Drive down New Hampshire’s seacoast, and the first thing you’ll notice is the ocean. Take a moment to turn away from the coast, though, and you’ll spot one of the seacoast’s more overlooked ecosystems; New Hampshire’s salt marshes. A salt marsh is a type of coastal wetland that is regularly flooded and drained by salt water as a result of changing tides. Salt marshes can be found on all U.S. coasts, and New Hampshire is no exception. The state’s salt marshes, once ubiquitous throughout the 13 miles of New Hampshire coastline, were underappreciated and misused for decades. More recently, however, a cooperative project between federal, state, and local agencies has sparked a rebirth of these unique ecosystems. A quick walk from Rye Harbor State Park, near the northern end of the seacoast, will bring you to one of the best places to introduce yourself to a salt marsh, the Awcomin Marsh.
The Awcomin Marsh itself has a less-than-glamorous past, having twice served as the dumping ground for Rye Harbor’s dredge spoils in 1941 and 1962. This dredge disposal, while necessary for the maintenance of Rye Harbor, had the unfortunate side effect of raising the marsh’s elevation one to six feet in different places, disrupting the marsh’s natural functioning and allowing invasive species to flourish. In 2001, the Awcomin Marsh Restoration Project was launched, with the goal of removing this waste to return the marsh to its original elevation as well as creating a new tidal creek system and restoring habitat. By 2005, 30 acres of marsh had been restored. A convenient viewing platform and trail were completed the same year.
To reach the marsh, exit Rye Harbor State Park on foot and turn left out of the gate and cross the street. A brief 5-minute walk will bring you to the marsh’s trailhead, located to your right and just across the sign for Rye Harbor (not to be confused with Rye Harbor State Park). The trail itself is short and easy to navigate; a few hundred yards will bring you to the viewing platform, where you can experience an unobstructed view of the marsh and also learn a few useful facts about salt marshes from the platform’s interpretive panels. It’s a great spot to have a picnic, birdwatch, or just enjoy the quiet calm that pervades the marsh. As an added bonus, because the sun sets to the west, the salt marsh offers one of the better sunset views along the seacoast.
Salt marshes are beautiful places to enjoy and explore. Beyond this, they also serve as a food source for fish, provide habitat for wading birds, protect the seacoast from flooding and storms, and improve water quality by filtering runoff. Next time you find yourself visiting the beach, take a few minutes and turn your attention inland – the salt marshes will be waiting for you.