15 Free Things to do on the Essex Coastal Scenic Byway

May 11, 2022

One of the best things about exploring the Essex Coastal Scenic Byway activities on the North Shore of Massachusetts is the generous amount of free things to do! 

From exploring the sandy beaches to taking in scenic vistas, there’s always something around the next corner that requires little to no cost. As the old saying goes, the best things in life are free.

Continue reading to find a few of the many Essex Coastal Scenic Byway activities because adventure shouldn’t cost a thing!

Disclaimer: A Quick Note About Parking Fees

While many of the places listed below are free to visit, some may require small or metered parking fees. Others may also encourage donations. 

These fees and donations often help keep our favorite spots along Essex Scenic Coastal Byway maintained and beautiful. However, since this is a free things to do guide, we have left some of the more costly parking options off this list. 

Beaches Off The Coastal Byway

Coastal Byway Beach

A great way to experience the Coastal Byway without breaking the bank is by visiting one of our many scenic beaches. No matter which beach (or beaches) you stop at along the Byway, you are sure to find captivating views of the North Shore coast.

1. Dane Street Beach (Beverly)

Aerial view of Dane Street beach in Beverly MA

Our first stop is Dane Street Beach in Beverly, MA. The beach is a large, family-friendly beach with stretches of sandy and open grass fields. The beach also features a very popular play structure for the little ones to enjoy. 

2. Pavilion Beach (Gloucester)

Aerial view of Pavilion Beach, Gloucester MA

Traveling up to Gloucester, you can find Pavilion Beach. The beach offers scenic views of the boats and other watercraft along the water. Visitors can also find the Fishermen’s Memorial Statue, a famous landmark in Gloucester. Additionally, beachgoers can also make a quick trip to the local restaurants and shops nearby.

3. Front Beach and Back Beach (Rockport)

These are two very different beaches that represent everything great about Rockport, MA. Front Beach is a sandy beach that offers a beautiful relaxation spot with fantastic views. The beach is also within walking distance of many shops and restaurants. 

Back Beach is “more of an explorer’s beach.” The beachfront is more rocky than sandy and typically isn’t the best place to dive into the water for a quick swim. However, the beach is a great spot for scenic views and quiet relaxation. Back Beach is also a popular spot for scuba divers.

4. Beach Bluff Park (Swampscott)

This small oceanfront park offers its own stretch of scenic beaches and hidden gems to discover. Here, visitors can find paths to explore and a quiet beach to stroll across. The park also contains the Sun Circle at its center. This astronomical structure marks the rising and setting of the sun throughout the year and is truly a sight to behold and explore.

Walking Trails, State Parks, And Recreational Areas

In addition to its sandy beaches, the Essex Coastal Scenic Byway features plenty of scenic walking trails to explore during your visit.

5. Rafe’s Chasm Park (Gloucester)

Rafe’s Chasm in Gloucester, MA, is a bit of a local hidden gem. The 10-acre park features an easy trail that takes hikers of all skill levels to a breathtaking clifftop ocean view. The trail does continue but should only be taken by advanced hikers as it does require climbing over quite a few rocks that can become slippery when wet.

6. Dogtown Common (Rockport/Gloucester)

View of the woods at Dogtown in Gloucester MA

Ever wanted to explore a ghost town? A visit to the Dogtown Common (or Dogtown Village) is your chance! Coastal Byway explorers can come to stroll the winding trails and roads of an abandoned village from the late 17th/early 18th century. The area has plenty to discover. This includes rock formations left behind by glaciers and boulder inscriptions created by Finnish Quarry workers during the Great Depression.

8. Old Town Hill (Newbury)

Coastal Byway visitors can find scenic views of three states from the peak of Old Town Hill. Hikers can expect fields, tidal creeks, sprawling marshlands, and woodlands across its 3 miles of winding trails. You might also catch a glimpse of the local wildlife, such as green grabs, mud snails, and the Great Blue Heron. A 10-car parking lot is available.

9. Atkinson Common (Newburyport)

Rhododendron at Atkinson Common in Newburyport MA

The Atkinson Common is a peaceful green area perfect for exploration and relaxation. Here, visitors and locals alike can sit down for a picnic, visit the Civil War memorial, or simply take a moment to unwind. The area is also picturesque, featuring plenty of photo opportunities. 

Historic Sites, Museums, And Art

Historical and cultural preservation is a tremendous part of the Essex Coastal Scenic Byway. Those who come to explore the area’s impact on history and art will not leave disappointed. Best of all, many of these areas can are free to visit!

10. Salem Maritime National Historic Site (Salem)*

View of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site in Salem MA from the Friendship.

Interested in New England maritime history? You should definitely make a point to visit the Salem Maritime National Historic Site in Salem, MA. While some of the museums may require admission fees, much of the 9-acres of historical land can be explored for free. Here, visitors can find scenic views of the Salem Sound, walking trails on Derby Wharf, and historic buildings, just to name a few! Fun fact; Salem Maritime is considered the first National Historic Site in the National Park System! 

11. Seaside No. 1 Firehouse Museum (Manchester-by-the-Sea)

The Seaside No. 1 Firehouse Museum is a charming building built in 1885. This building would house Manchester-by-the-Sea’s first horse-drawn fire engine. Byway visitors can make a quick stop here to view the 19th-century firehouse which has since become a museum. Inside, guests can find an interesting collection of firefighting equipment and memorabilia. Additionally, visitors can find antique fire engines, The Torrent and Seaside No. 2.

12. Motif #1 (Rockport)

Motif #1 In Rockport, MA

Come see the little red fishing shack that has inspired artists for generations. Motif #1 has been painted and photographed by so many that it’s known across the world. The famous shack sits on Bearskin Neck, overlooking the harbor. It’s one of Coastal Byway’s most treasured gems and free for all to visit.

13. Rockport Art Association and Museum (Rockport)

Speaking of art – the Rockport Art Association and Museum is one of the oldest non-profit art museums and organizations in the nation. Inside, visitors can find rotating art exhibitions, ongoing collections, and educational programs. Admission is free but the museum does encourage a $5 donation to support its programs.

14. Essex Historical Society And Shipbuilding Museum (Essex)

The Essex Shipbuilding Museum in Essex MA

This museum is yet another gem for those interested in local maritime history. Here, history lovers can find over 30,000 photographs and 10,000 authentic objects from maritime history, including real shipbuilding tools from generations past. Guests can also find an authentic schooner and explore a working shipyard. Admission to the museum is free but encourages a $10-20 donation. Additionally, you can schedule a private tour for $20 per person.

15. A Peaceful Drive Up The Essex Coastal Scenic Byway

driving the coastal byway

There’s nothing quite like rolling the windows down and cruising up the coast. Best of all, you don’t have to spend a dime to enjoy the breathtaking sights of the Scenic Byway – outside of gas, of course. From Lynn to Salisbury, there’s so much to see right from the comfort of your own vehicle.

While there are 15 free Essex Coastal Scenic Byway activities here, you can find more spots to visit at no cost with your furry friend! Check out some local dog-friendly spots to take your best friend.