Obviously, walking the Cape trails in winter is unlike spring, summer, or fall. The tourists have disappeared. The ground is frozen or perhaps covered with a thin blanket of snow. The winter winds have arrived like a callous slap in the face, transforming an area that thrives in the hustle and bustle of summer back to the locals—and to the soothing sounds of crashing waves and chirping birds.
The Cape is famous for its soft sandy beaches and cool ocean breezes. But there is a wintry solitude once the tourists have departed. The endless summer traffic is replaced by the stillness of mostly deserted roads that offer little resistance other than perhaps a slick surface. Instead of congestion, there is calm. Replacing the roar of summer is the whisper of winter.
For the vigorous and adventurous, the often harsh months of December, January, and February offer prime opportunities for bundled-up walks that will chill the bones, yet warm the soul. The reward for braving the elements are trails that snake through the woods past magnificent marshes and stately sand dunes. Walks that are pedestrian traffic jams during the hectic summer months become secluded strolls in winter, when one imagines that Cape Cod is theirs alone to relish.
I began my journey on the trails at Sandy Neck Beach in Sandwich. Reached along Sandy Neck Road, off Route 6A, and beginning to the right of the ranger station, there are six miles of twisting trails of deep, soft sand that will awaken your senses and challenge your legs.
This walk is hilly and not for the faint of heart. I was exhausted afterwards. The main trail winds past Sandwich’s Great Marsh which, at 3,500 acres, is the second largest in Massachusetts. I watched osprey swoop across the sky and listened to the distinct cry of peepers. Don’t miss the osprey nest on top of the pole in the middle of the marsh. On any given day you might spot a river otter frolicking below, a great blue heron gliding overhead, foxes or deer galloping through the woods, or a Diamond Terrapin making its deliberate, careful progress across the dunes.
An easier, although busier, walk is along the Cape Cod Canal. Accessible via parking lots on the Sagamore and Sandwich sides of the bridge, the path is flat and paved, making for a relaxing, scenic stroll. You could be dodging roller-bladers, runners, skateboarders, bicyclists, and women pushing baby carriages even in February. But the path is plenty wide and the views of the canal are spectacular as sailboats glide past and locals stand on the shore’s edge with fishing poles in hand. The walk stretches seven miles from Scusset Beach in Sandwich to the Railroad Bridge in Bourne, with numbers on the navigational lighting poles indicating the distances and points of interest.
Next on my list was the Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary, just off Route 151 in East Falmouth. Operated by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, this 45-acre preserve is a comforting, effortless walk along hard grassy paths that meander through the woods past vernal pools, grassy ponds and kettle holes. The grounds are rich in wildlife, with snapping turtles, Northern leopard frogs, Red-winged blackbirds, cottontail rabbits, yellow-spotted salamanders and foxes sharing space alongside the many magnolias, dogwood and rhododendron. There are 65 varieties of holly trees on the property and as you stride along the aptly named Mystery Tree Trail, the English Holly Trail or the trail that circles the strikingly beautiful grassy pond, a sensation of utter relaxation will likely wash over you.