Cape Cod is a thin spit of land extending into the Atlantic off the eastern coast of Massachusetts, surrounded by water. That means plenty of beaches on the Atlantic side of the peninsula, and a week on Cape Cod — especially a family reunion with beach-loving family members — will certainly involve plenty of beach time.
The best beaches are part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, established in 1961 by Massachusetts native and noted Cape Cod vacationer John F. Kennedy. The national park unit covers large stretches of bay front as well as upland areas, but the main attraction is 40+ miles of Atlantic ocean-front beach. On a fine day this week, we were not the only people to realize that a warm sunny day would be perfect for the beach.
Cape Cod beaches feature dramatically high sand dunes with steep cliffs plunging down to a relatively narrow strip of oceanfront surface. The sandy hills are held together loosely by native dune vegetation, and to protect the fragile surfaces climbing the dunes is strictly prohibited. The relatively long distances between dune crosswalks, coupled with sitting areas that become precariously narrow at high tide, leads to dense crowds in the most easily accessible areas.
As a native of Florida — home of some beaches that consistently make those “Best Beaches in the World” lists — I am a bit of a beach snob. Sand quality, water color / clarity, wave quality, population density, and remoteness (i.e., absence of buildings visible from the beach) are all factors in my own beach ratings. My initial impressions in Cape Cod have always been unfavorable.
A few things I don’t like about Cape Cod beaches:
- The crowds are pretty extreme, even compared to places like Miami Beach.
- There are many, many rocks on the beaches and in the water.
- The water induces hypothermia.
The good news is that with most visitors concentrated in a few small areas close to the parking lots, the rest of the seashore is practically deserted.
Since there is no chance whatsoever that I would be swimming in water that is 61 degrees, I enjoyed the opportunity to explore the beaches by foot and see the reason this area merits a place within the national park system.
Away from the crowd, the national seashore is a place that feels wild and utterly remote. The oceanside faces of the unstable dunes are regularly shearing off and crashing to the beach below, revealing interesting striated sand layers. There are virtually no structures within the national seashore that sit right at the edge of the bluff — probably related to the aforementioned regular dune collapse — so the view from the beach gives no hint of development or technology.
And speaking of technology, there is absolutely no cellular service down on the beach, shielded by the huge dunes, so time at the beach is blissfully uninterrupted by news alerts or annoying emails from work.
To appreciate the real beauty of the Cape Cod National Seashore, all that’s required is hoofing it about 1/4 mile away from the access stairs. It’s remarkable that virtually all the visitors stay so close to the parking area, in the tiny guarded beach area, that just a few minutes of walking gets you here:
A highlight of one sojourn down the beach was the chance to see a herd of seals bobbing in the water about 30 feet offshore. There must have been something about the water currents that made it a particularly choice location to lounge, because they didn’t seem to be hunting for fish or engaged in much activity other than floating. Despite that, I could have watched them for hours. Here is a sampling of photos of the great parts of the national seashore we had the chance to visit.