Plum Island MA is a barrier island that’s a popular tourist destination in the summertime. It includes miles of sandy beaches and acres of wildlife refuge providing lots of things to do.
Plum Island MA is a perfect north shore destination in the summertime!
While not as well-known as other communities north of Boston, Plum Island feels like a get-away with hints of Cape Cod and beaches to rival it.
This barrier island’s eastern shore, 11 miles long, consists of sandy beaches that are open to the public year-round. And unlike the more popular Crane’s Beach, that’s a bit further south, Plum Island’s beaches aren’t as crowded or congested.
Besides beaches, Plum Island’s other main attraction is its 4,700-acre protected nature preserve perfect for hiking, cycling, and bird watching.
Visitors can reach Plum Island via the Plum Island Turnpike, a causeway that has a drawbridge over the Plum Island River. Upon entrance to Plum Island, a right turn down Sunset Drive leads to the nature preserve while a left turn or driving straight ahead leads into the residential section of the island. Beaches can be accessed in many areas along the eastern side of the island.
Here are some of the best things to do during your visit to Plum Island MA.
Visit the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge
The pristine Parker River National Wildlife Refuge encompasses the majority of Plum Island, consisting of nearly 4,700 acres of protected land. Here reptiles, amphibians, and insects inhabit this space, and waterfowl, songbirds and shorebirds use the refuge as a stopover during migration seasons.
Established in 1942, the refuge is managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and mainly consists of bog, swamp, freshwater marsh, saltwater marsh, and sandy beaches. There are trails, including boardwalks, and observation stations throughout the refuge. And well-spaced parking lots make it easy to explore.
If learning about the wildlife and terrain of the refuge is of interest, you’ll want to stop at the Joppa Flats Education Center before crossing over into Plum Island. This facility provides the perfect overview of the refuge, its wildlife, and terrain, before visiting.
In addition to traveling by car, cyclists can ride the length of the refuge – about a 7.5-miles – making stops along the way to take in the scenery. The entrance fee to the refuge is $5 per car or $2 per pedestrian.
Go bird watching
With over 300 species of birds, primarily in the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most popular things to do on Plum Island is to go bird-watching.
With binoculars in hand, bird watching is relatively easy with the many trails and boardwalks that lead into the center and outer reaches of the island. From there you can see birds in all their habitats whether it’s a fresh or saltwater marsh or along sandy beaches or dunes. (6 Plum Island Turnpike)
Relax on Newbury, Sandy, and Plum Island Beaches
The easternmost edge of Plum Island MA consists of an 11-mile-long strip of sandy beach that’s technically divided into three beaches.
However, it’s possible to stroll from one beach to the next and not even realize you’re on a new beach.
Plum Island Beach is on the north of the Island. Here, you’ll find public parking, restrooms (open seasonally), and the island’s lighthouse. A boardwalk leads to the beach.
Further down the island is Newbury Beach, located just off of Plum Island turnpike. There’s ample room here to find a quiet space but parking is limited so arrive early.
Sandy Beach, which is connected to Newbury Beach to the south, is accessible from the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge’s first parking lot. You’ll also find public restrooms here and a boardwalk – with stunning views! – that leads to the beach.
Visit the Plum Island Lighthouse
Lighthouse enthusiasts will want to make a stop at the Plum Island Lighthouse, located at the northern tip of the island.
Built in 1788, the original Plum Island Lighthouse, also referred to as the Newburyport Harbor Light, was the 13th lighthouse to be constructed in the United States. Its lantern was lit by whale oil as it helped guide sailors through the dangerous passage of the mouth of the Merrimack River and Newburyport Harbor.
Several storms damaged the original structure and shifting sands required the lighthouse to be moved several times. In 1898, the lighthouse was rebuilt and in 1927 it was powered by electricity. The lighthouse became fully automated in 1951 and today it flashes a green light.
The grounds of the lighthouse are open to the public and The Friends of Plum Island Light occasionally offer tours inside. Public parking for the lighthouse and Plum Island Beach is nearby and only a short walk away. (Harbor Street)
Go kayaking or take a harbor cruise
One fun way to explore the island is by boat and visitors can either travel by water independently or with a tour.
Plum Island Kayak, while located in Newburyport, rents kayaks that can be used around Plum Island. You’ll get a different perspective of the coast and the island’s nature refuge from the water. (92 Merrimac Street, Newburyport)
Another way to get out to sea without having to paddle is to take a harbor cruise. Yankee Clipper Harbor Tours offers a 2.5-hour cruise throughout the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge giving insight into how this ecosystem is considered the second most productive in the world. (Newburyport Town Dock)
Eat at one of Plum Island’s restaurants
While Plum Island MA isn’t known for its restaurants, there are a few on the island worth checking out.
One of the cutest is Mad Martha’s Island Cafe. This hole-in-the-wall is the perfect place to pick up breakfast or lunch while on the island. A busy kitchen staff works in front of customers in a small, cozy dining space that feels a bit like a cottage living room. (51 Northern Boulevard)
Another popular seasonal favorite is Bob Lobster. While technically not on the island, this eatery can be found along the Plum Island Turnpike just half a mile from the bridge. (49 Plum Island Turnpike)
Two other favorites include Plum Island Beachcoma, a bar and casual restaurant. (23 Plum Island Turnpike) And the seasonal outdoor Sunset Club, serving everything from burgers to tacos to tuna poke bowls along with drinks. (4 Old Point Road)
Visit Newburyport’s charming downtown
Only a 10-minute drive from Plum Island is the charming and historic downtown of Newburyport. Here you’ll find a wide variety of boutiques, cafes, eateries, galleries, and independent shops.
Even if you’re not interested in shopping or getting something to eat, Newburyport’s architecture is a draw alone. The center of the downtown, known as Market Square, contains 19th-century red brick buildings that make one feel like they’ve stepped back in time.
Newburyport’s waterfront is another draw and is easily accessible by Waterfront Park. A boardwalk in the park runs parallel to the water allowing for ample viewing of the Merrimack River, ships in the harbor, and the Gillis Memorial Bridge.
To learn more about Newburyport see: Top 29 Best Things to Do in Newburyport
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About Kerry Flatley
Kerry Flatley has lived in New England for the past 26 years. She has roots in Maine & Massachusetts, family in New Hampshire, and grew up close to the Connecticut border. She loves all that this region has to offer – the ocean, mountains, islands, history, villages, and cities. When she’s not writing about New England, she’s relaxing at home in the Boston suburbs with her two teenage daughters and husband.