Open Space and Recreational Lands

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The Ipswich River Watershed hosts, and boasts, an excellent network of protected and natural areas. This land allows much of the watershed to retain a rural character, despite being so close to many urban areas.

Thousands of acres of municipal, state and private conservation land offer miles of trails open for you to enjoy, by foot, on skis or bikes. The Ipswich River offers wonderful flat-water canoeing or kayaking, and excellent sea-kayaking explorations of the coastal waters. The watershed’s forests, fields, vast wetlands, the estuary and coastal beaches offer some of Massachusetts’ premier birding and wildlife observation areas.

This section highlights the most outstanding areas open to recreational use in the Ipswich River Watershed. The section is organized loosely in upper, middle and lower watershed areas – meaning by elevation, so that “upper” is the westernmost portion, “lower” the eastern end. (Water flows from upper to lower…)

The guide includes a key to outdoor “muscle-powered” activities which are permitted, and prohibited, on the properties. Please observe these restrictions, which allow us to share these lands with all the other people who use them, and with wildlife, for which these lands are home. Protected land is the key to recreational opportunities in the watershed. Hats off to all those who work to conserve this beautiful landscape and its habitats, and develop and maintain trails and recreational facilities!

  • Upper Watershed (Andover, North Andover, Reading, North Reading, Wilmington, Burlington)
  • Mid Watershed (Boxford, Topsfield, Middleton, Danvers, Peabody, Lynnfield)
  • Lower Watershed (Beverly, Wenham, Hamilton, Ipswich)

Upper Watershed

1. Harold Parker State Forest
1951 Turnpike Road, N. Andover, MA
Harold Parker State Forest is a recreational paradise. The State Forest, created in 1916, includes over 3000 acres in many tracts of protected land interspersed with some private holdings and residential areas. The park is located primarily in Andover and North Andover, and extends into Middleton and North Reading.

Harold Parker SF is a land of pine knolls surrounding glistening ponds, oak forests, red maple swamps bordering streams, forests, blueberry patches and other natural treasures. You’ll also see glacial erratics, which are huge boulders deposited by glaciers. Tableaux of American history took place here as well, from gristmills and sawmills powering early industry, to a soapstone quarry, to hiding places provided by abolitionists for runaway slaves.

The State Forest offers year-round beauty, activity and adventure. The large network of 25 miles of trails and paved and unpaved roads includes a portion of the Bay Circuit Trail, the major long distance trail network in eastern Massachusetts. The SF offers a great choice of recreational activities, including trails for hiking, running, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, orienteering, on- and off-road biking and horseback riding, as well as swimming, canoeing, fishing, birding, nature study and picnicking. There is a wonderful public campground and beach at Frye Pond, and a stable offering trail rides just south of the park.

The State Forest abounds in wildlife, including more than 100 bird species over the course of a year. Mammals (even including moose!) have been seen in the vicinity, and there are also many amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates.

One drawback at HPSF is the poor signage for trailheads and trail crossings. Signs are pretty much non-existent, so come with a good map, a compass, and your senses of direction and humor! (This is the perfect place to try orienteering!)

Most of the SF east of Jenkins Road is an active wildlife management area stocked with game, and open to hunting. Be aware of hunting seasons, check in at the HQ and wear blaze orange when appropriate.

Some highlights:

  • Small supervised swimming beach at Berry Pond; handicapped-accessible; gazebo and picnic areas; facilities; fee for parking.
  • Many ponds and streams within forested terrain
  • 25 miles of trails, unpaved and paved roads
  • Part of Bay Circuit Trail
  • Glacial erratics, blueberry patches and other natural features of special interest to kids

2. Ward Reservation
Prospect Road, Andover and North Andover
Much of Ward Reservation originally belonged to Nicholas Holt, one of the signers of the Andover articles of incorporation in 1646. In 1775, townspeople in Andover watched the smoke and cannon explosions of the Battle of Bunker Hill and the burning of Charleston from Holt Hill, the highest point in the Ipswich River Watershed (and Essex County, for that matter; 420 feet).

Today, Holt Hill, which features the interesting “solstice stones” near the summit, is at the center of the 694-acre Charles Ward Reservation of the Trustees of Reservations. The large stones mark the cardinal points, and the smaller ones note the direction of sunrise and sunset on the solstices. You can still see Boston and a great panorama of eastern Massachusetts on a clear day.

The reservation includes 9.5 miles of trails, connecting Holt Hill to Shrub Hill and Boston Hill, (the site of a downhill ski area until the early 1990’s). There are outstanding views from the high hills, and the Bay Circuit Trail traverses Holt Hill.

The Ward Reservation also includes a very pleasant low-land 3-mile loop on the Orange Trail, which is suitable for cross-country skiing as well as hiking. This trail circles Holt and Shrub Hills and Cat Swamp, and follows an old woods road track west of Boston Hill.

The Ward Reservation includes an ecological rarity for this area — Pine Hole Bog. Bogs are highly acidic wetlands characterized by mats of floating sphagnum moss and shrubs. As the mats grow, they thicken and also close in toward the center of the pond. Bogs are home to many rare plants including wild calla, horsetails, pitcher plants, and sundews. Pitcher plants and sundews are both insectivores. Insects are attracted to the bright veins of the pitcher plant, and downward-growing hairs and sticky surfaces inside the pitcher trap the insects. The insects die by drowning in the water that accumulates in the “pitcher”; the plant’s glands then secrete digestive enzymes. Sundews snare prey by sticky tentacles. These tentacles then grow very quickly around the insects to increase surface contact and aid digestion. Black spruce and eastern larch also grow in the Pine Hole bog. The quaking bog is accessible via a self-guided walk, including a 700 ft boardwalk across the bog.

Wildlife on the property include coyote, fox, raccoon, red tail hawk, wild turkey, blue bird and many other species. You can see white, red and pitch pine, as well as oaks, maples, ash and hemlock. Pyrola, hepatica, starflower, lady’s slippers, violets and ferns grow on the forest floor.

Recreational activities include hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, orienteering, picnicking, nature study and birding.

Some highlights:

  • Holt Hill with solstice stones
  • Trails to Boston Hill, including great vistas
  • Pine Hole Bog
  • Bay Circuit Trail

3. Ipswich River Park
Central Street, North Reading
Ipswich River Park is one of the newest additions to the recreational resources of the Ipswich River Watershed. The park was created in 1997, thanks to the efforts of a coalition of people in North Reading and nearby communities to reclaim and protect land which had been degraded for many years. In 1995, with help from the Ipswich River Watershed Association, REI and others, volunteers cleaned tons of debris from this area.

You’d never know it now – the park is a lovely spot along the southern bank of the Ipswich River, with amenities such as a gazebo, short trails, picnic tables and sports fields. It’s a great spot to put in a canoe, picnic, or walk along the river. There are pools within the river along the north edge of the park where one might stick your feet in, though swimming it not sanctioned nor supervised. There is good fishing along this river reach, as well as in the riffle area just upstream and the reach downstream as well. Just north of the park is town conservation land, adding to the beauty of the setting.

4. Boxford State Forest
Middleton Rd, Boxford/Sharpners Pond Road, N.Andover

Boxford State Forest adjoins the Bald Hill Reservation, John Phillips Wildlife Sanctuary, and land protected by Essex County Greenbelt Association, to make up over 1600 acres of beautiful, rugged countryside. These properties, part of the Fish Brook and Boston Brook subwatersheds, are a key part of the Bay Circuit Trail. You could literally walk, ski, snowshoe or ride for miles between Boxford, Middleton and North Andover without crossing pavement.

Boxford SF does not have recreational facilities such as are offered at Harold Parker SF, and is wilder in character. However, the trails are much better marked, with a numbering system for all the trail crossings (not strictly sequential, however, so you need a map). It’s a great benefit to know where you are! This also helps you stay on trails designated for the activity you are engaged in.

Bald Hill is an important birding area, and the State Forest complex provides diverse habitats supporting many creatures. There are hardwood/ mixed forests, hemlock ravines, shrub and forested swamps, ponds and streams, and historic farmland reverting to forest. Wildlife include beaver (you’ll see obvious signs near Crooked Pond), weasel, skunk, fisher, mink, otter, raccoon, red fox, cottontail rabbit, wild turkey, barred owl, northern goshawk, pine warbler, Louisiana waterthrush, red shouldered hawk, wood duck, solitary vireo, winter wren, eastern phoebe and pileated woodpecker.

Permitted activities include hiking, running, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, orienteering, horseback riding and mountain biking (designated trails only), fishing, and of course nature study and birding.

Directions: Rte 95 to Exit 51, Endicott Street. Go west toward Middleton and take the first right onto Middleton Road, Boxford. Parking areas are located on the left. From Route 114, North Andover (just north of Middleton town line) take Sharpners Pond Road east to end.

Some highlights:

  • Crooked Pond, including signs of beavers
  • Bald Hill
  • Historic features: cellarholes, cemetary
  • Sharpners Pond

Mid-Watershed

5. Willowdale/Cleaveland Farm State Forest
Ipswich Road, Topsfield at Ipswich Town Line
Linebrook Road, Ipswich/Rowley Rd, Boxford

Willowdale/ Cleaveland Farm State Forests adjoin each other, extending from Rowley and Boxford in the west into Topsfield and Ipswich. The Hood Pond section also adjoins Georgetown/Rowley State Forest, thus providing a large contiguous tract of open space and recreational land which is excellent wildlife habitat. The forests are bisected by Route 1, and include some area in the Parker River Watershed as well as the Ipswich.

These forests are a paradise for nesting birds, and habitat for 8 state-listed rare species, including the least bittern. The western side of Willowdale SF includes Hood Pond, a beautiful great pond with some housing at the western end, but otherwise surrounded abutted by forest, including a rare, fragile Atlantic white cedar swamp. This area is part of the Pye Brook subwatershed of the Ipswich River. Downstream, the eastern sector of the SF drains into Howlett and Gravelly Brooks, and includes important trout spawning habitat. The southeastern part of the SF abuts Bradley Palmer State Park and the Ipswich River.

The 2200-acre State Forest offers 40 miles of trails and unpaved roads, a wonderful area for off-road biking, hiking, running, snowshoeing and skiing, orienteering, birding, nature study, and horseback riding. Fishing, canoeing and (non-motorized) boating are allowed at Hood Pond, and there is a boat ramp on the Ipswich side of the pond. The SF trails are part of the Bay Circuit Trail, offering long distance hiking opportunities. There is a public swimming beach at the southwestern end of the pond.

Some highlights:

  • Hood Pond
  • White pine and Atlantic white cedar swamps
  • Bay Circuit trail
  • Equestrian trails

6. Bradley Palmer State Park
Asbury St., Topsfield/Highland St., Hamilton

Attorney Bradley Palmer represented President Wilson at the Versailles Peace Conference after World War I, among other distinctions. To those of us in the Ipswich River Watershed, he will forever be remembered and appreciated for his donation of this park and part of Willowdale State Forest to the people of Massachusetts. This outstanding 721 acre estate property, bordered on the north by a long and beautiful stretch of the Ipswich River, is one of the premier ecological, recreational and aesthetic treasures of the region.

Bradley Palmer SF includes meadows, pine knolls, forested wetlands and shrub swamps, ponds and streams as well as the well-known rhododendron-lined carriage road of the former estate. The property has miles of trails, including the ones to Moon Hill and Blueberry Hill. There are miles of equestrian trails with jumps and obstacles.

Many trails are shared by bikes, horseback riders, hikers etc. so be aware of trail-sharing protocol. The main carriage road is used by roller bladers, kids learning to ride bikes, etc. If you go onto the unpaved trails, you’ll find it quite a bit less busy.

Activities include canoeing (canoe livery on Topsfield Rd. along northern boundary of park); hiking, running, on- and off-road biking, horseback riding (trailering at Topsfield end), fishing, skiing and snowshoeing, wading (in shallow pool at Hamilton end), picnicking, birding, nature study. There is also a handicap-accessible trail and segments of the Bay Circuit and Discover Hamilton trails.

A new feature of the park is the Willowdale Estate in the former mansion, an incredible and distinctive stone building with stained glass and beautiful woodwork.

  • Frontage on Ipswich River
  • Miles of trails for hiking, biking, riding
  • Bridle trails with jumps and obstacles
  • Moon Hill and Blueberry Hill
  • Links to Bay Circuit and Discover Hamilton trails
  • Carriage road lined with rhododendrons
  • Wading pool
  • Handicapped-accessible trail
  • Self-guiding nature trail
  • B&B in estate house (to open 2002?)

7. Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary
87 Perkins Row, Topsfield

Massachusetts Audubon Society’s 2265-acre Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the most important properties in the region, as a premier refuge for thousands of birds and other wildlife, a great place to enjoy outdoor recreation, and the foremost site in the region for environmental education programs. The Sanctuary is located in the heart of the Ipswich River Watershed, and includes a great diversity of habitats and species. There are 8 miles of the meandering Ipswich River, Mile Brook, Bunker Meadow and extensive acreage in Wenham Swamp, and upland habitats including glacially formed eskers and drumlins, and islands within the swamp. The property is a former arboretum, and hosts a collection of non-native plants of interest, as well as some which have become invasive.

If there is a subject you are interested in learning more about – birding, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, wetland plants, animal tracking, owls, and more — the likelihood is that IRWS offers a program which will enhance your appreciation and knowledge. The staff is truly gifted in the art of bringing natural history to life and making learning about the natural world fun for young and old alike.

For those of you who may be seeking outdoor activities to enjoy with children, this is the place. From maple sugaring to walks with “fours and fives,” other “walks of wonder” and explorations of the popular “Rockery,” the Sanctuary will help open the eyes of children to the fascinating world around us. IRWS also offers a range of excellent summer camp options, as well as programs during school vacation weeks.

Recreational activities abound, within the context of a wildlife sanctuary – meaning that the activities are allowed which can peacefully coexist with the creatures which live here or stop at the Sanctuary during migrations.

Birding is a major pastime at IRWS, as the Sanctuary provides home for migrating and resident species. The extensive wetlands attract many species of waterfowl and shorebirds, as well as songbirds and raptors. Chickadees will eat sunflower seeds out of outstretched hands. Bluebirds and wood ducks are attracted to nesting boxes.

There are a number of vernal pools on the property, and IRWS is a good place to participate in “big night,” the salamanders’ spring migration to these pools, where they mate and lay eggs before returning to their terrestrial burrows. You may enjoy an animal-tracking workshop, and then practice your new observational skills: look for tracks or signs of fishers, weasels, otters, coyotes, deer, beavers, muskrats, voles, mice, cottontails. In the summer, quiet paddlers cannot miss painted turtles basking on fallen trees all along the river, and it is not uncommon to come upon a great blue or little blue heron as you round a bend.

Walking, hiking, birding, wildlife observation, nature study, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, animal tracking, canoeing and kayaking are all encouraged at IRWS. Canoe rentals and camping are available to members by prior reservation. Mountain biking, jogging and pets are not permitted, and horseback riding is allowed with a permit.

Fee: There is a small entrance charge for non-members.

Some highlights:

  • Miles of the Ipswich River and tributaries
  • Excellent environmental education programs
  • Canoe landing and campsite for members
  • Trail network and observation sites
  • Vernal pools
  • Extensive wetlands
  • Sugar maples/ maple sugaring
  • Many species of plants and animals
  • Rockery and other interesting sites

Lower Watershed

8. Appleton Farm/Grass Rides
Highland Street, Hamilton and County Rd, Ipswich

Established in 1638, this property in Hamilton and Ipswich is the second-oldest family farm in the United States. The Appleton family donated the 658 acre Appleton Farm to the Trustees of Reservations, who assumed full management in 1998 and developed a plan to highlight the land as a unique ecological, historical, agricultural and recreational resource.

Appleton Farms includes forested areas, fields and wetlands which feed the Miles and Ipswich Rivers. There is a sense of the “old sod” about the landscape. The newest occupants of the land are a herd of dairy cows, intended to reestablish the dairy farm history of the farm. A Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program was established on the farm in 2002.

The Grass Rides: The southwestern sector of the Appleton property, covering 259 acres, is the Grass Rides, which have been open to the public since 1970. The Grass Rides are a series of trails configured like spokes of a wagon wheel, with a central clearing called the “Roundpoint.” There are 4.2 miles of trails, including an interpretive trail. The trails are wide and generally flat, and despite the name go through beautiful forested terrain.

Recreational uses are limited, and we ask that everyone respect the restrictions so that the multiple uses of Appleton Farms can coexist successfully. Birding, hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and nature study are encouraged. Horseback riding is not allowed at the Grass Rides, but is allowed on some trails at Appleton Farm, by permit for ECTA members. Biking is not allowed at Appleton Farms, but is allowed at the Grass Rides from May 1-February 28; prohibited during the muddy season.

Some highlights:

  • Working farm
  • Historic barn and buildings
  • Tree-lined carriage roads
  • Wetlands, forests, meadows
  • Grass rides

9. Crane Estate Properties
Argilla Road, Ipswich

The Crane Estate Properties are one of Massachusetts great treasures, not only for recreation but also for their outstanding ecological values and scenic beauty. Crane Beach, Steep Hill Beach and Castle Hill include over 1200 acres and 4.5 miles of barrier beach shoreline, miles of trails and roadways, including self-guided interpretive trails extending along the back dunes all the way to the mouth of the Essex River. The 697 acre Crane Wildlife Refuge on Hog and Long Islands (Essex River Basin) is accessible by private boat or through Crane Island Tours. Cultural programs are offered at Castle Hill, and the Trustees of Reservations have recently opened a B&B. TTOR manages the properties for people and wildlife.

This area offers a wonderful variety of recreational opportunities: swimming, beachgoing, picnicking, hiking, road and mountain biking (designated trails and beachfront only); sailing, sea kayaking, boating, fishing, birding, nature study, and horseback riding (Oct 1-Mar 31; fees apply). The beach has a kiosk, bathhouse and many other amenities. Part of the beach is supervised by lifeguards.

Crane Beach is also home to over 200 species of birds, including the federally endangered least terns and piping plovers – one of the world’s largest populations resides at Crane Beach.

Fees: fees for entry for all vehicles, bicycles, visitors on foot. Call TTOR for details; or see www.thetrustees.org

Advisory: Be aware of greenhead flies (early July-mid August); salt marsh mosquitos; deer ticks/Lyme disease and other concerns. Check the TTOR web site for more info.

Some highlights:

  • 4.5-mile long barrier beach with oceanfront and dunes, leading from Fox Creek, along mouth of Ipswich River, to mouth of Essex River
  • Rare and endangered species
  • Miles of trails, including self-guided nature trail amidst dunes and maritime forest
  • Supervised swimming, kiosk, bathhouse, showers
  • Castle Hill, mansion, summer concerts, events
  • Bed & Breakfast
  • Crane Island Tours (boat/wagon tours)
  • Sand castle building contest in August

10. Greenwood Farm
Jeffreys Neck Road, Ipswich

This 216 acre property abutting the lower Ipswich River offers woodlands, pastures, rolling hills, drumlin islands and salt marsh. This historic farm offers outstanding views of the Ipswich River salt marsh and estuary, as well as interesting historical and ecological features. The land was used by Native Americans for fishing, clamming and hunting. Ribbed and blue mussels and soft-shelled clams live in the marsh and mudflats.

The property was given to the Paine family as a land grant in the mid-1600’s, and remained as a family farm for almost 250 years. The historic farmhouse, built around 1702, is preserved as a museum and open to the public.

The island drumlins in the salt marsh were used to off-load cargo from ships in colonial times, and remnants of a stone boat ramp and wagon road across the marsh still exist. Because of damage to the marsh from the former trail, the trails are now located only on the upland property.

Some of the birds you may see on a visit to Greenwood Farm include swallows, waxwings, bobolinks, red tail hawks, great blue herons, snowy and great egrets, northern harriers and great horned owls.

Recreational activities include bird watching, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, hiking, nature study, and picnicking. Mountain biking is not allowed.

11. Long Hill
572 Essex Street, Beverly

Long Hill is the former Sedgwick estate, owned by Ellery Sedgwick, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly from 1909-1938. This formal estate property is renowned for its gardens, created by Mr. Sedgwick’s first wife and further enhanced by his second wife.

There are 5 acres of cultivated grounds laid out in a series of separate garden areas surrounding the country manor. The gardens are each distinct, and accented by statuary and garden structures. The gardens are flanked on all sides by over 100 acres of woodland, an apple orchard and meadow.

The property contains over 400 species of plants, many of which are unusual to rare, as well as natural settings of woodlands. Wildlife, including coyote, red fox, raccoon, wild turkey and many other birds inhabit the land.

The 114 acre property has 2 miles of trails and footpaths. Bird-watching, hiking, nature study, picnicking, cross-country skiing and showshoeing are allowed. Mountain biking is not permitted.

Some highlights:

  • Acres of outstanding gardens around estate house
  • Over 400 species of plants
  • 2 miles of trails
  • Long Hill is the headquarters of The Trustees of Reservations

12. Essex County Greenbelt Association properties

Greenbelt has worked since 1961 to protect land in Essex County. Their reservations provide key links in wildlife corridors and chains of open spaces, and protect important ecological, cultural, scenic and recreational treasures of the region. Greenbelt protects approximately 10,000 acres in Essex County, including 367 acres abutting Boxford State Forest, several canoe landings, the Julia Bird and Willowdale Mill Reservations in Ipswich, Steward Field in Topsfield, and acreage in the estuary. Greenbelt publishes a Guide Book to their properties, including maps and features.

The Julia Bird Reservation is located on the western side of the railroad track between Waldingfield Road and the Ipswich River, including extensive river frontage.

The Willowdale Mill preserve consists of 25 acres of woodland along the Ipswich River. Once the site of a textile mill, stone and wooden remnants of the mill can still be seen here, and are reminders of a century’s labor. The original wooden mill was constructed by Dr. Thomas Manning, but was eventually replaced with a stone structure. By 1834, a factory complex, including a mill, boarding house and factory building, was turning out woolen goods. Manning Mills, later known as Willowdale Manufacturing Company, continued making hosiery and blankets until 1884, when it was destroyed by fire. The sluiceway that channeled water from the Ipswich River to power the mill is dry now, but its indentation can still be seen stretching from one end of Willowdale Reservation to the other.

Greenbelt properties are open to the public without charge, and typically there is a small parking area available at the main trailhead.