Fresh-air fun awaits in this favorite Massachusetts coastal region.
By Yankee Editors
Mar 25 2023
Brewster Gardens, Plymouth, MAPhoto Credit : Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
By Jillian Dara; sponsored by See Plymouth
Among the many signs of spring in New England — from the lengthening daylight to the bright colors of new leaves and blooms, and even to the return of the Red Sox — one thing that always accompanies the warm-weather season is our impulse to flock to the outdoors. And in springtime and the fine summer days that follow, there may be no better place to enjoy nature’s gifts than Plymouth County, offering the best of both land and sea on the South Shore of Massachusetts.
With the historic town of Plymouth at its heart, this coastal region just south of Boston calls to outdoor adventurers and eco-tourists alike with beaches for swimming and sunbathing, parks and preserves for wandering, and a full slate of activities that encompass everything from whale watching to hiking, kayaking, and golfing.
There are enough outdoor diversions here to fill not just one idyllic day trip or immersive weekend, but many return visits — and it’s shaping up to be another beautiful warm-weather season in Plymouth County. So here’s how to get outside and start making the most of it.
Visitors who make the town of Plymouth their home base will find natural beauty right on their doorstep in the form of Long Beach, located just a stone’s throw from the perennially popular Plimoth Patuxet Museums. A favorite coastal oasis for residents, this three-mile barrier beach is also open to the general public (for a modest day-pass fee), who come to enjoy strolling, picnicking, swimming, and fishing. Bird-watching is a bonus, as Long Beach is home to a wealth of shorebirds — many of them protected as endangered species — that nest here during the warmer months.
Right in the heart of downtown, you’ll find that Jenney Pond Park and Brewster Gardens provide the perfect change of scenery, should you prefer green spaces to sandy expanses. A highlight of Jenney Pond Park is a reconstructed 1636 grist mill, whose grand water wheel still turns the millstone to produce corn, wheat, and rye flour on-site. Plus, there are benches and picnic tables nearby, so there’s no need to pack a picnic blanket — just bring provisions from a local eatery, such as The Yellow Deli. In the adjacent three-acre Brewster Gardens, you can explore walking paths along Town Brook and past lovely floral plantings; be sure to keep an eye on the park’s summer schedule for live music and community events.
If you’re looking to really stretch your legs, good news: More than a quarter of Plymouth’s land is designated as protected open space. Leading the way in preserving and maintaining this natural resource is the Town of Plymouth Open Space Committee, which oversees more than a dozen conservation lands, including the 70-acre Crawley Woodlands Preserve, known for its steep and scenic trails; the 116-acre Dixon Preserve at Hio Hill, offering hilltop views of the ocean; and the 783-acre Beaver Dam Conservation Area, whose ponds are a lure for freshwater fishermen as well as a variety of bird species. No matter where you decide to venture, though, be sure to download the Open Space Committee’s comprehensive Plymouth Trail Guide before you go.
Learning about the natural world goes hand in hand with appreciating it, and a terrific resource for eco-minded travelers is Mass Audubon, the largest nature-based conservation group in New England. Among the 40,000-plus acres of land it protects are four Plymouth County wildlife sanctuaries — North River and Daniel Webster in Marshfield, North Hill Marsh in Duxbury, and Tidmarsh in Plymouth — which provide beautiful showcases for local landscapes and wildlife. Mass Audubon offers a number of online programs (e.g., bird-watching basics, plant identification) so you can learn in advance about your destination and the local species that live there. There are also frequent naturalist-led walks, such as the free “Herring Run Hike” at Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary on May 20, to enhance your experience in the great outdoors.
Another player on the Plymouth County nature-education scene is the Wareham Land Trust, founded in 2001 by a group of local residents, which now safeguards nearly 700 acres of conservation land throughout the town of Wareham. In addition to exploring these pristine properties, you can check the group’s online event calendar to pre-register for free guided walks and presentations.
Finally, an under-the-radar eco-tourism stop is Manomet, a nonprofit environmental research group headquartered in Plymouth. Contact them to inquire about visiting their 40-acre campus alongside Cape Cod Bay, which boasts a rich mix of habitats for birds, amphibians, and other wildlife. Manomet recently installed a wildlife viewing blind for the public to use, and plans to debut a new interpretative trail with learning stations this summer.
You can take a hike — and do so much more — at the largest publicly owned recreation area in southeastern Massachusetts, Myles Standish State Forest. Located in the towns of Plymouth and Carver, this 14,000-acre swath of wild beauty has miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Want to take a dip? Head to the swimming beach at College Pond. There are dozens more ponds where you can cast a fishing line, and many places ideal for launching a canoe or kayak. Plan in advance, and you can even reserve one of nearly 400 campsites to enjoy an unforgettable woodsy getaway.
Paddle enthusiasts will find plenty to float their boat in Plymouth County, starting right in the town of Plymouth at the 285-acre great pond known as the Billington Sea. There, the experts at Billington Sea Kayak can help you get under way with kayak, canoe, and paddleboard rentals and a full lineup of instructional programs and tours. Meanwhile, the Wareham-based Nemasket Kayak Center has kayak and paddleboard rentals and tours at Onset Beach and Plymouth Harbor, as well as rentals at Fearing Pond and College Pond in Myles Standish State Forest.
Another indispensable resource is the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a nonprofit conservation group that works to protect waters and natural resources throughout the South Shore region. In addition to providing a free guide to kayaking and canoeing on the idyllic North and South rivers, it can put together custom “Kayak Adventures” — all equipment included — led by experienced river guides for groups of six to nine people who book in advance.
And don’t overlook the fact that some of the loveliest outdoor scenery in Plymouth County can be found at its many golf clubs, which offer vistas ranging from cranberry bogs to pine forests to the ocean. Among the most popular destinations for visiting golfers is CrossWinds Golf Club in Plymouth, a Championship daily-fee course where the 27 holes are thoughtfully arrayed along the land’s natural topography — and the views are spectacular.
The coast of Plymouth County features premier opportunities for whale watching, thanks to its proximity to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. These federally protected waters are critically important feeding grounds for marine life including humpbacks, fin whales, minke whales, and pilot whales, who congregate here from spring through fall. Captain John Boats operates frequent whale-watching tours on large multideck vessels, while Plymouth Charters offers expeditions for small groups (whichever you choose, though, book well in advance!). For a different kind of on-the-water excitement, both companies can take you on deep-sea fishing trips where you can try your hand at reeling in cod, haddock, mackerel, or other fresh seafood for your dinner.
Finally, for travelers whose idea of an ocean adventure involves just kicking back and letting the beauty of the coast wash over them, Captain John’s Pilgrim Belle Cruises has just the thing: a leisurely ride around Plymouth Harbor on an old-school paddlewheel boat. Ideal for all ages, these tours run throughout the afternoon and early evening, culminating in a special 7 p.m. sunset cruise where you can toast the end of a perfect day with a favorite libation from the full bar.
Not even the most ambitious traveler could check off all of Plymouth County’s outdoor diversions in a single visit — and not even in a single month — since each new season brings its own delights. Come back in fall, for instance, and you can enjoy the annual spectacle of the cranberry harvest, a time when Plymouth County farmers flood their bogs to create gorgeous crimson carpets of floating berries. Based in Plymouth, the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association is the go-to for information on visiting cranberry farms; just check its website, Massachusetts Cranberries, for visitor information and tour dates. And later, when winter comes, the trails of Myles Standish State Forest will offer the thrill of snowmobiling and cross-country skiing, while places like Morton Park and South Triangle Pond may tempt those looking to try their hand at ice fishing. Because truly, no matter the time of year, there’s always something to do outside in Plymouth County.