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.
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.
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.
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