This Unique National Park In New England Is Spread Out Across Dozens Of Islands

The buildings of Boston make it one of America's tallest cities, but not far from its downtown skyscrapers is a wide-open recreation area — the largest in eastern Massachusetts. Welcome to Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park. It's a chain of 34 islands and peninsulas where you can find landmarks from movie history and the earliest pages of American history. Here, you'll see the country's oldest lighthouse, Civil War and World War II-era forts, and the real-life "Shutter Island" (where scenes for the film adaptation of Boston native Dennis Lehane's novel were shot).

If you thought Maine's Acadia National Park was the closest national park to Boston, you're partly right. While the Boston Harbor Islands chain is within the National Park System, it technically falls outside the 63 places designated as a "national park." Massachusetts is one of those states that's not featured on that list. Instead, the Boston Harbor Islands are collectively considered one of 18 national recreation areas. The city-adjacent islands may come across more like a state park than a national one, but they're managed at the federal and state levels, which is why the name pegs them as both.

Starting in Boston, you could still enjoy a road trip along the beautiful New England coast and reach Acadia National Park that way. It is worth doing, if only to be the first to watch the country's sunrise. Otherwise, take the seasonal ferry ride out to Boston Harbor Islands for a closer, outdoor-friendly trip through history.

Visit Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park

Several of the big Boston Harbor Islands, such as Spectacle, Georges, and Peddocks Island, are accessible by public ferry. The ferries operate from mid-May to mid-October, with some running right away in the spring and others starting up in June with the summer schedule. Paddle Boston also caters to experienced kayakers and island campers with private boat rentals.

Another way to see the islands is through a two-hour lighthouse tour, narrated by park staff and Coast Guard volunteers. This could be a good attraction for New England history buffs since its tour of three lighthouses includes the Boston Light. The National Park Service calls the Boston Light "the oldest continually used and last staffed lighthouse in the country." The British destroyed the original during the Revolutionary War, but it was rebuilt in 1783, and it remained staffed until 2023, when America's last lighthouse keeper, Sally Snowman, retired.

As its name implies, Spectacle Island gives hikers something else to see in Boston Harbor, with sweeping views and an interpretive trail that takes you up to the harbor's highest point on the 155-foot North Drumlin. Over on Georges Island, you can go picnicking and visit Fort Warren, a Civil War site (pictured above) where Union soldiers trained and Confederate soldiers were imprisoned. The latter gave rise to the legend of the Lady in Black, who's said to have haunted the fort's dark tunnel since dying in an attempt to free her husband.

Peddocks Island is the real Shutter Island

For those who enjoy a good psychological thriller, Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park might hold interest as one of the filming locations for "Shutter Island," starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie opens with the words "Boston Harbor Islands, 1954," so you know you're in the right place. The real-life Peddocks Island — reachable by ferry from mid-June to early September — stood in for the fictional Shutter Island. However, it may look different from what's on screen, not because of the passage of time but because it was digitally altered to appear more foreboding.

When the captain points out a dock that's "the only way on or off" the island, that's the real northeast dock on Peddocks Island, with the same brick buildings and World War II-era chapel behind it. DiCaprio filmed his arrival scenes there. Hopefully, you won't have to deal with as much fog, seasickness, and ominous music as his character. In the summer sun, Peddocks Island is actually a much nicer place; you can do more hiking and even camp there through Reserve America.

The brick buildings are the historic Fort Andrews, which dates to 1900. During World War II, just before its decommissioning, the fort was used to hold Italian POWs. Just don't expect to find a hospital "for the criminally insane" anywhere on Peddocks Island. The one in the movie was inspired by hospitals on nearby Long Island and Rainford Island in Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park.