5 Great Hikes on Cape Cod

Nothing says summer on Cape Cod like packing a cooler, slinging a chair over your shoulder, and shuffling quickly across hot sand to the tide line. For most travelers, trips to “the Cape” are yearly rituals geared towards relaxation, but there’s no hiding it anymore: Cape Cod is also a hiking destination.

Trails crisscross the peninsula’s shifting dune fields, maze-like marshes, cannonball-worthy ponds, and rocky ridges. If you can’t spare any beach time on your Cape vacation, don’t fret. Some of the region’s best trails also hit the beach, and if they don’t, you’re never too far from a sandy stretch.

So, before you pull out a paperback and a beer, detour to one of these five great Cape Cod hikes.

Courtesy: Nancy Rabke
Courtesy: Nancy Rabke

Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

Surviving traffic to the Outer Cape, means you’re treated to the region’s most dramatic scenery, like the Atlantic side’s sugar-sand dunes and surfable waves. The understated Cape Cod Bay side, however, is where you’ll find the most peace and quiet.

Head to MassAudubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary’s ($8 per adult, $3 per child, members free) to find solitude within its trail network, which winds five miles through Wellfleet Harbor. Start at the Boardwalk Trail, but take note that it can become submerged at high tide. Aim instead for low tide wildlife watching. On the way back to the Nature Center, take a side trip to the Goose Pond Trail. Pause at Goose Pond itself to take a look for wading birds in summer and fall. Continue past the Nature Center for a spin around the Bay View Trail, the longest trail in the Sanctuary. The trail passes through the MassAudubon campground (members only) on the way back to the Nature Center. All in, your hike is about 3.5 miles. Add a little extra mileage by tacking on grassland views on the Fresh Brook Trail which you’ll find off the Bay View Trail.

When you’re done hiking, five miles down the road is the The Beachcomber, a classic beachfront bar and restaurant with live music housed in an 1800s Coast Guard lifesaving station.

Credit: Brian Cooke
Credit: Brian Cooke

Sandy Neck Beach Park

There’s something special about sleeping on the beach, and Sandy Neck Beach Park ($15 per car) in Barnstable is one of the Cape’s only opportunities for wild beach camping.

Whether you’re day hiking or backpacking, you’ll start your hike from the main parking lot and entrance gate. Head out first on the Marsh Trail, which parallels the “Great Marshes” of Barnstable Harbor. The walking is mostly flat, but very sandy, so expect tired legs. Take the #4 Trail on your left which weaves its way into some hilly dunes. If you’ve snagged a campsite ($20 per site, permit required), you’ll find the primitive sites here, 3.3 miles from the trailhead and just past the intersection with the Horse Trail. If you’re just out for the day, keep heading down the dunes to the beach and turn left towards the trailhead to close the loop at about 6 miles. If you’ve got more energy or your camp is set up, head down the dunes to the beach and turn right, eventually connecting with the #5 Trail. A side trip on Connector Trail will bring you to a remote collection of waterfront cottages and a lighthouse. Stay on the trail as it passes through private property here. Retrace your steps to the beach and cruise back to the campsite or trailhead with big beach views the whole time. Routes can be up to 12 miles, so remember to bring plenty of water.

Consider stopping at Cafe Chew in Sandwich before you hit the trail for the perfect sandwich and a bag of Cape Cod Potato Chips (of course).

Credit: Brian Cooke
Credit: Brian Cooke

Moraine Trail

If you’re looking for a mini “thru-hike,” the nine-mile Moraine Trail is your best option. The north-south trail traverses the Cape’s important geologic history and links Falmouth’s many conservation areas.

First, spot a car on Route 151 near the Highway 28 North on-ramp in a small parking lot used frequently by mountain bikers. The white-blazed Moraine Trail starts near downtown Falmouth at Goodwill Park. Be observant for blazes as the trail weaves its way past numerous side trails near Grews Pond and Long Pond. Continuing on, the trail has sections of rocky, flowing singletrack. You’ll briefly pass through a business development before hitting the wild final three miles of the trail. As the trail climbs and falls periodically through pine, blueberry, and huckleberry (keep your eyes peeled for ripe berries!), you get a few small views of Buzzards Bay to the west. At mile nine, you’ll reach busy Route 151 where the trail exits the woods right near a Highway 28 sign.

Before you finish your shuttle, celebrate at Somerset Creamery on Route 28A. The 80-plus-year-old homemade ice cream company has a bevy of flavors and was the first on the Cape to make a cranberry ice cream.

Credit: Brian Cooke
Credit: Brian Cooke

Eagle Pond Sanctuary

Mid-Cape towns like Cotuit can be busy and full of traffic, but there are many gems off the beaten path. Eagle Pond Sanctuary is one of those places.

Eagle Pond Sanctuary has trails suitable for everyone in the family. Your best bet for hiking here is to print the map (at the link above) and wander. If you want the highlights, park on Old Post Road, just past Mosswood Cemetery. The sign here says “Bell Farm & Little River Sanctuary.” Head straight, staying on the wide mowed path with the cemetery on your left. Turn right and cross over Little River and Little River Road. Take a left at the next intersection and loop around the park’s namesake pond on the Main Trail. A neat Red Maple Swamp is at the pond’s north end. Eventually take Pond Path to the pond’s edge (take swim trunks for a cool swim here) before detouring onto wide Eagle Pond Road and Cordwood Road. Circle the rare Atlantic White Cedar Swamp on the Cedar Swamp Trail, then head back to the car via Cross Trail to Little River Road. Taking in the coolest sights here requires only a 2.5-mile hike.

Extend your outside time by grabbing a post-hike beer and food truck eats at Naukabout Brewery in nearby Mashpee.

Credit: Brian Cooke
Credit: Brian Cooke

South Cape Beach State Park

If Sandy Neck Beach sounds like your kind of wild beachscape, but you only have a few hours to sneak away from your family vacation, South Cape Beach State Park ($12 per car) in Mashpee is an easy alternative.

Park at the Sage parking lot on Great Oak Road. From the parking lot, head north into the woods on the Great Flat Pond Loop Trail. The trail is mostly flat, often passing over wet areas on small boardwalks. This area has plenty of wildflowers during the warmer months and some interesting wildlife. As you reach the end of the loop by your car, turn left and walk the quiet road towards the beach and the Dead Neck Trail. Follow the hiking trail as it heads into the backside of the dunes with great views of the Sage Lot Pond and Waquoit Bay. It’s 1.1 miles each way to the end of Dead Neck with good views of Vineyard Sound. If you’re looking to swim, you’ll have the shallow, warm water of Waquoit Bay all to yourself. By the time you hike back on the beach or in the dunes, your hike will be about 4 miles.

Treat yourself to one of the Cape’s best lobster rolls at nearby The Raw Bar in Popponesett Village. Don’t expect anything fancy, but the lobster rolls are a healthy size (read: large) and you can get a fairly cheap beer.