We’re like a lot of city dwellers in these pent-up pandemic times. “Getting out” often means strolling along the banks of the Charles River, perhaps even crisscrossing the various bridges between Boston and Cambridge. But as the longest river entirely within Massachusetts, the Charles has a lot more to offer. Working from near the source and flowing toward the sea, here are several ways to cozy up to the 83-mile waterway. If you plan to hike, try to download trail maps in advance.
The river officially rises at Echo Lake in Hopkinton, yet by the time it has meandered down to Millis, the Charles barely hints of its majesty to come. The hiking at this Trustees of Reservations property is equally mellow, making a loop on a former cart path. It’s especially good for walkers and their leashed dogs. The trail plunges immediately through a patch of woods down to the bank of the lazy little river. You continue along the riverbank through woods before emerging into a picturesque field where nesting birds hide in the high grass. You might see Red-tailed Hawks overhead. Farther along the loop, a trail spur to the left connects back to the river at a marked canoe landing. But the main loop circles through open woods well-pierced by shafts of sunlight until it emerges at the parking lot. 161 Forest Road, Millis. Open dawn to dusk. Free. 508-785-0339, thetrustees.org/place/cedariver
Rocky Narrows, Sherborn
Rocky Narrows is where the Charles River grows up. When Puritans penetrated inland to settle what would become Sherborn around 1650, they dubbed the narrow rock cleft the ‶Gates of the Charles.″ It is where the river begins to cut through rather than around the rocky landscape. For a good workout, follow the Bay Circuit Trail downhill across meadowland to the canoe landing along the river. The trail continues to a junction with red- and blue-blazed trails. The Bay Circuit Trail follows the blue trail up some steep footing to traverse a high bluff above the river. Two dramatic vistas await. The Rocky Narrows Overlook is the lesser of the two but does show where the river courses through tall granite banks. The trail then widens out along the high ground until it reaches King Philip’s Overlook, which demonstrates why this strategic passage on the river was contested between colonists and Native forces during King Philip’s War (1675-78). The vantage oversees all movement in the valley. The circuit back to the parking lot through the woods has easier footing. Follow the right fork at trail marker No. 9. South Main St. (Route 27), Sherborn. Open dawn to dusk. Free. 508-785-0339, thetrustees.org/place/rocky-narrows
Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, Natick
The Charles swells to a major waterway by the time it reaches this Mass Audubon sanctuary less than five miles downriver from Rocky Narrows. The Charles River Trail is located in the far northeast corner of the property, and getting there is half the fun. You’ll cross boardwalks and bridges over marshes and pad through open forest on trails spongy with pine needles and soft moss. Follow the Marsh Trail left to the Boundary Trail. Don’t sweat the ‶Trail Closed″ sign: There’s a new blue-blazed trail to the right that cuts uphill until you see a gravel road on the left. This connects to the Charles River Trail, which is across South Street. The loop is about a mile — half of it along the river, half of it in rocky woods — and takes around 40 minutes to walk before you return to the Nature Center the way you came. 280 Eliot St., Natick. Timed entry tickets must be purchased in advance at website. $6 nonmembers. 508-655-2296; massaudubon.org/get-outdoors/wildlife-sanctuaries/broadmoor
Kendrick Pond Loop, Cutler Park Reservation, Needham
The marshlands flanking the Charles as the river winds eastward under I-95 provide some of the finest birding habitat in eastern Massachusetts. This mile and a half DCR Healthy Heart Trail, a segment of the park’s Blue Heron Trail, is a wide woods road that touches on the Charles River and circles broad Kendrick Pond. The pond is favored habitat for swans (we spotted about two dozen in early October), although their numbers thin as the weather cools. It’s also popular fishing grounds for humans and Ospreys. River views along the trail improve when the foliage falls. A short spur provides riverbank access for watching canoeists and kayakers and observing the occasional blue heron fishing among the reeds. A favorite with dog walkers, runners, and mountain bikers, the loop trail is mostly flat and firm enough to be wheelchair accessible except in wet weather. 84 Kendrick St., Needham. Open dawn to dusk. Free. 617-698-1802, mass.gov/locations/cutler-park-reservation
Charles River Bike Path, Lower Charles River Basin
The DCR’s Charles River Reservation stretches about 20 miles west from Boston, and the most popular segment of its bike path circles the tame, urban lower basin of the Charles River — the 7-mile stretch of broad, flat water from Watertown to the Museum of Science. (The museum even has a permanent exhibit gallery about the Charles River.) One good spot to begin pedaling is Watertown Square. What starts as a fairly narrow path on the western end gets far wider as you approach the Esplanade, where it’s divided into separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians. Several bridges — both roadways and pedestrian spans — allow you to cross between banks along the route. Make a leisurely outing of it by bringing a picnic to enjoy on the grass along the river — just watch out for Canada Geese. mass.gov/locations/charles-river-reservation
On the Water
It’s not too late for sightseeing on the Charles River. The Charles Riverboat Company is operating three 90-minute foliage tours every Saturday and Sunday through Nov. 8. It’s a real seasonal idyll to see rowers and sailboats on the lower basin and the striking architecture of Back Bay and Harvard University framed in flame orange, red, and gold. The nominal rental season for Charles River Canoe and Kayak was set to end Oct. 12, but the company hopes to stretch the season as long as weather and water temperatures cooperate. Charles Riverboat Company, Lechmere Canal Park, 100 CambridgeSide Place, Cambridge. Adults $29.50, seniors and students $26.50, under age 12 $22.50. 617-621-3001, charlesriverboat.com. Charles River Canoe and Kayak, multiple locations. Adult kayak from $38/day, kids' kayak $20/day. 617-965-5110, paddleboston.com.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.