The human history of New England begins thousands of years ago, when Native American tribes fished Atlantic shores and hunted these hills. And even they were here for only a sliver of the long period of time required to cleave mountains and gouge lakes; situations like this call for the word eons. The rocks upon which you climb, sun yourself, and picnic are old—staggeringly old.

Before arriving, then, it’s a wise idea to acquaint yourself with the natural history of the place. Armed with a little respect and appreciation for the landscape before you, you just might treat it more reverently while you’re here—and help ensure that it remains for future generations to behold.

Rocky Road: Geology Sets the Table

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The beginnings of New England are perhaps a half-billion years old. That’s right: billion, with a B.

Liquid magma was moving upward through the earth’s mantle, exploding in underground volcanoes, then hardening into granite-like rocks underground. Much later, natural forces, such as wind and water, wore away and exposed the upper layers of these rocks. Their punishment was only beginning, however; soon enough (geologically speaking), what is now eastern North America and most of Europe began to shove up against each other, slowly but inexorably.

This “collision” (which was more like an extremely slow-motion car wreck) heated, squeezed, transformed, and thrust up the rocks that now form the backbone of the coastline. Ice ages came and went, but the rocks remained; successive waves of glaciation and retreat scratched up the rocks like old vinyl records, and the thick tongues of pressing ice cut deep notches out of them. The ice swept up huge boulders and deposited them in odd places.

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When the glaciers finally retreated for the last time, tens of thousands of years ago, the water melting from the huge ice sheet covering North America swelled lakes and rivers, and left unveiled such distinctively carved places as Acadia National Park in Maine and New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch and Franconia Notch. The melting ice sheets also laid down tons of silt and sand in their wake, birthing the sandy barrens and gentle hills of central and western Massachusetts.

Life Sets in: Plants & Animals

Once the bones of this landscape were established, next came the plants and animals. After each ice age, conifers such as spruce and fir trees began to take root—alongside countless grasses and weeds. It was tough work: Much of New England has rocky, acidic soil, inhospitable to vegetation. Yet a few plants persevered (as plants tend to do), and evergreens soon formed an impenetrable thicket covering much of the bedrock. When those conifers died of old age, were struck by lightning and caught on fire, or were cut down by settlers (or beavers), different kinds of trees—beeches, birches, brilliant sugar maples—rushed in to replace them.

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As trees, flowers, and fruits became reestablished, animals wandered back, too—some are now extinct, but most still thrive in the fields, hills, and woods of the region: Songbirds, deer, and moose attract avid wildlife watchers.

New England’s unique position, near the warm Gulf Stream without quite touching it, has also bequeathed the region with an amazing variety of marine life. The warm offshore Gulf current passes over a high, undersea plateau known as the Georges Bank, then collides with the much colder waters of the North Atlantic. This collision creates upwelling currents from the sea floor, bringing loads of microscopic food particles toward the surface—food that sustains a complex variety of microorganisms, the bottom rungs in a ladder of marine life that climbs all the way up to migrating whales, which make for a wonderful spectacle off the New England coast. (Whale-watching cruises set off from Boston; Gloucester, Massachusetts; and Barnstable and Provincetown on Cape Cod.) Seabirds make similar passages, lighting upon the beaches, marshes, and lakes here in spring and fall. The Atlantic also teems (though not as much as it once did) with codfish, lobsters, crabs, and other sea creatures.

The region’s coastal tide pools are also worth exploring. This precarious zone, where land and rock meet ocean, is an ever-changing world of seaweed, snails, barnacles, darting water bugs, clams, shellfish, mud-burrowing worms, and other creatures. Interestingly, creatures live in distinct, well-marked “bands” as you get closer to the water. Rocks that are always submerged contain one mixture of seaweed, shellfish, and marine organisms, while rocks that are exposed and then resubmerged each day by the tides have a different mix.

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And that’s just a sampling of what’s out there. Whether you explore New England on foot, by bicycle, by kayak, by horse-drawn carriage, or by charter boat, you’re certain to see something you’ve never seen before. Be attentive, and you’ll come away with a deeper respect for all things natural—not only here, but everywhere.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.