By land and sea, a bunch of low-cost, hi-fun activities

I love getting outside and moving with children, spending little money and having lots of fun. My gang of four went to few camps. Mostly we had Camp Mom and hung out at the nearby swimming pool or town beach. Children like unstructured open-ended time, so provide it.

When you need an excursion, here are some outdoor activities in Eastern Massachusetts that fit the bill.

By foot

Mt. Watutic in Ashby is one of my favorite hikes. It can be climbed in 45 minutes —  just long enough to challenge youngsters but not long enough to get them whining. Try to catch the wild blueberries in season. Take Route 119 from Littleton. Go past Route 31 and the trail-head will be on the right in Ashby.

I like to take children and tots to play in creeks. If there’s not one in your neighborhood, go to this conservation area on Route 110 in Chelmsford en route to Westford,  wedged between Route 110 and 495.Bring a picnic, a book to read or a friend to hang out with while the children splash in the creek in the shade. It’s very relaxing. Have the children wear old sneakers or water shoes. The creek can entertain them for a few hours.

Most Massachusetts towns have trail systems. Westford sells a book of trails on conservation land available at Roudenbush and the library. Many towns list their trail systems online. You don’t have to go far for an adventure. The important thing is family togetherness. Bring a picnic and stop for ice cream on the way home if you want to splurge. Or have ice cream at home.

This link provides mostly free hikes, a few charge a small admission fee.

By bike

It takes some effort to get everyone’s bike in shape to go on a bike trail, an excellent alternative to riding on the street. You have to load the bikes on the car, pack helmets, water bottles and food.  However, it’s an enjoyable way to pass a few hours. The following bike trails are within 30 minutes of Lowell.

The newest trail is the Bruce Freeman in Westford/Chelmsford near Route 225; Bedford is the start of the famous and well-used Minuteman Trail; for a less used-alternative, go to the 3 mile long Bedford Narrow Gauge trail to Billerica; Ayer is host to the Nashua River Trail that cuts through 11 miles of wetlands, orchards, woods and small towns to Nashua, NH; in Stow – Marlborough find the recently completed Assabet River Rail Trail; the Lowell Canal Systems is bike-friendly. All of these bike trails are listed on the national rail-trail link.

Playgrounds

The following towns in the Merrimack Valley have wonderful free community playgrounds designed for hours of fun. If you know of more to add to the list, please post them on the comment section. Bring a picnic, friends and/or reading material while the children play.

Littleton – on Route 110 near Rogers Street. It’s nestled behind the tennis and basketball courts on the north side of Route 110 near the Masonic Lodge.

Ayer – in Pirone Park, off Route 2A after the Ayer Rotary. Turn at the Courthouse to get to the park. The playground is nestled behind the playing fields.

Carlisle – town center, behind the elementary schools on School Street.

While in Carlisle, stop by Great Brook Farm at 984 Lowell Street. It’s not mandatory to buy ice cream while petting the animals. Bring the family and take a hike. It’s a nice excursion to the country. Use that link to connect to many state parks that are closer and cheaper than you think. Day passes are usually $5 for a carload; camping is $12 a night.

Kaboom lists a playground guide that’s almost overwhelming.

Libraries – free and low cost entertainment

Libraries are one of my favorite places in the world. Check the summer schedule of area libraries for free shows and summer reading programs. If you’ve never been to the Lowell Library, the spectacular architecture is worth a visit. It’s part of the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium, so you can take out books if you have a card in another town that’s part of the MVLC. Check at www.mvlc.org.

Many libraries in Massachusetts offer free or reduced-cost admission to area museums. Call or check online with your town’s library.

An adventure by train

Did you know the MBTA has a family price for commuter rail? The fare is only about $20 round-trip from Lowell or Fitchburg to Boston. It is an adventure to take commuter rail, and it saves the headache of having a car in Boston. Bring backpacks and a picnic lunch for a low-cost day downtown.

Free Boston city adventures

Follow the red line to the USS Constitution for a free tour.

Sign up for a free 90 minute Freedom Trail tour at the National Park headquarters across the street from the State Street Subway stop at 15 State Street. http://www.nps.gov/bost/planyourvisit/guidedtours.htm It’s first-come-first-serve to the first 30 people.

Climbing the Bunker Hill Monument is a way to get some exercise and a good view.

By sea

Ride the ferry  in Boston Harbor to two islands for FREE Friday, July 16, http://www.harborexpress.com/harborislands/ A family fare is normally $39 – still a bargain for a summer outing.

Borrow or rent canoes and kayaks and go to area ponds, lakes and rivers. Our family of six spent many a Saturday in canoes exploring Massachusetts and New Hampshire. I preferred water travel over hiking because floating and paddling are easier than hiking for children. They and we were happier.

It’s also fun to be on water. A pre-owned canoe is an affordable investment, or borrow or share a canoe. There are many guidebooks available on waterways in New England. We often brought tubes or let the kids float down the river in life jackets. It’s a relaxing and affordable way to enjoy the outdoors. Sometimes we floated into rope swings and took a long break while everyone took turns swinging and splashing into the water.

Muldoon Park in Lowell is an easy-to-access boat launch for canoes and kayaks. Paddle upstream on the Concord River and float down. There’s no need to have a second vehicle to take out at another location.

Stoney Brook in Westford on Depot Road offers another canoe loop through conservation land.

There’s always the ocean. My friend Denali preferred Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester because of the impossibility of drowning in the shallow water.

Have fun

There are plenty of ways to enjoy the great outdoors this summer for the price of a picnic lunch, a few gallons of gas and minimal equipment. What really counts is that your family spends time together, has a fun adventure, and gets moving. Have a family meeting and talk about the possibilities with your children. Get them involved in the decision-making and trip preparation. Camp Mom and Camp Dad can be a lot of fun.

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