Rail Trails at the 2021 Frontier: The Newburyport Area Coastal Trail System
Intro to my new Rail Trails at the Frontier Series
During the week, I am a PhD student in science and engineering. A crucial aspect of my job is to cultivate comfort at the frontier of knowledge. An experiment might be stubborn for months on end, and it’s not clear whether there’s just a faulty cable somewhere or whether the entire premise is flawed. How can I practice joy, play, and wonder in these moments, even when deadlines and expectations are piled on top? For me, bike exploration is basically a physical arena to practice the same psychological process that I strive to nurture in the laboratory. Isolated on routes that sometimes defy modern maps, there is a freedom and playfulness that emerges in face of the unknown. It’s an intensity of sensory experience steeped in the cultivation of self trust. Maybe I’ll miss the last train, but I trust that there will be a bus. And if there is not a bus, I trust that I’ll find a place to stay overnight. and if I can’t find a place to stay, I trust that a friend will pick me up. And if I’m far from friends, well, a summer night in the wild might even be thrilling. This sort of thought process, when treated as more of a physical experience of self-trust, is for me the antidote to anxiety whether in the lab or on the roads.
On that note — here’s the first entry: my Newburyport trip journal!
I more or less stumbled on the newly connected Coastal Trail system by accident while exploring Newburyport, MA, and it’s some of the best bicycle exploring I’ve done in the greater Boston area. The network’s newest extensions are so fresh that you won’t even find them yet on Google Maps or on OpenStreetMaps.
These trails bring you through the perfect blend of quaint towns, art displays, riverfront, beachfront, forest, marsh, countryside, and encounters with friendly locals. To the left is an overview map that I’ve taken from the Coastal Trail system website, and then highlighted key routes I’ll talk about in yellow.
I believe there are three chunks of this trail network that were newly built in 2020–2021:
(1) Marsh Trail from Salisbury, MA -> Seabrook NH
(2) Clipper City Rail Trail along the Merrimack River coast
(3) I95 underpasses to connect the Ghost Trail to downtown Amesbury
To give you a feeling on mileage/times at play here:
- The Clipper City Rail Trail is a~5 mile loop and can probably be done in 30–45 min due to crowds
- An out-and-back from the Newburyport MBTA to Amesbury is around 15 miles round trip (~1.5 hours median time)
- A full exploration in the area including Salisbury/Seabrook/NH beyond Amesbury could probably start getting up to 30 miles
- For 30+ miles, look into some of my suggestions at the end of this page.
But why not just go for it! See what calls your attention in the moment and don’t wed yourself to a plan.
Trains from Boston’s North Station leave every two hours. The first one on weekends is currently at 7:30am. The trip takes 1 hour, and if you’re lucky, your train will have a bike car (pictured to the left).
The trail literally starts directly on the north side of the Newburyport train platform. You’ll immediately be greeted by pristine, art-lined path, which feeds you into downtown Newburyport and the harbor.
Below are some photos from the brand new Clipper City Rail trail extension (opened a few weeks ago — in early June 2021). To get there, just swing a right once you travel from the MBTA stop to the waterfront. There is a small section of the trail that is not built yet, so you will find eventually yourself on car roads for a few blocks as you are circling back from Newburyport to the MBTA. The last picture below shows where I think the final section might one day be built…
Just before or just after doing the Clipper City loop, you’ll definitely want to check out downtown Newburyport. the main streets are hard to miss, but the shots below are some other spots in town slightly off the main streets — Oldies Marketplace (an enormous warehouse sized antique shop), the Sunday morning farmers market with live music (at the Tannery Marketplace courtyard), and the Tannery Marketplace itself, a former mill converted into cozy and trendy bookshops/eateries.
Alright time to get out of the town and into the woods. Cross over the Merrimack bridge right in town by following the coastal trail northwest. This is a lame part of the journey with cars racing and a bunch of signs indicating to walk bikes along a narrow sidewalk. There is a larger shoulder at the second half of the bridge that you can opt for, and also an interesting indication that a defunct bridge might one day become part of the rail trail.Let’s support this! (By the way, to find this deadend lookout, you’ll have to get yourself onto the Marsh trail, but then counterintuitively backtrack towards the river).
As you are crossing the bridge, keep on the lookout for a bike sign pointing you to a hard right turn, where you will be free from car madness and dropped into quiet marshland and woods. It’ll be hard to believe you were in a vibrant town center only minutes earlier.
As I zipped along the path, I was especially lucky to stumble on the Salisbury arts festival. I’ve never seen a festival taking place on a rail trail in the woods! The feeling of stumbling on energy like this is very exciting. I bought from the food truck that somehow made it out there, also bought some art, and watched some young dancers perform.
Finally, the trail turns to dirt for the last bit of travel into Seabrook, NH.
Turns out there are a few ways now to commuter rail + bike to NH, and this trail is the newest kid on the block. It sounds like there is a plan to eventually extend this trail further, but for now, Salisbury beach is a little tricky to get to, because 286 is treacherous. S. Main Street does let you bypass most of 286, but there’s no avoiding the last few minutes. Fortunately, there is a big shoulder on this last stretch and beautiful views, but cars were going 50–70 mph, which was stressful, though brief. I did some other exploring in this area too (e.g. Wrights Island road which is a unique view but a deadend).
Entering into the Salisbury coast, you’ll be getting a totally different vibe than Newburyport. Lobster bar, a fireworks store, lots of cars… eventually you’ll find a beach entrance. I didn’t make it up to Hampton beach, but can say that this chunk of Salisbury beach is quieter than the main area further south.
Taking 1A south, you’ll find that classic old-timey fries/pizza/arcades vibe at the main Salisbury beach entrance, and a lot more activity on the beach itself. Looks like some renovations are planned too.
After hanging on the beach and reading from a book called Deep Play By Diane Ackerman (relevant!), I decided to go check out Amesbury. This required getting back to Salisbury center. Sadly, Beach Road (not pictured) is not bike friendly at all. I road the sidewalk into Salisbury center. At this point I picked up the Ghost Trail, which is an awesome dirt path through the woods. Zoom in on the photo of the sign below to learn about the namesake.
Keep on going and you’ll eventually link up with the Amesbury riverwalk trail, and some brand new underpasses beneath major highways that look like they were probably expensive to build. Kudos to all who negotiated and found funding for this project.
There is one break in this trail (unpictured, but visible in red on the main map at the top of this page). The trail ends at an oversized crosswalk, and then picks up again a few blocks down in the back of a McDonalds parking lot. It was pretty exciting for me to find it back there — a secret place to duck back into the woods where you’d really not expect to find one, while all the muggles shop at the strip mall. I made probably the mistake of sidewalk riding along 110 for a few blocks to make this connection, then turning into the shopping mall. But I think vearing right onto Elm Street would probably make for a more peaceful connection. Plus, I saw some construction happening on Elm St as of late June 2021— maybe a better connection is being built as we speak?
At last, the path lets out in Amesbury, which is a total gem, and unknown compared to Newburyport. So quaint, with a river and dams flowing through town and restaurants built into an old textile mill courtyard. I had no idea what to expect, and was delighted by Amesbury. On a followup trip a couple of weeks later, I happened upon some old carriages being moved between storage units, possibly also for an upcoming new exhibition space. Thanks to the volunteers who chatted with us and let us hang out for a bit, and the other cheerful people I chatted with in town.
Beyond Amesbury is a wonderland (unpictured — choose your own adventure!). The roads thin out as you cross over into New Hampshire, and on the majority of roads out there you’ll now only see a car every minute or two. At this point it feels like full blown countryside, and I’ve only explored a little bit. The Heron Pond farm has a cute farmstand as you head out of Amesbury.
Sooner or later you might want to make it back to Newburyport. (Or maybe you’ll be clever and pick up the Amtrak Downeaster from Exeter, NH or Haverhill, MA). In any case, one way to get back to Newburyport is via the Garrison trail, a genuine bicycle highway — imagine adding a lane to I95 exclusively for bicycles, and separated by a wall. I made my way back along the Amesbury riverwalk trail, then hit a hard right to catch the Garrison trail. Need to cross a major road lined with stripmalls at a designated crosswalk, but still there were very obviously some recent (as of June 2021) improvements connecting the Amesbury riverwalk trail to the Garrison trail.
I wondered briefly what pollution I was breathing in next to 95, but still thought it was an interesting concept, since highways tend to connect key places. Plus there is a scenic view over the bridge, and more possible adventures exploring adjacent forests and a state park.
Garrison trail spits you out to a truly enormous parking lot, apparently a former bus depot. Traverse the parking lot, cross 113 at a cross walk, and you’ll be fed into the Little River trail system (unpictured). I missed this the first time around, but it’s cool, bicycle friendly, and lots of walking paths are also connected to the main artery. I chatted with a volunteer for a while who was adding dust to the path. It’ll take you to Hale Street. From there, some gentle road riding along Hale and Malcolm Hoyt will bring you back to the MBTA stop, complete with a nearby brewery, Metrorock climbing gym, and that Metzy’s mexican restaurant I mentioned earlier.
When I set out on this journey, I had no specific route in mind, and no idea that so much improvement had happened within the last year. I was totally lucky, and only pieced together the maps and websites after the fact. Crucially, part of the feeling of exploration and liberation comes from not having too specific of a route or a plan, just a vague sense of the area you are exploring, taking some joy from whatever the route reveals to you. Even mundanity takes on life in this heightened sensory state — the banal becomes uncanny. So rather than plan out too specific of a route, why not just hop on the train, ride off the platform, and follow your nose. I also can think of around 5 more adventures still to explore in this area —
(1) Plum Island (a classic)
(2) 1A up to NH/Maine (somewhat of a classic)
(3) More exploration in the NH countryside beyond Amesbury (off the beaten path). Travel long enough and it appears possible to connect to the Rockingham recreational trail, a long one that’ll take you all the way to Manchester NH
(4) Exeter/Haverhill/West Newbury/Merrimac areas, including the Jay McClaren Memorial Trail (probably off the beaten path. Volunteer told me that West Newbury has a great trail network)
(5) State park/forest adjacent to Garrison trail
I’ll end by leaving the map here for your reference. What else have you stumbled on in this area? Did you find this post useful at all? Let me know, and it’ll motivate me to keep on adding more trip summaries. Cochituate Rail Trail would be next….
Happy venturing — leave a note if you have questions or if you try this out.
ps. if you made it all the way here and enjoyed the post, always appreciate a coffee (or more realistically, another commuter rail ticket!)