The Great Bay estuary – often referred to as New Hampshire’s hidden coast – offers many opportunities for recreational and nature enthusiasts. The subtle beauty of Great Bay is captivating, especially in early morning when the estuary is filled with the sounds of wildlife. So whether you enjoy kayaking, hiking, fishing, birding or nature photography, summer is the perfect time to explore the wonders of Great Bay.
Because of its shallow waters and strong tides, boating around the estuary gets tricky. A safer way to explore its waters is by kayak and offers the best option for enjoying the bay’s diverse habitats. There are several easy water access points for car top boats which can be found here.
My favorite launch spot is Chapman’s Landing in Stratham on the Squamscott River (site 3 on map). From Chapman’s you can easily explore the vast salt marshes and tidal creeks found along the river or paddle all the way up to Exeter. Nesting osprey can be found down river from the boat ramp.
If you want to explore the Maine side of the estuary, I suggest putting in at the Salmon Falls River boat launch (site 15 on map). Serving as the border between NH and ME, paddling the Salmon Falls is like going back in time and you can easily imagine what attracted the early settlers to this area.
Only experienced kayakers should venture out into the middle of Great Bay and no matter where you go, always check the local tides. Or if you prefer to have a guided tour of the Portsmouth Harbor area, check out Portsmouth Kayak Adventures (they also offer rentals).
Anglers enjoy coming to the estuary to test their skill. You can visit the NH Fish and Game web site to learn more about the saltwater fishing regulations and to get your saltwater recreational fishing license (now required). Fishing for striped bass – or stripers – is especially popular.
If you prefer to hike the shorelines around the estuary, numerous land access points allow easy access to the vast conservation lands found throughout the estuary. With over six miles of undeveloped shoreline, the Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge offers numerous trails and wildlife viewing areas.
If you strive for solitude, the Cy and Bobbie Sweet Trail crosses over some of the beautiful conserved land in the Seacoast. Over four miles long running from Longmarsh Road in Durham to Great Bay in Newmarket, the Sweet Trail leads hikers through a remarkable array of upland forests, freshwater wetlands and tidal salt marsh. This area – once slated for an oil refinery in the 1970’s – includes several wildlife viewing stations along the trail and three designated parking areas to choose from.
Other popular hiking and birding areas include Adams Point in Durham and Sandy Point in Greenland. Both of these sites are owned by NH Fish and Game and maintained by the Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. On the Maine side of the estuary, I would suggest visiting Vaughan Woods State Park in South Berwick.
A listing of access points including maps to all of the conserved lands around Great Bay can be found at the Great Bay Resource Protection Partnership website. The Partnership is led by The Nature Conservancy and is actively protecting conservation lands throughout the estuary.
The Great Bay Research Reserve also operates the Great Bay Discovery Center in Greenland, a great place for families to learn about the estuary. If modern technology is more your thing, ask for a copy of their Passport to Great Bay. It provides information and directions to numerous conserved properties around Great Bay as well as coordinates to their popular geocache program.
Once you visit Great Bay, you cannot help but be inspired by its natural beauty. Unfortunately, the health of Great Bay is in decline. Please join me and others in protecting this national treasure. Click here and support our efforts to clean up and save from harm the estuary for future generations.