Cape Cod National Seashore
No trip to Cape Cod would be complete without a visit to the Cape Cod National Seashore, on the Outer Cape, and a barefoot stroll along "The Great Beach," where you see exactly why the Cape attracts artists and poets. On August 7, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed a bill designating 27,000 acres in the 40 miles from Chatham to Provincetown as the Cape Cod National Seashore, a new national park. Unusual in a national park, the Seashore includes 500 private residences, the owners of which lease land from the park service. Convincing residents that a National Seashore would be a good thing for Cape Cod was an arduous task back then, and Provincetown still grapples with Seashore officials over town land issues.
The Seashore's claim to fame is its spectacular beaches -- in reality, one long beach -- with dunes 50 to 150 feet high. This is the Atlantic Ocean, so the surf is rough (and cold), but a number of the beaches have lifeguards. Seashore beaches include Coast Guard and Nauset Light beaches, in Eastham; Marconi Beach, in Wellfleet; Head of the Meadow Beach, in Truro; and Provincetown's Race Point and Herring Cove beaches. A $45 pass will get you into all of them for the season, or you can pay a daily rate of $15.
The Seashore also has a number of walking trails -- all free, all picturesque, and all worth a trip. In Eastham, Fort Hill (off Rte. 6) has one of the best scenic views on Cape Cod and a popular boardwalk trail through a red-maple swamp. The Nauset Marsh Trail is accessed from the Salt Pond Visitor Center, on Route 6, in Eastham. Great Island, on the bay side in Wellfleet, is surely one of the finest places to have a picnic; you could spend the day hiking the trails. On Pamet Trail, off North Pamet Road, in Truro, hikers pass the decrepit old cranberry-bog building (restoration is in the works) on the way to a trail through the dunes. Don't try the old boardwalk trail over the bogs here; it has flooded and is no longer in use. The Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail is located at the Marconi Station site; Small Swamp and Pilgrim Spring trails are found at Pilgrim Heights Beach; and Beech Forest Trail is located at Race Point, in Provincetown. The best bike path on Cape Cod is the Province Lands Trail, 5 swooping and invigorating miles, at Race Point Beach. Race Point is also a popular spot for surf-casting, which is allowed from the ocean beaches.
The Seashore also includes several historic buildings that tell their part of the region's history. At Race Point Beach, in Provincetown, the Old Harbor Lifesaving Station serves as a museum of early lifesaving techniques. Captain Edward Penniman's 1868 house, at Fort Hill, in Eastham, is a grandly ornate Second Empire home; and the 1730 Atwood-Higgins House, in Wellfleet, is a typical Cape-style home; both are open for tours. Five lighthouses dot the Seashore, including Highland Light, in Truro, and Nauset Light, in Eastham, both of which have been moved back from precarious positions on the edges of dunes.
Getting There -- Take Route 6, the Mid-Cape Highway, to Eastham (about 50 miles). Pick up a map at the Cape Cod National Seashore's Salt Pond Visitor Center, in Eastham (tel. 508/255-3421; www.nps.gov/caco). Another visitor center is at Race Point. Both centers have ranger activities, maps, gift shops, and restrooms. Seashore beaches are all off Route 6 and are clearly marked. Additional beaches along this stretch are run by individual towns, and you must have a sticker or pay a fee.
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.