To Do: Cape Cod National Seashore

Cape Cod is a land of endless treasures. But few of the areas many stunning features are as magnificent and as prized as the Cape Cod National Seashore. Created by President John F. Kennedy on August 7, 1961, the Cape Cod National Seashore is 43,607 acres of kettle ponds, pine woods, hiking trails, bike paths, and six of the most spectacular beaches on Cape Cod that stretch from Eastham to Provincetown. When he signed the bill, Kennedy stated, “This act makes it possible for the people of the United States through their Government to acquire and preserve the natural and historic values of a portion of Cape Cod for the inspiration and enjoyment of people all over the United States.” And since its creation, generations have been inspired and have enjoyed exploring this protected land’s awe-inspiring beauty. A lifetime can be spent getting to know the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Highlights of Cape Cod National Seashore

1. The Beaches

CCNS MapThe quintessential way to get to know the Cape Cod National Seashore is to visit its six swimming beaches:

Each beach is uniquely wonderful, with its own special qualities. Surfers prefer the waves of Marconi and Coast Guard Beach. Seal and whale watchers head to Race Point. But some things are true of all the beaches, like entrance fees. Beach entrance fees are collected from late June through early September when lifeguards are on duty, and on weekends/holidays from Memorial Day to the end of September. A daily vehicle fee is $20. It’s $3 for pedestrians and bicyclists, and $10 for motorcycles. $60 buys you get a calendar year season pass, which is a great value for those lucky enough to frequent these beaches often.

Another uniting quality of these beaches is they have some of the chilliest water on the Cape. Blame the Atlantic Ocean, which is much colder than both beaches on the Bay and the Sound sides. The water can be bracing even on the hottest days of summer, but with their endless vistas, soft white sand, and crystal water, the cold temperatures seem totally worth it.

All beaches are also very well appointed with large parking lots, seasonal restrooms, wheelchair-accessible ramps to the beach, water fountains, and many have great food stands.

2. The Trails

There are twelve breathtaking, self-guided walking trails at the National Seashore that are open year round.


  • The Fort Hill Trail: A one-mile loop that goes through open fields, connects with the Red Maple Swamp Trail, and has some show-stopping views of the Nauset Marsh.
  • Red Maple Swamp Trail: Sections of this trail are currently closed, but there is a small section of boardwalk still accessible that offers a look at this wonderful red maple swamp.
  • Buttonbush Trail: A short .3 mile loop trail that has a guide rope, text in braille and large print, and interactive features great for kids. It winds through forest and crosses over Buttonbush Pond.
  • Nauset Marsh Trail: A wonderful 1.3 mile walk that winds along the edge of Salt Pond and Nauset Marsh, crosses fields, and returns to the Salt Pond Visitor Center through a recovering forest.
  • Doane Trail: A .6 mile wheelchair accessible walk that goes through a pine and oak forest. There is a picnic area next to the parking area.


  • Atlantic White Cedar Swamp: A 1.2 mile loop that goes through a stunted oak and pine forest into a mature woodland. A boardwalk winds through the extraordinary Atlantic White Cedar Swamp, which developed approximately 5,000 years ago after a glacial retreat.
  • Great Island Trails: The most ambitious of all the trails, this 3.9 – 8.8 miles round trip (3.9 for tavern loop round trip to parking area; 8.8 for round trip to Jeremy Point overlook including tavern loop) takes three to five hours to explore. The Cape Cod Beach Chair Company writes, “Great Island (more accurately a peninsula), offers the closest thing to a Robinson Crusoe experience you’ll find on Cape Cod in mid summer…You rarely see another person on this desolate strip of pristine white sand, just large shells, terns, seagulls and the occasional harbor seal. The hike is about 7 miles roundtrip from the parking lot to Jeremy Point and back. Great Island is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, and is one of Cape Cods best secrets!”


  • Pamet Area Bearberry Hill Overlook: The National Parks service writes, “This steep .6 mile trail ascends both summits of Bearberry Hill. From this trail you can also access a .7 mile one-way trail to the Pamet Cranberry Bog House and a 1.1 mile one-way trail through the Truro hills to two overlooks with benches and ocean views.”
  • Woods Walk at Highlands Center:  A one mile walk in the woods of the Highlands Center for arts, science, and education, which was once the site of the North Truro Air Force Station.
  • Small’s Swamp Trail: A .6 mile trail that, according to the National Parks, was “chosen by Native People for living sites for thousands of years for water, protection, and food sources, early-European settlers also sought to make a living on this landscape. Gradually, the soil gave out, farms were abandoned, and the landscape began its slow recovery. The forest here now hides most, but not all, of the former land uses in this area.”
  • Pilgrim Spring Trail: A .7 mile long trail that goes through a pine and oak forest, and passes by an area where the Pilgrims drank fresh water during their arduous journey. Both Small’s Swamp Trail and Pilgrim Spring Trail have been fruitful archeological sites as well.


  • Beech Forest Trail: This one mile loop in a beech forest is great for bird watching especially in spring and fall, but can be buggy in the summer!

3. The HistoryNauset Lighthouse

The Cape Cod National Seashore has more than just beaches and breathtaking hikes through salt marshes and forests. There’s also plenty to offer history buffs.

Marconi’s Wireless Station: Built in 1902 and located about a mile north of the Marconi Beach entrance, it transmitted its first telegraphic message in 1903. According to Wikipedia, “Marine radio traffic carried before the station closed in 1917 included news and telegrams for passengers of the RMS Lusitania, distress calls from the RMS Titanic in 1912 and a message between the American president and the British king in 1903.”

Old Harbor Life Saving Station: Originally located at Nauset Beach, it is now located at the end of Race Point Road, where it was moved in 1977 because it was threatened by erosion. National Parks writes, “The United States Lifesaving Service was a government agency dedicated to patrolling America’s coastline, providing aid to shipwreck victims, and safeguarding the cargo of stranded ships.” Once a week during the summer, the Park Service holds live demonstrations of the deployment of a breeches buoy during rescues at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Nauset and Highland Lighthouses: The Nauset Lighthouse was built in 1877 and was originally one of two lights in Chatham. It was moved to Eastham in 1923. The Highland Lighthouse was, according to the lighthouse’s website, was “commissioned by George Washington and established in 1797 as the 20th light station in the United States, the original 45-foot tall wooden tower and keeper’s dwelling were built more than 500 feet from the edge of a 125-foot-tall clay cliff. A new brick lighthouse was erected near the original tower in 1831. The present 66-foot-tall brick light tower, keeper’s house, and generator shed replaced the previous structures in 1857.” Both Lighthouses offer tours during the summer.

Another tremendous resource at the National Seashore are the Salt Pond Visitors Center and the Province Lands Visitors Center. National Parks writes, “Salt Pond Visitor Center is Cape Cod National Seashore’s main visitor facility, with frequent orientation movies, a well stocked bookstore, a comprehensive museum, and restroom facilities. The indoor theatre routinely offers 5 short films daily on a rotating schedule. The Center offers breathtaking views of Nauset Marsh and the Atlantic beyond, this Visitor Center is also convenient to the popular 1.5 mile Nauset Marsh Trail and the Buttonbush Trail, a .25 mile multi-sensory trail that featuring a guide rope and text panels printed in large lettering and Braille, and the Nauset Bicycle Trail.”

“The Province Lands Visitor Center is located at 171 Race Point Road, off Route 6, at the northern end of Cape Cod National Seashore in Provincetown. The visitor center is approximately one mile from Provincetown center. The observation deck at this Visitor Center provides a 360-degree view of the Province Lands dunes, the Outer Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. From this location you can see Race Point Ranger Station, Race Point Beach, the Old Harbor Life-Saving Station and the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown. Eastern National has a bookstore with books, tapes, videos, toys and gifts all related to some aspect of Cape Cod and the National Seashore.”

As Henry David Thoreau once wrote of the National Seashore’s beaches, “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.” This is a precious, perfect stretch of Cape Cod that shows mother nature at her very best. Be sure to enjoy it thoroughly, but thoughtfully.

Want to live a hop, skip, and a jump from this protected piece of perfection? Explore our exclusive listings in Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown. For more information, phone one of our experienced Outer Cape real estate agents at 508.487.3020.