Move over, salt-tinged ocean breezes! The heady scent of sunbaked pine trees should be named the Official Smell of Summer. If you love this aroma, head to the Cape Cod Rail Trail. On a warm, sunny day, it will assail your nostrils at every turn. As you pedal along the 27.5-mile path, you’ll realize you’re smiling. It’s summer! It’s the Cape! This is the life!
There are other reasons this bike ride will make you happy — besides the fact that riding a bike will bring out your inner 10-year-old. We asked random riders for their opinion of the rail trail as we pedaled the trail on a gorgeous day in June. Raves all around. “It’s a beautiful way to explore the Cape, and it sure beats Route 6!” said Torontonians Claire and Eddie, as they boarded their bicycles in Orleans for a ride to the Cape Cod National Seashore. While this trail doesn’t skirt the ocean, it rolls alongside numerous kettle ponds, and one can easily access the national seashore from points on the trail in Wellfleet (at Marconi Beach, just a mile off the rail trail) and in Eastham (a trail leads from the Salt Pond Visitors Center to Coast Guard Beach.)
Running from Yarmouth to Wellfleet, “The Cape Cod Rail Trail is one of the Cape’s gems,” says Paul Johnson of the Friends of the Cape Cod Rail Trail. Traveling through the towns of Yarmouth, Dennis, Harwich, Brewster, Orleans, Eastham, and Wellfleet, “It passes through all types of neighborhoods: residential, commercial, woodlands, ponds, bogs, trees, fields, swamps, and creeks.” Johnson’s advice for a first-timer: Hit the rail trail on off-peak hours or on weekdays if possible. “Weekends in June, July, and August are very busy, with 100 to 200 people on the trail each hour.”
Now there is more to love: a new 5.7-mile section from Yarmouth to Dennis recently opened. The goal is to expand the trail west to Barnstable, so riders could, in theory, take the bus or CapeFLYER to Hyannis, and hop onto the rail trail from there. The ultimate plan is to link all of Cape Cod in this manner. “We are working actively to connect the Shining Sea Bikeway in Falmouth to the Bourne Rail Trail, which will create connectivity from Woods Hole to Provincetown,” says Tom Cahir of Cape Cod RTA/Cape FLYER.
Should you spend a day of your precious vacation (or treasured weekend) bicycling this rail trail? We recently rode it back and forth, a couple of days in a row — not recommended, BTW, unless you like being saddle-sore. Here’s what we found.
First, a quick overview: The Cape Cod Rail Trail follows the old Cape Cod Central Railroad and the Old Colony Railroad rail lines that once brought vacationers from Boston and New York. Passenger service ended in 1937, followed by freight service. The rail trail was launched in 1978, designed for cyclists, pedestrians, and inline skaters, and is managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.
How does a casual, recreational cyclist tackle a 27.5-mile ride? Some riders break it up into two back-and-forth rides; others have a driver drop them off at one end of the trail, and meet them at the other end. Fortunately, there’s plenty of free parking along the trail, plus 11 bike shops, restrooms, and places to grab a bite or a snack. (Feel like a lobster roll and ice cream? Heck, you’ve earned it after riding 20-some miles on a bike!) Before you head out, download a trail map at the Friends of the Cape Cod Rail Trail website (www.foccrt.com); it also lists bike shops and parking lots.
The trail is paved, flat (except for a couple of places) and leafy, right from the start. You’ll cruise along for the first 2.5 miles, and roll over the 160-foot bridge that spans the Bass River. Once you’ve crossed the pedestrian bridge over Route 134, you’ve reached South Dennis, a trailhead with parking and Barbara’s Bike Shop (in case you’ve decided your ride won’t cut it and you need a rental, or some air in your tires.) The next bit isn’t all that scenic — you’ll bypass a scrap metal place and a landscaper — but things get rural as you ride into Harwich.
You know you’re feeling good when you acknowledge passersby with a nod or—gasp!—a smile. (This greeting-strangers stuff does not come naturally to New Englanders!) Besides cyclists, you’ll encounter runners, walkers, dogs and their people (dogs on short leashes are allowed), and inline skaters. Apparently, there are folks who didn’t unload these at yard sales in the ‘90s! And, of course, there are a few speed demons, flying past in their flashy jerseys, disregarding the signs that urge moderate speeds. You’ll pass Harwich Conservation Trust Lands, tempting you to de-bike and take a hike. So pretty! So much nature! And — amazingly — zero trash. Volunteers do an excellent job of keeping this trail spotless.
This being Massachusetts, of course there’s a rotary. This is the point where the CCRT meets the Old Colony Rail Trail. The latter runs east for 7 miles to Chatham. Proceeding along the Cape Cod Rail Trail, things start to get more interesting — you’ll pass the Pleasant Valley General Store, and glide along cranberry bogs (rusty-looking, not scarlet, in summertime.) Some of the Cape’s many kettle ponds pop into view as peeks of blue beyond the trees.
The next highlight: 1,900-acre Nickerson State Park in Brewster. “What a great spot!” our bike buddy, Paul Kelley, crowed as we contemplated taking a detour on the park’s 8-mile paved trail. Cyclists can enter the park to ride the path for free. (“And it’s a pretty ride, past ponds in some places,” a park staffer told us.) We would’ve/could’ve, but decided to stop for an alfresco lunch at Breakwater Fish & Lobster Market, located right off the bike trail. This isn’t the speediest joint you’ll find, but they offer a decent grilled tuna seafood bowl with mango salsa ($18.99, and plenty to share), perfect if you want something on the lighter side on your Tour de Cape.
If you’re doing an in-and-back ride to Yarmouth or Dennis, this makes a good place to turn around (nearly the halfway mark.) You’ll log 20-plus miles for the day.
We did a one-way ride the next day, getting dropped off at the easternmost trailhead on LeCount Hollow Road in Wellfleet, and heading west to Orleans. At first, the trail runs parallel to Route 6, but the traffic hum soon fades. You’ll have wetlands to your left, and homes, campgrounds, and cabin colonies to your right, set back from the green-fringed rail trail.
We started the ride pretty early (9 a.m.) on a Sunday morning, so we didn’t see a soul on the trail for our first couple of miles. With only the birds and bullfrogs for a soundtrack, the ride was peaceful and restorative. Once in Eastham, we enjoyed water views along Minister Pond and Great Pond. We encountered more trail users in Eastham, and noticed that many of them were on the far side of age 40. Maybe the younger crowd was still in bed, or lounging on the beach.
Before long, we were cruising over the bridge that spans Route 6 and into Orleans. Bustling Orleans is easily explored by bicycle; signs direct you into the town center, and to the Salt Pond Visitors Center at Cape Cod National Seashore. We met several people on the trail who were planning to do exactly that, parking in Orleans and then heading to the beaches—after the obligatory stop at Hot Chocolate Sparrow for some refreshments. (Another popular spot is Arnold’s Lobster & Clam Bar in Eastham, but we never timed it right to grab lunch at that venerable establishment.) We took our time, biking about 10 miles per hour, with lots of stops to take photos and take in the scene.
However you do the Cape Cod Rail Trail — as a means to an end (a traffic-free way to get to Nickerson State Park or the national seashore) or as a nature-y Cape Escape on two wheels—we’d say, the fans are accurate. This one is a treasure.
Feel like doing just a bit of the rail trail, or ready to go end-to-end? Here are some places to park your car for free.
Off Station Avenue (just south of Stop & Shop plaza), Yarmouth
Route 134, South Dennis
Headwaters Drive, Harwich
Route 124 at Crowell Bog Road, Brewster
Route 137 across from Underpass Road, Brewster
Orleans Center (Main Street)
Rock Harbor Road, Orleans
Cape Cod National Seashore at Salt Pond Visitor Center, ½ mile from Locust Road intersection, Eastham
Cape Cod National Seashore at Marconi Historic Site
LeCount Hollow Road trailhead, South Wellfleet
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.