Tucked away right in Salem Harbor, Winter Island is a hidden gem just waiting to be explored.
This lovely little island has a rich history and plenty of family-friendly activities.
This island is a stop on the trolley tour around Salem, and has camping, a light house and a fort. It is a little oasis on the east coast.
If you are as intrigued by this small island as much as I was, I’m sharing everything you need to know to plan a fun day trip to Winter Island.
A Bit of History of Salem’s Winter Island
Winter Island’s history stretches back to pre-colonial times when it was home to Native Americans. The sheltered harbor was an ideal fishing ground for tribes like the Naumkeag.
In the 1620s when European settlers arrived, the island was named Winter Island after the safe winter harbor it provided for fishing boats. It soon became the heart of Salem’s fledgling fishing industry with wharves lining the shores.
The island also played an important defensive role over the centuries. In 1643 the first fort was built on Winter Island to protect Salem from sea attacks. The fort was expanded and improved over the years, helping keep Salem secure during the Revolutionary War.
In addition to fishing and defense, Winter Island was also home to Salem’s early shipbuilding industry. The famous USS Essex frigate was built on the shores of the island and launched in 1799.
Sadly, the island was also the scene of public executions in Salem from 1772 to 1821. Winter Island’s Execution Hill was used to conduct hangings, with thousands gathering as spectators.
After executions ended, the island faded from prominence as Salem’s center shifted. But the fort was used as a lookout during the Civil War, WWI, and WWII. From 1933 to 1969 it housed a US Coast Guard station as well.
Finally in 1972, the island was turned over to the city of Salem and made into a public park. Its rich history makes exploring Winter Island a fascinating experience.
Winter Island is easy to find – just head to Winter Island Road in Salem. There is a parking lot at the entrance with spaces for about 100 cars. Parking costs $5-10 per day depending on the season.
If you arrive later in the day, be aware the lot may fill up. Give yourself plenty of time in case you need to find street parking nearby.
Visiting Winter Island in Salem MA Today
Winter Island is now a wonderful recreational spot with both natural beauty and remnants of its past. Here are some of the best ways to enjoy this special island:
Relax on the Beach
The small public beach on Winter Island is perfect for families. The shallow water doesn’t get over 3 feet deep, making it safe for children. Bring your own towel or beach chair and find a spot on the sand to work on your tan.
There are no lifeguards, so parents should watch kids carefully. Use the bathhouse near the parking lot to rinse off after swimming.
Hike the Trails
Winter Island has two main hiking trails that wind through the trees and along the harbor. Head out on the 1/3 mile Fort View Trail to see the remains of old forts and cannons along the way.
For a longer hike, take the 1 mile Winter Island Trail Loop. This peaceful trail goes through maritime forest and offers great views of Salem Harbor. Look for local birds and rabbits along the paths.
Tour Fort Pickering
Fort Pickering dates back to the 1600s when the first fort was built on Winter Island.
Walk around the remnants of the fort walls and see the old powder magazine where ammunition was stored, which still stands today. Informational signs tell the story of the fort’s many iterations.
Explore the Coast Guard Buildings
Two abandoned buildings from the Coast Guard era remain – the large airplane hangar and the brick barracks. Peer inside the dusty windows for a glimpse back in time.
Though deteriorating, the architecture is interesting to see up close.
Have a Picnic
There are over a dozen picnic tables scattered around Winter Island, most with pretty views of Salem Harbor. Pack a lunch and snacks and claim a table for your family.
Grilling is not allowed, but you can easily enjoy sandwiches, fruit, cheese, chips and more at your seaside picnic spot.
Camp overnight on Winter Island for a unique experience. There are 22 tent sites and 28 RV sites available. Tent sites cost $25-35 per night while RV sites with water/electric hookups are $35-50 per night.
Arrive early to claim your site, or reserve online – the campground tends to fill up on nice summer weekends. Sites have picnic tables and fire pits.
Attend a Special Event
From concerts to craft fairs, Winter Island sometimes hosts public events during summer weekends. Check the City of Salem website for upcoming events that may be occurring during your visit.
Popular events do tend to fill up the parking lot quickly.
Good to Know
- The snack bar sells drinks, snacks, ice cream, and other concessions if you need supplies.
- Public restrooms are located next to the parking lot and are open daily.
- Alcohol is not allowed on any public areas of the island.
- Winter Island is open seasonally from May 1 to October 31 each year.
With sailing ships in the harbor, rocky coastline, and remnants of Salem’s past, Winter Island is a fabulous place to explore local history while enjoying the seaside.
Follow this guide to make the most of your upcoming adventure.