Call them coastal wetlands, call them swamps, call them salt marshes, but above all, call them beautiful — especially this time of year. Fall is arguably New England’s most gorgeous season. Who doesn’t love a hillside ablaze with red maples or a drive through a bower glowing with the acid-yellow leaves of beeches and birches?
But some of the densest forests in the region have nothing to do with trees. They are the swaying masses of cordgrass, salt hay, and rushes springing from the mouths of streams and small rivers as they meet the sea. Like the deciduous forests of the uplands, they change color as the days grow shorter and a chill seizes the air. The marshland palette leans toward tan and gold or even burnt earth colors that glow in the golden angle of autumn light. Feast your eyes on these five quintessential marshland landscapes.
Belle Isle Marsh, East Boston
This DCR reservation on the site of the Suffolk Drive-In Theatre (which closed in 1971) is something of a miracle. Boston’s last remnant of the salt marshes that once lined Massachusetts Bay, it is a pocket of wilderness in an urban setting. The biggest birds flying overhead aren’t the blue herons or black-backed gulls — they’re the planes shuttling in and out of Logan. The towers of downtown Boston seem to float on the watery horizon like a vision of Atlantis risen from the sea. Decades of restoration have preserved Belle Isle as a recreational treasure. A circular path skirts the perimeter and a crisscross of mowed land creates access to a salt meadow landscape so critical to nesting birds.
In fact, Belle Isle is something of a birder’s paradise, so bring your binoculars and your cameras equipped with telephoto lenses. A whiteboard at the informational kiosk by the parking lot lists birds spotted in the previous week. In early September, that included four different raptors (kestrel, osprey, Cooper’s hawk, and peregrine falcon), three kinds of sandpipers, three types of plovers, and two kinds of egrets. The best viewing spot is from the boardwalk over the marsh.
1399 Bennington St., East Boston. Open 9 a.m.-dusk. Free. 617-727-5350, mass.gov/locations/belle-isle-marsh-reservation
Three communities share the 210-acre Lyman Reserve at the head of Buttermilk Bay. Trout fishermen speak of the freshwater Red Brook in hushed tones, as it’s one of the last wild sea-run brook trout fisheries in the country. (It’s catch and release only.) You might be tempted to head upstream on the Red Brook Trail, if only to walk past the freshwater cattail marsh and across the footbridge for a grand view of the saltwater marshes. But the Beach Trail crosses Head of the Bay Road for a winding and scenic walk through scrub oak and pitch pines to the beach. The short trail emerges from the woods to reveal grand views of the hummocks of cordgrass and saltwater hay tossing their seed heads in the strong tidal current. In the brackish shallows where the beach begins, delicate sea asparagus sways with gentle wave action.
Kayakers favor this marsh as much as fisher folk and walkers. They skim along the small beach and cut swiftly upriver to wind their way into the marsh. Depending on the currents, paddlers can follow Red Brook upstream well past the footbridge.
Red Brook Road and Head of the Bay Road, Plymouth/Bourne/Wareham. Open dawn-dusk. Free. 508-636-4693, thetrustees.org/place/lyman-reserve
For roughly 300 years South Dartmouth was a community of saltwater farms on Buzzards Bay. This 130-acre Trustees of Reservations reserve — which abuts an additional parcel maintained by the Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust — preserves that feel for farmland framed by oak forest and salt marsh. The trail entry point passes along hay fields left to wild abandon as habitat for butterflies, birds, and grasshoppers.
The 50- to 60-minute loop trail suddenly enters a mature hardwood forest of towering trees with abundant American holly in the undergrowth. Watch underfoot for cords of root that vein the trail. Bronze oak and bright yellow beech leaves make up the overhead foliage. From the woods, the trail emerges into a meadow and somewhat softer ground.
The best marsh views are from the long boardwalk that connects to the Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust trails (a good way to extend the hike). The salt hay is so thick that it can be hard to actually follow the thread of Little River as it winds through the wetland. Of course, you might get some help from one of the many water birds that fish the shallows.
520 Smith Neck Road, South Dartmouth. Open dawn-dusk. Free. 508-636-4693, thetrustees.org/place/cornell-farm
Old Town Hill
If you hike the upland trails to the 168-foot peak that gives this reservation its name, you might want to wear a bicycle helmet to protect your noggin from the bombardment of hickory mockernuts and thumb-size acorns of chestnut oaks. The vaunted vista from the top looks all the way to Plum Island, but don’t be surprised if it’s nearly lost in the haze.
The reservation holds a surprising diversity of trail experiences, including a nice loop through marshes into the woods and back down to Newman Road. One of the most popular trails, especially with folks taking dogs for an on-leash jog, is the looping River Trail. It begins right behind the parking area. As a heads-up, make sure the kids have waterproof footwear because the trail eventually turns boggy amid the prettiest marshes at the edge of Little River, just upriver from where it joins the Parker River to flow to the sea.
Newman Road, Newbury. Open dawn-dusk. Free. 978-526-8687, thetrustees.org/place/old-town-hill
You can see New Hampshire’s Awcomin Marsh from the road as you drive up Ocean Boulevard past Rye Harbor. Go a few hundred yards farther north to park at Rye Harbor State Park. It’s a short walk back to the trailhead directly across the road from the harbor. The ‶trail″ is just a short path through scrubby trees and stands of goldenrod to a nice viewing platform at the edge of the marsh. This stunning landscape is the result of a four-year reclamation project that hauled away fill and replanted the 30-acre marsh with native vegetation. The results have been spectacular. A blue ribbon of water curls and twists through a gold and green landscape of cordgrass and salt hay hammocks.
The sweeping views from the observation deck can be breathtaking. For serious bird watching, bring a spotting scope or binoculars to watch the ospreys fishing or simply basking in the sun on the branches of one of the dead trees ringing the western end of the ecosystem. Back at the park, tables by the water with views of the Rye Harbor anchorage or the distant Isles of Shoals make a good spot for a picnic.
1841-1877 Ocean Blvd., Rye, N.H. Open dawn-dusk. Rye Harbor State Park parking $2 per hour ($1 after Oct. 1). blog.nhstateparks.org/tag/awcomin-marsh/