Summer in the city isn’t all about sizzling asphalt and urban heat canyons. At least not in Boston. The cooling Charles River skirts the city while the parks of the Emerald Necklace provide plenty of green respite. It’s the perfect setup for a DIY city triathlon.
But don’t think of it as an Ironman competition. Follow the route at a recreational pace and enjoy the sights along the way. For starters, skip the traditional triathlon swim in favor of a leisurely kayak paddle in the lower basin of the Charles. Paddle Boston’s Kendall Square location lets you slip into the river via one of the few vestiges of the canal system that made Cambridge a bustling 19th-century seaport. The 1910 construction of a dam on the Charles River changed everything. Without twice-daily tides, the river basin became a lakelike body of freshwater and both Cambridge and Boston began to expand on the newly stable riverbanks. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology sprang up on the Cambridge side and the Esplanade began to take shape on Boston’s shore.
Today, this calm stretch of the basin between the Longfellow Bridge and the Museum of Science (which sits atop the original flood control dam) is a recreational paddler’s paradise. Out in the open basin, you can pause between strokes to take in the Beacon Hill and Back Bay skylines and see the graceful twin harps of the Zakim bridge.
You might admire the sleek powerboats of the Charlesgate Yacht Club, but they can’t poke along the shorelines in search of waterfowl. On the Cambridge side, the temporary Charles River Floating Wetland draws mallards, Canada geese, and even gulls. This artificial island is a study in how reintroducing native plants to the river might reduce pollution and algal bloom.
When you return your kayak, walk toward the Kendall T station to check out a bicycle from the Bluebikes rack at the junction of Broadway and Main Street. You’re ready for the second leg of the triathlon, pedaling much of the seven-mile length of the Emerald Necklace. Cross the Longfellow Bridge to Boston and pedal down Charles Street to the Public Garden with its knockout flower beds. The statue-lined Commonwealth Avenue Mall begins at Arlington Street.
Charlesgate is the gateway into Frederick Law Olmsted’s reformist vision of parklands as balm for the urban soul. The Emerald Necklace Conservancy’s map of the chain of parks delineates the best bicycle paths, though you may have to detour around the wetlands restoration project in the Back Bay Fens and Riverway. Download a copy at emeraldnecklace.org.
The Back Bay Fens is one of the most extensively used sections of the Emerald Necklace. Over the years, the quirky and personalized outdoor rooms of the Victory Gardens and the solemn clearing filled with war memorials have been added. Stop to literally smell the roses at the Kelleher Rose Garden. Arthur Shurcliff’s 1920s formal design might be the antithesis of Olmsted’s naturalistic forms, but it sure is pretty.
Across Park Drive, you’ll pick up the broad path of the Riverway that snakes around the northwest side of Muddy River. Peering through heavy growth on the riverbanks, you’ll likely spot swans, ducks, and herons in the slow-moving stream. You can’t miss the quirky sculptures of Studios without Walls. Called ‶The Ground We Walk,″ the 16 site-responsive sculptures near the Longwood T station will be up through Sept. 4. If you need a break, the Hilton Garden Inn Brookline welcomes park users with outdoor seating and indoor bathrooms. If it’s mealtime, Punch Bowl tavern has a nice outdoor patio.
If you didn’t have to cross busy streets, the Emerald Necklace paths would seem like a relatively continuous route from the Riverway to Olmsted Park to Jamaica Pond. The terrain does become more varied once you enter Olmsted Park, where instead of the Muddy River, you’ll find a chain of small ponds. The prettiest of the bunch is Leverett Pond, where Olmsted created small islands where waterfowl breed.
The bike path continues down the east side of Jamaica Pond, where the route drops suddenly downhill toward the biggest body of water in the park system. Olmsted lived nearby and pretty much left the pond alone, only planting some trees around its perimeter. You’ll pedal past the 1912 boathouse for a nice vista of the pond.
A short stretch of urban cycling along the Arborway brings you to the Arnold Arboretum. The reserve’s hills can be daunting for cyclists; don’t forget, you have another challenge to come. For a taste of the landscape, stick with the main road that arches from the administration building to the Washington Street gate. From there it’s a brief pedal to the Forest Hills T station where you’ll start the final leg of your triathlon.
The modern version of Olmsted’s parks might be Southwest Corridor Park. In 1963, a 12-lane highway was announced to loop through residential neighborhoods to connect Boston to the fledgling interstate highway system. Thousands of people who lived along the route rose up in outrage. It was a long struggle, but the activists finally won the day. The connecting roads were never built, many homes were saved, and the MBTA Orange Line was extended to bring mass transit to Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. Ultimately, Southwest Corridor Park was carved out and dedicated in 1989. The nearly five-mile linear route makes a great hike or short run.
After you dock your bike at the Forest Hills T station, you’ll find parallel paths for pedestrians and cyclists. Southwest Corridor Park is equally popular with joggers, stroller pushers, and dog walkers as with determined bicyclists commuting to work downtown. Both paths are within earshot — if not always line of sight — of the Orange Line tracks but otherwise skirt pleasant residential neighborhoods in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. Playgrounds, playing fields, and community gardens line the way. After Jackson Square, the route assumes a more urban vibe.
You’re nearing the conclusion when you cross Massachusetts Avenue at the Orange Line station of the same name and enter a garden landscape nestled among the streets of the South End. Pass the off-leash playful pups of the fully fenced Carleton Court Dog Park and keep walking. Suddenly, like the vision of Oz at the end of the yellow brick road, Back Bay Station looms ahead on Dartmouth Street. It should have a big sign indicating a finish line, but this triathlon is just for fun. Pop into the Salty Pig for charcuterie and your favorite restorative. You’ve earned it.
If you go . . .
15 Broad Canal Way, Cambridge
Open daily, check website for weather conditions
Single kayak rental from $30, double kayak from $45.
Boston area’s bike-sharing system is geared to frequent users, but allows the purchase of single-trip passes, which cost $2.95 for the first half hour and $2.50 per additional half hour. Download app in advance to access bikes.
Hilton Garden Inn Brookline
700 Brookline Ave., Brookline
Punch Bowl open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., brunch 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sat. and Sun. Casual American tavern fare entrees $13-$18.
The Salty Pig
130 Dartmouth St.
Open Mon.-Thu. 4-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Sun. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Signature charcuterie boards $17-$18.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.