A couple of years ago I wrote about a spectacular hike I led for the Appalachian Mountain Club where we literally walked “on” Boston Harbor, using a spit of land to get to Thompson Island at low tide. You may also remember that I subsequently got into a bit of a pickle for doing so and ended up being labeled the “bad boy of the AMC,” which I feel ashamed about but never fail to use whenever I’m telling stories in the bars. (I also tell people of my fisherman friends who initially told me about the secret sandbar and now want to fillet me like a striped bass for publicizing it, but that’s another story.)
Well, being the obsessive person that I am, I decided to try again, this time leading a hike that would check out some of the best parts but wouldn’t actually get me kicked off a Boston Harbor island, which, when you think about it, is pretty impressive, especially when embellishing it in the bars. And the result? A hike that really is quite memorable while also being completely legal to do.
As mentioned in the earlier article, Thompson Island is quite close to the mainland and is one of two islands south of Boston that you can actually walk to at low tide via a sandbar. (Don’t ask about the second one, because you have to cut through private land and I’m in enough trouble already.) From the main road leading from North Quincy/Wollaston Beach to Squantum, you can see the spit of land between the eastern edge of Squantum and Thompson Island at low tide if you look hard enough, but it really doesn’t look like much from street level, so it isn’t all that well known.
But if you hike the wooded trails from Secret Squantum Park (and yes, that’s its name, though some also say Nickerson Beach or Squaw Rock) off Moon Island Road by the Nickerson American Legion Post, you can quickly get to the beginning of the sandbar in a few minutes, though one note: Your best bet for parking is not in the American Legion lot or along the street there, but back a few hundred feet along one of the side streets, making sure there are no “No Parking” signs. And if you want to get to the starting point but don’t have a car, you can take the 211 bus from the Quincy Center T stop and get off at Dorchester Street and Bellevue Road, which is close to the park.
Our recent sunset hike from Squantum to the start of Thompson Island took us along a high coastal trail from the road, with jaw-dropping views of the Boston skyline along the way, and soon, a side view of the sandbar, before dipping back down into the woods, keeping the ocean to our left until we got to the start of the sandbar. Just before taking a left down to the spit of land, we passed a rocky trail to the right that went up to a cliff overlooking the water, noting that this is a good place to watch the sun drop from the horizon at the end of the hike.
As to the sandbar itself, you need to know a few things: First, the spit of land is generally accessible 90 minutes before low tide and 90 minutes after low tide, though this can vary—and vary a lot depending on any breaches formed during recent storms—so try to get to the start 90 minutes before low tide if possible, and definitely head back to at least within sight of the start about an hour after low tide just in case it starts filling in, unless you want to pretend to be Gilligan for a night (and possibly get kicked off the island, which, as noted, would make for a good story for the bars).
Second, you may picture the sandbar as being a narrow strip of land where you have to walk single file, but it’s actually 100 feet wide or possibly even more, so it’s plenty safe and doesn’t feel dicey at all. Finally, just because it leads to Thompson Island doesn’t mean that you can actually walk onto Thompson Island, but more on that in a bit.
Walking across a sandbar to an island only to turn around at the island itself might not sound very interesting, but the Thompson Island sandbar has some of the best views on the entire Massachusetts coast, especially late in the day when the lighting is so interesting. Doing the 20-minute walk from Squantum to the island will give you views of Boston, the Blue Hills, and more to the left, while the views to the right are like a totally different world, including pristine islands and distant scenes of the South Shore looking more like something out of midcoast Maine than the city of Boston—and yes, you are indeed in Boston for part of this hike.
Our walk took all of this in, and eventually we reached the southern edge of the island and were greeted by a “No Trespassing” sign, which caused confusion the first time we went and still causes a bit of confusion. To make a long story short, we were under the impression that not only could you walk along the water’s edge at low tide (because it seems that Massachusetts law says you can do this), but you could also walk onto the island on summer weekends as long as you stayed away from the campus area where youth and education programs take place.
Unfortunately, we were told on a follow-up hike—after the first article was published—that none of this could be done after all (and we were almost escorted off the island by boat, but cooler heads prevailed), so when we hit the sign this time, our options were to go to the right for a short distance and get one last look at the other islands, or go left and head a short distance parallel to the sign to catch more views of Boston along with interesting views of the southern part of the island (or both, which we did). This spot by the sign, by the way, is a good place for a picnic or a quick lunch/dinner break, as there are some pieces of driftwood to sit on, which is precisely what we did for a 15-minute dinner break, taking in the setting sun, the salt air, the absolute peace and quiet, and the endless scenery.
You may think that at this point, the hike is basically over and you simply reverse direction, heading back to the road. This isn’t exactly true if you do what we did, which was to go back to the Squantum side of the sandbar, then scamper up the trail leading to the road, but immediately taking a left up the cliff face mentioned earlier. If you’re here at sunset, this is a must, because the views from the top of the ledges—which are commonly known as the Chapel Rocks—are possibly the best views of the entire trip.
Below you’ll get to see the sandbar in its entirety, while looking right will give you higher-up views of the islands and the South Shore, and looking left will give you views of the rocky coast of Squantum as well as the sun setting over the water. This perch seems a fitting end to an unusual and unforgettable hike, though remember that you still have a short walk through the woods back to the car, possibly in the dark, so don’t stay too long. (By the way, keeping the water to your left along the trail from the cliff will be a bit quicker and easier than the trails described earlier and will take you right to the American Legion post, where you can walk back to the start/end point along the road.)
The original Thompson Island hike, which included Thompson Island itself, was something I’ll never forget for several reasons, but this perfectly legal walk includes mostly similar sights and may also give you a bit of cachet, since saying that you walked across Boston Harbor sounds like the stuff of legend. If you want to do something totally different that entails very little effort, this walk is certainly one to consider.
SQUANTUM TO START OF THOMPSON ISLAND VIA SANDBAR. 3-4 MILES TOTAL, 2 HOURS. ARTICLE ON ORIGINAL HIKE CAN BE FOUND AT DIGBOSTON.COM/SPECIAL-LOW-TIDE-FEATURE-THOMPSON-ISLAND/
Marc is the founder of @hiddenboston, a textbook editor, a hike leader for @AppMtnClub, and a food and travel writer and commenter for DigBoston, NBC/NECN, WBZ, WMFO and indie617.