the park’s northern section mean it’s better explored by ferry; a day earlier, I took one to Spectacle Island, which probably embodies the Boston waterfront’s transformation most dramatically.
Until this decade, the island, whose shape roughly resembles a pair of glasses, accepted the dirt from the Big Dig, Boston’s delay-plagued highway-tunnel project. In fact, that soil nearly doubled the size of the island, mostly upward, said Bruce Jacobson, the park’s superintendent.
Consequently, the 86-acre spot offers the park’s highest point, at 157 feet, atop North Drumlin, which can be reached along looping cinder paths.
The panorama that unfolds at the summit takes in sailboats, reduced to tiny white triangles, tacking from side to side; planes land at Logan International Airport, which in the 1940s filled the channels between Governor’s, Bird and Apple Islands to create longer runways.
Beyond, with the huge silver tanks of Boston’s water treatment plant, is Deer Island, which is also now tethered to the town of Winthrop. In the winter of 1675, during King Philip’s War, hundreds of American Indians starved to death there, after being relocated by colonists.
What aren’t visible are traces of Spectacle’s late-1800s glue factories, which every year at their peak rendered 2,000 horse carcasses, according to an informative display in the island’s visitors center.
In fact, “its busy colony of manipulators of defunct animals, its myriad of spiders, and its unhallowed perfumes” made Spectacle a place to avoid, according to the King’s Handbook of Boston Harbor, a florid 1882 travelogue by M.F. Sweetser that rangers quote to this day.
Later, Spectacle became Boston’s dump, and a 90-foot-thick layer of garbage, now deep in the ground, is there to prove it. Remnants regularly turn up on the beach, where shards of blue, green, brown and white glass, buffed by salt waves, are scattered like sprinkles on ice cream.
But most people come to use the marina, which can fit 30 boats; others groove to weekly jazz concerts set up by the park service. Birders, too, have arrived in recent years, as the cleaned-up island has become a stop along the north-south flyway. And as unlikely as it may have once seemed when the harbor was a polluted mess, swimmers are taking plunges.
“I was worried that the other islands with richer histories and more natural features would draw people away from Spectacle,” said Steve Marcus, chairman of the Volunteers and Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands, a not-for-profit organization that since 1979 has pushed for greater public access. “But now I think it’s the other way around.”
Perhaps the best known of the lot is Georges Island, whose 39 acres see 50,000 annual visitors, Mr. Jacobson said.
Fort Warren, Georges’ five-pointed centerpiece, was built in the mid-1800s to defend against an expected British invasion, although it saw more action as an East Coast Alcatraz for Civil War criminals like Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the Confederacy’s vice president.
In fact, Stephens was still behind bars when General Ulysses S. Grant did a victory lap through Boston in the summer of 1865, according to “Fort Warren” by Jay Schmidt (UBT Press).
Today, breezes whistle through gun slits under barrel-vaulted ceilings in dim rooms that have a just-abandoned feel, and some floors are covered with dirt.
But the architectural features are notable, like the spiral staircase’s neatly fitted granite slabs in the demilune by the fort’s entrance. And the earth-topped walls around the dandelion-dotted parade ground successfully blot out evidence of the modern world, turning that glittering glass-and-steel mainland, just a few propeller turns away, into a memory.
Eight of the 34 Boston Harbor islands and peninsulas are accessible by ferry, four can be reached on foot, and all but Gallops and Rainsford can be visited by boat.
In Boston, catch a ferry from Long Wharf to visit Spectacle and Georges. In summer, ferries leave every hour, and adult tickets are $15 (617-222-6999; www.bostonislands.org; click on the ferry schedule link). From Georges, the interisland shuttle runs to Grape, Bumpkin, Peddocks and Lovell; tickets are $3.
Kayaks are the more adventurous option. For $95, a 15-foot kayak, with paddle, life jacket and protective skirt, can be rented from REI in Hingham, Mass., from Friday to Sunday night (98 Derby Street; 781-740-9430; www.rei.com/stores/82).
Launch at the Weymouth Back River in Stodder’s Neck Park in Hingham (457 Lincoln Street; 617-727-5293; www.mass.gov/dcr.htm, and search for Stodder). Carry the kayak 25 yards past the gate into the dog park, then bear left to the short path that angles to the shoreline. But you should go at high tide because the low-tide mud can be hard to walk through.