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How to Spend a Day in Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

We know all about the popular national and state parks. They’re beautiful and well worth a visit, but are you familiar with any national wildlife refuges? These are lesser-known areas that will often leave you just as awe-inspired without the crowds. Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is one of those areas. Check it out!

About Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is on the northeast coast of Massachusetts in Newburyport. The refuge started in 1941 to provide a safe habitat for migratory birds. Today, it’s more than 4,600 acres in size with diverse habitats such as dunes, forests, freshwater marsh, and saltwater marsh. 

The weather in Newburyport is warm in the summer and cold and wet in the winter. Summertime will give visitors a pleasant 80-degree average, but it rarely gets over 89 degrees. Winter will force visitors to bundle up as it can get down to a chilly 21 degrees, though it usually doesn’t dip below 7 degrees. 

The refuge is open from 9 AM – 4 PM, seven days a week. Admission to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is $5 for a vehicle and $2 for bikes and pedestrians, so you won’t have to break the bank to have an incredible, memorable, and fun-filled day!

Parker national wildlife

Activities Available at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

The most apparent activity at Parker National Wildlife Refuge is birdwatching. There are over 100 different bird species in the refuge. Visitors can pick up a birding checklist from the entrance gatehouse. Those who enjoy a more active lifestyle can go swimming, surfing, hiking, and fishing. Many visitors also enjoy canoeing and kayaking there. 

How to Spend a Day in Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

Parker National Wildlife Refuge is an all-day experience. Visitors of all ages and interests will enjoy exploring the refuge for a day. To make the most of your visit, we’ve created a sample schedule so you don’t miss anything!

Horses parker national wildlife

In the Morning

When hoping to catch a glimpse of wildlife, it’s always wise to get an early start. You won’t want to sleep the day away when you have so much to see. Let’s get our day started!

Canoe or Kayak Around the Refuge

Have you ever kayaked on a water trail? You can do so here! A water trail begins at the boat ramp near the entrance station for you to explore the waterways of the marsh environment. 

Enjoy the early morning sky from your canoe or kayak, experiencing views you can only get from being on the water. Spending the morning on a kayak is also a great way to get your blood pumping and wake you up. 

Watch the Wildlife

With over 100 different bird species, you’ll likely find several unique birds during your trip. In addition to birds, you might find yourself spotting a gray tree frog or Dekay’s brown snake as they make their way through the refuge. If turtles interest you, keep your eyes peeled for the painted turtle. Mammal lovers will find joy in spotting an eastern cottontail or white-tailed deer. 

In the Afternoon

Your morning activities will likely leave you hungry and ready for a break. Don’t worry, though; your adventure isn’t over. We have plenty left to explore as we head into the afternoon.

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge - Plum Island

Eat a Picnic Lunch

Sack lunches aren’t just for children’s field trips. Pack a picnic lunch for yourself and your companions, and find a spot to enjoy both your lunch and surrounding nature. 

Having a picnic lets you observe nature as you sit still and enjoy the landscape. When you finish eating, remember that it’s always our responsibility to leave no trace. Please dispose of your lunch trash responsibly. 

Walk Along the Parker River Wildlife Refuge Beach

After you’ve filled your belly with enough fuel to get you through the rest of the day, stroll along the refuge’s beach. This is a great chance to pull out your camera and grab some lovely shots of your family. You can walk this area for miles, viewing unique shells. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a seal. 

parker river wildlife refuge
Dan Logan / Getty

Do Some Bird Watching

The highlight for many visitors is spotting the many birds that call Parker River National Wildlife Refuge home. Observation towers and platforms provide amazing views of the land and surrounding water surrounding the area. These make for a great spot to see many birds at one time and grab that fantastic photograph. 

There are also several miles of self-guided trails. You can check in to see what birds other watchers have recently spotted. Don’t forget to pick up your bird checklist from the entrance gate! 


As the day slips away from you and evening sets in, there are a few more activities you can enjoy. When evening begins to set in, the nature preserve’s colors and sounds begin to change. Fight the urge to cut your day short! You won’t want to miss our suggested evening activities. 

Enjoy a Free Public Program

The refuge gives out a monthly schedule of their free programs, including the popular “Behind the Scenes Tour.” This tour lets visitors get up close to the wildlife and learn more about the refuge’s history. Additionally, there are programs throughout the year, especially on holidays such as Earth Day. 

The refuge has many great learning opportunities for the whole family. Families and school groups can learn about the wildlife, their habitats, and how the relationship between people and nature is critical. The refuge is revamping its educational programs, so check in with staff for the current offerings. 

sunset at parker wildlife
@Nodar via Twenty20

Watch the Sunset at Parker River Wildlife Refuge

As the light begins to fade from the sky, find a spot to watch the sunset. Even though you’re probably ready to end your day, there are plenty of animals just starting to come alive as the sun sets. Take a walk along the boardwalk or a stroll on the beach to enjoy the sky’s changing colors. 

Pro Tip: Want to explore more wildlife refuges? Here’s How to Spend a Day in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Where Should You Stay?

Unfortunately, there’s no camping within the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Thankfully, there are a few campgrounds nearby for you to call home during your refuge exploration. One that we suggest is Salisbury Beach Campground.

Salisbury Beach Campground

Address: Beach Road, Off of Route 1A, Salisbury, MA 01952 (42.82722, -70.81778)

About the campground: This campground has 484 campsites with water and electric hookups. Each site has a picnic table, fire ring, and pedestal grill. There are also restroom facilities for those wishing to use them.  

Salisbury Beach State Reservation encompasses 3.8 miles from north to south along the Atlantic Ocean. It goes from the Merrimack River to the New Hampshire border. Campers will enjoy a stunning shoreline with a high-quality sandy beach. 

Campers can fish and boat with a boat launch on-site. Families will be glad to find a playground for children to burn off energy. While there are no significant hikes, several natural trails start at the campground. Some boardwalks provide access to the beach, and there are two boat ramps as well. 

Salisbury Beach Campground

Why you’ll love staying here: You’ll love the relaxed atmosphere of Salisbury Beach Campground. This is a place to sit back and rest. You can spend your days enjoying the beach as well as the nearby Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. 

Why You Should Visit Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

All of us need to get away from the hustle and bustle of life sometimes, and Parker River National Wildlife Refuge provides the perfect place for that. It’s a serene atmosphere that will leave you with a greater appreciation for shoreline wildlife. There’s plenty to see and do in the area, allowing the whole family to enjoy your trip. You’ll walk away rested and more educated. 

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About Tom and Caitlin Morton

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of “Go North” on Amazon Prime Video, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for and an Arizona travel guide.

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