Cape Cod National SeashoreCape Cod National Seashore is a National Seashore in the state of Massachusetts in the United States of America.
HistoryCape Cod is relatively young geologically at 18,000 years or so. American Indians began using the land at least 9,000 years ago.
In 1620, a group known as "The Pilgrims", a group of English Separatists seeking to establish a settlement in Virginia were forced to land here. They sent out three separate "discovery" expeditions to see what the area had to offer. During these "discoveries" they found their first fresh water, took some Indian corn, and almost had a battle (called the First Encounter) with some Native Americans. Cape Cod had many good features, but after a month of searching, it was decided to finally settle in Plymouth.
In 1902 Guglielmo Marconi built one of two North American wireless stations at South Wellfleet. On January 18, 1903 the first public two-way communication (in Morse Code) between Europe and America occurred through this station. The station was closed in 1917 and scrapped in 1920, with the communication station being relocated to Chatham. Cable stations were later established in North Eastham and Orleans.
Seashore history also includes shipwrecks and lifesaving. Two lighthouses (Highland or "Cape Cod" and Nauset) have been moved to keep them from toppling down eroding cliffs.
The Cape Cod National Seashore was created on August 7, 1961 by President John F. Kennedy.
LandscapeThe park includes beaches, high cliff dunes, sand spits, tidal flats, salt marshes, and soft-bottom benthos. Inland there are kettle ponds, vernal pools, sphagnum bogs, and swamps. Vegetation includes pitch pine and scrub oak forests, heathlands, dunes, and sandplain grasslands.
Flora and faunaAs a result of almost total deforestation by European settlers between 1650 and 1900, globally rare heathland habitats have resulted here. Bayberry and beach plum are common.
Twenty-five federally-protected species occur in the park. The Seashore is a significant site for the piping plover, with roughly 5% of the entire Atlantic coast population nesting here. Cape Cod National Seashore also supports 32 species that are rare or endangered in the state of Massachusetts. Some of these, such as the common tern, are conspicuous. Much less visible is the spadefoot toad which spends most its life buried in the sand, emerging only on warm nights with torrential rainfall.
ClimateSpring is generally cool and damp with temperatures of 40°F-60°F (4°-15°C). Summer brings temperatures in the 70s and 80s°F (20-30°C), and cool nights. Autumn is drier than spring with similar temperatures. Winter is milder than inland, but dampness and wind chill can make winter days bitter cold. Temperatures range between 30°F and 40°F (-1° to 4°C) in mid-winter, but intervals of below 0°F (-18°C) as well as milder temperatures are also possible.
Salt Pond Visitor Centerphone: +1 508 255-3421address: 50 Nauset RoadThe Seashore's main visitor facility offers views of Nauset Marsh and the Atlantic, with frequent orientation movies, a comprehensive museum, bookstore and restroom facilities. Five short films daily on a rotating schedule in an indoor theatre. This visitor center is convenient to the Nauset Marsh and Buttonbush trails, and the Nauset bicycle trail is also nearby. A museum collection reflects the vast range of natural and cultural themes represented on Cape Cod. Artwork from prominent artists is displayed, and in the atrium, the museum highlights the Cape's complex and diverse natural history of the Outer Cape. Displays cover salt marsh plants and animals, beach dynamics, upland plant communities and prominent residential and migratory birds.
Province Lands Visitor Centerphone: +1 508 487-1256address: Race Point RoadPerched high atop a prominent sand dune, an observation deck provides a 360-degree view of the Province Lands dunes, the Outer Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. From this location you can see Race Point Ranger Station, Race Point Beach, the Old Harbor Life-Saving Station and the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown. Exhibits about local plants and animals and the Pilgrim's landing in Provincetown are featured. Five short films daily on a rotating schedule in an indoor theatre. Bookstore with books, tapes, videos, toys and gifts related to Cape Cod.
By carRoute 6 is the main Cape Cod "highway". All areas have signs from this road. From Boston travel south on Interstate 93 and Route 3 to the Sagamore Bridge where Route 6 begins.
Plymouth & BrocktonOffers four round trips daily from Hyannis to Provincetown and several other lower and outer Cape towns during the summer. After Labor Day, this is cut to two trips past Hyannis per day, mostly used by down Cape residents heading to Logan.
phone: +1 800 352-7155Makes a variety of stops throughout the Lower and Outer Cape; between Harwich and Provincetown. The Flex can be flagged down anywhere, except along Route 6 (it's too dangerous). You can schedule a pickup pretty much anywhere along the National Seashore if you call ahead and give them at least 2 hours notice.
phone: +1 508 771-6944address: 660 Barnstable RoadThis small regional airline offers connections to all the tourist hotspots throughout Cape Cod and the Islands. The closest airports to the National Seashore are in Provincetown and Hyannis. Both routes connect through Boston.
Fees and permits
Rules and regulationsDue to the fragile ecosystem, and the relative popularity of the Cape Cod National Seashore, there are a fair number of rules and regulations for visitors to follow. At the end of the day, they're really not that inconvenient, and following the rules helps keep the park healthy and beautiful for the next generation to enjoy.
Do not disturb natural or cultural features, all are protected by federal law. Glass containers, flotation devices (like rafts and rubber-tubes), snorkels, and masks are prohibited on any life-guard-protected beach. Pets must be leashed and under control at all times. Leashes may not exceed six feet. Pets are not permitted in public buildings, picnic areas, on protected beaches, or on self-guided trails.
Climbing slopes is hazardous and prohibited, sand here is constantly shifting and collapses easily. Digging holes above knee level is also prohibited.
There are plenty more rules too, depending on your interests. Want to make a campfire? See the "Drink" section. Want to drive on the beach? See "Do". For rules regarding sleeping on the beach, look to the "Sleep" section.
USA National Park passes
- Most people would use a car in order to explore all areas of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
- Experienced bicyclists could use that method. The Cape Cod Rail Trail connects the Marconi area and the Salt Pond Visitor Center.
Atwood-Higgins Historic Districtaddress: Bound Brook Island RoadThe Atwood-Higgins House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. In 2010, the scope was expanded to the general area around the home, including several 20th-century out buildings.
Doane Rockaddress: Near Salt Pond Visitor CenterPay a visit to Doane Rock to see the largest exposed boulder on Cape Cod. This massive boulder was deposited here by glaciers, maybe around 15,000 years ago. It's all of high, and probably goes an additional below the surface.
phone: +1 508-349-3785 x208address: Old Dewline RoadThis area is under development by partnership with AmeriCorps Cape Cod, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Highlands Center, Inc, and Payomet Performing Arts Center in Truro, with the mission of fostering "the unique cultural and natural heritage of Cape Cod by facilitating scientific research, the arts tradition, and educational programs". The eighty acre site is the former North Truro Air Force Station, set atop dramatic sea cliffs.
phone: +1 508 349-0200address: 13 Truro Center RoadBuilt in 1907, the artifacts in this building imagine what life was like for folks in the area. Covering a period from the first peoples to today.
address: Race Point BeachBuilt in Chatham in 1897, it was moved to its current location in 1977. It was then rehabilitated and furnished exactly it as it would have been at the time, and opened to the public in 1978.
phone: +1 508 487-1121address: 27 Highland Light RoadThe current tower dates from 1857; it's the oldest and tallest lighthouse on Cape Cod. In the early 1990s, due to beach erosion, Highland Light was in danger of falling down a cliff. During the summer of 1996 it was moved to its current resting place, 450 feet to the west. Closed during 2019 for extensive renovations, although the Keepers Shop store and exhibit areas should remain open.
address: 120 Nauset Light Beach RoadNauset Light was built in Chatham in 1877. It was moved to Eastham in 1933, and first painted with its iconic red stripe in 1940s. This lighthouse has also been moved from its original location, at one point being just a few dozen feet from the ocean's edge. The move was completed in 1996, the same time it was donated to the National Park Service.
address: Walk 45 min across the sandy beachFirst built in 1818 as the third light on Cape Cod, the current 45-foot iron tower dates from 1876. The location is quite beautiful, and two outbuildings here can be rented out overnight to those planning way, way, way in advance.
Three Sisters Lighthousesaddress: Cable RoadFirst constructed of brick in 1836 the original towers quickly fell into the ocean. The lights were rebuilt again, this time on movable wooden platforms. This strategy proved successful, and the Three Sisters have been moving around the Cape ever since. The most recent restoration was completed in 1989, and tours have been available at their current home in Eastham ever since.
phone: +1 508 487-2100 (x.0928)The shoreline between Race Point Light and Head of the Meadow Beach can be driven for those with the right permits and equipment. 400 permits are available per week on a first come, first serve basis. To get started, head over to Race Point Beach for an inspection. To pass you must own a properly licensed 4WD vehicle with special tires and additional kit. Rentals are verboten. Once you fork over the cash and watch a quick safety video, you're free to hit the dunes. Some areas may be off limits due to nesting birds, time of day, and around high tide.
Ranger Guided ActivitiesRanger-guided programs are offered from spring through fall. Explore the many facets of Cape Cod National Seashore through guided walks, talks, performance and music events, canoe trips, campfires, open houses at historic buildings, yoga, and more! Most activities depart from the Salt Pond Visitors Center during normal business hours. Check in when you arrive to see what's being offered that day. There are usually a good mix of programs suitable for children and adults.
ShellfishingEven if you don't know your Cherrystones from your Littlenecks, you can still strike out and try your hand at shellfishing. You will need some gear, but it ain't fancy and can be procured at any local bait and tackle shop.
SurfingPermitted in waters outside lifeguarded beaches.
phone: +1 508 487-9201address: 10 Highland Light RoadHighland Links is certainly Cape Cod’s oldest golf course, and arguably its most scenic. Founded in 1892, the course is perched atop windswept dunes overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. This course was conceived in the Scottish tradition, and has been celebrating that heritage for over 100 years. Ownership was transferred to the Federal Government in 1961 with the establishment of the Seashore. A small clubhouse serves small snacks, sandwiches, and pizzas. Tee times can be booked up to 60 days in advance.
Coast Guard BeachThe most popular swimming beach, especially during the high summer season. Parking area closed from mid-June to Labor Day, those with disability placards exempt. When open, it fills between 11AM and 1PM daily with moderate turnover. Beach access via Little Creek Shuttle and parking area, a half mile away. Seasonal restrooms and wheelchair-accessible beach access ramp.
Nauset Light BeachThis beach is wide and sandy, backed by a somewhat imposing coastal bluff. Walking the beach during winter months, you may discover the exposed brick foundations of earlier "Three Sisters" lighthouses. The trail up to the modern lighthouses will wind you through an emergent forest. Parking area always fills during July and August, barring bad weather. Arrive before 9:30AM to ensure a space. Arrive earlier if it's really hot. Seasonal restrooms and bathhouse available.
Marconi BeachThe excellent observation platform here offers some of the best views along the Seashore. From here you can see a landscape slowly recovering from centuries of abuse, which today provides homes for several rare species. Parking area rarely fills during late June and July. In August, parking fills occasionally with moderate turnover. The first successful transatlantic wireless communication was sent from this site in 1903. It travelled straight across the Atlantic Ocean and all the way to England's Poldhu village. Seasonal restrooms and bathhouse available.
Head of the Meadow BeachParking area rarely fills. Good beach for young children. During low tide, the wreck of the Frances may still be seen poking out of the sand. This vessel was wrecked during a powerful December gale in 1872. Seasonal restrooms available.
Race Point BeachProvidence Lands Visitor Center located at the entrance to this beach. Quite close to Provincetown and the Pilgrim Monument. Parking area rarely fills during June and July. When the parking area does fill, it is usually one to two hours after the Herring Cove lot fills. Great beach for watching sunset. Popular with fisherman. Seasonal restrooms, showers and changing rooms all available.
Herring Cove BeachQuite close to Provincetown and the Pilgrim Monument. Parking area fills between 10AM and noon most days throughout the summer. Moderate turnover after 1PM. Access to Herring Cove Beach is also available on the Provincetown-Truro shuttle. Great for watching sunset. Seasonal restrooms and snack bar.
Self-guided walking trailsThe Seashore has twelve self-guided trails, all are open year round. Individual route maps are available at some trailheads. Many have picnic areas.
Fort Hill Trailaddress: along Governor Prence RoadThis 1.5-mile, moderately difficult trail offers great views and connects with Red Maple Swamp Trail.
Red Maple Swamp Trailaddress: branches off Fort Hill TrailOne-half mile trail of moderate difficulty has boardwalk sections winding through the swamp. Can take you to the Fort Hill Area, with some nice panoramic views of Nauset Marsh. Some tree roots in trail. Great fall walk.
Nauset Marsh Trailaddress: adjacent to Salt Pond Visitor CenterEasy one-mile trail along the shore of Salt Pond and Nauset Marsh over fields and through a recovering forest. Great views.
Buttonbush Trailaddress: adjacent to Salt Pond Visitor CenterThis quarter-mile trail with a boardwalk bridge over Buttonbush Pond features a guide rope and Braille and large text. Blindfolds optional! Thirty minutes without.
Doane Trailaddress: on the way to Coast Guard BeachEasy half-mile paved trail loop through pine and oak forests to large glacial rock with marsh views.
Atlantic White Cedar Swampaddress: at the Marconi Station areaAn 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. Moderate difficulty, return route is 1/2 mile in soft sand.
Great Island Trailaddress: along Chequesset Neck RoadSix-mile (or optionally eight-mile) trail that runs along Great Island and Great Beach Hill, skirting salt marshes and giving great views on the way to Jeremy Point. The park's most difficult trail with soft sand, some log steps and portions submerged at high tide. Optional routes can be confusing. Caution: do not attempt when tide is rising.
Pamet Area Trailsaddress: along North Pamet RoadOne-mile trail with a steep quarter-mile spur to overlook. Old abandoned cranberry bog. Moderately strenuous with many log steps.
Woods Walk at Highlands Centeraddress: along Old Dewline RoadA one-mile trail of moderate difficulty, takes about 30 minutes to complete. Views include forest, heathlands, and dramatic ocean bluffs.
Small's Swamp Trailaddress: in the Pilgrim Heights areaEasy 3/4-mile loop. Provides access to Pilgrim Heights and High Head sites, where archaeological evidence of ancient inhabitants remains.
Pilgrim Spring Trailaddress: in the Pilgrim Heights areaEasy 3/4-mile loop through recovering pine and oak forest. A marker commemorates an area representative of where the Pilgrims first drank. This trail also provides access to Pilgrim Heights and High Head sites.
Beach Forest Trailaddress: at Race Point Road parking lotOne-mile easy walk in sand, past pond and through dunes.
Bicycle trailsWhether you ride or not, you'll find cycling to be a popular activity on the Seashore. All public facilities will provide bike racks where you can lock up. Bikes are basically allowed anywhere you can ride them, except for hiking trails and beaches.
Cape Cod Rail TrailThis easy relatively flat trail runs from South Wellfleet to South Dennis. You'll have to cross a few busy intersections.
Nauset Trailaddress: Salt Pond Visitor CenterThis easy trail with a few hills runs , connecting the Salt Pond Visitor Center, Doane Picnic Area, Coast Guard Beach, and several hiking trails.
Head of the Meadow TrailThis easy, flat trail stretches and connects High Head Road to Head of the Meadow Beach. You'll pass a few berry bushes along the way.
Province Lands TrailThis intermediate trail loops around the Province Lands, connecting to both Herring Cove and Race Point beaches with short spurs. You'll pass by pine forests, sandy dunes, and low-lying cranberry bogs, but keep a sharp eye. This older trail has steep hills and several sharp turns. Take it easy!
Old Colony Rail TrailThis easy to intermediate level trail runs from Harwich to Chatham.
- Eastern National runs bookstores at the Visitor Centers, selling books, tapes, videos, toys and gifts.
phone: +1 508 487-0045address: Province Lands RoadOffers lobster rolls, pulled pork sandwiches, cod cake sliders, deli sandwiches, and a wide selection of novelty ice cream. Cash only, no ATM.
phone: +1 508 349-6055address: 1120 Cahoon Hollow RdThis restaurant/bar is located right on the bluffs in the scenic National Seashore. Sip on your beer while looking out over the Atlantic. Voted “best live entertainment on the lower cape” and “one of the best seaside dining spots in New England”. Tends to cater to the party bus crowd.
phone: +1 508 349-3959address: 370 Wilson AveThis charming 18 cottage village is located within the Cape Cod National Seashore, steps away from the beach. Pets allowed off season with approval. Open from April to October, and you must rent by the week during the summer.
phone: +1 508 240-2870address: 75 Fort Hill RdThis Greek revival Farmhouse was built in 1864, converted to a B&B in 1990, and constantly wins "best of" awards. Overlooking Coast Guard Beach, Nauset Marsh and the Atlantic, you'll be near everything on the Cape Cod National Seashore. Offers both cottages and luxury suites.
phone: +1 508 255-4783address: 420 Lecount Hollow RdCook's offers 14 cottages available for weekly rentals, Saturday to Saturday. The rental season runs from Friday before Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekend in October. Each charming cottage was built at different times, and are moved whenever erosion demands. All have kitchens, grills, and bathrooms, none have televisions. Book early, families have been returning here for 5 generations.
- Rip currents and undertow are common, dangerous conditions along ocean beaches. Swim in lifeguard protected areas and if caught in a rip current free yourself by swimming parallel to the beach first.
- Take precautions to avoid contact with ticks and mosquitoes. Deer ticks may carry lyme disease. Mosquitoes may carry encephalitis or the West Nile virus. Stay on trails and out of tall grasses. Use repellent and wear proper clothing.
- Poison ivy is prolific on Cape Cod and the rash it produces can cause severe discomfort. “Leaves of three, let it be.”
- Be alert for bicycles and pedestrians on the Seashore's narrow roads.
- Check out the seals and multitudes of wild birds in Chatham's Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.
- Many folks will either arrive or depart to Boston, New England's unofficial capital.
- Tired of all that nature? Tour the gilded age mansions of Newport, Rhode Island.
- If you're not ready to leave, but you'd like someone else to make dinner, Provincetown's got options.
- Keep exploring the area's shifting sands on Nantucket island. Similar landscapes, but totally different vibes.