It felt like a great loss to be shut out of museums for months, especially if you had a bored kid at home. But while some institutions have cautiously reopened their indoor spaces at reduced capacity, I’m still more comfortable encountering other humans in the open air for as long as the weather holds.
Lucky for those of us who are still skittish about indoor activities, there are plenty of art, nature, and history museums throughout New England and New York that are mostly or entirely outdoors — where exhibits and nature work in harmony to revive your sunken spirits.
Set against the multicolored hues of autumn in the Northeast — a work of art in its own right — a stroll through a tree-dappled sculpture park or open-air learning center is a uniquely relaxing experience. And unlike their sometimes-stuffy indoor peers, many of these venues allow visitors to run around, consume food, and even bring a leashed dog. Some require advanced purchases of timed-entry tickets to limit crowds, and policies change fast during a pandemic, so it’s a good idea to call or check online for updates and details.
1. The deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum | Lincoln
As you drive up to confirm your timed-entry reservation at the gate of this sculpture park outside Boston, you’ll be greeted by Blubat, Ugly Mess, and Homewrecker, a whimsical trio of colorful, cartoonish creations by Aaron Curry. Once parked, you’re free to wander the 30-acre bucolic landscape and outdoor exhibits for a closer look at nearly 60 works of contemporary sculpture — and the relatively compact campus ensures plenty of art per footstep.
Strolling through Alice’s Garden, you’ll encounter Marianna Pineda’s Eve Celebrant. A powerful, graceful, and inclusive tribute to womanhood, her oxidized bronze has turned a shade of turquoise that blends with the surrounding plants. On a path overlooking Flint’s Pond, Watershed, a new permanent commission by Andy Goldsworthy, is built into the sloping landscape to incorporate groundwater into the piece. When it rains, visitors can hear the tapping tumult on the tin roof, while runoff flows from the center of a dizzying display of concentric stone circles; in drought, mineral deposits paint the stone as a reminder of water’s subtle but lasting power.
Now managed by The Trustees of Reservations, the manicured grounds here are themselves a work of art. Our 8-year-old daughter enjoyed many of the sculptures, like Nancy Winship Milliken’s Pasture Song, a wind-rustled curtain of cello-bow hair that reminded us of the eerie veil between worlds in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. But she delighted most in playing beneath the boughs of the ancient weeping beech trees near the entrance gates.
30-40 minutes from Boston; $15 per car; open daily; 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln; 781-259-8355; decordova.org
2. Andres Institute of Art | Brookline, New Hampshire
If your kids are a bit too bouncy and grabby for the hallowed halls of the Museum of Fine Arts or the Institute of Contemporary Art, they might be better served by the Andres Institute. This former ski slope is crisscrossed with hiking trails and dotted with dozens of carved stone and forged metal sculptures (download or print a trail map before you visit). In ordinary years, a handful of artists from all over the world are invited here for a themed fall symposium, where they conceive and construct a piece of art to be displayed on the mountain. “They learn stuff from us, and we learn things from them, too — it’s a win-win,” cofounder and artistic director John Weidman told me while at work in the mountainside studio.
The collection, now totaling more than 80 sculptures on 140 acres, is incredibly international with more than three dozen countries and First Nations represented. A paved road to the studio is steep but accessible, and includes the delightfully curious Animals, by Tony Jimenez of Costa Rica, and the quietly comforting Souls of Peace, by Kenya’s Gerard Motondi. Even the “easy” trails make for a pretty rigorous hike on uneven terrain, but the effort pays off. On the Picnic Trail, We Are One by Ennica Mukomberanwa of Zimbabwe somehow elicits human warmth from cold, hard granite. The Headwall Spur trail, meanwhile, offers scenic views of the surrounding countryside and the astronomically inspired House of Wish by Iran’s Esfandyar Moradpour.
60-70 minutes from Boston; free, but donations accepted; open daily; 106 Route 13, Brookline, New Hampshire; andresinstitute.org
3. Storm King Art Center | New Windsor, New York
Set on 500 acres in New York’s Hudson Valley, Storm King is perhaps the premier outdoor art museum in the country — and at its most majestic in the fall. Show your timed-entry ticket through the car window, and then you’re free to stroll the rolling meadows and wooded trails punctuated by more than 100 works by acclaimed artists.
Seemingly erupting from nature’s vast canvas of groomed grasslands and gently sloping hills, towering and imposing works like Menashe Kadishman’s physics-defying Suspended or Zhang Huan’s 28-foot-tall Three Legged Buddha can conjure a profound humility in the viewer. Others, like A Moment in Time — a hypnotic embroidery of shredded tires by Chakaia Booker — offer the chance for more intimate reflection among the trees. Pack a lunch because there’s an awful lot of ground to cover, and some beautiful spots for a picnic.
3.5 hours from Boston; $20 and up; closed Tuesdays; 1 Museum Road, New Windsor, New York; 845-534-3115; stormking.org
4. Opus 40 Sculpture Park and Museum | Saugerties, New York
Farther up the Hudson River, Opus 40 is the masterwork of artist Harvey Fite, a one-of-a-kind piece of environmental art and landscape architecture that almost defies description. The park is anchored by the largest sculpture you’ll ever encounter: a 6.5-acre carved bluestone rockscape. Fite spent 37 years constructing the fairy tale labyrinth of spiraling steps, pools, and paths from thousands of dry-fit stones, and capped it with a 9-ton monolith.
Framed by the Catskill Mountains, other (smaller) sculptures dot the 60-acre property, once an abandoned quarry. A new outdoor gallery recently opened with paintings by Simi Stone, and will feature the work of Pamela J. Wallace through October. Timed visits are limited to groups of five or fewer, but a schedule of socially distant outdoor events on fall weekends includes live music, bird-watching walks, and meals and drinks delivered to isolated picnic tables scattered across 15 scenic acres.
3 hours from Boston; $11, $8 for students; open Thursday to Monday through November; 50 Fite Road, Saugerties, New York; 845-246-3400; opus40.org
5. Dinosaur Footprints | Holyoke
It’s right there in the name, but this small, unassuming site near the banks of the Connecticut River still feels like an ancient secret. Pull off Route 5 — there’s parking for about seven or eight cars — and clamber down a short trail to find sandstone slabs imprinted with more than 800 fossilized tracks of four different types of dinosaurs, fish, and other prehistoric creatures. And unlike an ordinary natural history museum, kids can actually touch the “exhibits” — and even walk in the footsteps of what’s believed to be a 15-foot-tall ancestor of the Tyrannosaurus rex.
1.5 hours from Boston; free; open daily until November 30; Route 5, Holyoke; 413-213-4751; thetrustees.org
6. Plimoth Plantation | Plymouth
OK, this one’s not entirely outdoors: Accessing the 30-acre grounds of this living history museum will require a quick dash through the visitor center, which is set up for one-way foot traffic to better allow for social distancing. But beyond the entrance gates, you can explore the different wetus (or wigwams) of the Wampanoag homesite in the fresh ocean air. Though not necessarily Wampanoag, the staff are Native Americans who engage with visitors in the present as they demonstrate traditional activities like building boats, weaving belts, or tanning deer hides.
Time gets even fuzzier by the time you reach the 17th-century English village, a re-creation of the maritime community established on the shores of Plymouth 400 years ago. A dirt road lined with humble timber and thatch cottages (and some aimless chickens) slopes down toward the thrashing waters of the Atlantic, and costumed historians assume the identities of actual settlers. Unlike in past years, the historical interpreters grinding grains and tending to the animals are masked, but as ever, they have clever ways of deflecting inquiries about modern intrusions in a historic context.
In downtown Plymouth, the Mayflower II has just returned to port after a three-year restoration, in time for the 400th anniversary of the original ship’s arrival on these shores. (The museum is also planning to mark that quadricentennial with a formal name change incorporating “Patuxet,” the Wampanoag name for the area.) The full-scale replica is open for small, timed tours, though a portion of it is below deck.
45-60 minutes from Boston; $19-$32; open daily through November; 137 Warren Avenue, Plymouth; 508-746-1622; plimoth.org
7. Lemon Fair Sculpture Park | Shoreham, Vermont
Set against a rural backdrop of red barns and rolling fields, this assortment of 50 some-odd sculptures in western Vermont feels at times like an art farm. Pull off Route 74, and meander along a mile-long mowed meadow path to see abstract shapes like Peter Lundberg’s Leap of Faith rising from the earth. Meanwhile, several sculptural takes on horses — including Joseph Fichter’s elegant The Passion and Wendy Klemperer’s wrenching rebar creation Rolling Horse — seem to roam the grassy plain like feral, ferrous animals. And creations like Leif Johnson’s vivid Dragonfly and Flowers and Martin McGowan’s surreal bike-riding The Fish drift into the fantastical.
3.5 hours from Boston; free, but donations accepted; open daily; 4547 Route 74 East, Shoreham, Vermont; 802-282-8161; lemonfairsculpturepark.com
8. Green Animals Topiary Garden | Portsmouth, Rhode Island
Kids, avid gardeners, and Edward Scissorhands fans will all appreciate this serene seaside collection of flowering and edible plants and living statues, including dozens of animals sculpted from yew, privet, and boxwood shrubs. The sculpted topiaries — bears, giraffes, swans, and more — are evergreen, but garden blooms vary by season; you may see some dazzling dahlias and colorful gourds in September. Picnic on the vast, sloping lawn for a view of Narragansett Bay. Admission also includes access to the grounds of The Breakers and The Elms mansions in nearby Newport. (As of press time, Rhode Island was on Massachusetts' list of high-risk states.)
70 minutes from Boston; $18 and up; open daily until mid-October; 380 Cory’s Lane, Portsmouth, Rhode Island; 401-847-1000; newportmansions.org
9. Old Sturbridge Village | Sturbridge
This re-creation of a bustling 1830s New England village has more than 200 acres of walking trails to explore, along with covered bridges, friendly farm animals, a working water-powered sawmill, and dozens of authentic 19th-century buildings. The interiors of those antique homes and shops are mostly off-limits right now, but the museum’s costumed historians have adapted a number of demonstrations to take place outside, from cider-pressing to pottery to blacksmithing.
If past visits to this school field-trip favorite have felt a bit crowded, you’re likely to have more space to yourself now, as visitors are required to purchase tickets with a designated time slot in advance. Entry does require a brief trip through the indoors visitor center, however.
1 hour from Boston; $14-$28; open Wednesday to Sunday through November 28; 1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge; 800-733-1830; osv.org
10. Chesterwood | Stockbridge
This historic site was the summer home and studio of famed sculptor Daniel Chester French, whose works include The Minute Man statue in Concord and the seated figure of Abraham Lincoln on the National Mall in Washington. While hundreds of French’s preliminary and finished works are on display in the indoor studio (guided weekend tours are available), visitors who’d like to avoid going inside can instead purchase a timed parking pass and stroll the sprawling grounds and gardens.
The Woodland Walk, an easy-to-amble path through a thick pine forest, features Rick and Laura Brown’s One Impulse From a Vernal Wood, which was extended for a second season. The couple spent a month in residency at Chesterwood in 2018, creating this series of massive sculptures from fallen trees. The trunk of Mother Tree twists like a benevolent dragon, while a storm-damaged hemlock is transformed into a fanciful reverie in Dreaming.
2 hours and 15 minutes from Boston; $20 per car; open Thursday to Sunday through October; 4 Williamsville Road, Stockbridge; 413-298-3579; chesterwood.org
NOTE: COVID-19 travel guidance changes frequently. Check official websites before heading to a destination.
Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.