Guide: Charles River Natural Valley Storage Area - A Natural River Gem in Boston's Backyard

One of the best resources for outdoor enthusiasts west of Boston is the Army Corp of Engineers’ Charles River Natural Valley Storage Area. This area of protected land surrounds the Charles River, almost from its beginning downstream through a number of different Towns and ends just before it reaches the more urban end of the river in the greater Boston area.

This land protects the river and provides natural areas for the river to flood into during periods of high water, thus protecting other properties that might have been flooded if the valley area had also been developed. The Natural Valley Storage Area doesn't only provide flood protection though, it provides an almost continuous natural path for the Charles River as it makes its way through the area west of Boston.

Where do I find the Charles River Natural Valley Storage Area? 

With over 8,000 acres spread over 12 Towns, there’s a lot of area to explore and depending on exactly what you are looking to do, some parts of the valley are better than others. Towns where the Natural Valley Storage Area is located include:


All of the Natural Valley Storage Area lands that are owned by the Army Corp of Engineers are open to the public for use as recreational lands and thus are open for paddling along the river, walking, sightseeing and picnicking along pieces of higher ground.

In addition to the Army Corp of Engineers land there is a large amount of state-owned land that is managed by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife along with a number of small parks managed by local Towns and conservation trusts.

The vast majority of the lands are easily accessible from the major roadways that cross through these Towns. Route 109 and Route 27 provide access to the river as it passes through it’s largest protected area – the Millis/Medfield marshlands where there are over a 1,000 acres of land owned by the Army Corp. Other access points include Route 115, Route 16 and a number of local roadways.

There are both improved and unimproved access points providing access to boat launch areas along with other areas where you can walk and picnic along the Charles River. In addition, the local parks and reserves also offer access points to more recreational opportunities including hiking trails and improved picnic areas.

What do you do in the Charles River Natural Valley Storage Area? 

The main attraction of the Natural Valley Storage Area is the Charles River itself as it winds its ways through the various Towns through both wooded and marshy areas. The river generally follows a fairly gentle course with occasional sets of small rapids or in other cases, dams that moderate the flow of the river. Almost all of the rapids can be run in all but the lowest waters and when they can’t its easy enough to pull your boat through or in the case of a dam, carry your boat around.

For a river that’s almost totally surrounded by fairly dense suburban and in the case of the more downstream stretches almost city development, the Charles River manages to both stay looking like a wild river and overall being fairly clean and enjoyable to be on.

Access points to the river are scattered throughout the Natural Valley Storage Area and the adjacent park lands and provide a good way to make various day trips along the river. From the access points people can paddle upstream or downstream and make their way back to the same access point or they can leave cars at two points and make the trip up or down the river from one to the next.

Paddling is the main attraction on the Charles River with good conditions from late May through September. You want the river to have a good flow, but not too much (otherwise there’s too much current and some areas could be dangerous) or too little (you don’t want to be getting stuck in the mud). The best times are early summer, but depending on where on the river you are paddling, you can get out on the water throughout the entire warmer season.

Besides paddling in the Natural Valley Storage Area itself, there’s an opportunity for walking and exploring the uplands adjacent to the river and to picnic and relax in those same areas that overlook the river. In the adjacent parks there are more improved recreation opportunities including trail systems and official picnic areas.

Some people swim in the Charles and while I think it is fairly clean, I don’t think I would spend all that much time swimming. If I fell out of the boat that’s fine but between the muddy bottom, the history of the river (it used to be very, very dirty) and the fact that at times of low flow the river is mostly treated sewage treatment plant effluent, I wouldn't want to spend too much time in the water.

However, all those turtles do speak to the overall cleanliness of the river. I’d just make sure I take a shower when I got home after swimming in the river.

Experiences on the Charles 

I first started paddling in Massachusetts along the Blackstone River which runs south from Worcester towards Providence, RI. The section of the river we paddled was near Uxbridge and Northbridge and while it was pleasant, the river never did seem all that clean and while the history of the river and the chance to explore the old Blackstone Canal was interesting, I never really liked paddling on the Blackstone – mostly I suppose because I was afraid of falling into the dirty water.

Now that we have moved, the Charles River is literally down the street and when we want to paddle, we either use the unimproved access point down the street from our house or take advantage of any of the numerous boat launches in the adjacent towns.

The very first thing I noticed getting in the river was how much cleaner it looked than the Blackstone River. Then as we were paddling, I noticed all the wildlife both in the river and around it, something that was definitely lacking along the Blackstone. On our first trip we saw so many turtles that I lost count, along with various other creatures like fish and birds surrounding the river. I've seen deer browsing along the shoreline too and hawks circling far above.

One of the best parts of paddling on the Charles is the fact that the current is generally mild. It makes it easy to take both short and long paddling trips on the river. We can easily go on late afternoon trips and spend a few hours paddling around the river or if we have more time or are feeling more ambitious, we can take day-long trips down the river.

Another nice part of the area is that there are so many different kinds of areas to explore along the river. Near where we live, we are further upstream in the watershed and the river is a bit narrower and quicker but further downstream it travels through large marshlands where it winds back and forth in what seem like endless oxbows. Even further downstream the river travels through rocky areas and widens into a bigger river. These are all different areas you can explore and even if you stay in the same area, you almost never see the same thing twice on different trips as the river is always changing.

As for other recreational opportunities on the Natural Valley Storage Area lands, I’ve really only ever used them to access the river. The local parks and reserve lands on the other hand – I have taken advantage of the hiking trails and the picnic areas for short hikes and for times when a bunch of us want to go out for a BBQ or a picnic.

More information 

Here’s where I’m slightly disappointed with the authorities in the area – there’s precious little information about this great resource that’s in the backyard of Boston. The Army Corp of Engineers hosts a woefully incomplete website on the Natural Valley Storage Area and the State provides little information on the recreational resources on their websites. About the only good information you can find is at the local parks, which often have their own brochures detailing the trail networks and their access to the river.

Final Thoughts 

The longer I live in the area the more things I find that amaze me. The Charles River Natural Valley Storage Area is one of them. Who would have thought that there would be over 8,000 acres of protected natural lands surrounding one of the most urban rivers in the country? Not only that, the Charles River has turned out to be an amazing river because of it with vast natural stretches to paddle through that are home to a wide variety of wildlife.

I love the fact that this recreational opportunity is in my backyard. I can get home from work, throw my kayak in my truck and be on the river within a few minutes. I can paddle for an hour or I can spend the entire day on the river. I can spend time exploring various side streams or ponds.

The adjacent park lands also offer plenty of other recreational opportunities including short walks, longer hiking trail networks and improved picnic facilities.

For anyone who lives in the region, the Charles River Natural Valley Storage Area is a natural and recreational gem that provides an almost unlimited amount of recreational opportunity, especially if you like to canoe or kayak. For others, I wouldn't really consider the Valley Storage Area a destination in of itself, but if you are spending time here and like the outdoors, definitely consider trying to explore some part of the Charles River Natural Valley Storage Area.

Originally published on epinions