Cape Cod National Seashore

With the world on pause due to the COVID-19 outbreak, I have decided now is the time to start up a blog post series on National Park sites.  I think the easiest way for me to do this is to start a ranking system of the park sites.  The ranking system I have decided on is as follows:

Each park site is rated on 5 categories: recreation opportunities, scenic value, status of facilities, historical value and unique experiences.  Each category is rated on a scale of 1-10 and are combined for an average score that is the park’s final score.
Many of the scores will seem low so here is how to interpret them:
A score in the 9s or 8s=The best of the best
7s and 6s=still a site that is a must visit but doesn’t have diverse opportunities/activities
5s and 4s=something you should visit if you live nearby or are interesting in the site’s subject
3s and below=may still be an enjoyable place to visit but stuff to do is very limited

The first park I have decided to do is the first park that I visited since I started counting national park site visits: Cape Cod National Seashore.  The Cape Cod National Seashore is made up of large portions of the outer cape area of Cape Cod (the elbow of land that protrudes from Massachusetts).  Cape Cod National Seashore was established in 1961, making it the second national seashore ever established.  The site is mostly known for its beaches, bike paths, lighthouses and (in more recent years) its seal and great white shark populations.  For many years Eastham, which also functions as the main gateway town to the Cape Cod National Seashore, was my family’s summer vacation spot so I have come to know this park quite well over the years.  So how does it rank?


Cape Cod is ultimately not that large of a park at about 43,000 acres, so it’s not something you would think of as a hiking mecca.  However, there are a few trails that end up being memorable despite their shortness.  Nauset Marsh Trail is a great introduction into the environment.  You can catch it right by the Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham.  Fort Hill Trail and Pilgrim Spring Trail also offer great views and some interesting history.  However, the real highlight of the Cape’s hiking trails is Great Island Trail.  The trail is a little more than 5 miles so this one will actually feel like a true hike, and it offers great views of the bay side of the Cape.  Portions of the Cape’s premiere biking trail, the Cape Cod Rail trail go through the park and there are some nice opportunities to bike in both Eastham and Provincetown so don’t forget to bring your bike.  Additionally, I once kayaked from Orleans into the outskirts of the Nauset area of the park.  That was another fun experience that gave me unique views of the area as well as a chance to see some wildlife.


I have never caught the sunrise at the Cape Cod National Seashore but the ocean side lines up perfectly with the rise.  On the other hand, I have caught the sunset multiple times here and it is a can’t miss experience.  The best place to watch it is at the Great Island Trail in Wellfleet.  Despite the area being a suburban setting there are also many opportunities to see wildlife.  In my visits here I have seen whales (you can see them with a pair of binoculars from either the Province Lands Visitor Center or Highland Light), seals, a coyote, a porpoise as well as numerous bird species.  The vegetation also gives a unique feel to the habitat.


The park has a visitor center at each end of the park.  At the southern end is the park’s main visitor center: Salt Pond Visitor Center.  This building has gorgeous views of the Nauset Marsh and surrounding area.  It also has an interesting museum style exhibit on the right side of the building when you walk in.  The building has also been clearly updated on a frequent basis to give it a fresh feel.  Province Lands Visitor Center on the north end of the park may not feel as updated but it does a great job of giving you opportunities to see wildlife (mainly whales).  A drawback to this park is that there are no campsites.


The history of this park isn’t dense but the park does a great job of interpreting it.  Go to Highland Light in Truro to get the opportunity to see the history behind one of the area’s oldest lighthouses.  If you are interested in some more iconic bits of history, go to the Pilgrim Spring Trail (also in Truro) to see a site where the Pilgrims briefly landed.  The area does have a lot of whaling history and its remnants are all over but never more so than at the Penniman House in Eastham.

Unique Experiences=9/10

This park has a permanent space in my heart as one of my most frequented parks in the National Park system.  It’s the first site that I distinctly remember visiting, and it’s the first site I got one of the park passport stamps for.  Additionally, this place has some of the best sunsets in the entire park system as well as some of the best opportunities to see whales from land in the country.

Final Score=8.0

Cape Cod National Seashore is a must visit park even if you live on the other side of the country.  There is so much to do here and whether it’s sunsets or whale watching there are many opportunities to see something unforgettable.  Additionally, while not technically part of the park, Eastham and Provincetown are two really good gateway towns that have a lot of restaurants during the peak season.

Salem Maritime National Historic Site and New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

The National Park Service has a rather rich collection of maritime history, and a lot of that comes from the state of Massachusetts.  Massachusetts has two maritime centric parks: Salem Maritime National Historic Site and New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park.  While neither are particularly large parks you can learn a lot from each with simple day visits.

I personally visited Salem Maritime National Historic Site first (back in the summer of 2014), which is convenient because its history begins slightly earlier than New Bedford Whaling’s.  Salem Maritime’s visitor center seems rather updated, which helps it to stand out in a city whose history is more known for witches.  The main highlights of the park are a full scale replica of the Friendship, a ship from the War of 1812 (Massachusetts maritime collection continues if you go to the Charlestown portion of Boston National Historical Park where the War of 1812’s most famous ship, the Constitution, is stationed), and a gravel pier that goes out a bit into the town’s harbor.  There’s a couple of restaurants that overlook the ship and pier so make sure to stop at one of those while you are visiting the park.  There are numerous activities that you can do with a ranger at the park, but we did not have time to do those.  Walking around the ship and pier was more than enough to make this trip memorable.

I visited the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park a few years later on a spring visit to Cape Cod.  The park doesn’t feel as updated as Salem Maritime’s and to make matters worse there’s an entrance fee to the main attraction, the New Bedford Whaling Museum (which technically is not park of the National Park Service).  After a brief trip to the park’s visitor center I made my way to the Seamen’s Bethel (which is the same one from Moby Dick).  The park does a great job of establishing Moby Dick and its relationship with real world history as well as the life of the book’s author: Herman Melville.  Just like Salem Maritime, this site does not require more than a day visit.

Massachusetts has a surprising wealth of maritime history and the National Park Service does a pretty good job of maintaining it for future generations through numerous sites.

Greenbelt Park

The Washington D.C. area is home to a plethora of national park sites.  Whether it’s the monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument or battlefields such as Manassas there are just so many unique places to visit in the region.  One of the lesser known national park sites in the area is Greenbelt Park, which is located just north of Washington D.C.  Unfortunately, there is a reason why Greenbelt Park isn’t as well known as many of the other sites in the area.  It’s one of the most boring units of the National Park Service that I have ever visited.

The main attraction of Greenbelt Park is that it’s close to a station for the Washington D.C. Metro service and it has camping facilities.  So it provides a cheap alternative to the hotels of the city.  If you aren’t using the park for that reason there really isn’t much reason to go.  When you step inside the park it ultimately feels like your typical town park.  There isn’t anything really sightworthy and you’re never far from the sounds of the major roads surrounding the park.

The park does have two trails that I was able to hike on.  The one in the center of the park (its trailhead is at a nice and open picnic area so that is one positive thing in this park’s favor) is the Azalea Trail.  When I visited the park it was right at the beginning of azalea blooming season (so I may have been a couple of weeks too early), but I didn’t notice any of the namesake plant while on the trail.  Additionally, the trail is just your typical exercise trail with numerous stations to stop and do exercises at, which isn’t my cup of tea of just hiking around and enjoying the view.  At less than two miles and without any elevation gain it’s a bit short too.  The second trail within the park is the Perimeter Trail, which as the name suggests goes around most of the perimeter of the park.  While the trail is a pretty suitable length for someone who wants to get out enjoy nature (a little over five miles) a lot of it is near the noise of the roads surrounding the park so this trail isn’t a recommend either.

Greenbelt Park unfortunately has a very narrow focus: camping.  So if you are coming here for anything else with the expectation of something worthy of the National Park Service you are probably going to leave disappointed.

Ford's Theatre National Historic Site

While a lot of the National Park system holdings in Washington D.C. are on the National Mall and the Tidal Basin, you will find a site that showcases one of the most important moments in American history if you make your way in a bit towards the center of the city: Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.  It was here at Ford’s Theatre that President Abraham Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865.  He later died across the street at the Petersen House, which is also part of the historic site.  I had the fortune of being able to visit this site a few years ago.

Entry way to the Petersen House
The site has a timed entry system so I would recommend getting your reservations in online beforehand.  We began our journey below the actual theatre where the National Park Service has a bunch of displays and artifacts set up.  Many of the artifacts on display are directly from the event including a few with Lincoln’s blood still on them.  The displays are just as interesting and include life sized statues of Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth as well as a multi-story pile of books related to Lincoln (which might have been my favorite part about the entire visit just because of how cool it looked).

Eventually, you can make your way up to the actual theatre, which still does performances today.  If no performance is going on you can walk around the place and see the seats where Lincoln was sitting at the time of his assassination.  The tour then continues across the street where the Peterson House is located.  Here you can see a lot of the rooms still set up as they once were when Lincoln passed away from his wound.  

The box where Lincoln was shot
Ultimately, you won’t spend much more than an hour here unless you do a full on tour with a ranger.  However, the setup is really well choreographed and you feel like you get a wealth of information from each of the three locations of the park.  I would also really like to see a play here, but that will have to wait until my next visit.

Rock Creek Park

When you think of green open spaces in major cities one of the first things people usually think of is Central Park in Manhattan.  It’s truly world famous.  Yet Washington D.C. has an equivalent that is just as interesting: Rock Creek Park.  Rock Creek Park is part of the National Park System and despite not being as famous as Yellowstone or Yosemite it was established in the same time frame as those two.  The park is a sprawling area of nature in our capital and most of it is set just north of the White House and other major attractions.  I have had the fortune of visiting the park on two separate occasions so far.

My first visit was initially just to check out the park’s nature center and hike on of its trails.  The nature center is small and nothing special.  It’s also a bit out of the way from the hustle and bustle of the city.  However, it does have a renowned planetarium that we were unable to experience at the time.  The nature center does lead right into the Western Ridge Trail, which is probably the park’s most popular hiking trail.  That’s for good reason as the trail goes through hills and streams in a leisurely fashion.  There’s a couple of interesting sights along the way on the Western Ridge Trail such as the Pierce Mill, a historic grist mill from the 19th century.  The Western Ridge Trail terminates right next to the Smithsonian Zoo, which we spent the rest of our afternoon.  Yet before our journey concluded in the park we had a lot of fun watching the spring flowers begin to bloom and watching numerous birds fly by such as American robins and mallard ducks.

My second visit to the park was completely unintentional.  I was staying at a hotel on Connecticut Avenue when I found out that a part of Rock Creek Park was right across the street.  Once again I was visiting the park at the beginning of the spring season so I was able to see snowdrops and other flowers begin to bloom.  On this visit I hiked the Soapstone Valley region which is a small portion of the park that is to the west of the Western Ridge Trail. 

The sights may not be as memorable as other parks in the National Park system, but there are a lot of views and activities to enjoy in Rock Creek Park.  It’s an easy place to overlook if you’re going to Washington D.C., but it’s just as cool as the monuments.

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