Incorporated in 1735, Acton is a town made up of five loosely scattered village centers. The oldest of these is Acton Centre, where the local militia company assembled before marching to the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775.
Responding to the alarm raised by Paul Revere and relayed by one of his party, Samuel Prescott, the Acton Minutemen led the advance to the Old North Bridge in Concord.
It was there that Acton’s Captain Isaac Davis (b. 1745) became the first officer to die in the American Revolutionary War. Every Patriots’ Day the Acton Militia rises early to retrace that march to Concord and take part in a reenactment of the battle.
On a different tack, Acton benefits from a lot of undeveloped natural space. These town-owned conservation lands add up to more than 1,650 acres, distributed across a number of parcels of woodland, bog, meadows, and a marvelous arboretum.
1. Discovery Museum
Combining science, nature, and play, this award-winning children’s museum has become a destination for families after a multimillion-dollar expansion, completed in 2018.
The Discovery Museum has a world of indoor and outdoor exhibits to encourage exploration and experimentation, and develop qualities like persistence and resilience, as well as the ability of children “to understand their emotions and the emotions of others around them”.
The interior is loaded with STEAM experiences, all of which are open-ended, hands-on, low-tech, and interactive. Outside are the Discovery Woods, and kids will be awestruck by the giant Discovery Treehouse for an elevated view of forest life.
2. Patriots’ Day March
In the early hours of April 19, 1775, Isaac Davis led the Acton Minutemen from Acton Centre to the Old North Bridge in Concord to confront the British regulars at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
It was there that Davis became the first commissioned officer to die in the American Revolutionary War. To mark Patriots’ Day on the third Monday in April there’s a reenactment of this march, following the vestiges of the original trail where possible.
The procession begins at the historic Isaac Davis Homestead (39 Hayward Rd) at 5:50 am, beginning with a ceremony of remembrance.
The Minutemen normally get to Acton Centre by about 6:20, and finally, arrive at the Old North Bridge at around 9:00 am for a battle reenactment. The public is welcome to join the Acton Minutemen on their march, and take part in a slice of living history.
3. Hosmer House
In Acton’s collection of well-preserved Colonial-era structures is the Hosmer House, raised in 1760 and rare for being a “double house”.
Under a saltbox roof, one of these is a typical Colonial three-bay house with an off-center chimney, while the other is on a square plan.
Jonathan Hosmer, Jr, who built this house, was a mason, and his skill can still be admired in the house’s unique assortment of fireplaces. Hosmer fought at the Battle of Bennington (1777), together with his son who was killed there at just 17.
The Hosmer House now belongs to the Acton Historical Society, which opens the property up to the public as a museum on select weekends.
4. Acton Centre Historic District
At this understated ensemble of buildings around a town green, you’ll be in the historic heart of Acton, going back almost 300 years.
The main explanations for the small size of Acton Center are that there was no source of water power for industry here, and when the railroad came to Acton in the 1840s it went to the mill settlements in South and West Acton.
But the presence of civic buildings and places of worship ensured the prominence of Acton Centre. Around the green, there are beautiful examples of Federal and Greek Revival architecture from the late 18th century to the mid-19th century.
The town’s obelisk for the American Revolutionary War is on the common, at the very place where the militia rallied before heading into battle on April 19, 1775.
This space is bordered by the Congregational Church (1846), the Italianate Town Hall (1864), and Acton Memorial Library, built in the Romanesque Revival style in 1889.
5. Great Hill Conservation and Recreation Land
Behind the Discovery Museum is the largest single parcel of town-owned conservation land in Acton, dominated by the 358-foot Great Hill.
The elevation changes around Great Hill give rise to a variety of habitats, from marshy woods and wetlands in the east to wooded uplands on the slopes.
To the rear of the South Acton Fire Station, there’s also an expansive open area, intended for active recreation and games, accompanied by a small pond and picnic facilities.
The main loop at Great Hill is just over two miles long, crossing brooks over wooden bridges, and passing stone walls dating back to the 18th century and a purported Native American grinding stone (by the Piper Grove wetlands).
6. Bruce Freeman Rail Trail
Since the 2010s a string of communities between Lowell and Framingham have been joined up by a rail trail that will be 25 miles long when completed in the mid-2020s.
Acton is now completely hooked up to the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, which has converted the old Framingham and Lowell Line (1871) of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad.
Great for families, the paved trail is ten feet wide, with another two feet of shoulder on each side. There are five different parking areas for the trail in Acton, including at NARA Park, which we’ll cover in this list.
One of these is at Patriot Square (179 Great Road), where Pedal Power Bike and Ski has all the bike-related equipment and services you could need.
7. NARA Park
Short for Nathan Allen Recreation Area, this park in North Acton is relatively new, having been developed in the late 1990s.
Much of Nara Park is taken up by a manmade pond, which is skirted by a multi-use trail, beginning at the parking lot and connecting with the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail.
The pond’s beach is open to residents and non-residents, Memorial Day through late August, and there’s a lifeguard on duty during normal hours seven days a week.
At this time of year, you can rent a paddle boat or canoe, and there’s a concession stand for fast food and cold drinks. The amphitheater at NARA Park sets the scene for Acton’s popular summer concert series on Friday evenings, as well as a number of one-off shows.
8. Faulkner House
The oldest extant Colonial residence in Acton is the Faulkner House (1707), home to the Faulker family for just over 200 years, across six generations.
On the National Register of Historic Places since 1986, this property was prominent in times of strife in the area.
During Queen Anne’s War (1703-1713), Faulkner House served as a garrison house for protection during Native American raids on the Massachusetts frontier, and then again during the American Revolutionary War as an assembly point for Acton’s militia before their fateful confrontation at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
There’s an open house in the afternoon here on 4th Sundays, May through October. On these days you can also visit the nearby Jones Tavern (128 Main Street), built in 1732 and owned by the same organization, Iron Work Farm.
9. Acton Arboretum
Heading along Main Street you can easily walk from Acton Centre to this 65-acre swath of conservation land made up of a glacial esker, historic apple orchards, woods, ponds, and a bog, but also a series of gorgeous planted gardens.
You can amble through a butterfly garden, herb garden, hosta garden, rhododendron garden, lilac fragrance garden, daylily garden, and picture-perfect pond planting.
One memorable trail Wildflower Loop leads through the woods, bedded with a stunning variety of native wildflowers in spring and summer, but also features two long sections of boardwalk, a fern collection, a brook, and two old farm ponds.
10. Nashoba Brook
This piece of town-owned conservation land is part of a group of four contiguous parcels, adding up to more than 500 acres, containing a section of the long-distance Bay Circuit Trail.
Adjoining Robbins Mill, Camp Acton, and Spring Hill, Nashoba Brook can be your first step on an afternoon-long hike, weaving deep into the woods for six miles.
Nashoba Brook is perhaps the most scenic portion, for the changing riparian habitats along the unspoiled brook, from marshes to rapids and bodies of still water.
There’s also compelling history waiting to be discovered, including the remnants of 18th-century mills, stone walls first laid down by Native Americans, ancient cairns, and the mysterious Potato Cave.
The origins of this manmade chamber are unknown; it may have been a shelter for railroad workers in the 19th century, an 18th-century root shelter, or a pre-Colonial ceremonial structure.
11. Wills Hole/Town Forest
You can use the parking lot at NARA Park to explore another piece of town-owned conservation land, sitting to the northwest and composed of the contiguous Wills Hole and Town Forest.
Set around former granite quarries, this area of woodland covers almost 100 acres and can be discovered on a two-mile yellow-blazed loop, which can be accessed via six different red spurs.
This loop is mostly on high ground, atop a glacially-formed esker, with a stretch of the boardwalk leading down to Wills Hole.
This is a typical quaking bog, growing carnivorous plant species like pitcher plants and sundews that trap, digest, and obtain nutrients from insects, amphibians, and small mammals.
12. Idylwilde Farms
A go-to for fresh produce, flowers, and delicious specialty foods, Idylwilde Farms has been in business since 1925.
The farm grows many of the seasonal fruit and vegetables sold at the store, among them cabbage, cucumbers, Swiss chard, beets, tomatoes, and peppers, while sourcing produce from a lineup of local farms.
The bakery is along the same lines, making its own croissants, apple cider donuts, baguettes, muffins, and more while partnering with local bakers.
A real highlight is the cheese and charcuterie selection, with more than 200 cheese varieties from around the world, as well as Italian favorites like capicola (sweet and hot), soppressata, pancetta, and a number of salamis.
The deli here makes a wide range of salads, soups, and sandwiches, including a choice of grilled sandwiches and paninis.
13. Theatre III
This well-supported community theatre group has a one-of-a-kind venue at the old West Acton Universalist Church (1868).
The church was initially taken over by the Acton Women’s Club 1925, which sold the building off to the West Acton Community Center in 1955, and one of the activities taking place here was community drama via the Little Theatre Workshop.
This eventually teamed up with two other local arts organizations, The Community Dance Theatre and The Acton Community Chorus, to become Theatre III (for its three founding groups) in 1968.
More than half a century later Theatre III regularly wins multiple EMACT DASH awards for its productions. Picks from recent seasons include Calendar Girls, Matilda, Lovers, and Other Strangers, and James and the Giant Peach.
14. Assabet River Rail Trail
South Acton MBTA station is the northern trailhead for another rail trail from here to Marlborough. When we wrote this article two long stretches of the Assabet River had been completed.
These ran for 3.4 miles from Acton to the Maynard–Stow border, and for 5.1 miles from Marlborough to Hudson, with a 4-mile gap in Stow and Hudson in between. The trail is on the Marlborough Branch of the Fitchburg Railroad, built during the early 1850s.
As the trail connects with the train station in South Acton, the northernmost stretch has become a convenient artery for commuters.
This is also a scenic ride, passing farmland, a historic brook, and wetlands, before cutting through downtown Maynard where the trail crosses the Assabet River.
Although this stretch of the paved trail ends at White Pond Road, there’s almost two more miles of unpaved trail along the rail corridor in the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge.
15. Acton Bowladrome & Arcade
An entertainment mainstay in Acton since 1959, this family-run bowling alley specializes in candlepin bowling. For newcomers, candlepin bowling is a regional variation that originated in Worcester, MA, in the 1880s.
This style involves long and narrow pins that are more difficult to knock down, not least because you’ll be using a small, handheld ball.
The Acton Bowladrome caters to family outings, league bowling, birthday parties, company events, and other special occasions, and comes with a 50-game arcade, popular for its many pinball machines.