FEW PLACES IN THE WORLD boast the kind of natural diversity this area packs into just 70,000 square miles. Within a few hours’ drive from one another are powder-sand beaches, mountains bristling with cedars, wetlands teeming with wildlife, and crystal-clear lakes fringed with colorful oaks and maples. And thanks to a strong conservation ethos, many of these stunning environments have been set aside for future generations’ peaceful enjoyment. Here are some of our favorite local paradises.
Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve at Laudholm Farm
Estuaries are nature’s incubators — those sheltered petri dishes of land and water that allow countless critters to flourish. The researchers at this 2,250-acre coastal reserve have dedicated their lives to understanding how it all works, and gladly take visitors along for the ride. Guided walks along seven miles of trails are guaranteed to present a mini Noah’s Ark of wildlife, including rare birds, cottontail rabbits, turtles, snakes, wild turkeys, skittering crabs, and 55 species of fish (along with biting flies and poison ivy–so come prepared). Half- and full-day programs for kids allow your budding naturalists to get good and muddy with extremely hands-on explorations. >> 42 Laudholm Farm Rd., Wells, ME, 207-646-1555, wellsreserve.org.
Nash Stream Forest
For a real backcountry experience, few spots in New England are as idyllic — or as challenging — as the Great North Woods of New Hampshire, stretching in every direction with craggy summits, fresh-running streams, and expansive views straight up to Canada. The heart of the area is the Nash Stream Forest, a tangled wilderness of bald peaks and ravines sliced through by the 162-mile Cohos Trail. The traditional day hikes along the trail are up North and South Percy mountains, but shorter sections allowless-intrepid hikers their chance at wilderness nirvana — and possibly a moose for the photo album. >> cohostrail.org.
Weir Farm National Historic Site
When impressionist painters of the late 19th century were looking for inspiration, they found it at this bucolic farm in southeastern Connecticut. Purchased long ago by American artist Julian Alden Weir for the price of a painting, the site has been preserved as lovingly as any oil on canvas, with miles of overgrown paths through meadows and forests that invite visitors to get lost in the wilds of their imagination. And should the muse strike, the on-site Weir Farm Art Center sells supplies and offers classes that allow artists of all abilities to try their hand at creating en plein air masterpieces. >> 735 Nod Hill Rd., Wilton, CT, 203-834-1896, nps.gov/wefa.
Calvin Coolidge State Park
Vermont native Calvin Coolidge may share his name with this gorgeous mountainside state park, but its creation is all thanks to Coolidge’s post-Depression successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps carved trails through 21,500 acres of hillside overlooking Plymouth Notch, affording sweeping vistas over the Green Mountains that are among the best in Vermont. The trails are wide and accessible, giving hikers the feel of being in the wilderness without a long hike into the backcountry. Among the wildlife known to share those trails are moose and black bears. >> 855 Coolidge State Park Rd., Plymouth, VT, 802-672-3612, vtstateparks.com/htm/coolidge.htm.
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge
Bird watchers fly high at this jewel just north of Boston, which covers roughly two-thirds of scenic Plum Island. The sandy barrier island extends 11 miles out to sea and is a regular pit stop for winged creatures riding the Atlantic Flyway. Meanwhile, miles of trails and a number of observation towers and platforms improve the odds of spotting local avian fauna, which include bald eagles, snowy owls, great cormorants, and more than 350 other kinds of resident and migratory birds. >> 6 Plum Island Tpke., Newburyport, MA, 978-465-5753, fws.gov/northeast/parkerriver.