Copyright 2016 Ed Wojtaszek
This year I planned to ride the three major trails on Cape Cod. They are the Cape Cod Canal Trail, the Shining Sea Bikeway, and the Cape Cod Rail Trail. There are a few shorter trails, but I consider them more appropriate for dog walkers and baby strollers. I have no plan to ride the shorter ones. These rides were kind of exploratory since I wanted to get a feeling for cycling the Cape and potentially plan for future touring there. The explorations were encouraging, especially my ride on the Cape Cod Rail Trail. I discovered what I think is a reasonably safe way to navigate from one end to the other on a bicycle.
Cape Cod Canal Trail
In April I started with the Cape Cod Canal Trail. I decided to ride the western side because I would be able to visit the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. The trailhead parking lot in Bourne is about a mile from the Academy. The TS (Training Ship) Kennedy was berthed there and there were good views of other Cape landmarks, including the Cape Cod Canal Bridge completed in 1935. The bridge still operates to support the scenic railway. The Bourne parking lot is adjacent to the bridge and is large enough to accommodate quite a few cars.
The trail is paved using concrete and it is smooth and relatively level. The ride went well until I got to the end of the trail and realized that I had only gone six and a half miles. Unfortunately, TrailLink listed the length as thirteen miles. I never heard of listing trail length as the round trip distance. I was not happy that I drove an hour and a half to get to a thirteen mile ride. I made the best of it at the end of the trail by hiking around Scusset Beach before the short ride back to my van.
Shining Sea Bikeway
My second Cape Cod ride was on the Shining Sea Bikeway that runs south from North Falmouth to Woods Hole. It was late May and the large parking lot at the trailhead had plenty of space. The trail is a little over twelve miles long (one way) and is paved with asphalt, which has some rough spots due to frost heaves. It’s a pretty, tree lined route to the ocean. I departed from the trail at the old Falmouth railroad station and stopped in Falmouth to visit an old friend.
The ride through Falmouth center was a bit of a nail-biter because the street is narrow and very busy with auto traffic. As I rode through I kept an eye on traffic and occasionally bailed out to the side of the road to let traffic pass. My friend manages MacDougalls’ Cape Cod Marine Service. His office overlooks Falmouth Harbor. After talking for some time I toured the waterfront before heading back to the trail.
After a short ride along the beach I passed through the ferry terminal and arrived at Woods Hole. The prominent structure on the waterfront is the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The research vessel named after Neil Armstrong was berthed there. It is a small town and it can be easily walked, but I chose to ride my bike through it.
On my way back to North Falmouth, I made a pre-planned stop at the Gift Shack Gallery. I saw the place in the morning as I rode toward Woods Hole. A sign on the trail promised ice cream and refreshments and it looked like a nice place to rest in the shade.
After getting back to my van and packing everything, I checked out the bicycle shop near the trailhead, the Bike Zone. They rent bikes and have some refreshments in case you need to stock up before hitting the trail. The shop also provides service in case you have an urgent need to get something fixed or adjusted.
The Shining Sea Bikeway is a great trail to take a relaxed tour, with excursions in Falmouth center and Woods Hole. Falmouth center has many interesting shops and both places have quite a few eating opportunities. The Woods Hole Science Aquarium is open most afternoons (check the online schedule) if you have an interest in local sea life.
Cape Cod Rail Trail
In early June I rode the Cape Cod Rail Trail, an asphalt paved twenty two mile (again, one way) trail from Dennis to Wellfleet. The trailhead parking lot is large and there was plenty of room for me. You can walk to Barbara’s Bike and Sport Equipment from the lot. My approach to the trail was to ride to Wellfleet non-stop and note the attractions along the way. On the return trip I would stop and take some time to explore each.
About three miles from the Dennis trailhead I rode through the only traffic circle that I have ever seen on a bicycle trail. It is a large circle and there are warnings that you are being watched, so mind the circle. There are three exits on the traffic circle, one back to Dennis, a second to the old Colony Rail Trail toward Chatham, and the third that continues on the Cape Cod Rail Trail to Wellfleet. I was headed to Wellfleet.
When I arrived in Wellfleet after a two hour drive from home to Dennis and a one and a half hour bike ride to Wellfleet, I was hungry. To my delight, I found PB Boulangerie Bistro. I had a smoked salmon sandwich that was very good. They served it as three open face layers of salmon and cream cheese with diced onions on toasted bread. That was all that I needed to fuel me for the afternoon ride.
At the trailhead, a map shows the Claire Saltonstall Bikeway. This bikeway begins in Boston and ends in Provincetown, a total of 138 miles. The Cape Cod Rail Trail comprises a 22 mile section of it. My curiosity got the best of me and I rode about three miles of it to the north in Wellfleet along the eastern coast. Other than the Cape Cod Rail Trail segment, it appears to be all on the road. During my short sampling of the route I felt that it was reasonably safe although the shoulders are very narrow. The drivers seemed to be cautious and the speed limit is only thirty miles per hour.
The beaches along the eastern coast were interesting. People hike down steep sand rises to get to the beach that was at least 100 feet of elevation below the parking lot. It’s a tough trudge in soft sand to get up to your car when you are finished with the beach.
I returned to the Cape Cod Rail Trail and stopped at Bob’s Sub and Cone about a half mile south of the Wellfleet trailhead for some ice cream. The woman who was running the place had a story that came out because she saw my camera. She told me that 33 years ago she was a professional photographer. “Then I met this pizza guy,” she said.
On the return trip I took an excursion to the Cape Cod National Seashore. The park has a paved two and a half mile trail through woods and past a salt marsh, ending at the ocean. There is a beach and some very nice ocean views. It happened to be a good time to enjoy the wildflowers that were in bloom along a fence row overlooking the mud flat and the ocean.
Another stop was at Namskaket Creek where I hiked down to the creek bed. At the edge of the salt marsh I saw things like little brown bugs scurrying to dive into holes in the sand. As I got closer I realized that they were tiny crabs, some as small as a half inch long. They ran along the sand sideways and in the sun their shiny bodies made them look like beetles from a distance. I couldn’t get a good picture because the disappeared into sand burrows as I approached.
When I returned to the traffic circle, I went south on the Old Colony Rail Trail with the plan to ride seven and a half miles to have dinner in Chatham. The trail goes through Harwich, which also has some restaurants. In Chatham there were some on-road segments, one passing the Chatham Airport. The Waco biplane on the tarmac drew my attention and I stopped to look at it. It was built in 1993 to the original prints and even has a nine cylinder radial engine. They offer airplane rides, but I didn’t have time since it was already about 5:30 PM.
The trail ended and I continued on the marked bike route down Tipcart Drive and right on Hitching Post Road to the end that was marked with a green sign. I turned left on Depot Street and passed the Chatham Railroad Museum, a small depot opened in 1887 that has been converted to a museum. At the end of the road was Chatham Fish and Chips where I had a delightful dinner before heading back to my van.
The total distance on the day was 73 miles. I arrived back at the trailhead at about 7:15 PM and packed everything into the van. It was a good experience. The trail is fairly flat and there are good excursions that you can make along the way. The only caution that I offer is that there are several very busy and somewhat dangerous road crossings. That is not a reason to avoid this trail.
Summary – Many Possibilities on the Cape
As standalone trails, the two trails worth riding are the Shining Sea Bikeway and the Cape Cod Rail Trail. On both, don’t look for a lot of great scenery. There is some, but the trails are mostly wooded with only a few places on the trail that are worth a stop. However, I consider them great trails to get to destination features along the way such as parks, beaches, key towns, shops, and restaurants. On these exploratory tours of the trails I only saw what I could within self-imposed time constraints. There is a lot more to see and do.
After thinking about it, I realized that there is probably a safe way to tour the Cape that incorporates these trails. For me the safest trip would be one where I was able to avoid roads and traffic completely. There are very few routes in the United States where you can do that kind of touring. My compromise would be streets and roads that are bicycle friendly.
The Saltonstall Bikeway in combination with the three trails that I toured and local roads may be the ticket on the Cape. Along the route you can take excursions that cover many of the Cape Cod features and attractions, including the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. A tour that covers the Cape in some detail would probably take five to seven days. That tour is on my to-do list.