Cape Cod National Seashore: The Complete Guide

Cape Cod National Seashore

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Cape Cod National Seashore

Address
99 Marconi Site Road, Wellfleet, MA 02667, USA
Phone +1 508-255-3421

There's more to New England's most-visited national park than you may realize, but it's the beach that most assuredly draws more than 4 million people to the Cape Cod National Seashore each year. Not just any beach or even one beach, but the entire protected 40-mile east coast of Massachusetts' Outer Cape, from Chatham north to Provincetown. The formation of the 43,607-acre national park, which was established in 1961, required negotiations and compromises as its boundaries were drawn around existing town centers and private landholdings. That effort ensured the Cape's Atlantic shore will always be a landscape that offers both exhilaration and solace for all.

Even if you've never been to the Cape Cod National Seashore, you likely have a feel for this iconic place. The dunes of the Cape have inspired literary greats like Henry David Thorough and songwriters like Rupert Holmes, whose "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" is likely now stuck in your head. To truly know the magnificence of this place, though, you must touch bare feet to warm, golden sand and wade into the frothy sea. Here's what to know before you plan your escape.

Things To Do

Sandy strolls, sunbathing, swimming, surfing, boogie boarding, fishing, oversand driving (permit required), campfires, picnicking: All of your favorite day-at-the-beach activities await at the Cape Cod National Seashore's six beaches. Before considering your options, it's important to note: A fast-growing population of great white sharks in the waters off the Outer Cape has made it necessary for all beachgoers to stay alert, to heed posted warnings, and to know these facts and tips about shark safety before venturing into the water.

Shark and Other Beach Warnings at Coast Guard Beach, Cape Cod National Seashore

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Now, choose the beach that beckons to you…

  • Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, which is often named among the top beaches in the country by experts like Dr. Beach, is the Cape Cod National Seashore's primo swimming spot in the summertime. It's named for the old Nauset Coast Guard Station, which still stands atop a bluff. Bike here from the Salt Pond Visitor Center, or park at Little Creek and take the shuttle bus to the beach.
  • Race Point Beach in Provincetown, at the tip of the peninsula, is also wildly popular. In addition to miles of gentle sand and brilliant sunsets, this beach is known for its photogenic structures including storied dune shacks, the Old Harbor Life-Saving Station, and Race Point Light, where you can stay overnight by reservation. Book a spot on one of Art's Dune Tours, and experience the beauty of this windswept landscape with an experienced and entertaining guide.
  • Marconi Beach in Wellfleet is a strip of sand that runs between the ocean and a dramatic, 40-foot sand cliff. It is named for telegraph inventor Guglielmo Marconi, who sent the first transatlantic wireless communication from a spot near here in 1903. From the observation platform, you'll have a fabulous view of Cape Cod Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and the curve of the Outer Cape that separates them.
  • Nauset Light Beach in Eastham is a destination for lighthouse lovers. In addition to Nauset Lighthouse, the Three Sisters Lighthouses are here, moved inland from their precarious original position to protect them from coastal erosion. The wide, mile-long beach is sheltered by a steep glacial scarp.
  • Herring Cove Beach, on the protected Bay side of Provincetown, is a good choice for families thanks to its gentler surf and amenities like a snack bar. Because the beach faces west, sunsets here are spectacular. Parking is just steps away from the beach. Be aware that the farther you walk south (left) toward the traditionally gay section, the more likely you are to encounter nude bathers. Although this is not legally a nude beach, the practice is generally tolerated. Reviews suggest some beachgoers engage in illegal sexual activity. 
  • Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro is the least visited of the Cape Cod National Seashore beaches, but this hidden gem is worth a visit for its Florida-like soft sand and its famous shipwreck. At low tide, you can still see what remains of the Frances, which sank just offshore in December of 1872.

There are many ranger-led programs for visitors who want to experience the wonders of this seaside park with an expert. Away from the water, other recreational activities you can enjoy include hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Learning opportunities abound, and they're centered around the seashore's two visitor centers.

Coast Guard Beach Sunrise, Cape Cod National Seashore

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Best Hikes & Trails

Ready to explore beyond a walk on the beach? Choose from 11 trails, open year-round, and see areas of the park many casual daytrippers miss. Here are three of the best hikes:

  • Nauset Marsh Trail: A spectacularly scenic, 1.3-mile walking loop starting from the Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham, with an optional 1.5-mile spur that leads to Coast Guard Beach. You'll wind along the Salt Pond and pass through marshlands, fields, and forest.
  • Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail: Discover a magical forest of stunted oak and pine trees on this moderate, 1.2-mile loop hike that features a boardwalk over a swamp and some steep stairs to climb. The trailhead is at 195 Marconi Station Road in South Wellfleet.
  • Great Island Trail: Near Wellfleet, a network of sandy paths includes a 4.7-mile, moderately rated hiking loop connecting the elevated rises of Great Island and Great Beach Hill. Challenges here include walking on squishy sand and being mindful of rising tides, which can block your path. Find parking at the corner of Griffin Island and Chequessett Neck Road.
Hikers on Fort Hill at Cape Cod National Seashore

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Where to Camp

There is only one way to camp at the Cape Cod National Seashore: Up to 100 Self-Contained-Vehicles (SCVs) can be accommodated overnight in the Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) Corridor. SCV camping requires an ORV permit and an overnight authorization permit and is offered on a first-come, first-served basis for a maximum of 21 days between July 1 and Labor Day.

Looking for a more traditional campground experience? You'll find it nearby at Nickerson State Park in Brewster, Massachusetts, which has 400+ tent, camper, and RV sites: It's one of the best Cape Cod-area campgrounds. There are also several private campgrounds on the Outer Cape including Maurice's Campground in Wellfleet, which offers cottage rentals in addition to trailer and tent sites, plus the delicious convenience of fresh lobsters for sale at Maurice's Market.

Where to Stay Nearby

Start your search for nearby lodging with the Cape Cod National Seashore's own oceanview Nauset Beach Inn, affordable Truro Hostel (seasonal), and vacation rental homes. You'll be close to the beach, and you'll feel good knowing your vacation dollars support the preservation of the park.

There are more than 30 inns in Provincetown alone, and you'll have your work cut out choosing from a range of properties in this region including everything from family motels to fancy B&Bs. The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce's lodging directory allows you to quickly check availability and rates at a range of properties. Don't overlook Airbnb and VRBO, which add a diverse selection of private rentals to the Outer Cape's accommodations mix.

How to Get There

The Outer Cape is primarily a drive-to destination, although Bay State Cruise Company offers Provincetown Fast Ferry service from Boston mid-May through early October, and Peter Pan Bus Lines provides transportation to Provincetown, as well. Once you reach Provincetown at the tip of the Cape, you can get around via the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority's seasonal Provincetown Shuttle. Exact fare is required to ride. The Cape Cod National Seashore operates two visitor centers, which are ideal places to begin your exploration of the park. The Salt Pond Visitor Center (50 Nauset Road, Eastham, MA) is open year-round; the Province Lands Visitor Center (171 Race Point Road, Provincetown, MA) operates May through October, but its outdoor decks stay open through the off-season for photographers and others who want to view the dunes and P'town landmarks from this vantage point.

Race Point Beach in Provincetown, Cape Cod National Seashore

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Accessibility

The Cape Cod National Seashore's two most accessible beaches are Coast Guard Beach and Herring Cove Beach. Here, parking lots are at beach level, and there is no climbing over dunes or up stairs. Beach wheelchairs may be borrowed, and a Mobi-mat is typically placed during the summertime to allow wheelchair access to the beach. Restrooms and changing areas are accessible, and at Herring Cove Beach, there are showers for wheelchair users.

The National Park Service makes many other accommodations available for guests with vision, hearing, and mobility impairments. For example, the park's print brochure is available in an audio version, a Braille version, and an interactive text and audio app. Films screened at the park's visitor centers are captioned and audio described, and assistive listening devices are available. Guide ropes and Braille signage along the Buttonbush Trail near the Salt Pond Visitor Center allow low vision and blind guests to experience this short nature walk. The Salt Pond Visitor Center, trails at Doane Rock in Eastham and the Marconi Station Site in Wellfleet, and many scenic overlooks have been designed to accommodate wheelchairs. To inquire about specific needs, call 508-255-3421.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The Cape Cod National Seashore's six beaches have entrance fees, which are collected at admission booths daily from late May through early September and on weekends through mid-September. Fees are $25 per vehicle, $20 per motorcycle, or $15 per person ages 16 and up if you bike or walk to the beach. Active duty military personnel and their families are admitted free with ID.
  • A Cape Cod National Seashore Annual Pass is only $60, and it may save you money if you'll be heading to the beach more than once. It provides free admission for you and all passengers in your vehicle or for you and up to three other adults entering the beach on foot or by bicycle.
  • On peak days, you'll have the best chance of finding beach parking before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m.
  • Avoid crowds and visit the beaches for free during the mid-September through early May off-season.
  • Download the NPS app to your phone before your visit.
  • Dogs must be on a 6-foot leash at all times in areas of the park where they are allowed. Be mindful of rules and of signage directing pet owners away from areas where shorebirds nest, horse and bike trails, and ponds and lifeguard-protected ocean beaches during the summer months.
  • Alcohol may be consumed on National Seashore beaches.
  • Drone use is prohibited.
  • You'll need a free permit to have a beach campfire, and you may reserve this privilege up to three days in advance.
  • In the winter, be sure to dress warmly and wear sturdy footwear for hikes and walks on the beach.
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Cape Cod National Seashore: New England's Iconic Beach Destination