In the first few weeks of fall, shoulder season comes to Cape Cod. As the air turns slightly cooler in early October, the summer crowds thin out, traffic gets a little lighter, and the beach parking lots are mostly empty.
The Cape — especially the Outer Cape by the National Seashore — takes on a whole new rhythm at this time of year. The weather can be glorious, making it a perfect time to venture outdoors and simply “be” with nature.
Even when the weather is less than ideal, it’s still possible to enjoy nature during the autumn shoulder season on the Outer Cape. Here are a few ideas.
Brisk Winds and a Surprise at Coast Guard Beach
Without the summer crowds, it’s a lot easier to get close to nature in the early fall.
At Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, for example, stiff winds were blowing out of the north as we approached the shore on an overcast, misty afternoon. Although the air was brisk, it was still invigorating.
Once we got onto the beach, we saw a few hardy souls braving the winds and the misty weather. The surf was roaring and running strong along the entire length of the beach.
As we kept walking south for about a mile along the broad strand known as the Great Beach, we came to the edge of the Nauset Marsh and turned inland. There, much to our surprise, we came upon a large colony of harbor seals.
Making sure not to rile up the seals, we kept about 150-200 feet away from them throughout our unplanned “visit.”
As they lolled around on the sand, some of the seals lifted themselves up to take a closer look at us — eye contact, even from a distance, didn’t seem to bother them. Later on, we learned that these seals also raise their rear fins in the air to help regulate their body temperature.
After about 20 minutes of marveling at them, we sensed that the seals were watching us as much as we were watching them. In fact, just as we were getting ready to head back, the seals sent out a “scout” to check us out a bit more closely.
An interesting historical footnote: On November 9, 1620, the Mayflower made her landfall in the New World at what is now Coast Guard Beach. After getting caught in the shoals offshore, the ship turned northward to anchor in Provincetown Harbor two days later before finally landing in Plymouth.
Fort Hill and Views of the Nauset Marsh
When we came upon the colony of harbor seals, we were at the northern end of the Nauset Marsh. Late the next day, after two-plus days of wet weather finally broke, we went to another part of Eastham for some spectacular views out over the marsh from its inland side.
The Fort Hill trail is a fairly short (roughly 1.0 mile) loop walk around a small hill and an open field overlooking the ocean. From this height, it’s possible to look all the way back to the former Coast Guard Station above Coast Guard Beach, as well as out to the narrow passage from the marsh into the ocean. At this time of year, the late afternoon fall colors are especially striking.
The marsh is much more than a place of pretty views. It’s a vast (over two miles long from north to south and over a mile wide from east to west) and complex ecosystem that’s home to a rich variety of shorebirds, wading birds, migrating birds, and marine life.
A barrier beach — an extension of Nauset Beach in Orleans that’s known as the Nauset Spit — protects the marsh from ocean storm surges. Recreational fisherman cast their lines in the protected parts of the marsh, while commercial boats wind their way from Nauset Harbor out to the inlet and the open ocean.
The acclaimed author and naturalist Henry Beston lived in a small cottage on the ocean’s edge of the marsh in the mid-1920s. There, he wrote his classic memoir about living alone with the elements, The Outermost House. His book is an ode to the ever-changing shape of the shore and “…the incomparable pageant of nature.” Although a storm in 1978 destroyed the relocated remnants of his original cottage, his book continues to inspire reverence for this special place.
Through the Truro Hills: the Pamet Area Trails
The Pamet Area Trail system packs a lot into a small area. Along the roughly five miles of hiking trails, there’s a surprising variety of landscapes, rare plants, and stunning vistas, with a bit of history tossed in, too.
The network begins across from a former Coast Guard station that, for years, has been an environmental education center and youth hostel.
In 1991, a hurricane slammed into this area, and seawater poured across Ballston Beach (the stretch of sand in the upper right of the photo) all the way through the Pamet River Valley to Cape Cod Bay. The flooding temporarily turned the Outer Cape into an island — even if it was only temporary, the breach was a reminder of how fragile the Cape is and how the forces of nature continually re-shape it.
As the trail heads out into the Truro Hills, it passes by coastal heathlands, rare plants, hardy beach shrubs, and stands of jack pine.
Plenty of wild cranberries grow alongside this section of the trail before it branches off to an old cranberry bog.
Since the spur trail to the bog is grown over, we decided to pass on the idea of hiking down to a one-time harvesting site. Still, it was interesting to read signboards describing how families of Cape Verdean immigrant laborers once lived in the Pamet River Valley in the late-1800s — they brought in and processed cranberries while staying in a “bog house” dorm next to the bog.
In some ways, the approach over the dunes to the main overlook above the ocean was the most dramatic spot on the trails. The brilliant blue sky only added to the drama.
Down on the broad beach, we were amazed to find that we were the only ones there — we couldn’t see other people in either direction.
As we walked back to the trailhead, we didn’t realize that we were following a footpath once used by Wampanoag Native Americans. Also, in the early 1700s, European settlers turned that same path into a section of the main stage coach route between Boston and Provincetown.
Morris Island and Harding’s Beach
Since we had fond memories from many years ago of hiking at Morris Island in Chatham, we’d hoped to do the same on this trip. But we didn’t learn until we arrived in town that winter storms this year had badly eroded the bluffs above the trail, much of which is now under water.
Thanks to a great tip from the innkeeper at the B&B where we stayed, we shifted plans and did a long walk at Harding’s Beach in Chatham instead. Little did we know what a fun outing it would turn out to be, as we got close to lots of birds, sea animals — and fishermen.
To get to Harding’s Beach, we had to walk through the Buck’s Creek marshes that stay dry much of the time, especially at low tide. That gave us a chance to see some of the striking grasses and marine plants in the area.
Taking a path through the dunes and onto the beach, we came across lots of pretty shorebirds. It surprised us that they let us stand so close to them.
Harding’s Beach faces Nantucket Sound, with sandbars just offshore. Big clusters of seaweed wash ashore at one end of the beach, and many kinds of shorebirds search for food amid the washed-up piles.
In this same area, large numbers of horseshoe crabs come ashore to spawn in the spring — and since they need to shed their shells multiple times in their lives in order to grow, it’s common to find lots of molted horseshoe crab shells here in the early fall.
Anglers like to try their luck in the shallow waters off of Harding’s Beach. Though the people we spoke with that day didn’t catch any fish, they thought they might have better luck at dusk or in the early evening, when the nearby boat traffic would be much quieter.
As the beach rounds the corner and turns into Oyster Pond, the jetty makes for a perfect spot to look across the channel towards Morris Island and back towards Chatham.
Chatham Fish Pier
The Chatham Fish Pier is a kind of “scene,” especially in the mid- to late-afternoon when fishing boats return to port for the day. As the fishermen unload their catches, onlookers watch from an observation deck on the dock, while seals swing by waiting for scraps of fish.
To mark our 30th anniversary, we wanted to do something special and spend time in nature. By visiting the Outer Cape during the shoulder season, we got plenty of chances to do just that — often as the only people on a trail or a beach.
This visit also reminded us how fragile the Cape is — storms, ocean surges, wind, and erosion are constantly re-shaping the landscape, while plants, birds, and animals must continually adapt to new conditions.
Inspired by this trip, we plan to return in the spring to watch from the shore the annual migration of whales off the coast of Provincetown — hopefully the subject of a future post!