How to Visit 3 Boston National Parks in One Day
Units #56, 57 and 58 / 413
- Frederick Law Olmstead National Historic Site
- John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site
- Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site
“Andy, can you quickly Google how tall Vanny is, please?” I asked while approaching a “Low-Clearance” warning on Boston’s Storrow Drive.
For years I have seen this meme on Facebook and inwardly chuckled. Having grown up in the Midwest, where many a city was built on a square grid, I’d recall with warmth the roads of my youth and the 90-degree turns that took me from home to school.
But now, as I’m living out of a high-roof cargo van for the next 3 years of this trip, driving has taken a turn I never expected.
Since I learned to drive, I’ve been in cars so small I never had to worry about their height clearance (including a 4-speed Ford Festiva that three of my friends once picked up and moved by hand). That blissful ignorance rode through my teenage years and for the eleven years I drove my father’s former Hyundai Elantra; including the below Dream Road Trip which I scraped together after grad school.
That trip, especially, made me feel like I’d more or less conquered what America had to offer when it came to driving. I’d taken that Elantra over mountain tops, down seashores, and across deserts.
What more could there be to deal with?
And then this national parks trip brought me to Boston.
Attempting to now conquer that same country in a van measuring 17 feet in length, I’ve had to approach driving a little differently:
- That above photo is one of only two attempts I’ve made in my seven months of ownership to try and fit Vanny McVanface into parallel parking.
- Maintaining control on windy interstates has taken more teeth-gritting than expected.
- And for the first time in my road trip history, I’ve had to worry about my vehicle’s height.
So there I was in Boston, following my GPS when I shouted out for Andy to find the exact dimensions of the van.
I had considered my van’s height before, mostly that its approximate 10 feet would always be too high for a parking garage, but I’d never paid attention to what its exact height reached. I was, after all, used to driving little zippy cars.
As I passed onto Storrow Drive I’d seen signs that had a moving truck with a red circle and line, but as my vehicle is not the weight or height of an actual moving truck, I assumed it meant just truck-trucks.
After all, if there really was a serious threat, surely Boston would put more than just this tiny sign, placed halfway up the road’s on-ramp where it was already to late to divert?
So I continued down the road of my GPS' suggestion and started to approach some bridges.
"11’ Clearance" read one.
"11’ 8” Clearance" the next.
OK, everything seemed all right, but let me just ask Andy to Google the height in case.
“9 foot 1 inch?” I confirmed with Andy. “OK, let’s say the solar panels add a foot to be safe. So we are 10’ 1” high.”
Then, right on cue, as if in some Thelma and Louise remake, a low bridge appeared straight in front of us with a yellow sign and giant black letters that read:
“10 ft. Clearance”
“What do I do, Andy? What do I do?” I shouted as I started to break.
Watching the Boston traffic pass beside me, and seeing nothing but tall black walls on either side, it’s not like I had many options.
“Do I break or just go through?” I pleaded one last time as if it mattered.
“I’m going. I’m going through. Ahhhhhhhhh!”
“I’m done. I’m exiting. Right now. I don’t care how delayed we are,” I said as I pulled onto the next off-ramp, aware that—at minimum—my solar panels hadn’t ripped off the roof.
Driving me, Andy, and Vanny into downtown Boston traffic presented its own new set of challenges, but that first glimpse of a delivery truck let me know I was safe.
Everything was going to be all right.
They had somehow driven here, so there was at least a way out.
Fast-forward a few days, and I was on a mission to visit the last three of Boston’s National Park Service sites.
Having made it out of the downtown parks and soon-after measured Vanny to discover his height resting at approx. 9-ft., I was a little less scared of driving around the city.
However, I was still aware that at any moment I could be presented with a clearance too low for me to handle.
And Boston did not disappoint. On three separate occasions while trying to drive from the Frederick Law Olmstead National Historic Site, John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, and Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site, I was GPS-led to take roads with clearances below my capabilities.
But I can’t tell you exactly what those clearances were.
No, because like the meme at the top of this blog, rather than post a sign that says “8’ 9” Lowest Clearance,” Boston just hangs a floppy barrier that reads “Cars Only.”
Leading me to suddenly turn off into the only other option and pray that Google resets to a road I can drive.
And that’s the other predicament.
Do any RV’ers or GPS-companies make a product that takes a vehicles’ height into consideration?
If so, please comment with their names, as I will happily consume that product.
Fears and random turn-offs aside, I was finally able to make it to the trio of National Park Service sites resting in the near-Boston suburbs of Brookline and Cambridge.
First on the day’s agenda was the Frederick Law Olmstead National Historic Site.
Celebrating one of America’s most preeminent landscape architects--in the buildings that once served as America’s first landscape architecture firm--the site takes visitors into the inner-workings of some of North America’s most famous public parks.
New York’s Central Park Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Montreal’s Mont Royal Park U.S. Capitol Grounds
It was these, and many others, that cemented Olmstead in America’s cultural canon and led to this NPS site celebrating his contributions to urban escapes.
Only a short walk north lays the beginnings of one of 20th-century America’s most famous politicians, JFK.
Resting quaintly in a residential Brookline neighborhood is the one-time Kennedy home that not only birthed America’s 35th President, but fostered a family political dynasty.
As the third smallest of America’s National Park Service sites, this home was reconstructed by Rose Kennedy (JFK’s mother) after an outpouring of public support following JFK’s death pushed for the site to receive NPS distinction.
The room where JFK was born in 1917
Within stone’s throw of Harvard University, the Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site provides a glimpse into the house of a powerful family centuries before the Kennedys.
It was this home that hosted General George Washington's Revolutionary War office from 1775 - 1776, and also became the residence of noted American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Combined, these three sites provide a day’s worth of delving into three people who, from their Boston abodes, helped shape the America we have today.
Even if the glimpse comes at the expense of driving in a city designed long before high-roof cargo vans became part of that culture.
FLO - JFK - Longfellow Highlights
Given the small size and Historic Site titles of these units, a Ranger guided tour is the best way to experience each one.
Of particular note, apart from the tour, are the small gardens at Longfellow and Frederick Law Olmstead which provide a weary traveler a moment of respite from the harrowing streets of Boston.
Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations. What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
Massachusetts to Rhode Island to Connecticut
-Adams National Historical Park
-Cape Cod National Seashore
-New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park
-Roger Williams National Memorial
-Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park
-Springfield Armory National Historic Site
-Weir Farm National Historic Site
The journey thus far: