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Hiking the Key Trails on Cape Cod and the Island
March 20, 2021
Cape Cod and the Islands offer visitors hundreds of hiking trails with direct access to the area’s most untouched natural beauty. These trails typically do not have much elevation gain or loss, instead they meander gently through forests of scrub pine and oak and salt marshes, looping around kettle ponds and skirting ocean beaches and sandy dunes along the way. Several trails bring visitors to lighthouses or scenic overlooks, promising spectacular views of the sea! From the thirteen miles of trail on Sandy Neck Beach in Barnstable to Provincetown’s rocky, mile long breakwater, the sheer quantity of trails and pathways allows visitors to select an excursion of the right length and challenge for their group.
When planning your hike, remember that walking on loose sand is slow going and can be tiring. Bring plenty of water and plan your time accordingly. When walking on beaches with dogs, be aware of local laws and regulations, many trails do not allow dogs especially during the summer months when endangered shore birds are nesting. While many parts of the Cape and Islands’ natural environment are awe inspiring, the prevalence of ticks is anything but! Be sure to check yourself for ticks after walking through tall grasses or in wooded areas.
Whether you’re strolling on the beach, trekking through the forest, or cruising on a multi-use paved trail, walking and hiking on Cape Cod and the Islands is the perfect way to appreciate the natural beauty, varying landscapes, and rich ecosystems that make the area so unique. Several tour companies offer guided walks with naturalists or will lead visitors on sunset hikes or other walking excursions. Amateur geologists will spot evidence of glaciation across the Cape and the Islands, from sandy spits and eskers to large glacial erratic’s, boulders deposited by the melting glacier. Birders won’t be disappointed by the variety of shorebirds and migratory species that can be spotted while out hiking.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, here are a few hiking trails from each region of the Cape and the Islands:
Cornelia Carey Sanctuary (The Knob)
Location: Quissett Harbor Rd., Falmouth | Distance: 0.5 miles
The Knob is a short but serene nature walk with spectacular views of Buzzards Bay from Woods Hole. The sanctuary, which hugs the warm waters of Quissett Harbor, is also an ideal habitat for waterfowl and other birds. Over the years, birdwatchers have seen more than a hundred species of birds in the salt marshes that line this coastal bank.
Dead Neck Trail
Location: South Cape Beach State Park, Mashpee | Distance: 3.9 mile
The Dead Neck Trail in Mashpee is a mild trail featuring wildflowers, loose sand, scrub pines, birds, and boardwalks. The trail departs from the Mashpee Town Beach and meanders through South Cape Beach State Park to a stone jetty jutting into Waquoit Bay where visitors can spot Martha’s Vineyard on the Horizon. Dogs are not permitted on the trail from April through October to protect endangered shorebird nesting areas.
Callery-Darling Conservation Area
Location: Yarmouth Port | Distance: 3.2 miles
This charming network of trails located north of route 6A in Yarmouth Port features salt and freshwater wetlands and a rich variety of flora and fauna and is easily accessible with multiple trailheads. It’s a landscape in transition with discerning eyes noting signs of vegetation succession with abandoned cranberry bogs turning to swamps of red maple, ancient saltwater bogs, and forests of pine and oak covering sand mining for the bogs. A popular highlight, the Bass Hole Boardwalk stretches 800 ft across a small creek and marshland. It’s also rumored to be home to the best swing on Cape Cod!
Sandy Neck Beach Park
Location: West Barnstable | Distance: 13 miles
From the trailhead just off Route 6A in West Barnstable on Sandy Neck road, this beautiful area encompasses 4,700 acres of forests, marshes, dunes, and beach front. The dynamic landscape is perfect for all sorts of recreation. It features a mix of unique vegetation and wildlife abounds. The Marsh Trail leads to a beautiful barrier beach that stretches 6 miles and is dotted with historic dune shacks and the Sandy Neck Lighthouse. The mix of trails allows you to choose a route from under 2 miles up to 13 miles. Be sure to stay on the designated trails to protect the fragile dunes and vegetation.
Twinings Pond Conservation Area
Location: Orleans | Length: 1 mile
This short trail follows rolling hills with occasional steep spots around pristine Twinings Pond. The 32-acre parcel is managed and conserved by the Orleans Conservation Trust. The trail features overlook of the pond, which has beautiful reflections.
Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge
Visitors can enjoy walking trails and visitors center on Morris Island or arrange a tour of the wilderness islands. Three local tour companies are permitted to bring hikers, fishermen, and bird enthusiasts to the serene islands of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. The islands feature windswept dunes, salt marshes, freshwater ponds, and quiet beaches. The Monomoy Island Ferry offers naturalist-led walking tours of South Monomoy Island, which includes a stop at the historic lighthouse and a chance to spot deer, nesting and migratory bird species, and seals!
Trailhead: Race Point Road, Provincetown | Distance: 0.8 miles
Beech Forest is one of the most densely wooded sections of the Cape. A walking trail meanders through the forested dunes, encircling the shallow waters of Blackwater and Beech Ponds. The walking trail climbs the dunes in one or two places but is mostly level. Most of the trail surface is hard-packed sand, although a wooden boardwalk helps visitors keep their feet dry near the ponds.
Trailhead: 1440 Chequessett Neck Rd., Wellfleet | Distance: 7.5 miles
Great Island is a popular hiking loop that begins where the Herring River flows into the ocean at Wellfleet Harbor. After its parts ways with the Herring River, it climbs through thick pines before popping out on the rocky cliffs over Cape Cod Bay. The trail continues along the sand dunes of Great Beach Hill, with the option to continue to Jeremy Point when the tide is out. To shorten the hike, loop back at the cliffside monument that marks the site of an old whaling tavern.
Nauset Marsh Trail
Location: Eastham | Length: 1.5 miles
This gentle trail skirts the edge of Salt Pond and Nauset Marsh, featuring lush fields, young forests, and stunning vistas. It is also next to the Salt Pond Visitors Center amphitheater. Pets are not permitted on the trail. Visitors should be aware that some sections may be submerged at high tide and plan accordingly!
Menemsha Hills Reservation Trail
Location: 345 N Rd, Chilmark, Martha’s Vineyard | Distance: 3.7 miles
In the Menemsha Hills Reservation, hikers can ascend to the top of the second-highest point on Martha’s Vineyard (which is an elevation gain of just 106 meters). The trail – which winds through pine forests, coastal grasslands, salt marshes, and rocky shoreline – offers spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean. You might also spot goldenrod and beach plum on dune cliffs above the gorgeous Menemsha Hills Reservation Beach, a rocky beach dotted with tide pools.
Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary
Location: Edgartown | Distance: 4 miles
This Martha’s Vineyard gem features four miles of trails that pass-through meadows, ponds, salt marshes, and along the shores of Sengekontacket Pond. The Mass Audubon managed property features wide and well-maintained trails, a mile of which is universally accessible.
Located at the highest point on Cuttyhunk, this former World War II watch tower offers great views of the Elizabeth Islands, Vineyard Sound, and the Atlantic as well as a network of footpaths leading from the park.
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