Within a short distance of both the Boston metropolitan area and most of New England, Cape Cod National Seashore is a popular getaway for many northeast visitors. This has been a common summer destination for decades. In fact, Cape Cod National Seashore attracts more visitors than Yosemite and Glacier National Parks, and the same number of visitors annually as Acadia National Park (located just a few hours to the north).
Cape Cod gets about 6 million visitors annually, and each year about 4 million of those visitors make their way to the beaches, bike trails and hiking trails of Cape Cod National Seashore. And for good reason-the towns are quaint and full of great shops, places to eat and tons of areas to explore. However, the crowds of the small towns can be a bit overwhelming. It can take an hour to travel a few miles sometimes on “the Cape,” leaving visitors wanting a place to just escape and enjoy the outdoors. Cape Cod National Seashore is perfect for that. While you won’t escape all the visitors in every spot on the seashore, you will be able to experience incredible beauty and find a good place to relax, which is exactly what most people seek when visiting Cape Cod.
At over 43,000 acres, Cape Cod National Seashore is quite large. In fact, it takes up 20% of the entire land mass of Cape Cod. Even if you go a few times it can be challenging to see it all, so taking the time to plan ahead is critical. With any luck, this guide on What to See and Do in Cape Cod National Seashore will help you find the best way of spending your time on the Cape!
CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE HISTORY
The truth is, Cape Cod National Seashore is a bit of a miracle. With the rapid expansion of Boston in the 19th century, inhabitants craved a place to go in the warmer months to escape the crowds. Toward the end of the century they found Cape Cod. Development started in earnest, and included railroads being built as well as bridges to access the Cape more easily. Summertime cottages started to sprout up, and this continues today.
In an effort to protect additional seashore for public use, the National Park Service began studying Cape Cod for the establishment of a national seashore. The initial draft for the protected land was created in 1959, and, after negotiations and a few compromises, was finally signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
BEACHES ON CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE
If you are going to Cape Cod National Seashore, then undoubtedly you’ll want to spend time on one of the many beaches that have been set aside for public use. In general, the beaches are expansive, clean and (obviously) have great access to the water. While you may be tempted to jump in the water and swim without care, you need to be aware that the area is known for both sharks and strong currents. Just exercise care and pay attention to any warnings you may see at the beaches (in the form of safety flags) to ensure your safety.
On all beaches, give plenty of distance to any wildlife such as terns, seals, nesting plovers and any other animals you see in the area.
While there are many beaches that are managed by the individual towns on Cape Cod, there are six beaches to choose from at Cape Cod National Seashore:
Coast Guard Beach (in Eastham):
- Location: The Coast Guard Beach is located at Little Creek. Directions from Eastham to the Coast Guard Beach Parking Area in Little Creek.
- Accessible via: Car, then by free shuttle from the parking area to the beach.
- Additional details: The Coast Guard Beach is extremely popular. Facing the Atlantic Ocean, this is the southernmost beach and easiest beach to access in Cape Cod National Seashore. While there is a good amount of parking at this beach, expect it to fill up on nice days and especially weekends.
Nauset Light Beach (in Eastham):
- Location: The Nauset Light Beach is located just north of the Coast Guard Beach. Directions from Eastham to the Nauset Light Beach Parking Area.
- Accessible via: Car.
- Additional details: The Nauset Light Beach is very popular, and parking is extremely limited. Arrive by 9 AM to get a spot, and even earlier on the weekends. The beach faces the Atlantic Ocean.
Marconi Beach (in Wellfleet):
- Location: Marconi Beach is located just north of the Nauset Light Beach as you approach Wellfleet, MA. Directions from Wellfleet, MA to Marconi Beach.
- Accessible via: Car.
- Additional details: Marconi Beach opens up to the Atlantic Ocean and makes visitors feel like they are “away from it all”, as there are great views to the north and south (and of course, east) from this beach. The water here can be a bit rough, but this makes it great for surfing. There is a lot of parking here, but it can fill up as you approach noon on busy days.
Head of the Meadow Beach (in North Truro):
- Location: Head of the Meadow Beach is located in North Truro, MA as you approach the north end of the Cape. Directions from North Truro, MA to Head of the Meadow Beach.
- Accessible via: Car.
- Additional details: Head of the Meadow Beach provides access to the Atlantic Ocean. This beach is very long, and allows for some great walking and exploring. The parking area is relatively large and only fills up on the busiest of days. Watching for seals is very popular here.
Race Point Beach (in Provincetown):
- Location: Race Point Beach is located at the northernmost point on the Cape. Directions from Provincetown, MA to Race Point Beach.
- Accessible via: Car.
- Additional details: Race Point Beach is right where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Cape Cod Bay. From here you can occasionally see whales. This is a fantastic beach, and the waters are usually fairly calm here. The parking area is large, but it can fill up on busier days. If you can’t find a spot here, then head to Herring Cove Beach.
Herring Cove Beach (in Provincetown):
Herring Cove Beach, image courtesy of Waffleboy
- Location: Herring Cove Beach is located all the way at the end of Cape Cod. Directions from Provincetown, MA to Herring Cove Beach.
- Accessible via: Car.
- Additional details: Herring Cove Beach offers access to Cape Cod Bay, which means the waters here are calmer than other beaches in the National Seashore, making it great for families in particular.
THE BEST HIKES IN CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE
While you may not find a lot of elevation gain to giant mountain peaks, there is still a surprising amount of hiking and walking to do in Cape Cod National Seashore! This is a great way to get away from the crowds. We particularly enjoy walking the trails in the early morning or in the evening as they are quiet and especially peaceful after a busy day in other parts of the Cape.
- The Great Island Trail is a moderate 4.7-mile loop (round-trip). You can take a right or left at the fork that is about 0.15 miles into the trail. If you head to the left, you’ll start the trail off by heading into the beautiful pine forest. This is where the elevation gain mainly occurs, which is just over 100 feet of climbing (spread out in the forest). There can be bugs in the forest, so be prepared. After about 2.5-miles, the trail then turns to the Cape Cod Bay side of the trail and returns on the beach. The beach walk is great, but can be a bit tiring in the soft sand. The trailhead for the Great Island Trail is located at the end of Chequessett Neck Road, just west of Wellfleet.
- For an easier walk in more of a swampy area, check out the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail. this 1.1-mile loop (round-trip) heads west from the Marconi Station Site with only about 70 feet of elevation change. It’s on a boardwalk for much of the trail, and passes through forest and a boggy area. Be advised that it is buggy and does require navigating through steep stairs. Head out east to the dunes for a view of the beach as well. The trailhead for the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail is located at the Marconi Station Site, just east of South Wellfleet at the end of Marconi Station Road.
- If you want a chance to get away from the crowded beaches and be pretty much on your own, then check out the Sand Dune Trail. This is a moderately challenging route, and is about 2.4-miles (round-trip). However, you’ll likely want to take your time and explore the beach once you actually get out there. Right after you leave Route 6 and head north, the trail immediately heads over some dunes. This is the most challenging part of the journey, as walking in the sand is hard! There is only about 200 feet of total elevation gain (including the way back).Once you get past the first 0.75 miles, you’ll have a relatively flat trek out to the beach, which is beautiful (of course!). The trailhead for the Sand Dune Trail is at the end of Snail Road, which is at the most northern point of Highway 6 near Provincetown, MA.
- The Red Maple Swamp and Fort Hill Loop is an easy, 1.7-mile (round-trip) loop trail. It has minimal elevation gain. Along the hike you’ll have amazing views of the Atlantic Ocean. This is a short hike, and definitely worth it for a good payoff without much work. Much of the trail is on a boardwalk as it heads through the swamp on the way to the ocean. The trailhead starts at Hemenway Landing, at the end of Hemenway Road just south of Eastham.
- If you want likely the most unique hike of them all in Cape Cod National Seashore, then the Long Point Lighthouse Trail might be for you. This moderately challenging hike is flat (5.9-miles round-trip, minimal elevation gain), but you have to keep your eye on the tides. The trail starts from the southern end of Provincetown and heads south across the jetty, which is not visible at high tide (so check the tidal charts ahead of time!). Once you get across the jetty (which is about 1 mile from the trailhead), you’ll have miles of beaches to explore. You can stay for as long as you want, but be advised that you don’t want to get stuck at high tide! At the west end of the island is Wood End Light, and the east end has Long Point Light. The trailhead for the Long Point Lighthouse Trail is at the southernmost end of Commercial Street, on the southernmost point of Provincetown.
- The Nauset Marsh Trail is near Eastham, and is an easy 4.0-mile (round-trip) trail that heads through a salt marsh and woods with great views of the water with minimal elevation gain. This hike is a bit busier than most as it’s near one of the most popular beaches. You can also walk part of the trail and make a short loop (about 1.4-miles). The trailhead for the Nauset Marsh Trail is on Nauset Road, just east of Highway 6 at the Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham.
OTHER ACTIVITIES IN CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE
Even if hiking or heading out to the beach isn’t your thing, there is still plenty to do and explore at Cape Cod National Seashore. Some particular activities that we recommend include:
- Salt Pond Visitor Center. This visitor center is open all year. In it you’ll find a great introduction video on the area, with access to Rangers for the most up-to-date information. There is also a large map and exhibits to check out. Plan on spending at least 30 minutes exploring. The Salt Pond Visitor Center is located in Eastham, just east of Highway 6. Look for signs for the parking area.
- Province Lands Visitor Center. Only open in the summer months through October, the Province Lands Visitor Center also has great exhibits to check out. You can also go to the observation deck to view the dunes. The Province Lands Visitor Center is located in Provincetown, near the entrance to Race Point Beach.
- Lighthouses and Historic Buildings. There are 8 lighthouses and numerous historical buildings that are worth exploring. Some can be reached by car, and others have to be reached by hiking or a challenging walk. For the best information on these points of interest, check out the NPS page on Lighthouses in Cape Cod National Seashore.
- Cape Cod National Seashore is ideal for biking, as nearly all of the trails are flat. It’s a popular activity, and the park caters well to cyclists. You can download biking maps here. There are a few trails to consider:
- The Head of the Meadow Bike Trail is a short, 2-mile trail (each way) heading from the Head of the Meadow Beach parking area to the Head of the Meadow Beach.
- The Nauset Bike Trail is the shortest of the bike trails, and heads from the Salt Pond Visitor Center to the Coast Guard Beach. The entire trail is about 1.6-miles (each way).
- The Province Lands Bike Trail is a loop that is about 5.5-miles. It travels to Race Point Beach as well as Herring Cove Beach. A good place to start the trail is at the Province Lands Visitor Center.
- You can also bike on one of our favorites, the Cape Cod Rail Trail, which is outside of the park but amazing. It’s 22-miles long (each way). You can find out more about the Cape Cod Rail Trail here.
- Driving on the Beach. The Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) Corridor is amazing, and extends from south of Coast Guard Beach to the northernmost beach, Race Point Beach. Access is limited and by permit only. For details, check out the NPS site on driving on the ORV corridor in Cape Cod National Seashore.
HOW TO GET TO CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE AND OTHER TRAVEL INFORMATION
The route to Cape Cod National Seashore is simple-essentially, you find your way to Highway 6 in Massachusetts and head east. The most common way to get to Highway 6 is by crossing the Sagamore Bridge that heads due south from Boston. Now, there are two bridges leading to Cape Cod (the other is to the south, called the Bourne Bridge). These cross the Cape Cod Canal. They can be quite crowded and the traffic going to the Cape can be atrocious.
Once you get on Highway 6, traffic usually progresses well, but jams and stoppages are common, so just keep your wits about you!
ENTRANCE FEES AND REQUIRED PASSES FOR CAPE COD NATIONAL SEASHORE
Fees are required at the beach during the most popular times of the year, usually mid-May through Labor Day.