Headed to the Cape? Here’s a list of editor-approved Cape Cod National Seashore beaches, kettle ponds, bike paths, hiking trails, and more!
By Taylor Thomas
Jun 16 2015
Nauset Light Beach in Eastham is a great vantage point for seal watchers.Photo Credit : Christopher Churchill
With six swimming beaches, 20 (warmer) kettle ponds, a forest that invites exploration on foot or bike, scenic outlooks, lighthouses, dune-buggy tours, and ranger-led events, there’s plenty to do without leaving the Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, the miles of dunes, beach, and wild lands in the heart of one of the most popular summer destinations in the country. In support of the 2015 Yankee feature, “The Beach That Saved the Cape,” here’s a list of editor-approved Cape Cod National Seashore beaches, kettle ponds, bike paths, hiking trails, and more!
The Seashore’s 40-mile coastline encourages endless walking, sunbathing, and swimming. All six swimming beaches have showers, restrooms, changing rooms, and lifeguards in summer. Day parking fee or season pass. Call ahead (508-771-2144) or visit the website (nps.gov/caco) to check for fee updates.
Coast Guard Beach marks the beginning of what Thoreau called “the Great Beach.” Historians believe that this is where the crew of the Mayflower first spied land in 1620. The beach is wide, with sand dunes, marshland, and pounding waves. No parking in summer, but free transportation is provided via a shuttle bus at the Little Creek parking area in Eastham; it runs every 5 to 10 minutes. The beach is handicapped accessible and also rents out beach wheelchairs.
Nauset Light Beach is broad, with a beautiful view of the sea from the parking lot. (You might spot some seals, too.) A steep walk over a dune separates the lot from the beach. Nauset Light Beach and Marconi Beach have the biggest waves, great for surfing or boogie boarding, making them very popular Cape Cod National Seashore beaches.
Marconi Beach is wide, with an observation platform at the Marconi Station site. You get an overview of the Outer Cape, including both ocean and bay. Note that you’ll have to negotiate stairs to reach the sand.
Head of the Meadow Beach is often less crowded, but again, visitors must walk over a sand dune. Although storms alter the sandbars every year, last year a sandbar near this beach attracted hundreds of seals.
Herring Cove Beach and Race Point Beach are considered among the finest on the East Coast. Race Point Beach, on the Cape’s outermost point, can sometimes have a strong undertow and is best for experienced swimmers. The Old Harbor Live Saving Station & Museum holds public demonstrations here. Herring Cove Beach faces the bay, with its calmer waves. It’s also handicapped accessible and offers beach wheelchair rentals.
Kettle ponds formed when the ice sheets retreated around 18,000 years ago. They’re ideal for children and are usually around 10 degrees warmer than the ocean. Most are operated as town swimming beaches. Great Pond, Gull Pond, and Long Pond are the more popular bodies of water, set right off main roads. Visitors can also rent canoes, kayaks, or stand-up paddleboards to use here.
Three bike trails wind through the National Seashore. Province Lands Bike Trail is a paved 5.5-mile scenic loop with views of open dunes, forest, and beach. Nauset Bike Trail’s 1.6-mile stretch ends at Coast Guard Beach and is peppered with views of salt marshes and forest. Head of the Meadow Trail is a 2-mile unpaved route that takes riders on a bumpier jaunt to Head of the Meadow Beach.
There are 12 self-guided hiking trails through the National Seashore, ranging from 15-minute strolls to hour-plus walks, with one three- to five-hour hike for the most ambitious. Buttonbush Trail in Eastham is a 15-minute rope-guided hike that winds through forest and crosses over Buttonbush Pond, great for kids. The Nauset Marsh Trail loop takes about an hour and winds along the edge of saltwater ponds and Nauset Marsh. The 30-minute Pilgrim Spring Trail leads to a site representative of where Pilgrims are thought to have drunk their first fresh water in New England.
Ocean View Drive in Eastham hugs both sea and marsh, and leads to historic lighthouses. Many scenic outlooks offer cell-phone interpretive programs, providing 24/7 access to some of the park’s most compelling stories and resources. Topics include the history of Fort Hill and information about seals and shipwrecks. The most adventurous Seashore drive lets you take the passenger seat on a scenic off-road excursion with Art’s Dune Tours, in business since 1946 (artsdunetours.org).
Park rangers lead programs through the Seashore’s two visitors’ centers, Salt Pond in Eastham (508-255-3421) and Province Lands in Provincetown (508-487-1256). Learn the basics of saltwater fishing, explore the tidal flats of Coast Guard Beach, take a canoeing lesson, do yoga on the beach, or join the rangers for a two- to four-hour cardiovascular-workout hike. You can go snorkeling or birdwatching, sit around a campfire on the beach, or take part in a scavenger hunt.
Have you ever visited any of the Cape Cod National Seashore beaches or trails? Let us know!
This post was first published in 2015 and has been updated.