The Great Outdoors: Making tracks
(originally published in Cape Cod LIFE, December 2004)
Nature walks and easy hikes for the quiet season on the Cape and Islands
Looking up at the tsunami of a sand dune on the rim of the Cape Cod National Seashore’s Province Lands in Provincetown, it is hard to imagine the area was once a dense forest. Three hundred and fifty years ago, an opaque forest of pine, oak and beech trees enveloped the northernmost tip of the Cape until European settlers in the mid-1600s began clear-cutting the land for farming, homesteads, grazing, and shipbuilding—literally plowing the area of all undergrowth.
The sole remnant of Provincetown’s once expansive forests can be found along the secluded Beech Forest Trail off Race Point Road. It is the only thicket of hardwood remaining. This ghostly, gnarly, mile-long reminder of the past—a perfect hike for late fall—begins at the Beech Forest Trail parking lot about one-half mile on the left from the traffic light at the intersection of Route 6 and Race Point Road. The trail loops over a wooden footbridge and around tranquil Beach Forest Pond, past patches of wrinkled rose, scotch pines and oaks, through a broad beech forest, and back to the parking lot. Wild huckleberries, blueberries, greenbrier, and, oh yes, poison ivy can be found along the way. Hiking here in November or December below a dark blue sky and on sands the color of snow, one feels alone with nature and in a time that has slipped into history.
Mindful of an era passed, head south to Truro—to the National Seashore’s Pilgrim Spring Trail, off Route 6 near Pilgrim Heights—where Pilgrims took their first drink of fresh water in the New World, shortly after dropping anchor in Provincetown Harbor in November, 1620. “On the fourth day, Captain Miles Standish took 15 men armed with muskets and set out on a three-day expedition,” notes the guidebook, Walks and Rambles on Cape Cod and the Islands by Ned Friary and Glenda Bendure, an excellent source for hiking the region. “In addition to searching for food and water, they scouted the area to determine its suitability as a permanent settlement. The expedition party came across a few Indians, who, not surprisingly, fled. Although they [the Pilgrims] were unable to make contact with the Natives, the Englishmen did help themselves to several baskets of seed corn that they discovered stored in a place now known as Corn Hill. But, most importantly, they found fresh water, pure and sweet.”
A bronze tablet along the three-quarter-mile loop trail carpeted with pine needles marks the site where Pilgrims discovered fresh water with a quote from Mourt’s Relation. It reads, “About ten a clocke we came into a deepe Valley full of brush, wood-gaile and long grasse, through which wee found little paths or tracts, and there we saw a Deere and found Springs of fresh water, which we were hartily glad and sat us downe and drunke our first New England water.”
To reach the trail, which runs through pitch pine woods and leads to Salt Meadow Marsh, a migratory resting place for waterfowl, follow signs off Route 6 to the Pilgrim Heights parking area near the Interpretive Shelter. The trail starts at the end of the parking area.
While you are on the Outer Cape, take in the 1,000-acre Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary off Route 6 near the Wellfleet-Eastham line. A pastoral mix of forests, meadows, salt marshes, and sandy beaches, the sanctuary offers five miles of trails through eight different plant and wildlife habitats that represent the natural range of the Cape. Adventuresome hikers can walk the Beech Forest Trail, the Pilgrim Spring Trail and at least one Wellfleet trail in a single day. The 1.4-mile Goose Pond Trail is the sanctuary’s most popular. It leads through pine and oak woodlands and passes two ponds, a coastal heathland, and along the edge of a salt marsh. Goose Pond, notes a trail guide available at the adjacent nature center (open year round), is a brackish pond—a mix of fresh and salt water—that attracts scores of shorebirds and wading birds in the fall and spring.
In all, there are six trails. The others are: the Try Island Trail, with extraordinary views of the sanctuary; Boardwalk Trail, a walk across the salt marsh to Cape Cod Bay and tidal flats teeming with marine life; Silver Spring Trail on the lip of Silver Spring Pond, the sanctuary’s only freshwater pond; Bay View Trail, along the edge of a salt marsh and through a pitch pine woodland; and Fresh Brook Pathway, a splinter trail off the Bay View Trail that follows meandering Fresh Brook and takes you to a ridge overlooking the creek and marsh below. “In the 1700s, mackerel fishermen living in a small village at the head of Fresh Brook traveled downstream in small boats to reach their fishing grounds in Cape Cod Bay,” states a trail map.
If the allure of history beckons this fall, be sure to walk Sandy Neck, a classic barrier beach with numerous trails that stretches six miles east along Cape Cod Bay from the Sandwich-Barnstable line toward Dennis and protects the 3,296-acre Great Marshes of Barnstable. Sandy Neck features towering dunes and hollows blessed with beach plums and wildflowers in season. The Rev. Timothy Dwight, then president of Yale and a frequent visitor to the neck in the 1800s, called it “a long, lofty, wild, and fantastical beach.” Rare species of turtles and birds nest here amid the sites of prehistoric dwelling places that date back more than 3,000 years and colonial try yards where in the 1700s blubber was barreled from whales caught offshore. A discerning eye can still spot artifacts.
These trails are accessed from a parking area at the end of Sandy Neck Road off Route 6A in East Sandwich. Four marked trails traverse areas along the beach, across the dunes, and at the edge of the marsh. The Beach Front Trail along the bay side of the peninsula is the longest and leads to the tip of the neck. It’s worth the trip.
History and hiking buffs will also enjoy a trek through Brewster’s 800-acre Punkhorn Parklands, a town-owned conservation area that embraces placid freshwater. Upper Mill Pond, Walkers Pond, and Seymour Pond, and tens of acres of woodlands and wetlands that were inhabited in the 1600s by the Saquatuck tribe, later functioned as a common area for sheep grazing in the 1700s, and in the 1800s were cultivated into productive cranberry bogs. Wild cranberries still grow there. Some of the narrow paths can be accessed off a dirt parking lot at the end of Run Hill Road, off Stony Brook Road in Brewster. Trail maps are available. For more information on Punkhorn trails, visit the Cape Cod Trails Conference website at www.cctrails.org. The Eagle Point Trail to the right of the parking lot is best for first-time visitors. This short, picturesque hike follows the shore of Upper Mill Pond; you can launch a canoe from here or just sit and enjoy the magnificent view.
Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are also splendid places for hiking in the fall. On the Vineyard, visit the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary off Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. The sanctuary has exceptional views of surrounding woodlands, meadows, pond, salt marsh, and barrier beach. From the State Road intersection, follow Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road for 4.2 miles, then take a left on Felix Neck Drive (a dirt road), following it for one-half mile to a parking lot and visitor entrance. With 350 acres of open space, Felix Neck, which overhangs Sengekontacket Pond on the Vineyard’s east side, offers the best of the Vineyard’s beauty and a chance to observe ospreys, common terns, ducks, geese, turtles, otters, and even wild turkeys—in all, more than 100 species of birds. In fall and winter, wood ducks and waterfowl can be spotted in nearby Turtle Pond from the sanctuary’s observation building.
One of the Vineyard’s oldest wildlife sanctuaries, Felix Neck is named for the last Native American who lived here, notes a story in the Vineyard Gazette. The perfect family hike, the sanctuary—operated by the Massachusetts Audubon Society—was established to educate children on the need to preserve the environment. There are more than four miles of scenic, self-guided trails. For starters, try the Yellow Trail on the starboard side of the visitor center. Maps are available at the visitor center.
While on the Vineyard, also explore the adjacent 689-acre Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge and Wasque Reservation on Chappaquiddick Island, the 580-acre Long Point Wildlife Refuge in West Tisbury, the 300-acre Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary, and Gay Head Cliffs on the island’s west end, offering breathtaking views of the Atlantic, Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound.
No less spectacular, neighboring Nantucket has more than 16,500 acres of preserved land the public can enjoy—about 45 percent of the island’s 30,000 acres, including 8,700 acres of Nantucket Conservation Foundation land and trails. Maroon posts with the foundation’s logo mark property boundaries and help identify these parcels. A map of all properties is available by writing Nantucket Conservation Foundation at P.O. Box 13, 02554.
One of the most interesting parcels is the Windswept Cranberry Bog located off Polpis Road (parking is available). The Windswept Bog is a good place to view plant, meadow and marsh life. This working bog consists of 45 acres and the Milestone Bog, another working bog, totals about 240 acres. Two hardwood forest communities are located south of the parking area; one of the American beech trees here is about 200 years old, and the American holly is one of the largest on the island. A booklet produced by the foundation contains a checklist of species.
“Tread lightly,” cautions Peter B. Brace in Walking Nantucket—A Walker’s Guide to Exploring Nantucket on Foot. “Your feet will, at times when you don’t even realize it, tread on fragile soils, exposed root systems, rare and endangered plants, and vegetation that can’t survive being stepped on more than once or twice.”
You can love a place, they say, to death. Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod are easily consumed. The best advice about exploring the region in the solitude of fall is to read up on its impressive trails, open spaces, and protected lands. Helpful guidebooks are available in local bookstores and at town libraries. Knowledge and an appreciation of the environment will enhance your hikes in ways you cannot imagine. As essayist Wallace Stegner once wrote, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”
Read all about it!
There are numerous books about hiking Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Here are a few suggestions:
- A Guide to Nature on Cape Cod and the Islands, edited by Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press
- Short Walks on Cape Cod and the Vineyard, by Hugh and Heather Sadlier, The Globe Pequot Press
- Walking Nantucket, by Peter B. Brace, Faraway Publishing Group
- Walks and Rambles on Cape Cod and the Islands, by Ned Friary and Glenda Bendure, Backcountry Publications
Greg O’Brien is editor and president of Stony Brook Group, a publishing and political communications strategy company based in Brewster.