Side Trips in Coastal New England


Last Updated on February 22, 2024 by Grant

Coastal New England is home to a ton of small sites scattered throughout which are really cool to see but do not warrant a dedicated stay on the trip.

One of the best things about coastal New England is the distances between the sites are relatively small. You can easily visit many of these sites as day trips from a central location. We used both Plymouth, MA and West Thompson, CT as our bases. Providence, RI would also make a great base, with all sites located within about an hour’s drive.

Check out our full New England National Parks itinerary here.

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Where to Stay in Coastal New England – Plymouth

We ended up staying in Plymouth at the Pinewood Lodge Campground to be able to visit Cape Cod and decided to use it for a home base to see most of the rest of these sites. We also stayed in West Thompson, CT for a couple of nights (see below). You could easily just drive to all of the sites from Plymouth. 

Our campground outside Plymouth turned out to be probably the worst campsite we have been to yet. While the campground itself was not bad, the particular site we were in was pretty much awful. The site was wide enough, but not deep enough. It would have been ok was it not for a tree several feet away from the edge of the site. Add in the fact that the site was not level at all and it took a lot to get the camper set up.

Sometimes you need a lot to get your camper level.
Sometimes you need a lot to get your camper level.

The number of children in the campground was unusual based upon what we have seen in the past. It is definitely more of a weekend getaway for folks from Boston and other cities.

Plymouth, itself, is a nice enough coastal New England town, with typical touristy shops. There are plenty of pubs and eateries along Court Street as well. On the coast is Plymouth Rock, where the Pilgrims landed. There’s also the Mayflower II, a recreation of the original sailing ship that brought said pilgrims across the Atlantic.

Plymouth Rock
Plymouth Rock

Massachusetts Sites

New Bedford National Historical Park

We headed across to New Bedford, where we visited the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. The park highlights the whaling chapter of American life and it focuses on the life of the whalers and the home life for the wives left behind.

The Seaman's Bethel, a nondenominational chapel for sailors erected by the folks in New Bedford to help the sailors find God.
The Seaman’s Bethel, a nondenominational chapel for sailors erected by the folks in New Bedford to help the sailors find God.

Like many of the urban parks, New Bedford NHP spreads out over several locations in the town. That gave us a chance to explore the town on foot and by car. The visitor center houses a nice exhibit on the impacts of whaling. It also has a nice film on all the aspects of whaling.

Other areas of the park include the Seaman’s Bethel (a chapel for mariners), which the Park Service closed for renovations, along with several other buildings in the harbor district. Additionally, the schooner Ernestina-Morrissey was up in Maine for Windjammer Days at Boothbay Harbor. We might have seen it were it not for the rain! 

The Rotch-Jones-Duff House
The Rotch-Jones-Duff House

The other site in the park is the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Gardens. The folks who built this very nice home built it up on the hill for good a reason: whale oil stinks!

Battleship Cove

Located in Falls River, Ma., Battleship Cove is the home to the USS Massachusetts (BB 59), the second South Dakota-class battleship, and the first battleship to fire the massive 16-inch main guns in battle.

It is also home to the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (DD 850), the WWII-era submarine USS Lionfish (SS 298), and the Hiddensee, a Soviet-made Tarantu-class missile corvette that used to belong to the East German navy. The museum also had two WWII PT (which stands for Patrol-Torpedo) boats and a handful of aircraft.

The Lionfish and Massachusetts from the Kennedy
The Lionfish and Massachusetts from the Kennedy

As a military history buff and the son of a submarine sailor, I am always eager to climb aboard old warships. We have been to Patriot’s Point in Charleston Harbor to tour the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, but this was my first opportunity to clamber upon a battleship since I was eight (the USS Alabama in Mobile Bay). Add in that I just started a new book, Collisions of the Damned, an alternative history of WWII with significant naval focus by my good friend James Young, and the visit was a perfect excuse to drag Bonnie through more military history.

Submarine life during WWII always amazes me. My dad served on the USS Volador, which the Navy modernized during the Vietnam War. It was about the same size as the USS Lionfish, the sub we toured here… So amazingly cramped!

Grant manning one of the antiaircraft guns aboard the battleship Massachusetts.
Grant manning one of the antiaircraft guns aboard the battleship Massachusetts.

Speaking of cramped, the PT boats are even smaller and stuffed to the gills with guns and gasoline, not to mention the torpedo tubes. The boats operated in squadrons and engaged all manner of enemy craft. President John F. Kennedy skippered PT 109 during WWII. The Navy decorated him for saving his men when a Japanese destroyer rammed his boat.

Seeing the Hiddensee was a real treat. Just walking aboard an ex-Soviet vessel was one of the neatest experiences at Battleship Cove. It wasn’t that different from US ships but seemed a lot less “user-friendly” in terms of navigating the decks.

The breech for one of the 16-inch guns
The breech for one of the 16-inch guns

The grand lady of the cove, “Big Mamie,” was easily the star attraction. Just getting to crawl into the aft 16-inch gun turret was amazing. I got to see the breech where a 2,700-lb shell could be lobbed up to 23 miles away. The battleship was far more spacious than the other ships and boats present. That made for a far less bruise-inducing tour. Hard metal corners and blood thinners don’t mix!

Collisions of the Damned: The Defense of the Dutch East Indies (The Usurper's War Book 2)
Collisions of the Damned: The Defense of the Dutch East Indies (The Usurper’s War Book 2)
Amazon Kindle Edition; Young, James (Author); English (Publication Language); 346 Pages – 09/04/2015 (Publication Date)

Rhode Island Sites

Touro Synagogue National Historic Site

Another trip was to Newport, RI (a new state for both of us!) to go to a park that only kinda is a national park, sorta. It is listed on the National Park Service web site. There is no National Park Service presence, however, at the site nor is it listed in the NPS Passport app. Alas, I could not turn down a trip to a new state to cross this site off the list.

The Touro Synagogue, the oldest in the country
The Touro Synagogue, the oldest in the country

The synagogue is the oldest synagogue in the US, established in 1763 and continues to have an active congregation. It truly is a symbol of religious freedom in the US as not all of the colonies respected other religions. The grounds of the site are nice but the $12 per person price for visiting the interior of the synagogue was a bit much!

Roger Williams National Memorial

The concept of big ideas in a small place really has no greater shrine than the Roger Williams National Memorial. The site itself is a 4.5-acre urban park with a visitor center, a paved informative path and a few small monuments to the ideas of Williams.

Oh, how large ideas are found in small, simple places. Williams, an Anglican clergyman sympathetic to the Puritans, came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony looking for separation of Church and State. Instead, he found a Puritan society ruling both religious and civil matters.

There wasn't a description for this cairn at the Roger Williams NM but as one of the first major voices for the equal treatment of Native Americans, there really doesn't need to be.
There wasn’t a description for this cairn at the Roger Williams NM but as one of the first major voices for the equal treatment of Native Americans, there really doesn’t need to be.

Eventually, the Puritans exiled him from Massachusetts. He came to what is now Rhode Island and, with help from the local Native American people, he founded Providence. Williams established this place, eventually securing a royal charter, with the expressed promise of complete freedom of worship, even to not worship. He also argued long and hard for Native rights, including land rights.

Soon, other colonies were established following his lead for religious freedom. Eventually, the Founding Fathers placed his ideas into the Constitution as the First Amendment.

To be honest, this was one chapter of American history my education missed and one I am glad I learned.

Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park

Like Lowell NHP, Congress dedicated Blackstone River NHP to the American Industrial Revolution and its impact on the Blackstone River Valley and Canal area all the way up to Worcester, MA.

Slater Mill, a water-powered textile mill along the Blackstone River
Slater Mill, a water-powered textile mill along the Blackstone River

The Blackstone River Valley preserves the remains of mill towns all along the river and the cotton mills that drove them. Like the Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor (below), there is very little, if any, NPS presence. That’s mainly because it’s brand new. Congress created it in December 2014 and will encompass several sites in the valley’s National Heritage Corridor.

We visited the Old Slater Mill National Historic Landmark District for a look at one of the many old textile mills set up to use hydropower along the river. The site was interesting, but nowhere near as detailed as the mill works found in Lowell.


Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor

The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor is an area spanning 35 towns in Connecticut and Massachusetts that encompasses a mostly undeveloped (70%) region of coastal New England sandwiched in between major metropolitan areas to the east, north and west.

West Thompson Lake, an unassuming Corps of Engineers lake in northeastern Connecticut, has one of the best night skies in New England.
West Thompson Lake, an unassuming Corps of Engineers lake in northeastern Connecticut, has one of the best night skies in New England.

As an NHC, it is not a park per se. Congress preserved and allocated a certain amount of resources to the area’s non-profit, The Last Green Valley, Inc.

We stayed for two nights at the Army Corps of Engineers Campground on West Thompson Lake, one of the NHC sites. The lake and campground are very nice, with hiking trails and one of the best night skies you can hope to see.

Final Thoughts on Coastal New England

There are a lot of small pieces of history scattered about in coastal New England. These pieces, when put together, give an interesting vision of this area of the world. 

A lot of the history here is not covered or just glanced over in textbooks but it comes alive in these cool little places. 

Check out our full New England National Parks itinerary here.

Travel Resources
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What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
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Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
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How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices for booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
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What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
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We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viator first.
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Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
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We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
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Coastal New England is chock full of small, amazing side trips which are worth it and you can easily visit from a nice central location.
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