Mention Cape Cod to anybody who has never been there, and the image that comes to mind is probably one of scenic back roads leading to miles of pristine beaches, with the occasional picturesque small village along the way. At least that’s what I imagined.
The reality is more like bumper to bumper traffic, people packed onto beaches like sardines in a can, and roadways lined with lobster shacks and souvenir stands. Or at least that’s what Cape Cod was like during our summer visit. People tell me that we timed our trip wrong, and that autumn is the perfect time to explore the Cape, when the crowds are smaller and the weather is still nice. We hope to go back again sometime during this “shoulder season” as they call it.
Cape Cod is an L shaped peninsula that juts 60 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean from the eastern shore of Massachusetts. The Cape is divided from the mainland by the manmade Cape Cod Canal, making it essentially the world’s largest barrier island, shielding much of the state’s coastline from the strong storms that plague the North Atlantic. But in the process, those same storms erode the Cape’s shoreline, making it smaller every year. The Cape’s outer beaches lose an average of four feet every year to erosion.
The Cape has a long and fascinating history that includes Native people who lived here for eons, Pilgrims, seamen, whalers, farmers, and the occasional pirate. In 1990, storms uncovered a prehistoric site on Coast Guard Beach in Eastham. Archaeologists excavated the Carns Site, which was inhabited by native peoples during the Early and Middle Woodland period, approximately 2,100 to 1,100 years ago.
Much of the most scenic areas of the Cape are part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, which encompasses 43,500 acres on the Atlantic side. The park has six beaches which offer a variety of recreational opportunities; Coast Guard and Nauset Light in Eastham, Marconi in Wellfleet, Head of the Meadow in Truro, and Race Point and Herring Cove in Provincetown. There are three bicycle trails administered by Cape Cod National Seashore; Nauset Trail in Eastham, Head of the Meadow Trail in Truro, and the Province Lands Trail in Provincetown. There are eleven self-guided trails for walking within the Seashore.
Cape Cod National Seashore is an important nesting area for the endangered Piping Plover, whose population declined dramatically during the 20th century. The National Park Service operates two Visitors Centers on Cape Cod, the Salt Pond Visitor Center on U.S. Highway 6 in Eastham, and the Province Road Visitor Center in Provincetown.
Both have information desks, videos about the Cape, and bookstores with a nice selection of books and souvenirs. The Province Lands Visitor Center has an outdoor observation deck, and during our visit we were lucky enough to spot a couple of whales spouting a mile or so offshore. They even breached several times. That alone made the trip worthwhile. Visitors can take whale watching trips from several towns on the Cape.
The National Seashore has six swimming beaches, where lifeguards are on duty from late June through the last week of August. The beaches can be very crowded and entrance fees are steep. Daily vehicle passes are $20, while pedestrians and bicyclists pay $3. Beach entrance fees are collected from late June through early September, and on weekends/holidays from Memorial Day to the end of September. For $60, visitors can purchase a Cape Cod National Seashore pass that is good for a calendar year fee season. All National Park passes are also honored.
There are two routes out to the Cape, US Highway 6 and US Highway 6A. Friends had told us that 6A was the slower route, but that we would see more along the way. And we did; we saw yuppified shops with yuppified names, and we saw endless lines of restaurants, all of them selling lobster, which the locals refer to as lobstah.
Since we were on an island, or a peninsula, whatever the heck Cape Cod is, we thought we would get a lot of views of the ocean, but we didn’t. There are too many trees, houses, and businesses, and the highway doesn’t really go that close to the water. We had the same experience when we drove to Key West. Even though the Keys are a series of islands, for much of the way you down, don’t really see the water.
That’s not to say that we didn’t enjoy the Cape. There is a lot to see and do there. We stopped at Marconi Beach, where the parking lot was packed, but we did manage to find a spot and walked up to the beach overlook.
Driving back to the highway from Marconi Beach, we stopped at the Marconi Station Site, where the first wireless telegraph message was sent from the United States to England, in 1903. The station was also one of the first to receive a distress message from the Titanic when it sank in 1912. There isn’t much left of the old station these days, just a few pieces of concrete foundation and some heavy iron chain.
We did enjoy much better views of the beach there. The cliffs above the beach are very unstable and people are not allowed down there due to the danger. These were the kind of vistas I came to Cape Cod to see.
And what’s a trip to Cape Cod if you can’t see a lighthouse? We have seen a lot of lighthouses over the years, on the Great Lakes, the Gulf Coast, and in the Pacific Northwest, and we always enjoy them. How can you not love lighthouses?
Though they are all touristy, several of the towns on the Cape proved interesting. Bourne is the gateway to Cape Cod, and both bridges that carry traffic from the mainland are in Bourne. Compared to most other Cape Cod communities, Bourne is rather quiet except for all of the traffic headed out to the Cape. The annual Bourne Scallop Festival, held in early September, brings visitors from across the nation.
Established in 1803, Brewster, along historic Route 6A, is a historic sea captains’ town located on the bay side of Cape Cod. Over a third of Brewster’s land has been set aside for conservation, recreation, and watershed protection. 1,900 acre Nickerson State Park has trails for biking and hiking, 400 camp sites, and stocked freshwater ponds for swimming, fishing and boating.
Settled in 1656 by Pilgrims, Chatham is one of the older communities on Cape Cod. Deep sea fishing plays an important role in the town’s economy, which still operates under the old time town meeting form of government. Once a year Chatham’s citizens meet to discuss and vote on issues concerning how the town will be run and to approve a budget.
Over half of the land area of the quaint community of Wellfleet is in the Cape Cod National Seashore. The town’s Harbor is busy with sailboats, huge yachts, charter fishing boats, and trawlers. Some of the best fishing to be found on Cape Cod, whether it be surf casting or on a charter boat, can be found here. The town is famous for its abundant supply of shellfish, including the famous “Wellfleet Oyster.” Wellfleet is also home to the 1,000 acre Massachusetts Audubon Society Wildlife Sanctuary.
The biggest and busiest town on Cape Cod is Provincetown, incorporated in 1727. Forget Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims actually landed here first when they reached the New World, and it was here that they signed the Mayflower Compact to set down the rules by which their new colony would be governed. During the 1700s, Provincetown made its living off the sea and its population fluctuated with the price of fish. Today tourists flock here from around the world to browse the town’s art studios and galleries and dozens of small shops, or for the active nightlife in the summer.
As you can see, there is a lot to see and do on Cape Cod, and it would take a season to explore it all. But make it the fall season, when things slow down, and the traffic isn’t such a nightmare.
Thought For The Day – I’m not feeling very worky today.