Top 7 Best Things to Do on Plum Island Massachusetts

Plum Island MA is a barrier island and a popular tourist destination in the summertime. It includes miles of sandy beaches and acres of wildlife refuge, providing many things to do. 

A look at Plum Island MA from the sky

Plum Island MA is an excellent north shore destination in the summertime!

While less well-known than 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 open to the public year-round. And unlike the more popular Crane’s Beach, 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 with 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 island’s eastern side.

Here are some of the best things to do during your visit to Plum Island MA.

Visit the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

the marsh at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge
Photo credit: americaswildlife / Flickr

The pristine Parker River National Wildlife Refuge encompasses the majority of Plum Island, consisting of nearly 4,700 acres of protected land. 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. It mainly consists of bog, swamp, freshwater & saltwater marsh, and sandy beaches. There are also 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.

In addition to traveling by car, cyclists can ride the length of the refuge – about 7.5 miles – making stops to take in the scenery. The entrance fee to the refuge is $5 per car or $2 per pedestrian.

Go bird watching

a girl 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. Many trails and boardwalks lead into the island’s center and outer reaches. From there, you can see birds in all their habitats, whether fresh or saltwater marsh or along sandy beaches or dunes. (6 Plum Island Turnpike)

Relax on Newbury, Sandy, and Plum Island Beaches

Sandy Beach on Plum Island MA
Sandy Beach looking north. Photo credit: Kerry Flatley

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’ve entered a new beach.

Plum Island Beach is on the north of the island. You’ll find public parking, restrooms (open seasonally), and the island’s lighthouse here. A boardwalk leads to the beach.

Further down the island is Newbury Beach, located just off the Plum Island turnpike. There’s ample room to find a quiet space, but parking is limited, so arrive early.

Sandy Beach, 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 and a boardwalk – with stunning views! – that leads to the beach.

Visit the Plum Island Lighthouse

Plum Island Lighthouse
Plum Island Lighthouse. Photo credit: Kerry Flatley

Lighthouse enthusiasts will want to stop at the Plum Island Lighthouse at the island’s northern tip.

Built in 1788, the original Plum Island Lighthouse, also called 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; today, it flashes a green light.

The lighthouse grounds 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

Kayaks lined up on a beach

One fun way to explore the island is by boat, and visitors can travel by water independently or with a tour.

Plum Island Kayak, 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 natural refuge from the water. (92 Merrimac Street, Newburyport)

Another way to travel out to sea without paddling 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

Bob Lobster near Plum Island MA
Bob Lobster. Photo credit: Kerry Flatley

While Plum Island MA isn’t known for its restaurants, a few are worth checking out on the island.

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. 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 is 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 serves everything from burgers to tacos to tuna poke bowls and drinks. (4 Old Point Road)

Follow us on our latest New England Adventure

Join our mailing list

Visit Newburyport’s charming downtown

Downtown Newburyport
Downtown Newburyport. Photo credit: Kerry Flatley

Only a 10-minute drive from Plum Island is Newburyport’s charming and historic downtown. 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 feel a bit like stepping 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

Visit other towns nearby:

Top 23 Best Things to Do in Rockport Massachusetts

Top 21 Best Things to Do in Gloucester Massachusetts

(As a GetYourGuide affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you.)

A photo of Kerry Flatley leaning against a wall

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.

One Comment

  1. How about fishing? Plum Island is a mecca for fishermen, both from the surf and boat. Party boats are available at the north end of island and there are plenty of spots to fish for striped bass, bluefish and flounder among other species of fish.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *