You probably haven’t given Cape Cod much thought lately, and why would you? Even the hardiest tourists have decamped to their cities and suburbs, and the inflatable animals at the waterpark have been replaced by blow-up Santas in front yards. But outdoorsy folks know the Cape’s secret season is a joy. This is the perfect time of year for a hike along the beach or on the shores of a kettle pond, followed by a hot beverage, a warm-from-the-oven pastry, or a melty slice of brick-oven pizza. Even a day trip to the 65-mile-long Cape feels like a mini-vacation.
Will there be cars in the parking lot at the trailhead? Probably; Cape Codders love their trails, and these days, everyone is a hiker. But, with more than 130 coastal beaches (and 399 square miles), there’s plenty of space to spread out. A couple of tips: Wear shoes that can get wet and muddy, and be mindful of hunting season. Hunting isn’t allowed on Sundays, and is prohibited within 500 feet of all bicycle and established nature trails in the national seashore, but we still recommend wearing a bright-colored outer layer. Pile on those layers; it’s colder along the water, and the Cape is famously windy. Download and take along a trail map, and drop a pin on your Google maps in case you get lost (you probably won’t but it never hurts). Make sure your cellphone charged. And, as always, stay home if you’re sick, and follow Massachusetts guidelines if you’re coming from out of state.
The walk: Great Island Trail, Wellfleet
If you’re driving all the way to Wellfleet, make it count. This is considered the most difficult route of the Cape Cod National Seashore trails due to its length and hill climbs. But oh, those views! Make it a 3.9-mile round-trip for the tavern loop or add the Jeremy Point overlook for a total of 8.8 miles, doable in three to five hours. This sandy trail winds through a pitch pine forest to the highest points of Great Island and Great Beach Hill. Part of the route leads to a Colonial-era tavern site (no remains visible). Other sections follow recesses along the salt marsh.
You’ll walk in soft sand and up log steps; some sections of the trail are submerged at high tide, so check tide charts if you don’t want to get your feet wet. And allow yourself plenty of time so you don’t run out of daylight. The rewards (besides a good solid day of hiking): sweeping vistas of salt marshes, Wellfleet Harbor, and Cape Cod Bay. The trailhead is at the corner of Griffin Island and Chequessett Neck Road; follow Chequessett Neck Road to the Great Island parking area. (Keep water view on left after leaving Route 6); www.nps.gov/caco
The warm-up: PB Boulangerie Bistro, Wellfleet
Currently open for takeout, this French bakery/bistro/pastry shop is a local mainstay, with serious street cred. Michelin-starred executive chef Philippe Rispoli worked with Michael Mina and Daniel Boulud, and French-trained wunderkind baker Michel Bentz was a certified pastry chef at age 18. For takeout, try Le Club Sandwich or a tomato-mozzarella sandwich on a baguette (each $10.60) or an apple crumble tarte ($5.50). 15 Le Count Hollow Road, Wellfleet; www.pbboulangeriebistro.com
The walk: Craigville Beach, Centerville
The beach made famous by MTV back in the day is definitely a different scene in winter. The food shacks are closed, the lifeguard stands are empty, and the five-mile stretch of sand (including Craigville and Long beaches) is a study in serenity. You’ll likely see a few fleece-clad folks (often accompanied by dogs on leashes) on this luxurious shell-speckled strand — you might even spy a fishing boat or ferry on the horizon as you look out into Nantucket Sound. But mostly, you’ll notice the colors — tawny sand meets blue water meets steely sky — and the steady thrum of waves licking the shore.
Heading west leads to the edge of East Bay and the Centerville River, alongside stately homes tucked back from the beach; eastward, the sand winds to Halls Creek in West Hyannisport, with views of Squaw Island. As you walk, let your mind wander, allowing the sea and surf to work their magic on your psyche. Even a mask can’t completely mask the scent of the ocean. 997 Craigville Beach Road, Centerville; https://townofbarnstable.us
The warm-up: Crisp, Osterville
With outdoor seating (and the requisite heat lamps), a tent, and a firepit, Crisp stays reasonably cozy in the winter. That’s a good thing, because you won’t want to miss their wood-fired flatbread pizza, made with organic flour and Cape Cod sea salt. This time of year, we’re craving the Build Me Up Butternut, topped with ricotta, mozzarella, prosciutto, caramelized butternut squash bits, kale, spinach, and dried cranberries ($18). Share it, and pair it with a lemony Rocket Salad ($8.50). 791 Main St., Osterville; 508-681-0922; www.crispflatbread.com
The walk: Nauset Marsh Trail, Eastham
This easygoing trail within the Cape Cod National Seashore packs a wallop scenery-wise. It crosses fields decked in autumnal hues of heathery russet, winds through a forest, and skirts the Atlantic coast, with epic views of Nauset Marsh and Nauset Beach. It’s got everything — even portable toilets. The trail begins and ends just behind the national seashore’s Salt Pond Visitor Center. The 1.3-mile loop is mostly flat, with some log steps and moderate grade. Some sections may be submerged at high tide. This is a busy beach in summertime (despite the posted “Beware of Sharks” warnings), but now it might be just you and your vanishing-in-the-sand footprints, with a soundtrack of pounding surf.
Feeling energetic? Add the spur trail to Coast Guard Beach — about one mile each way — for more time to experience this wondrous setting. No pets. 50 Nauset Road, Eastham; www.nps.gov/caco
The warm-up: Hot Chocolate Sparrow, Orleans
Winner of a slew of best-of awards, this little shop sells hand-dipped chocolates, sandwiches, and — perfect for right now — an enticing menu of specialty drinks. Go for the namesake Hot Chocolate Sparrow, also available in mint and white chocolate versions, and if you need something heartier, take a look at the sandwich board. They make a “grilled chocolate” (hmm); we can’t vouch for that, but we can heartily recommend the grilled eggplant with white cheddar and balsamic vinegar on ciabatta ($6.49). It’s a long ride home, so maybe bring along one of their sweet little “babycakes.” 5 Old Colony Way, Orleans; 508-240-2230; www.hotchocolatesparrow.com
The walk: Mashpee River Reservation, Mashpee
If you’re more in the mood for a woodsy walk than a beach hike, head to this tucked-away area in Mashpee.
Protected by the Trustees of Reservations since 1959, the 248-acre property is laced with two miles of footpaths. These link to trails maintained by other conservation organizations, so you can make your route longer. For a lovely hike with river views, start at the Mashpee River Woodlands parking area on Quinaquisset Avenue and follow the trail down to the river. You’ll traverse some small hills and cross wooden bridges as you trace the pristine tidal stream. The stream begins at Mashpee-Wakeby Pond and eventually empties into Pirate’s Cove on Popponesset Bay. Note that there may be partial trail closings due to flooding, so prepare to change your route if necessary. If one parking lot is full (they’re pretty small), head to another of the five lots that edge the reservation. There’s plenty of good hiking here, so you can’t go wrong.
Another nice section, especially if you have kids along, is the Cottontail Loop, reachable from the Trustees’ parking lot on Old Barnstable Road. You’ll hike amid restored pine barrens, encircling 50 acres of habitat (dense shrubs and saplings) designed for the endangered New England Cottontail. You can literally go “hoppin’ down the bunny trail!” Quinaquisset Avenue and Meetinghouse Road, Mashpee; 508-636-4693; www.thetrustees.org
The warm-up: The Picnic Box, Mashpee
For more than 20 years, this family-run spot has offered diner-style favorites, including breakfast from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. A grilled, buttery carrot muffin and a cup of coffee may be all you need to warm up — if not, they offer full breakfasts, salads, subs, seafood dishes, and deli sandwiches. Try the Crabby Patty, served with slaw and hot peppers ($8.95). The place is tiny, so you’ll want to do takeout. 518 Falmouth Road, Mashpee (at the Mashpee Rotary); 508-539-0303; www.PicnicBoxMashpee.com. Arrive too late for the Picnic Box? Head over to Mashpee Commons, an outdoor shopping center, for plenty of other options.