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The Charles River meanders 80 miles through 23 Massachusetts towns and cities, taking its sweet time to reach the Atlantic Ocean. But make no mistake: This is no lazy river.
“The Mighty Charles” is the most prominent urban river in New England. That’s why we’ve gathered 15 destinations for you to enjoy all this impressive waterway has to offer. Whether you like to hike, kayak, sail, or just explore, you won’t run out of ways to love that dirty water.
1. Long-time locals remember that “lost” half-mile between the Museum of Science and the Charlestown Bridge. The unused space has been cleared and is now enjoyed as North Point Park, eight acres of green with a broad pedestrian path, bikeway, large playground, water feature, and an open field for sports or picnicking. It also incorporates a shallow waterway on the Charles for exploring via kayak, and is next to the Lynch Family Skatepark where skateboarders, BMX riders, and skaters roll into action. Stay tuned for the swim park in the works.
2. Charles River Canoe & Kayak put the Charles to great use 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 city views when you head upstream under the Longfellow Bridge, but the Allston dock is surprisingly green for being in the city. They also offer a shuttled trip from their Newton location, with a drop off for a six- or 10-mile one-way paddle back to Nahanton Park.
3. For a picnic with lots to watch, check out Allston’s Herter Park, with a variety of spaces to bring a blanket, sit under an old tree in the shade, and watch all that’s going on both on the river and in the park itself. With a community garden, playground, spray fountain, a large open lawn that draws volleyball and badminton players, and Charles River Canoe & Kayak rentals, there’s plenty to do. If doing nothing is something, grab a beer at the Night Shift Brewing outdoor beer garden Thursday through Sunday and relax at one of the many live performances, movies, plays and other events along the Charles.
4. Between the B.U. Bridge and Pleasant Street, Magazine Beach Park is Cambridge’s second-largest park, clocking in at 15 acres. Aside from the nearby history (an 1818 granite Powder Magazine, the oldest building on the Charles River Basin; and the 1912 boathouse of the Riverside Boat Club, the last remaining working mans’ club on the river), there’s a free, outdoor, Olympic-sized swimming pool complete with a newly restored bathhouse. Relax under a big tree and enjoy the river breeze, or challenge yourself with the new Math Trail across the pedestrian bridge (opening July 24), a colorful graphic and digital experience for children and adults alike.
5. Follow the Dr. Paul Dudley White Charles River Bike Path from the Museum of Science to the Galen Street Bridge in Watertown for a scenic 17-mile loop along both shores of the Charles River. The bike and pedestrian pathway was named after a renowned cardiologist known for his advocacy of preventing heart disease through exercise, diet, and weight control. Turn along one of the many bridges to shorten your ride or walk – go over 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. Probably the most well-known area along the Charles is its Esplanade. Located on the Boston side (wave to Cambridge across the water) and accessed by footbridges, this grassy green stretch is always packed with folks looking to blend city and nature. Whether you enjoy a picnic, jog the park’s length, take a sailing class, or let the kids climb the Playspace, the recreation area is beloved for a reason. Of course its crown jewel is the DCR Hatch Memorial Shell, an iconic site that hosts concerts and movies.
7. With little ones in tow, check out Hemlock Gorge, a small wild area in Newton Upper Falls that’s 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 ricochet, which is said to return up to 15 reverberations of the human voice. But don’t scare away the fish. Kids love to drop in a line in at several spots above the dam.
8. The Charles River supports one of the largest blueback herring runs in the Commonwealth. Watch the migratory fish, including river herring and shad, spawning in the river every spring below the Watertown Dam. As the second of numerous dams located along the length of the river, it helps the waterway in its role as a donor for population restoration efforts in the Neponset and Ipswich Rivers.
9. Yard work can be hell. Which is why the ongoing extensive cleanup of invasive species along the “urban wild” of Hell’s Half Acre was needed to preserve it as a great place to walk, bird watch, and enjoy nature. The 7 1/2 acres along the Cambridge shore of the river’s multi-use path is well-trafficked by walkers, joggers, and bikers. Wondering what “invasive species” mean? Check out this guide to plants (both wanted and unwanted) that grow 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 out into the wetlands and islands on boardwalks for a great spot to birdwatch. It also features drumlins (long hills formed by glaciers), eskers (riverbeds formed inside a glacier), and Kendrick Pond.
11. Located in Wellesley just over the Natick border, Elm Bank Reservation has everything: meandering hiking trails that follow the curve of the Charles River, beautiful fields, and even expansive Massachusetts Horticultural Society gardens. It’s a great place to wander, birdwatch, and walk dogs. Check out the giant European Beech Tree at the top of the hill if you’re feeling adventurous.
12. The trails that wind through the Rocky Narrows (aka the “Gates of the Charles”) in Sherborn provide beautiful views as the river slowly moves between ancient cliff walls and steeply wooded hillsides. The overall reservation is preserved superbly, and the walk-through really makes you feel more in touch with nature. While there’s a moderately difficult climb up towards the vistas, the site also contains easier trails with ground-level views of the Charles, making it great for all types of hikers.
13. Mass Audubon’s Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick has nine miles of trails by the Charles through marshes, forests, and grasslands that are stunning in all seasons. There is always an abundance of wildlife (more than 175 species of bird have been spotted), and their beautiful marsh boardwalk is a must-see. There are also plenty of bridges, benches, and trails along both the Indian Brook and the Charles.
14. If you’ve seen a new island in the middle of the Charles in Cambridge downriver of the Longfellow Bridge, it’s not a mirage. The floating wetland will be there for two years as a Northeastern research group collects data to understand how adding additional habitats affects the local food chain. View the bobbling habitat from a distance, whether on shore or by kayak.
15. The Watertown Riverfront Park and Braille Trail is located on a mile-long stretch of parkland along the Charles, just steps away from the Perkins School for the Blind. In addition to walking and biking paths, river outlooks, open space, and athletic courts, the park features a unique accessible quarter-mile loop known as the “Braille Trail.” Allowing low-sighted and blind individuals to experience nature independently, guiding wires direct visitors along the path, while a “sensory garden” boasts fragrant native plants, trees with interesting bark texture, and tactile and sonic elements, such as boat-shaped benches, a musical marimba bench, and an engraving of poetry in braille.
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