The Essential Cape Cod National Seashore

Cape Cod sand dunes. Photo by wgdavis via flickr.

Cape Cod National Seashore

* Steaming lobster, fresh quahogs, corn on the cob, a cold brew, sand and sun. It doesn't get much better than that at Cape Cod National Seashore, a place where the perfect summer surely could have been designed: Wide beaches perfect for picnics, helping the kids fly a kite, a game of touch football, or casting into the surf for stripers or bluefish. The Cape offers a well-maintained trail for family biking, or you can head to Provincetown to examine pirate's gold or to embark on a whale-watching excursion. Perhaps you'd rather paddle Nauset Marsh with a ranger. Cape Cod is synonymous with a summer vacation -- for some families it's a decades-long tradition -- and the national seashore is front and center in that relaxing atmosphere. For sure, Routes 6 and 6A can perfectly define "traffic jam," but with a little planning and a good strategy even that can be tamed.

* High season on the Cape? Anytime between the Fourth of July and Labor Day, and even then things don't seem to slow entirely down until well into the fall. Late spring and early summer are still relatively crowd-free in comparison, but even those few handful of weeks are drawing more and more people to the Cape. Mid-September through mid-October can be wonderful, both because the crowds are fleeing and days aren't too hot nor too cold. Plus, the Cape's freshwater "kettle ponds" remain warm during this period, and even the ocean isn't too bad if a hot day arrives and convinces you to head for the beach. Winter, however, can turn the Cape into a ghost town, at least when you're looking for a restaurant, clam shack, or rental.

* Hiking is not a particularly strong point for the national seashore, unless, of course, you lump beach-combing into that category, which makes perfect sense. Still, a good family walk can be found along the Fort Hill and Red Maple Swamp trails that head off from the Penniman House in Eastham down towards the beach. The Fort Hill Trail runs about 1.5 miles, taking you through stands of red cedar along the Nauset Salt Marsh. Youngsters likely will be intrigued by the sharpening stone Native Americans once used, while adults with a good pair of binoculars will find the birding exceptional. Another favorite is the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail that you reach from the parking lot at the Marconi Station Site. Running just a mile, this trail winds through a marshy area thick with pitch pines, bear oaks and, of course, white oaks. For a longer hike, the Great Island Trail runs 4 miles along a spit of land that separates Cape Cod Bay from Wellfleet Harbor.

* The best adventure at Cape Cod National Seashore? These differ, understandably, from the types of adventure you might encounter at Yosemite, Grand Canyon, or Grand Teton national parks, and you likely won't get much of an adrenalin rush. But adventures are what you make of them, and at Cape Cod National Seashore they might involve exploring Nauset Marsh by canoe or kayak, sailing along Cape Cod Bay, stumbling upon the remains of an old wreck washed up on one of the beaches, or venturing out into the ocean in search of whales. Examining the plunder that pirates hauled out of the Caribbean only to lose when one of their ships, the Whydah, wrecked along the cape in 1717 surely will conjure an adventure or two in your mind.

* You won't find "charismatic mega-fauna" such as wolves or grizzly bears at the national seashore. However, you just might spy some seals cruising just beyond the surf, white-tailed deer are common in the woods, turtles reside in the ponds, and there's enough bird life to help you make significant inroads on your life list. And if you venture out on a whale-watching trip, while you will leave the national seashore you'll greatly enhance your odds of seeing humpback whales. I like going with the Dolphin Fleet, as their trips involve naturalists from the Center for Coastal Studies, a well-known outfit with a long history of doing marine mammal research. A day-trip to Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge opens up more possibilities to spot loons, grebes, piping plovers, sandpipers, terns, and cormorants.

* Keeping kids happy at Cape Cod National Seashore is as simple as flying a kite at Coast Guard Beach or building a sandcastle at Nauset Beach. Take them on a tour of the cape's historic lighthouses, pedal portions of the 24-mile-long Cape Cod Rail Trail that runs past many ponds and beaches, or head to the mudflats of Cape Cod Bay during low tide to explore the sea life. Of course, there are plenty of miniature golf courses when you need a break from the sand and surf.

* Leaving the crowds behind is as simple as walking the surf line on any of the seashore's beaches. While most of the day traffic heads to Coast Guard, Nauset, and Race Point, if you venture a bit off the beaten path to Ballston Beach, Marconi Beach or Head of the Meadow Beach you'll usually find plenty of room to spread your beach blanket. If you do want to visit Coast Guard Beach, head out early in the morning, by 9 a.m., to get a parking spot close to the dunes. Otherwise you'll have to take a shuttle bus.

* Cape Cod National Seashore has no lodges or restaurants within its boundaries, though they're not far away. Clam shacks can be found along the Rail Trail, and in Provincetown, which is wrapped by the national seashore, there are countless fine restaurants. Drive Route 6 through Orleans and you'll find plenty of lobster pounds to choose from. If Cape Cod defines the summer vacation, then Clem & Ursie's Food Ghetto in Provincetown defines the eclectic restaurant. There's a mix of counters and tables that lend the impression the eatery is nothing more than a fast-food hangout. But the impressive seafood dishes will quickly convince you otherwise. For an infusion of Cape Cod atmosphere, check out Arnold's in Eastham. Fried seafood -- clam strips, scallops, or fish and chips, for instance -- are nicely complemented by the lobster and raw bar.

* Where you stay at Cape Cod can run the gamut, from a tidy campsite at Nickerson State Park in Brewster or the Atlantic Oaks Campground in Eastham to a well-air-conditioned room at the Wellfleet Motel and Lodge (which boasts two pools, one inside, one out) to a traditional Cape Cod "cottage" that can run $2,000 a week easily. For help with a rental property, check with the Cape Cod & Islands Association of Realtors.