In the Merrimack Valley, Chelmsford is a likable town crossed by Interstate 495, Boston’s outer beltway.
Chelmsford was incorporated as long ago as 1655, and right on the Town Common is a cemetery founded that very year.
The common is still integral to life in Chelmsford, hosting almost every important public event on the calendar, and fronted by the Chelmsford Center for the Arts in the elegant former town hall.
Although Chelmsford’s population swelled in the post war years, there are many large parcels of outdoor public space in the town, including beaches at two great ponds and a rail trail that passes through the attractive downtown area.
1. Chelmsford Center
The past meets the present at Chelmsford’s quaint downtown area, which has been the heart of civic life in the town for more than 370 years.
The town common is the place to start, and remains a gathering place for numerous community events, from the Independence Day Parade & Country Fair to the weekly market in summer.
The First Parish Church here is from 1842 and is the fourth meeting house on this site. Next door is the Forefathers Burying Ground (1655), one of the oldest cemeteries in the Merrimack Valley.
Much of Chelmsford Center’s commerce is on Chelmsford St, with a clutch of little shops and food choices ranging from Brazilian BBQ to New England seafood, diner food, Mexican, Thai and Italian.
2. Chelmsford Center for the Arts (CCA)
In 2009 the Old Town Hall on the Town Common became the dynamic Chelmsford Center for the Arts, home to several local arts organizations.
The setting is a dainty Italianate building from 1879, housing the Veterans Memorial Auditorium for a bustling calendar of performances, from live music to Shakespeare plays.
The CCA Gallery holds numerous exhibitions throughout the year, while the building also contains artists-in-residence studios.
A few of the local organizations based at the CCA are the Chelmsford Art Society, the Chelmsford Community Band, Illumination Opera, Shakespeare and You and the Brave New Players.
3. Bruce Freeman Rail Trail
Something else to love about Chelmsford is how a big slice of the town is served by a 10-foot-wide multi-use rail trail that will eventually be almost 25 miles long.
Opened in phases since 2009, the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail is on the right-of-way of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad’s Framingham and Lowell Line, which was completed in 1871.
When we wrote this article the trail was expanding southwards, and expected to connect with the Mass Central Rail Trail in Sudbury.
In Chelmsford you can use the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail to Reach the Center, Heart Pond Beach and the commercial corridor on the Chelmsford-Lowell line, with a Showcase Cinema close to the trail’s parking lot.
4. Heart Pond Beach
The Bruce Freeman Rail Trail runs right past this beach on a 91-acre great pond in the southwest of Chelmsford.
Heart Pond is a natural kettle pond, formed at the end of the last Ice Age, and the beach on the northeastern shore is open for swimming from the beginning of June to Labor Day.
The pond is a popular spot for activities like kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding, and dogs on leashes are allowed on the beach, provided they stay away from the swimming area. In the little grove across Pond St you’ll find picnic tables and a small children’s play area.
5. Mrs. Nelson’s Candy House
At 292 Chelmsford St (Route 110), just off the interchange on Route 3, this candy shop has been a Chelmsford mainstay for close to 70 years.
Mrs. Nelson’s Candy House has loyal customers all over the United States, and has counted the Rockefeller family among its patrons for the last 50+ years.
If you’re in Chelmsford around one of the holidays, the Christmas and Easter selections are always popular.
There are too many year-round picks to choose from, but for something specific to Chelmsford you could pick up a caramel corn cake topped with two old fashions, or the Caramel Nut Patties, partly covered in dark or milk chocolate.
6. Chelmsford Historical Society
About a mile south of Chelmsford Center stands the Barrett-Byam Homestead, which took on its current appearance in 1754.
The homestead goes back much further to a saltbox built in 1663 by Thomas Barrett, and today’s house is thought to have elements going back to that time.
At the time of writing the Chelmsford Historical Society was open to visitors by appointment for tours, showing off pieces from the collection including historic tools, children’s toys, arts and crafts, furniture and magnificent glasswork.
The homestead is also open for the big event of the year, the Annual Farm Fair in mid-September, with domestic animals, hayrides and live music.
7. Varney Playground/Freeman Lake Beach
On the north shore of Freeman Lake there’s a seven-acre park that has been updated in the last few years.
Throughout the school summer break residents and non-residents can visit Freeman Lake Beach daily from dawn to dusk.
As well as a welcoming sandy area there’s a bath house here, and lifeguards are on duty throughout the season.
The recent renovation has made the entire facility fully accessible. Close by there’s a fantastic fenced playground with wooden equipment, along with a basketball court and a large open space.
8. Great Brook Farm State Park
On Chelmsford’s line with Carlisle there’s more than 900 acres of lush woodland enveloping a working dairy farm.
Exploring Great Brook Farm State Park along some 20 miles of trails, you’ll find yourself on the shores of the scenic Meadow Pond, and will come across important Native American sites and cellar holes left behind by 17th-century settlers.
The Great Brook Ski Touring Center turns the park into a winter sports destination from early December to mid-March, with 10 miles of machine-groomed trails.
While the farm is a must for families, with its barnyard animals and homemade ice cream, available May to October.
9. Chelmsford Public Library
As well as being a wonderful resource for Chelmsford residents, the local library has plenty of services/facilities that people passing through will find useful.
This is especially true for families, as the children’s room is enormous, taking up much of the complex and featuring the kinds of things you might expect to find at a children’s museum, along with computers and tablets.
The library has many programs for people of all ages, from art exhibits to story time, and can also be a quiet hideaway to read a paper or magazine on a rainy day.
10. Russell Mill Pond and Town Forest
The town purchased this rugged tract of land in the early 1970s and it’s a favored local escape for hiking and mountain biking.
The property includes a beautiful 3,000 feet of waterfront along the Russell Mill Pond, and then climbs steeply into oak and pine forest.
Mountain bikers are well catered to, with almost 30 miles of technical trails snaking through the forest, and these are mostly weighted towards intermediate riders (6).
There’s also a pump track, perfect for kids, while walkers will love the path along the water’s edge.
11. Middlesex Canal
Chelmsford is on the route of a trailblazing infrastructure project built from 1793 to 1803.
Operating for around 50 years, the 27-mile Middlesex Canal was among the first civil engineering endeavors of its kind in the early United States, connecting the Merrimack River in East Chelmsford (now Lowell) with the Port of Boston. The success of this canal led to even greater projects like the 351-mile Erie Canal.
There are fragments of the canal, along Canal St in the eastern part of modern day Chelmsford, and you’re also just a few minutes from the Middlesex Canal and Visitors Center at the magnificent Faulkner Mill building in North Billerica.
12. Friendship Park
Roberts Field at 272 Old Westford Road is on land with a history that can be traced back to the 18th century.
In the 1960s a 20-acre patch of farmland here was purchased by the school, but when that was located elsewhere, the space was designated for West Chelmsford Engine 3 Fire Station (still here), and for recreation.
For families, the best thing at Roberts Field is Friendship Park, an inclusive playground designed with community input, where children of all abilities can play side by side.
As well as swings and creatively designed climbing structures there’s a zip line and sand pit. Other amenities at Roberts Field include a large open space, ballfield, pond and walking trails in the woods.
13. Chelmsford Market on the Common
On Saturday afternoons from the end of May to mid-October there’s a market on Chelmsford’s idyllic Town Common.
From 1 pm to 4 pm there’s an assortment of vendors for fresh produce, eggs, honey, flowers, jams, breads, pastries and a range of prepared foods.
The market also boasts plenty of craft vendors, selling anything from handmade jewelry to candles.
Each week tends to have a unique theme, coinciding with seasonal fruits and vegetables, back to school and National Farmers’ Market Week in early August.
14. Independence Day Parade & Country Fair
Chelmsford celebrates the 4th of July in style, with a full program of festivities at the Town Common and the Center for the Arts.
The main event across the weekend is the Independence Day Parade, a stirring spectacle with Minutemen groups, floats, bands, bagpipers, drum & bugle corps, mascots and much more.
The parade normally sets off from McCarthy School, heading down North Road into Chelmsford Center and finishing on Summer St.
The Chelmsford Lions Club organizes a Country Fair on the common, while there’s an Art Festival at the Center for the Arts, kiddie train rides, live music and much more going on.
15. Holiday Prelude
On the first Sunday in December there’s all kinds of fun on Chelmsford’s Town Common and Town Center as the town gets into the Christmas spirit.
Incorporating the annual tree-lighting ceremony, the Holiday Prelude features horse-drawn hayrides, live music, dancing, face-painting, dazzling decorations and of course, the arrival of Santa Claus.
The celebration is organized by the Holiday Decorating Committee, with support from a large team of volunteers, as well as many local businesses and organizations. In the holiday season, also look out for performances by the Chelmsford Community Band.