PROVINCETOWN — A sublime stretch on the tip on Cape Cod, Herring Cove Beach is a rare East Coast spot to watch the sun set over the water and even has a parking lot that runs right up to the water.
But that proximity comes at a cost, and steady erosion has gnawed away the shoreline, recently causing sections of the parking lot and a protective wall to give way.
The scope of the damage - four separate breaches since Christmas - has raised concern that the beach may have to be closed this summer for repairs.
Beyond that, residents fear that the prized vantage point, known simply as the “sunset lot,’’ may before long disappear from the landscape altogether, if coastal officials eventually choose not to fight the waves but simply retreat.
“It’s a tragedy,’’ said Elaine Anderson, a selectwoman in Provincetown. “It’s a very special place, and this is very serious.’’
George Price, superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore, which manages the beach, said he is confident repairs can be completed in time for the beach to open this summer. But the deterioration of the macadam parking lot and barrier wall, built decades ago and increasingly exposed to the surf and winds, leaves its future in doubt.
“It’s not really sustainable for the long term,’’ Price said. “Certainly today you would never build a parking lot so close to the water. The long-term planning is going to have to abide by current perspectives.’’
Waves now regularly break onto the parking lot, Price said, undermining its integrity. At the north end, a semicircle section has collapsed, forcing the Seashore to close the area.
Seashore officials, while aware the situation has become precarious, have been taken aback by the number and severity of the cave-ins, particularly during a mild winter. The biggest collapse, in front of a bathhouse built in the 1950s, has left a swath of the beach covered in chunks of broken asphalt.
“To have spontaneous failures at four different areas, there’s no question we were surprised,’’ Price said. “We thought we’d have a couple more years, but it’s just a cumulative effect of erosion and old infrastructure.’’
For regular visitors to Herring Cove, who savor time there as an escape, news of the damage has been troubling.
“I’m very worried,’’ said Mary-Jo Avellar, who serves on an advisory commission to the Seashore. “It’s part of our way of life.’’
In the summer, drivers arrive hours before sunset to secure a spot, Avellar said, and year-round residents visit throughout the winter, even if they don’t leave the car.
Despite the recent damage, Avellar said she believes the parking lot can be saved, and said doing so should be a priority. Many people come to Herring Cove because of the easy access the parking lot provides.
On the other end of the beach, she noted, a large parking lot is blocked by the dunes, and visitors must walk down a sandy path to reach the beach.
Avellar said she will press the Seashore to reinforce the barrier to protect the parking lot, but worries the Seashore will “let nature take its course.’’
Herring Cove is perhaps the most popular beach on Cape Cod, said Candice Collins-Boden, who directs the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce. The beach is a major draw for tourists, and innkeepers make a point of recommending it to visitors, she said.
“People come from all over, and they come back year after year,’’ she said.
Sarah Peake, a state representative from Provincetown, called the damage “heartbreaking,’’ and said she would challenge Seashore officials to preserve the beach as is. Removing the parking lot, she said, would be a “devastating loss that cannot be replaced.’’
“It gives everyone waterfront property,’’ she said.
Others worry that fortifying the beach could come at a prohibitive cost.
“It’s extremely expensive to move sand around,’’ Anderson said.
Price said it is too early to know how much basic repairs will cost, and that crews would not begin work until April at the earliest. After the beach is stabilized, officials will begin to figure out how best to proceed, aware that the status quo cannot hold much longer.
“There’s virtually no beach left,’’ Price said.
The Seashore has spent $10 million in Provincetown over the past five years, he said, and plans to build new bath houses and a concession stand at Herring Cove. They will be built on risers, and set further back from the water.
Since the road was built in the 1920s, sea levels have risen 10 inches, he said. “Every incremental inch provides that much more power and energy to reach the shoreline,’’ he said.
At Herring Cove recently, visitors said they worry about the damage and hope things can stay the way they have been.
But as the waves rushed across the narrow shore, washing over the fallen piles, that hope seemed faint.
“Enjoy it while it lasts,’’ a young man said to his girlfriend, pointing at the breaking waves.