Experience Boston Harbor's Many Islands

34 islands and mainland parks are just a ferry ride away from Boston's Long Wharf.

Though the word “island” usually conjures up thoughts of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, savvy Bostonians know you don’t always need to trek far to swim, hike and explore.

Just a short ferry ride from the city’s Long Wharf lies the largest recreational open space in Eastern Massachusetts—the Boston Harbor Islands, a system of 34 islands and mainland parks. A half million of your closest friends visit the National Recreation Area every summer.

While 19 islands can only be reached by private boat and three are completely off limits, here are eight dynamic islands waiting to be enjoyed. Plus, the islands' summer calendar is loaded with unique events such as youth fishing, interactive tours, kite flying and sea kayaking.  

Georges Island

The most well known of the islands, Georges is home to historic Civil War-era Fort Warren. Although its graceful granite archways are certainly legendary, so is its reputed ghost, The Lady in Black. A great way to experience the fort and learn more about the island's history is by taking a Ranger Tour. The island offers great grassy spaces for walks, picnics, and even Civil War lawn games. And select weekends through August visitors can watch Civil War-era baseball. Rock, funk and reggae bands play on Saturdays in July and August. There's plenty of fun for the kids, too, with weekly concerts and theater performances. Don't miss the cafe and gift shop to round out your visit.

How to get there: Unlike some other islands, the public ferry service offers direct routes to Georges Island from Boston, Hingham and Hull with a travel time averaging 45 minutes. Weekend service offers trips on the hour 9 am-3 pm, while weekday ferries run on the hour 10 am-2 pm. Tickets may be booked online ($10-17).

What you didn't know: This island was used primarily for agriculture for 200 years. But, in 1825 when the U.S. government acquired it, the island was converted for use as coastal defense. This change of hands brought about the famous Fort Warren, which is still enjoyed by visitors today.

Don't miss: "The Art of BBQ" is featured Wednesdays July through early September. The night offers a delicious barbecue meal, complete with s'mores, and guided watercolor classes. Reservations may be made online.

Open to public: Early May through Columbus Day.

Camping: No camping available.

Lovells Island

Across from Georges, Lovells boasts six individual rustic campsites and one group campsite, as well as an amazing remote beach and bragging rights as the nearest island to notorious shipwrecks. Picnic areas offer unparalleled views of the city, walking trails through dunes, woods and military fortifications, as well as a relaxed and private (but unsupervised) swimming beach with soft sands.

How to get there: The public ferry service offers rides to Lovells with a transfer at Georges Island (expect a 45 minute layover). Ferries depart from Boston, Hingham and Hull and run at 10 am, noon and 2 pm on weekdays, and at 9 am on weekends. Tickets may be purchased online ($10-17).

What you didn't know: The island served a short time as a quarantine station in the 1600s because of its position on Boston's first shipping channel.

Don't miss: If you're looking to give back, there's no better way to help local wildlife and the island's ecosystems than "Stewardship Saturday." This year, Lovells Island's happens July 30, 9 am-2:30 pm. Help preserve the beauty of nature, then relax at the private beach, or fuel up at one of the scenic picnic areas. Registrations can be made online.

Open to public: Mid June through Labor Day.

Camping: Bring your own tent to one of six individual sites (accomodate up to four adults or two adults and their children) or a group site (accomodates 25 people). Book your reservation six months to one day in advance. Sites are open June to September ($8 for MA residents, $10 for non-residents; group site is $35).

Sunset from Lovells Island (©Michael Greene)

Peddocks Island

Peddocks is one of the largest and most diverse islands in the harbor, with historic structures, hiking trails, unique geologic features and even solar energy installations. It’s a great opportunity to dig deep into harbor history as you hike the past home of Native Americans, militiamen and POWs, as well as the site of Fort Andrews from the early 1900s through World War II. The little ones can enjoy fishing lessons off the Peddocks pier. And feel free to get in touch with your whimsicle side with days dedicated to building fairy houses out of the island's natural resources. 

How to get there: One direct ferry runs from Boston to Peddocks at 8:30 am on weekdays. Other ferry trips with layovers at Georges or Spectacle run from Boston, Hingham and Hull departing at 9:30, 10:30 and 11:30 am, noon, 1:30, 2 and 3:30 pm on weekdays, and depart at 9 and 11 am on weekends. Check online schedule for layover times and transfer islands. Tickets may be purchased online ($10-17). 

What you didn't know: Because of its close proximity to the mainland, the island was used to guard against British troops, and more than 600 militiamen were stationed there in 1776. Another fun fact to note is that the 2010 feature film "Shutter Island" called Peddocks home during filming thanks to the island's dark wooded areas and old brick buildings.

Don't miss: "Fitness Day" is packed with healthy activities from yoga to zumba to tai chi (Aug. 7, 11 am-3 pm). Reservations may be made online. 

Open to public: Mid June through Labor Day.

Camping: Choose from one of six individual sites (accomodates four adults or two adults and their children; bring your own tent), a group site (accomodates 25 people) or one of six yurts which feature wood framing with canvas siding, two bunkbeds, a table and lighting (accomodate six people). Book a reservation six months to one day in advance. Sites are open June to September ($8 for MA residents, $10 for non-residents; group site is $35).

Spectacle Island

One hundred and five acres of natural beauty await, coursed by five miles of hiking trails, the tallest hill of all the islands (perfect for panoramic views of the harbor and Boston) and one of the few lifeguard-supervised sandy beaches. Spectacle is all about relaxing—with fun programs including Island Yoga on Saturdays, Jazz on the Porch on Sundays, and sunset clambakes all summer long. Toddler Tuesdays give kids 5 years and under the chance to explore the island with nature walks and also features storytelling. Saturdays provide interactive tours with "Island Detectives" for kids and families, or bring out the whole gang for field day activities like corn hole and Frisbee in the afternoon.  

How to get there: Only a 20 minute ride from Boston, direct ferries to the island are offered 9:30, 10:30 and 11:30 am, 1:30 and 3:30 pm on weekdays, as well as at 10:15 am on weekends. Tickets may be purchased online ($10-17).

What you didn't know: Before becoming the lovely destination we know today with swimming, hiking and family fun, the island played host to a glue factory, resort hotels, a garbage dump and a quarantine hospital. 

Don't miss: Boston-based filmmaker and owner of Sunny Mind Productions instructs a two-hour filmmaking workshop July 30, 1:30-3:30 pm. Learn how to make the most of your recordings with innovative strategies and creative points of view. Bring your GoPro, DSLR, smartphone or action camera and unleash your potential. Walk-up space is available on a first-come, first-served basis or register online ahead of time.

Open to public: Early May through Columbus Day.

Camping: No camping available.

Little Brewster Island

Centuries of Atlantic seafarers have used Little Brewster’s Boston Light for guidance as far out as 27 miles. In fact, it's America's oldest continually used light station. Celebrate its 300th anniversary on the three-hour Boston Light Climbing Tour, which features a boat cruise, park ranger-led commentary on history and geography, and a chance to climb the light station tower's 76 steps.

How to get there: The only way to reach this quaint island is by booking a tour. Tours depart from the Boston Harbor Islands Welcome Center on the Rose Kennedy Greenway Friday through Sunday, and from Hull (Pemberton Point) every other Sunday. Reservations may be made online (tour lasts three and a half hours; $25-41).

What you didn't know: Every lighthouse in the U.S. was automated by 1990 except the Boston Light because preservationists appealed to Congress for funding. Now Coast Guard staff maintain the light and record meteorological data.

Don't miss: Once at the top of the lighthouse, be sure to check out the fantastic views of the Graves and Hull, as well as the Boston skyline.

Open to public: June 17-Oct. 2.

Camping: No camping available.

Bumpkin Island

There are more diminutive harbor islands such as Bumpkin, which is a quiet camping destination with slate and shell beaches and trails lined with wildflowers. With plenty of scenic viewpoints and historic buildings, there's plenty to do and explore in this small, picturesque place. And, it's a prime camping destination with 11 campsites and picnic areas complete with grills.

How to get there: The ferry runs from Boston to Bumpkin with a transfer at Georges (expect a 45 minute layover) with departures at noon and 2 pm on weekdays, as well as at 3 pm on weekends. There is also ferry service from Hull to Bumpkin (check online for service times and layovers). Tickets may be purchased online ($10-17).

What you didn't know: The island was used as a U.S. Naval Training camp during World War I, but the camp was dismantled following the war's end.

Don't miss: The remains of a 1900 childrens hospital make for a nice historic stop on a walk among the island's trails. Or catch a beautiful, unobstructed view of the sunrise from your campsite.

Open: Mid June through Labor Day.

Camping: Choose from one of 10 individual sites (accomodate four adults or two adults and their children; bring your own tent) or a group site (accomodates 25 people). Book a reservation six months to one day in advance. Sites are open June to September ($8 for MA residents, $10 for non-residents; group site is $35).

Grape Island

Grape Island, which doubles in size when the tide is low, is known for its wild berries, birds and naturescapes. It's the perfect escape for the outdoor enthusiast. The island features great hiking, kayaking and picnicking spots, which make it a must-see for a summer outing.

How to get there: The ferry runs to Grape (for campers only), with a transfer at Georges, from Boston at noon and 2 pm on weekdays, and at 11 am, 1 pm and 3 pm on weekends. Other departures, as well as direct routes, are offered from Hingham and Hull (check online for times). Tickets may be purchased online ($10-17).

What you didn't know: In 1775, during the War of Independence, there was a clash regarding hay which became known as "Battle of Grape Island" or "Grape Island Alarm."

Don't miss: Yoga Sundays, led by instructors from Hingham's Open Door Yoga Studios, guide classes through a hatha yoga flow 11:30 am-12:30 pm. Get to the Boston Harbor Islands Information Kiosk for the 11 am boat, but be sure to get there early as it is a first-come, first-served ride ($17 round trip). Bring your own yoga mat, plenty of water and a lunch if you plan to stay longer on the island. Reservations may be made online. 

Open: Mid June through Labor Day.

Camping: Choose from one of 10 individual sites (accomodate four adults or two adults and their children; bring your own tent) or a group site (accomodates 25 people). Book a reservation six months to one day in advance. Sites are open June to September ($8 for MA residents, $10 for non-residents; group site is $35).

Thompson Island

Thompson Island boasts great salt marshes and hiking trails, and it's host to the nonprofit Outward Bound where the focus is building teamwork, compassion and leadership for both youth and professionals. Kids ages 12 to 17 can enjoy the adventure-based courses put on by Summer Expeditions, which include kayaking, sailing and climbing. When it's time to unwind, the sandy shorelines provide ideal spots to kick back. 

How to get there: Ferry services depart from EDIC Pier in South Boston each weekend at 8 am, noon and 2:30 pm on Saturdays, and 8 am and noon Sundays. The trip takes about 25 minutes. Tickets purchased at time of departure; cash only ($10-17).

What you didn't know: Starting in 1626, when David Thompson established a trading post, the island was used for two centuries as an area for grazing livestock. 

Don't miss: Keep your eyes peeled for the many animals that inhabit the island such as herons, hermit crabs, egrets and peregrine falcons. It's the perfect spot for bird watchers.  

Open: May 28-Sept. 6.

Camping: No camping available.