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7 New England wildlife refuges with gorgeous water views

Elevated boardwalks cross the wetlands of Vermont’s Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, home to thousands of wading birds and migratory waterfowl. | Photo Courtesy Ken Sturm/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Visiting national parks was popular even before folks sought them out as a pandemic-safe getaway. For less-crowded yet equally scenic options, consider one or more of New England’s 32 national wildlife refuges.

In 2020, almost 237 million people visited the National Park Service’s 423-plus sites while more than 59 million people visited the National Wildlife Refuge System’s 568 units, which encompass more than 150 million acres.

President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Wildlife Refuge System in 1903 to preserve lands and waters that are essential to fish and wildlife. Each state has at least one, and 77 percent of them are open to the public, providing access to pristine landscapes and outdoor recreation. Nature hikes, wildlife viewing, paddling, and photography are popular activities, and some refuges also allow hunting and fishing.

In addition to wildlife, these New England refuges include superb water views. Here are our top seven picks:

1. Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge

Lake Umbagog, the centerpiece of the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, stretches some 7 miles in length with an average depth of only 15 feet. | Photo by ISAIYARASAN/stock.adobe.com

Lake Umbagog, the centerpiece of the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, stretches some 7 miles in length with an average depth of only 15 feet. | Photo by ISAIYARASAN/stock.adobe.com

Osprey and bald eagles soar, moose feed in the bogs, and nesting loons call in this watery wilderness that straddles Maine and New Hampshire’s northern border. The centerpiece, Lake Umbagog, covers more than 7,500 acres surrounded by expansive stands of boreal forests, wetlands, marshes, and smaller lakes. The refuge also includes 10 miles of the historic Magalloway and Androscoggin rivers.

Explore: A short jaunt along the 0.3-mile Magalloway River Trail leads to a great moose-watching spot. The 1.2-mile Roost Trail climbs through the woods to an overlook with expansive views. Seeing the refuge from the water provides a different perspective. You can rent boats in the nearby town of Errol, New Hampshire, or hop on a guided tour with Northern Waters Outfitters.

Info: Errol, New Hampshire. (603) 482-3415; fws.gov/refuge/umbagog.

2. John Hay National Wildlife Refuge

The John Hay National Wildlife Refuge includes the 83.5-acre New Hampshire home and summer estate of diplomat and statesman John Milton Hay. | Photo by Bob Corson/Alamy Stock Photo

The John Hay National Wildlife Refuge includes the 83.5-acre New Hampshire home and summer estate of diplomat and statesman John Milton Hay. | Photo by Bob Corson/Alamy Stock Photo

Established in 1987 as a haven for migratory birds, this 164-acre preserve in western New Hampshire includes the longest stretch of undeveloped shoreline on Lake Sunapee. The refuge was once part of the summer home of John Hay, a statesman and politician who served as Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary.

Explore: Walk the 0.9-mile interpretive trail along the shoreline, and then visit the adjacent John Hay Estate at The Fells to tour the 22-room Colonial Revival home and gardens. The 1.5-mile John Hay Forest Ecology Trail leads through woods with two hemlock trees that are hundreds of years old. The Lake-Loop Trail skirts the shoreline with views of 2,700-foot Mount Sunapee.

Info: Newbury, New Hampshire. (802) 962-5240; fws.gov/refuge/john_hay.

3. Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge

A watery wilderness of ponds, bogs, streams, and creeks attracts migratory waterfowl at the 6,729-acre Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge. | Photo Courtesy Ken Sturm/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A watery wilderness of ponds, bogs, streams, and creeks attracts migratory waterfowl at the 6,729-acre Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge. | Photo Courtesy Ken Sturm/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Eagles, osprey, ducks, and more than 200 other bird species can be spotted in this northern Vermont patchwork quilt of wetlands, bogs, and ponds. The refuge is the state’s only nesting site for its endangered black terns and includes miles of the sinewy Missisquoi River as it flows into Lake Champlain and the 900-acre Maquam Bog. More than 20,000 (and up to 50,000) migrating ducks arrive in fall.

Explore: There are 7.5 miles of elevated boardwalks and nature trails. The Black Creek and Maquam Creek interpretive trails wander through lowlands and provide good opportunities to spot wood ducks, warblers, and wading birds. Kayaks, canoes, and small motorboats are also allowed in some parts of the refuge.

Info: Swanton, Vermont. (802) 868-4781; fws.gov/refuge/Missisquoi.

4. Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1966, the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge spreads along 50 miles of coastline in southern Maine. It will contain approximately 14,600 acres when land acquisitions are completed. | Photo by Nance Trueworthy/stock.adobe.com

Established in 1966, the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge spreads along 50 miles of coastline in southern Maine. It will contain approximately 14,600 acres when land acquisitions are completed. | Photo by Nance Trueworthy/stock.adobe.com

Named for the renowned marine biologist, author, and environmentalist, this southern Maine sanctuary spreads over 5,690 acres with 11 separate divisions and 50 miles of shoreline. The former homeland of the Abenaki, Sokaki, and Saco peoples is filled with birdsong, and the tidal salt marshes and mudflats have become grazing grounds for long-legged snowy egrets and herons. Benches, observation platforms, and viewing spots abound throughout the refuge, the better to catch a glimpse of endangered piping plovers.

Explore: Gather shellfish in the flats (license required) or walk one of the many trails. The 1-mile Carson Trail is a popular choice, with expansive water views and interpretive signs. The 1.25-mile Granite Point Road leads to the Atlantic Ocean shoreline.

Info: Wells, Maine. (207) 646-9226; fws.gov/refuge/rachel_carson.

5. Thacher Island National Wildlife Refuge

The twin lighthouses built on Thacher Island in 1771 were the last lighthouses built under British rule. Today, the Thacher Island National Refuge off Rockport, Massachusetts, is an important stopover for migratory birds. | Photo by Jeremy D'Entremont

The twin lighthouses built on Thacher Island in 1771 were the last lighthouses built under British rule. Today, the Thacher Island National Refuge off Rockport, Massachusetts, is an important stopover for migratory birds. | Photo by Jeremy D'Entremont

You’ll have sweeping ocean views from the shores of this rocky island refuge located just under a mile off the Rockport, Massachusetts, coast. The refuge, which includes the northern 22 acres of the 52-acre island, is an important stopover site along the Atlantic Flyway, and its surrounding nutrient-rich waters are home to waterfowl, loons, and seals. The Cape Ann Light Station is also located on the island, with two historic lighthouses.

Explore: Getting there is half the fun! Take the boat launch from Rockport, offered by the Thacher Island Association on Wednesdays and Saturdays during the summer. On the island, climb to the top of the southern lighthouse for Boston skyline views to the south and Maine’s Mount Agmenticus to the north. You can also visit the fog signal building and the lightkeeper’s house. Three miles of easy trails lead to both the south and north sides of the island.

Info: Off of Rockport, Massachusetts. (978) 465-5753; fws.gov/refuge/thacher_island.

6. Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge

The Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2000, has an expansive network of wetlands and vernal pools. | Photo Courtesy Kelsey Mackey/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2000, has an expansive network of wetlands and vernal pools. | Photo Courtesy Kelsey Mackey/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Spring and early summer are especially beguiling times to visit this 2,357-acre oasis about 20 miles west of Boston. Listen for peeping frogs and look for spot turtles. The land, originally settled by Native Americans more than 7,500 years ago, has a rich history. A Revolutionary War supply road ran through here, and the U.S. government later seized the land from more than 80 family farmers to use as a WWII military training ground and munitions storage site.

Explore: Download trail maps from the website and join one of the occasional guided tours. The refuge’s 15 miles of trails include a 1-mile paved path that skirts the shores of pretty Puffer Pond and its newly built fishing pier.

Info: Sudbury, Massachusetts. (978) 562-3527; fws.gov/refuge/assabet_river.

7. Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

Located along the Atlantic Flyway, the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge includes an 8-mile-long barrier island and more than 3,000 acres of salt marsh. | Photo by Nancy Kennedy/stock.adobe.com

Located along the Atlantic Flyway, the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge includes an 8-mile-long barrier island and more than 3,000 acres of salt marsh. | Photo by Nancy Kennedy/stock.adobe.com

This popular refuge along the northern Massachusetts coast is considered one of the finest birding spots in the country. The sprawling 4,700 acres on Plum Island and a part of the mainland includes barrier beaches, dunes, bogs, salt pannes, marshes, and maritime forests, with observation decks, towers, boardwalks, and bird blinds. Some 300 resident and migratory bird species have been spotted here. Not a birder? No problem: Come for the water views and pretty scenery.

Explore: Join morning bird outings, guided nature walks, and other activities. Several miles of trails include boardwalks to the Atlantic Ocean shoreline.

Info: Newburyport, Massachusetts. $5 daily entrance fee for vehicles. (978) 465-5753; fws.gov/refuge/parker_river.

New England–based writers Diane Bair and Pamela Wright cover food and travel for several publications and are frequent Boston Globe contributors.

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