Weekend Adventures – Spectacle Island

You may or may not have heard that this year, 2016, is the centennial anniversary of the United States National Park Service. I’ve always loved National Parks. I have the fondest memories of countless hikes in the White Mountain National Forest (NH), camping in Acadia National Park (ME), and exploring Volcano National Park (HI). There are so many different parks that I want to visit, but having limited funds and vacation time, I’m settling for the more local National Parks this year. To start, I went to the National Park Service website and looked for Parks that were close by. There are about twenty in Massachusetts alone! While none of them are technically “Parks”, I still think they count. Among these are National Historic Parks/Sites, National Recreation Areas, National Seashores, and National Scenic Trails. I had visited a few of these before, but I had no idea that some of the Historic Parks or Recreation Areas even existed! The one that really caught my eye was the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area.

The Boston Harbor Islands are unique. They are managed by both the National Park Service and the Massachusetts Department of Recreation and Conservation, which means double the funding and programs! There are eight islands in total, each with it’s own unique draw. Some boast camping and nature walks, others have nice beaches, one has an old lighthouse, and another an abandoned fort.



We chose to visit Spectacle Island for the day. Named for it’s resemblance to spectacles, this island was actually once two separate islands connected by a sandbar at low tide. It has since been filled in, but more on that later. Spectacle Island is the closest to Boston (only a 30 minute ferry ride) with beaches, trails, and a visitor center. I was unprepared for the amount that I would learn on this trip!


View of Spectacle Island from the Ferry

We started off the day by catching the first ferry over to the island. On the 30 minute ride over, we listened to an informative talk about the Boston Harbor and some fun facts about Boston. We went by the dock where shipping containers are put on those giant ships. Fun fact: those crane operators make $127,000 as a starting salary!!! It’s like an enormous game of tetris and the shipping containers need to be place just so and in the correct spot based on the weight of each container so that the ship doesn’t become unbalanced and tip over. Can you imagine millions of dollars of shipping containers and merchandise being dumped into the harbor! Disaster! No wonder they make so much!


Stacks on stacks of shipping containers!!!

Once we arrived at the island, we took a walking tour up to the top of the North Drumlin (the higher of the two) with one of the park rangers. The information we learned on this tour included the island history and geology. It was fascinating. My favorite part was (obviously) learning about the geology and how the Boston Harbor Islands were formed.

During the last Ice Age, glaciers as tall as five of the John Hancock buildings stacked on top of one another covered where Boston currently is. These glaciers, which had picked up lots of dirt and rocks along the way, deposited their “glacial till” to form drumlins – little elongated hills that look like a spoon resting upside down on a table. The drumlins get their shape from the glacier depositing some of their glacial till and then smoothing it out as it travels. This is why there is a steep side, and a longer, more gently sloping side. The longer, gentler slope of the drumlin is the direction that the glacier was traveling.

A nice visual of a drumlin can be seen in the right-hand side of this picture. Look for the island that looks like an upside-down spoon, handle and all.

Each of the Boston Harbor Islands is in fact a drumlin, or clusters of drumlins. While drumlins are actually a very common occurrence, the Boston Harbor Islands are unique in that they are the only drumlins in North America that are islands. When the glaciers receded, the glacial melt resulted in a rise in sea level and filled in the low areas around the drumlins. And today – we have the Boston Harbor Islands!

In addition to the geological formation of the island, there is so much history on Spectacle Island. The Native Americans used to use it for it’s natural resources, such as timber and fish. Scientists have found skeletons of cod that are 5-6 feet in length that they estimate were once up to 200 lbs! A cod the size of a modern tuna! The island also used to house two hotels in the mid-1800s. Once these were shut down because of rumored gambling rings, the island became the location of a horse rendering facility. After the horse rendering facility came a trash incinerator. Once the trash incinerator was closed, the island became Boston’s dumping ground for trash for the next thirty years. There was so much methane gas emitted from the trash heap that it spontaneously combusted and burned for a decade! It is also rumored that a bulldozer was swallowed by the trash heap and is now somewhere underground!

You couldn’t even guess any of these things by looking at the island today. It’s grassy and covered in trees. But the where did all that trash go? It is actually still on the island! During the notorious Big Dig project, the island was capped off using a lot of the excavated dirt from the Big Dig. It is estimated that there is about 60 feet (!) of trash and dirt on top of the original island. You can find landfill gas vents scattered around. Most are creatively hidden next to a tree or large bush, so they don’t detract from the experience.

A nice place for a picnic – with great views

The park ranger tour was a lot of fun. While telling us about the history of the island, he also pointed out other things that could be seen from Spectacle Island, like the now abandoned Long Island and the treatment plant on Deer Island. He even told us about the coyote that lives on the island. We asked how a coyote got to the island, to which he replied, he swam! I guess the coyote mainly lives off of the wild raspberries that grow there since there isn’t much else to eat.

We had a lot of fun walking around the island and taking in the beautiful views of the Boston skyline. We also grabbed lunch at the teeny cafe in the visitor center. They had a modest selection of wraps and sandwiches. They were pretty tasty, but also pretty expensive. We expected as much since we were on an island, after all. There are plenty of picnic tables around the island to enjoy lunch at. Next time we will indeed pack a picnic lunch and find a nice spot on top of one of the drumlins.


Mike and me at the top of North Drumlin
The view from North Drumlin

In addition to the park ranger tours on Spectacle Island, you can also relax on the beach, explore the trails on your own, have a picnic, check out the little exhibit in the visitor center, go kayaking, and even do yoga! They have regular yoga programs on the island! This is on my list to check out in the future. It looked like so much fun!


Yoga with a view

And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about the yummy dinner we had. To finish off the day, we walked all the way from Boston Harbor to Boston University, to visit my brother and Dad (anything for food….and family). We grabbed dinner at this amazing Japanese restaurant called Snappy Sushi. It’s on Newbury Street. The spicy edamame are delicious and I finally got to try real ramen (not the instant kind)!!! It was so delicious!

I hope to visit the other Boston Harbor Islands in the near future. I want to try the camping (only $6/night!!) and visit Fort Warren and Boston Light. While I technically have “checked off” the Boston Harbor Islands on my MA National Park list, I won’t consider it officially completed until I visit each of the islands. 🙂 I hope that you are inspired to Find Your Park and enjoy all that the National Park Service has to offer!

Happy National Park Adventures!



4 thoughts on “Weekend Adventures – Spectacle Island

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