Weekend Backpacker: Boston

Cape Cod National Seashore
  |  Gorp.com

Cape Cod National Seashore
99 Marconi Site Road
Wellfleet, MA 02667
(508) 349-3785
Salt Pond Visitor Center
Eastham, MA
(508) 255-3421

Some people snooze on the beach, others stroll. Cape Cod National Seashore (CCNS), with 43,557 acres of shoreline and upland landscape, including a forty-mile long stretch of pristine sandy beach, makes beach hiking a distinct possibility. Although camping on the beach or in the dunes is strictly prohibited, you can still explore this remarkable oceanside environment on a backpacking trip. Raucous cries of shorebirds, huge sky, powerful ocean waves: The sheer beauty of it all instills vivid memories.

Tired of saltwater? There are clean, freshwater kettle ponds and upland rolling hills where pre-twentieth-century cultural influences survive. Explore lighthouses and lifesaving stations. CCNS offers six swimming beaches, 11 self-guided nature trails, and numerous picnic and overview areas. The National Park Service runs the show.

Recommended Trip

Beach Walk
Eastham to Provincetown, about 23 miles
Note: Backroads options add more distance.

Check in at the Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham. Take the shuttle to Coast Guard Beach and walk north (left). There are many exit points from the beach between here and Provincetown, and some offer comfort stations (with showers) and public transportation at shoreline. Some exits from the beach are 3 miles or more apart. Plan your trip carefully, asking CCNS for local details.

See guidebooks below for books tracing Thoreau's Nauset to Provincetown expedition, using beach and backroads sections. You can replicate much of this walk today.

Some CCNS highlights along the beach are:

Eastham Township
Nauset Light (functional) and the"Three Sisters Lighthouses" CCNS comfort station.

Wellfleet Township
Marconi Beach, CCNS comfort station.
From the beach road try the loop hike on Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail.

Truro Township
Pamet Cranberry Bog Trail (on North Pamet Road)
Highland Light (also called the Cape Cod Light)
Head of the Meadow Beaches
Pilgrim Heights, CCNS comfort station
Parabolic Dunes

Provincetown Township
Province Lands Visitor Center, CCNS comfort station, observation tower, guided nature walks
Race Point Beach, CCNS comfort station


Backpacking along Cape Cod's ocean beach and on behind-the-dunes backroads means going inland to commercial campgrounds (21 of them), many close to the border of CCNS. For a list, contact Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, Hyannis, MA, 02601; (508) 362-3225. The only state-run campground is Nickerson State Park, possibly a good base for a long hike, but located a bit south of our actual starting point in Brewster (508-896-3491). You could rent a site here, leave your car, and take a local bus to Eastham to Salt Pond Visitor Center.

Getting There

From Boston, take Rte. 3 south to Sagamore Bridge in Bourne. Follow Rte. 6 eastward to Eastham and Provincetown. Bus, airline, railway and even ferry connections to the Cape are possible from Boston.

Bicycling on Cape Cod

The Rail Trail bicycle trail extends from Dennis, Massachusetts, to South Wellfleet, Massachusetts (mid-point in CCNS). There are three additional paved bicycle trails within the park.

Permit Information

July through Labor Day, $7.00 per vehicle daily fee at CCNS lifeguard-protected swimming beaches (walkers and bicycles are charged $1.00 per day). Parking lots open 6:00 a.m. to midnight, daily, year-round. Salt Pond Visitor Center open daily 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. year-round (except December 25). Province Lands Visitor Center (Provincetown) open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. April 15 through Thanksgiving. Hours for both visitor centers extended in warmer months. CCNS Headquarters open daily, except weekends and holidays, 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., year-round. Oversand vehicle use is restricted to limited portions of the outer beach (seasonal permit required and vehicles must comply with regulations). Contact the National Park Service at (508) 349-3785. Permits are required for beach campfires and overnight fishing, and can be obtained at park visitor centers.


National Geographic/Trails Illustrated,"Cape Cod National Seashore," $9.00, an excellent topographic map with most hiking trails and many backroads marked. For a quick overview get the "National Seashore Official Map & Guide" brochure, a 4-color map for 25 cents. A standard road map will help with camping and bicycling/driving arrangements.


Cape Cod National Seashore (National Park Service Handbook #148).
Adam Gamble's In the Footsteps of Thoreau (On Cape Publications, Yarmouthport, Massachusetts): Trails described herein are about half on roads, half on beach, but no accommodations information.
Stephen Mulloney's Traces of Thoreau (Northeastern Univ. Press) is a companion to Thoreau's Cape Cod. Mulloney replicates Thoreau's famous walk along Cape Cod, observing the contrasts between today's landscape and the one Thoreau describes.
Eliot Carr's Walking the Shores of Cape Cod (Stony Brook Publishing, Brewster, Massachusetts) covers the area's natural history in detail.
For great background reading, see Henry David Thoreau's Cape Cod (Penguin). It's an off-beat delight for Thoreau aficionados, even quirkier than Walden. Also check out Henry Beston's The Outermost House (Holt). Beston, a 20th-century Thoreau, chronicles a year by the sea, howling winter storms and all, at his cabin on the dune at Nauset Marsh. Wonderful.

Practical Information

NPS visitation statistics are daunting. In 1998, 4,833,733 visits were counted at the seashore; over 1,000 tour buses brought over 40,000 visitors to the park; some 67,894 participants attended ranger guided programs; 2,909,031 beachgoers were recorded. Obviously, the trick is to go in the shoulder or off-seasons; May, June, September, and October are ideal. But even in summer, walking a half-mile away from main beach entry points gives you near solitude. Winter walks on the beach can be brisk and thrilling, but beware high tides and storm surges. In warmer months, take precautions to avoid overexposure to sun, wind, and biting insects. Wear a hat as needed, use good sunglasses, and have long sleeves and long pants available.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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