Writing about Cape Cod in the 1800s, Henry David Thoreau said, “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.” Thoreau walked the length of the “great outer beach” along the Atlantic ocean long before it became part of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
The National Seashore is one of Cape Cod’s greatest treasures. Created with the passing of a bill on August 7th, 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, its designation marked the first time the National Park Service (NPS) created a “National Seashore”, and served as the model for the creation of at least nine additional “Seashores” in the U.S. The bill that created it protects more than 44,000 acres of land along the outer reaches of Cape Cod, including 40 miles of shoreline that stretch from Monomoy Island to Provincetown.
More than 4 million people visit Cape Cod’s National Seashore annually, stopping at one of the two Visitor Centers within the park to acquaint themselves with what the area has to offer. During the height of the summer, rangers offer numerous no-cost activities geared to both young and old, including interpretive nature talks, lighthouse tours, and historical re-enactments.
Within the park itself are 11 self-guided walking trails, from easy walks over gentle terrain to more difficult hikes through woodlands and soft sand. Listed here by the town in which they are located, the trails are a great way to experience Cape Cod the way Thoreau did.
- Fort Hill Trail, Governor Prence Road , is a 1.5 mile, moderately difficult trail offering great views and connects with the Red Maple Swamp Trail.
- Red Maple Swamp Trail, off Fort Hill Trail, is a one-half mile trail of moderate difficulty with boardwalk sections that wind through the swamp.
- Buttonbush Trail, adjacent to Salt Pond Visitor Center, Route 6, is quarter-mile trail with a boardwalk bridge over Buttonbush Pond, and features a guide rope and Braille and large text.
- Nauset Marsh Trail, adjacent to Salt Pond Visitor Center, Route 6 is an easy one-mile trail along the shore of Salt Pond and Nauset Marsh over fields and through a recovering forest with great views.
- Doane Trail, Doane Road (on the way to Coast Guard Beach) is an easy half-mile paved trail loop through pine and oak forests to large glacial rock with marsh views.
- Atlantic White Cedar Swamp, Marconi Station area is an award-winning 1.25 mile trail descending through a stunted oak and pine forest into a mature woodland where a boardwalk leads through the picturesque swamp. This is a moderately difficult trail with a return route in soft sand.
- Great Island Trail, Chequesset Neck Road is a 6- to 8-mile trail that runs along Great Island and Great Beach Hill, skirting the salt marshes and offering great views on the way to Jeremy Point. This is the Park’s most difficult trail due to its soft sand, log steps, and portions submerged at high tide.
- Pamet Cranberry Bog Trail, North Pamet Road, is a one-mile trail with a steep quarter-mile spur to an overlook. The trail is moderately strenuous with many log steps.
- Small’s Swamp Trail, Pilgrim Heights area off Route 6 is an easy 3/4 mile loop.
- Pilgrim Spring Trail, Pilgrim Heights area off Route 6 is an easy 3/4 mile loop through recovering pine and oak forest. A marker commemorates an area representative of where the Pilgrims first drank.
- Beach Forest Trail, Race Point Road. The trailhead begins at the parking lot 1/2 mile from traffic light on Route 6. This is a one-mile easy walk in sand, past a pond and sand dunes.
In addition to some great hikes, the Cape Cod National Seashore is known for its wonderful beaches. All have paved parking, showers, rest rooms, changing rooms, and lifeguards seasonally. Coast Guard Beach in Eastham and Herring Cove in Provincetown, are handicapped accessible and have wheelchairs capable of traveling over sand. In 2009, Dr. Beach, aka Stephen P. Leatherman, named Coast Guard Beach one of the Top Ten beaches in the U.S., and declared it one of the best sand beaches in the U.S. in 2010. Here, in no particular order, are the National Seashore beaches along with some hints about parking.
- Coast Guard Beach, Nauset Road off Route 6, Eastham. The parking lot fills quickly on nice summer days. However there is a shuttle from a satellite lot a half mile away.
- Nauset Light Beach, Nauset Road off Route 6, Eastham. The parking area always fills before 9:30 AM during July and August, except in bad weather.
- Marconi Beach, off Route 6, Wellfleet. This parking area rarely fills during late June and July, although in August it will fill occasionally in August. Marconi is arguably one of the most beautiful beaches in the entire region.
- Head of the Meadow Beach, Truro. This is a great beach for young children and the parking area rarely fills.
- Race Point Beach, Race Point Rd (off Route 6), Provincetown. The parking area rarely fills during June and July. This is a great beach for watching sunset and very popular with fisherman.
- Herring Cove Beaches, off Route 6, Provincetown. The parking area fills between 10AM and noon most days throughout the summer. This is another great beach to watch the sunset.
The Cape Cod National Seashore is a “must do” for visitors to Cape Cod in any season. Less than a half-hour’s drive from our Cape Cod bed and breakfast, the stunning natural beauty of the area, combined with the pounding surf against the shore, especially before and after one of our infamous nor’easters, is hypnotic. Grab your beach bag or your hiking boots and make a day of it!