Borderland and other South Shore state parks feel remote, but offer close to home recreation.
Follow the wooded path to Leach Pond in Borderland State Park, and a granite bench welcomes you with the engraved words "For All to Enjoy.''
And that sums up the spirit of this park in Sharon and Easton, which offers an unusual combination of natural and man-made pleasures to visitors.
"It’s special because it’s full of history and it’s just so beautiful,'' said park supervisor Ellenor Yarhrmarkt. "We have people and families who come here all the time.''
Karen Giovanoni has toured the park’s mansion and walked in its woods, but recently brought her 3-year-old daughter, Catherine, to a preschool nature program for the first time. They spotted bird’s nests on a short walk, made a nest in a plastic egg and listened to a story about nests.
"We come here a lot for walking and hiking and we usually bring a picnic,'' said Giovanoni, of Norton. "I love that it’s so close to home.''
And yet, Borderland is in some ways an overlooked treasure. The former 1,772-acre estate of Oakes and Blanche Ames, descendents of two politically prominent and wealthy Massachusetts families, is a relatively new state park, opened in 1971 after the state purchased it for $2 million.
"Ninety percent of the people I speak with say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never been there,'' said park ranger Bruce Norton of Foxboro.
With gas prices and other financial drains curbing travel, Borderland State Park and other state parks on the South Shore may look increasingly appealing as destinations for family fun. As one of the largest state park systems in the country, Massachusetts has 440 state parks and forests, including Wompatuck in Hingham, Ames Nowell in Abington and Myles Standish in Plymouth and Carver.
Once you enter them, they seem a world apart from their bordering suburbs, as remote as the undeveloped areas of New Hampshire or Vermont.
The Ames family shaped the natural environment into the park people enjoy today. They preserved meadows and fields from former farms, turned swamps into ponds, and built carriage trails and walking trails amidst the woods and glaciated cliffs. On the large fields surrounding the house and in the range of ecosystems, you can fly kites, hike, fish, and ride horses and bikes. In addition, the park has one of the top disc golf courses in the country, a free tennis court, and an historic English country style home.
The 1910 granite front house, which Blanche Ames designed and lived in until she died at age 91, remains unchanged, with her paintings still on the walls, Oakes’ books and botany journals in the library and their collections from foreign travels decorate the three floors.
"The tour was pretty fascinating to see how they lived and to realize that it was lived in until 1967,'' said Giovanoni who went on the mansion tour, which the Friends of Borderland lead on the third Sunday of the month from April through November.
In fact, Blanche’s art studio looks like she just stepped away for a moment. An unfinished portrait sits on an easel, scores of tiny numbered paint tubes still line up neatly in a box and a pictograph and microscope sit, waiting to be used.
Even children can enjoy walking through the house. Madison Martins, 8, who toured with her grandfather Bob Martins of Bridgewater, was full of questions, especially when they entered the handsome library, where 6,000 books line the walls on two floors.
"Did Mr. and Mrs. Ames like to read a lot of books?’ asked Martins, who also got a kick out of ringing a Chinese gong and seeing ceremonial swords. "I do.''
For its time, the Ames home was quite modern, equipped with central heating, electricity and a telephone intercom. Though 12 servants worked in the 18-room house, it "was always intended to be informal, not like the mansions in Newport,'' said park interpreter Christine King, who leads a shorter version of the tour on selected Fridays.
Once outside the mansion, Madison delighted in the lily pads she found in the small pond behind the house and in looking for birds with her new binoculars. On her explorations, she also would discover one of the big attractions for kids – a 1 million-pound glacial boulder the size of a house, near the Visitor Center.
You can find your way to the rock – named Balancing Rock – and other parts of the park by picking up the brochure on self-guided hikes. And in the summer, King as well as interpreters at other state parks, lead nature programs and walks to help visitors discover things they otherwise might miss.
"We have old stand hemlock and granite cliffs and a quarry,'' Norton said. "It’s quite impressive for people who get out there.''
Similarly, Myles Standish has unusual features, such as one of the largest contiguous pitch pine/scrub oak communities north of Long Island, as well as coastal plain kettle ponds and cranberry bogs. The area’s largest park with 14,651 acres, Myles Standish has fresh water swimming and fall game bird hunting. Wompatuck State Park has Mt. Blue Spring, where you can drink fresh drinking water, as well as miles of paved trails for biking and roller blading. All four South Shore state parks offer opportunities to hike, mountain bike, horseback ride, fish and pond canoe.
Jody Feinberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.