Kayaking through the Essex River estuary and the maze of creeks and islands of the Great Marsh—the largest contiguous salt marsh in New England—is a magical experience, although one that takes a bit of effort to pull off. We say this because public access here is hard to come by; however, that shouldn’t stop you from visiting this beautiful North Shore gem at least once.
Once you get on the water, the bay is your oyster—or, more appropriately, clam. Essex Bay, after all, is famous for its soft-shell or steamer clams, and you can expect to see plenty of clam diggers at work on the mud flats at low tide. And there’s no finer way to end your day on the water than with a carton of local fried wholebellies or bowl of steamers washed down with a local ale! But more on that later.
Where to Go
A popular destination for day-trippers is the backside of Crane Beach, where you can have a beautiful stretch of white sand all to yourself. It’s the ideal spot for lunch and a swim.
Many paddlers also set a course for Choate Island (also known as Hog Island), part of the Crane Wildlife Refuge and managed by the Trustees of Reservations. The Refuge includes seven islands (Choate, Long, Dean, Dilly, Pine, Patterson, and Round) in the Essex River estuary. The 135-acre Choate Island is home to myriad birds and mammals, and also served as the location for the 1996 film, The Crucible, which was based on Arthur Miller’s well-known play based on the Salem Witch Trials. Paddlers are welcome to beach their craft on the shore next to the dock and wander the five miles of gravel roads and mown foot trails to the 250-year-old Choate House and the Crane burial site at the top of the island. Guided kayak trips to Choate and around the Crane Wildlife Refuge can be booked through the Trustees and Essex River Basin Adventures (see below).
If you like to fish, be sure to bring a rod, as striped bass—including some large ones—enter the river in June. Stripers can be taken on natural bait, trolled swimbaits, soft-plastic baits, and flies fished along the marsh banks, creek mouths, and channel edges. Remember that a Massachusetts saltwater fishing license is required. You can order one online here.
When to Go
Be forewarned that the marshes in and around Essex are prime breeding ground for the dreaded greenhead fly. These aggressive biting insects can make for a miserable paddle, particularly in July and early August, unless you wear protective clothing and powerful bug spray. The best times for paddling this area are typically late spring (May-June) and early fall (September-October). Also be aware that the more exposed stretches of Essex Bay offer a lot of fetch, so monitor the wind and weather forecast before heading out. And naturally, it’s always wise to paddle with a partner and bring safety gear such as a personal locator beacon or cell phone in a waterproof case. The area is best suited for intermediate to advanced paddlers who are in good shape.
Launch Spots & Distances
Parking is the biggest hurdle for non-resident paddlers wishing to access the Essex River. The Essex Town Landing at 66 Main Street is the best option, although it requires a paddle of around 1.5 miles to reach the more open stretches of Essex Bay and the islands. The backside of Crane Beach is at least another 1.5 miles further. This can make for a rather strenuous day, especially for beginners.
The launch fee is $20 when a ramp attendant is present. Parking for non-residents with trailers is located behind the police station, in the dirt lot directly behind the tennis courts. There is no fee for kayaks that are carried to the Town Landing. If in doubt as to where to park or have questions related to the Town Landing, check with the Essex police department or harbormaster at (978) 768-6628.
Nearby Perkins Marine also offers kayak launching and parking for $25, space permitting. Your best bet here is to go on a weekday, when marina use is lighter.
Another launch site that puts you much closer to Crane Beach and Choate Island is Clammer’s Beach, at the end of Conomo Point. Plan to launch and haul here on the upper half of the tide; otherwise you’ll be dragging your yak over the sticky mud flats. Non-resident parking is available about 1/8-mile down Conomo Point Road.
If you’re new to paddling or simply don’t wish to deal with parking hassles, book a guided trip with Essex River Basin Adventures. They’ll set you up with all the gear you’ll need and provide valuable information on the ecology and history of the Essex River.
The Trustees of Reservations also offers guided kayak trips to the Crane Wildlife Refuge and Choate Island from late June through October. More info here.