The Cape Cod experience, for some, is lathering on the sunscreen, grabbing the boogie board and riding the waves of the cold Atlantic Ocean. For others, it’s eating freshly shucked oysters and cracking a boiled lobster and extracting meat like a skilled surgeon.
But for me, the Cape Cod experience is the scent of the pitch pines and crunch of pine needles under foot. It’s the sun setting across Cape Cod Bay. It’s standing high on a dune looking out across the Atlantic — “stand there and put all America behind” you, as Henry David Thoreau wrote in his book “Cape Cod.”
For me, the best of Cape Cod runs from Chatham north to the tip of Provincetown. This is the home of Cape Cod National Seashore and its 43,500 acres of kettle holes, pitch pine and scrub oak forests and miles of high dunes and sandy beaches.
The seashore was created Aug. 7, 1961, when President John F. Kennedy signed a bill preserving more than 26,500 acres. During a dedication ceremony in 1966, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall said the new national park was dedicated to “all people who search for a rendezvous with the land.”
“Beyond the noise and asphalt and ugly architecture, we yearn for the long waves and the beach grass,” he said.
So here are a few spots along the Cape’s bended arm — beyond the miniature golf courses and seafood shacks — where visitors can still find Cape Cod on a hike or by visiting a piece of its nautical past.
Although many believe the Cape Cod National Seashore’s Salt Pond Visitor Center is the gateway into the park, your first stop should be Fort Hill in Eastham. Saved from the bulldozer and subdivisions of huge homes by the creation of the park, the hill has panoramic views across Nauset Marsh to the dunes and waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
From the top of the hill, visitors can see a former Coast Guard station rising high on a bluff. Fishing boats pass through an inlet in the marsh and into the Atlantic Ocean. A hiking trail takes visitors through a field filled with wildflowers. A huge glacial erratic boulder sits near the marsh, a popular climbing spot for children and the young at heart.
The trail continues past rock walls — an homage to the area’s agricultural past dating back to the 1600s — and winds back through the fields to the Penniman House, the former home of whaling captain Edward Penniman. He went to sea at 11 years old and by age 29 was captain of his own ship, traveling across the world in search of whales.
From U.S. Highway 6 in Eastham, turn east onto Governor Prence Road, then go right on Fort Hill Road and travel to the parking area at the end of the road. Tours of the Penniman House are 11 a.m. Mondays and Fridays. There is an open house 1-3 p.m. Wednesdays.
Perhaps the most famous lighthouse within the national seashore is Nauset Light, which adorns Cape Cod Potato Chips’ bags. The lighthouse also is the location of the popular Nauset Light Beach.
But before Nauset Light and potato chips, three clapboard lighthouses known as “The Three Sisters” warned mariners of the treacherous sand bars along Cape Cod. Today, the Sisters’ new home is in the middle of an oak and pitch pine forest just to the west of Nauset Light. A trail wraps around the three lighthouses, with a paved path leading to Nauset Light.
“The station got a nickname early on its career,” according to the book “Life On The Edge, The Lighthouses of Nauset” by J. Brian West. “From offshore, the three towers looked like three ladies in white dresses with black dress hats and veils peering over the edge of the cliff.”
Take U.S. 6 in Eastham and turn east onto Brackett Road. At end of the road, take a left on Nauset Road and then a right on Cable Road. Look for three lighthouses in the woods about a mile on the left. Tours are 5 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays with parking at Nauset Light Beach.
WELLFLEET BAY WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
Although its outside the borders of the seashore, the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s 937-acre sanctuary showcases the beauty of the Cape Cod Bay side of the outer Cape. With five miles of trails, the sanctuary is home to just about every kind of ecosystem on the Cape, from tidal creeks and marshes filled with scurrying fiddler crabs to deep pitch pine forests and moors filled with wild blueberry bushes.
There are a number of overlooks, both man-made and natural, that offer panoramic views of Cape Cod Bay and Great Island. At low tide, the ghostly Billingsgate Island can be seen out in Cape Cod Bay. The island was once home to a fishing community in the 19th century before eroding away. A hike out to Try Island offers some of the most beautiful views.
Take Route 6 to the Wellfleet/Eastham border and turn west into the sanctuary. There is a fee of $5 for adults and $3 for children.
MARCONI SITE/ATLANTIC WHITE CEDAR SWAMP
The Marconi Site in Wellfleet is where Guglielmo Marconi — “The Father of Radio” — built his station that sent the first trans-Atlantic wireless telegram from President Theodore Roosevelt to England’s King Edward VII in 1903.
Today, only a few cement pads remain where the towers once stood. But the site is home to one of the highest points on the Outer Cape, giving it one of the best views not only of the moors and dunes along the Atlantic, but also out to Cape Cod Bay.
The area is also home to the extremely rare Atlantic White Cedar Swamp. It’s the kind of forest that greeted explorers when they first landed on Cape Cod. Only a patch of it remains today, with a 1.2-mile trail winding through a pitch pine forest and boardwalk through the dark swamp filled with huge cedar trees, many of them more than a century old.
Turn east off Route 6 at Marconi Beach and then take a quick left for the Marconi site. Follow that to a parking area at the end of the road for both the Marconi site and the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp trail.
UNCLE TIM’S BRIDGE
For many, a wooden bridge across a tidal creek is about as Cape Cod as it gets. And Uncle Tim’s Bridge in Wellfleet is a great spot to see the sunset or explore the skeleton of the old Cape Cod Railroad bridge.
The bridge spans Duck Creek and allows visitors to watch the tides rise and fall and explore an island with views out to Wellfleet Harbor. A hike along the island’s shore will lead to the old railroad bed and the remains of a bridge that once crossed the creek, bringing rail passengers to Provincetown.
Traveling U.S. 6, turn west onto Main Street in Wellfleet. Take a left on Commercial Street and look for Uncle Tim’s Bridge on the left. There is a small parking area just past the bridge.
NORTH TRURO AIR FORCE STATION
Over the past few years, television shows that focus on life after humans have become popular. A setting for one of those shows could be the former North Truro Air Force Station, a link to our Cold War past abandoned since 1985.
Today, the base is home to the Highlands Center at Cape Cod National Seashore — a burgeoning scientific, arts and education community. It is also home to the Woods Walk at Highlands Center, a mile-long trail that wraps around the former radar base to an overlook high above the Atlantic Ocean.
Visitors can walk abandoned streets to see the remains of military housing and helipads losing their battle against the Cape Cod forest. Old chain-link fencing is rusting among the bearberry with the blue backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean in the background. An old radar dome that once monitored the skies for Soviet bombers and nuclear missiles stands on a bluff.
Follow U.S. 6 to Truro, turn east onto South Highland Road and then take a right on Old Dewline Road to the old base. There are tours at 3 p.m. Sundays.
“Millions of people will come here in search of solitude, peace of mind and rejuvenation of the spirit which comes from communing with nature and here they will find what they seek,” then-Massachusetts Gov. John A. Volpe said at the dedication ceremony for the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1966.
That remains true today as visitors head off to discover their own Cape Cod escape.