The Elizabeth Islands are a chain of two dozen islands between Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound. This chain includes Nonamesset, Uncatena, Naushon, Pasque, Nashawena, Penikese, Cuttyhunk, alongside a handful of smaller islands. Together, they make up the town of Gosnold.
In all seasons the Elizabeth Islands are known as quiet retreats where visitors can go to escape the bustle of the vacation season on the Cape. Many of the islands – like Nonamesset, Pasque, and Nashawena – aren’t accessible to the public, but there’s a public ferry that runs to and from Cuttyhunk Island throughout the winter. Naushon and Penikese are also partially accessible.
Are you looking for a quiet off-season escape? Here are a few ways to enjoy winter on the Elizabeth Islands:
1. Watch the Bird Migrations.
The Elizabeth Islands are some of the best places to watch bird migrations on Cape Cod. These migrations begin in early October, when the islands’ summer birds head south to spend winter in the tropics. These species are quickly replaced by migratory birds from the arctic, who travel south to spend the winter in the comparatively warm coastal climate of the Elizabeth Islands.
Throughout the offseason, birdwatchers can spot flocks of Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, and American Goldfinches on the islands. The waters around the islands are also a good place to catch a glimpse of migratory northern species like Surf Scoters and Common Goldeneyes.
2. Go on a Winter Seal Cruise Around Naushon.
There are also new mammals on the islands in winter. In September and October, harbor and grey seals from Maine and Canada begin to appear on the secluded beaches of the Elizabeth Islands. And you can also occasionally spot harp and hooded seals in the colder months.
These seals travel south to the Cape to find food and breed when the weather turns cold. They often gather around the Elizabeth Islands, since the area has plenty of open, rocky coastline and offers easy access to the tasty fish and crabs in Buzzards Bay and Nantucket Sound.
3. Take the Ferry to Cuttyhunk.
A walk across the frozen shrub forests and grasslands of Cuttyhunk Island is a great way to experience the island’s beauty firsthand. From end to end, Cuttyhunk is just a mile and a half long, so you can actually cover most of it on foot. Some popular hikes include the trail up to the old-World War II bunker (an elevation of just 140 feet) and the dirt road to Gosnold Monument.
You can also check out the island’s frozen beaches. Try Barges Beach, just southwest of the ferry dock, for beachcombing and gorgeous views of the Atlantic Ocean. To escape the cold winds, head north towards Copicut Neck until you reach Churches Beach on Buzzards Bay.
4. Reel in a Winter Catch.
The winter tautog season on the Cape lasts from October 15 until December 31, and the Elizabeth Islands are one of the best places to look for these bottom-dwelling fish. Tautogs tend to gather in rocky drop-offs and holes, like those around the Weepecket Islands off Naushon. Quicks Hole, between Naushawena and Pasque, is another popular tautog fishing ground.
Stop and take a deep breath in the middle of your winter holiday on a trip to the Elizabeth Islands. Even in the colder months, the stunning natural beauty of this secluded island chain provides ample opportunities for outdoor recreation – including birdwatching, hiking, and fishing.
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