Exploring Wild & Diverse Cape Cod, MA
I first thought about Cape Cod in the Californian high desert around 5 years ago. We were in Bishop CA, one of our fav little stops along one of our most fav drives in the entire country (Hwy 395) and we were on a dusty BLM road on the way to our boondocking site. In the middle of this stunningly desolate place was a sign that said 3,205 miles to Provincetown MA. Huh..
The sign marked a waypoint on Route 6 once the longest and highest highway in the US and I found it strangely interesting. I remember looking up the destination just out of curiosity, but I honestly didn’t really think much about it after that. Back then we were dedicated West Coast RVers through and through, so what reason would we ever have to be that far East? Nope, not likely to happen.
But then life stuff happened as it often does, and through an unexpected series of events we ended up spending not just one, but two falls out East. Suddenly that little sign which aroused my curiosity those many years ago was within physical reach and we were HERE. Who’d have thunk??
The Draw Of Cape Cod
Cape Cod has always seemed like such a dreamy destination to me. I don’t know if it’s the name, or the thought of wild beaches and lazy summer days, but there’s really quite a special vibe here.
Of course the history is fascinating. This is where the pilgrims landed in 1620 (yup, not in Plymouth my friends) and also the place where Marconi sent the first wireless signal across the Atlantic in 1903. Super cool stuff.
The towns are interesting too from upscale & quaint Chatham to diverse and rocking Provicentown. You’ll see no end of the famous “Cape Cod Architecture”, the weathered grey shingled houses developed by early settlers from England in the 1600s that are now famous all over the US.
And of course there’s the lighthouses! Anyone who’s ever eaten a package of Cape Cod Potato Chips will be familiar with at least one of them, but there are no less than 13 other lighthouses in a space of 50 Miles, enough to keep any lighthouse “nutter” happy for weeks.
Lastly there’s the intriguing shape of the place. This long arm that looks almost exactly like someone flexing their bicep into the sea. Much of it is part of the amazing 43,607 acre Cape Cod National Seashore, protected and wild yet ever-changing from tidal erosion. It seems so close, yet it’s really so far away.
It’s a super intriguing place, but you have to get out here first…
RV Park Options & Seasons
It’s quite a jaunt to get to Cape Cod, a good couple of hours from Boston and once you get out here you’ll find that the outer part of that little-looking arm is deceptively long.
It’s ~37 miles from Chatham to Provincetown which translates to around an hour of travel on Rte 6, the slow-moving single-lane road that parallels the coast. So unless you want to spend a bunch of time commuting between sightseeing spots in the car, you’ll want to think closely about exactly where on the Cape you want to stay.
Plus you’ll need to PLAN AHEAD too.
Cape Cod is a super popular spot in summer, crammed with tourists & visitors so during the high season (mid-June to mid-Aug) reservations are a must. We decided to visit right at the very end of the camping season (around mid-Oct) which not only meant camp prices had come down somewhat, but also meant WAY less crowds. Many campgrounds had already shut down by the time we arrived, but a few were still open and thanks to the late season timing we didn’t feel cramped or over-crowded anywhere we went.
A quick search on Campendium reveals multiple places to park your RV on the Cape.
The cheapest options by far are the public parks, but they have some specific limitations. There is a nice-looking State Park (Nickerson State Park) on the inside elbow of the “arm” which has tons of trails and is in a good location. Sites are $35/night but RV size limit is 35 ft, so it’s not really “beast” friendly.
In addition there’s beach boondocking believe it or not, on the very northern tip of the National Seashore by Race Point. This is available for a small fee ($75 for 7 days) as long as you meet the very strict equipment and tire specifications. Unfortunately this wasn’t workable for us either.
The much more expensive options are the private parks. Quite a few of them around, but the prices vary anywhere from $55/night up to $80/night in high season. This is what we opted for and we ended up in a somewhat tricky-to-get-into, but very nice site at Atlantic Oaks RV Park (review coming) right near the middle of the outer part of the Cape Cod arm. We got a break in price (thanks to off-season) and the central location put us the perfect position to sight-see the whole length of the Cape. It turned out to be a great choice for our stay.
Cape Cod Lighthouses
Of course our first goal when we landed on the Cape was to see some of the famous Cape Cod Lighthouses!
Cape Cod has a long and rich history of lighthouses. Over 20 guiding lights have graced this coast since the first one was commissioned in 1797 and 14 still remain today The ever-constant erosion of the Cape has meant that many lights have either fallen into the sea or had to be moved, so there’s also a long and interesting history of lighthouse moving too.
Not all the lighthouses can be visited (some are in private hands) and not all offer tours. Plus several of the lights on the northern tip of the Cape (specifically Race Point Light & Long Point Light) require rather extensive sand hikes, but there are more than enough easy-to-visit lighthouses to keep any lighthouse nutter very happy indeed.
Since we only had a limited amount of time in the area we narrowed down our visits to 3 of the more popular and easily accessible lights on the north, middle and bottom of the outer arm.
Highland Lighthouse (1797/1857)
Highland Lighthouse was Cape Cod’s first lighthouse commissioned by President George Washington in 1797 and is arguably the Cape’s most elaborate and beautiful too.
Also known as “Cape Cod Light” the original light sadly deteriorated and was rebuilt in 1857, which is the structure you see today. Also like many Cape Cod lighthouses she’s had to be moved. Coastal erosion brought the bluffs dangerously close to the structure, so in 1996 she was moved in a delicate 18-day procedure 450 feet back to her present location.
The 66 foot tall cylindrical brick tower is still active today, outfitted with a snazzy new LED light and the next-door keepers house acts as a museum and visitor center. Surrounding grounds are dog-friendly so if you bring your paws (like we did) you can easily take turns to visit the tower with the tours.
Nauset Light (1923) & The Three Sisters
Although not the Cape’s oldest light Nauset Lighthouse is undoubtedly its most famous thanks to the fact that it was adopted as the official logo on Cape Cod Potato Chips (you can picture it already, right?)
Originally there were actually three lighthouses here called the “Three Sisters” (still on display just down the road from Nauset Light), but heavy coastal erosion eventually overtook them. In 1923 they were decommissioned and replaced with the present cast-iron, brick-lined tower (originally the northern twin tower of Chatham Light). Erosion continued to plague the coast however and between 1991-1994 over 30 feet of bluff disappeared just east of the lighthouse. So in 1996 the existing tower, oil house and keepers house were moved 336 feet to their current (and hopefully final) location.
The 48 ft tall red and white tower (matched by the red and white lighthouse signature) is beautifully restored and a “must see” for lighthouse buffs . Tours are only given sporadically here so if you want to go into the tower make sure to check the online calendar before you come. Also if you come here make sure you walk the short path ~150 west of the lighthouse to see the restored Three Sisters lights on display just down the way.
Chatham Light (1808/1877)
Chatham Light was the second lighthouse commissioned on Cape Cod.
She was constructed in 1808 on the “elbow” of the Cape as a twin octagonal wooden tower structure. In 1841 she was replaced by two 30-foot tall brick towers, then she was abandoned in 1877 due to erosion (or course!) and re-built yet again as two conical, cast-iron towers further back from the coast. In 1923 the northern tower was relocated to Eastham and became Nauset Lighthouse, while the southern tower remained in place. Apart from a widening of the lens room, that’s the exact structure you see today.
The lighthouse grounds are currently Coast Guard property and not open to the public except on rare days. She was closed while we were here, but we got a lovely view of the light from the parking lot, plus we were able to enjoy a walk with Polly on the beautiful adjacent beach (open to dogs after Sept 15th). A lovely light!
VISIT & PAW NOTES/ Highland Lighthouse offers daily tours and costs $6 to climb. No dogs allowed inside the lighthouse structure, but all surrounding grounds are completely dog-friendly. Nauset Lighthouse offers sporadic tours (check the website calendar) and is free to visit, but the adjacent parking lot does have a fee to park during the high season. Surrounding grounds are dog-friendly. Chatham Light is coast-guard owned and is rarely open. It is easily visible from the beach parking lot across the road however, and next-door beach is dog-friendly after high season (closed to dogs from April 30 – Sept 15th).
Provincetown, Diverse & Rocking!
Apart from that sign in Bishop a few years ago, I didn’t really know a lot about Provincetown (known locally as P-Town) before I came to the Cape. Located at the very northern tip of the arm, it’s a bright and diverse place with a long history.
This is where the Pilgrims landed in the Mayflower in Nov 1620 so it’s a significant location for American History buffs. Pilgrims Monument is a 252 ft tall stone tower that dominates the downtown architecture and marks the history of the iconic moment. The top of the tower is quite a hike, but gives a spectacular view of the surrounding area, while the bottom has an interesting museum. Well worth visiting.
P-Town itself is a super cute and bustling place that houses one of the oldest Art Colonies in the USA, has tons of shops & eateries and celebrates a long history of flying all the colors of the rainbow flag. In the 1920’s poets, activists, writers and playwrights sought out the place for freedom of expression and it’s maintained that spirit ever since. Today it’s a town that embraces diversity and is one of the most popular places to get married for same-sex couples in the USA. If you are part of the LGBTQ community you will find your tribe in P-Town!
Plus there’s the many miles of spectacular beaches and sand that surround the area. It’s a haven for ORV riders as well as those who like to hike the sand to interesting places (no less than three of the Cape Cod Lighthouses are visitable by sand hikes from here).
We drove up to P-Town on a sunny weekday morning, loading Polly into the car for the ride. We had an awesome few hours walking around town, enjoying some of the beaches & visiting the tower (I ran to the top while Paul waited with Polly below). We landed the BEST Mocha we’ve had since we came to the East Coast (they serve Stumptown Coffee at Happy Camper baby!) and we enjoyed a lovely side-trip to Highland Lighthouse on the way home.
A great little outing!
VISIT & PAW NOTES/ P-Town gets crowded so I recommend getting there early. We parked at Pilgrim’s Tower parking lot and walked downtown from there. LOTS of dog-friendly outdoor areas around town so feel free to bring paws for a stroll downtown. Pilgrim’s Tower however does NOT allow dogs, but it does have outdoor (shaded) seating so if there are two of you it is possible to visit one at a time. It’s open 9AM-5PM everyday and costs $12 to enter. Read more HERE.
National Seashore Explorations
You can’t come to Cape Cod and not see the National Seashore. In fact it would be kind of hard to miss it!
Practically the entire Cape Cod coast is protected by the 43,607 acres of public land that make up the Cape Cod National Seashore. There are over 40 miles of pristine sandy beach, a slew of marshes and ponds, and acres of uplands supporting all kinds of flora and fauna. Most of it can accessed by regular car with a good portion in the north open to ORVs (off-road sand driving) too.
Plus much of it is dog-friendly! Apart from a few specific trails and lifeguard-protected beaches, pets are allowed everywhere else. So you can bring them on all the beaches, as long as you are outside the lifeguard sections. DO make sure to keep doggie on leash however, even on the sand, as fines are steep and unforgiving.
We were positioned mid-Cape which was perfect for visiting the entire length of the seashore.
Our RV park was right next to the Cape Cod Rail Trail, a 26 mile paved trail that turns between the towns of Dennis and Wellfleet. From our site we were able to do a bunch of relaxed (no traffic) rides including very nice ~6 mile bike trip to the Marconi Site to see where the very first wireless signal was sent across the Atlantic. We were also just a few miles away from Coast Guard Beach, a great little beach where we were able to bring Polly for afternoon walks. Lots of wild waves, Great White Shark warnings (yes, apparently they’re a big problem on the Cape) & raw coastline here. Cool stuff.
In addition, thanks to our late-season timing all of the swim beaches were closed, so it was brilliantly uncrowded and relaxed almost everywhere we went. Lots of wind however, which brought back many sweet & nostalgic memories of Cape Blanco out West. It was perfect!
VISIT & PAW NOTES/ Many of the National Seashore beaches have paid parking during high season ($15 day pass), but are FREE in low season (we never had to pay). Dogs are allowed on all beaches outside of lifeguard-protected areas, but must be on a leash at all times.
Onto The Big Apple (And A Change Of Winter Plans)
With our explorations of Cape Cod more or less complete we decided to head back to another East Coast fav, New York City! We went there last year rather unexpectedly because of Taggart’s I-131 treatment and loved it so much it became a target for our southern migration again this year too.
Which of course begs a rather poignant question.
Those of you with a sharp memory and a keen sense of Geography might notice that this trajectory does not exactly point us Westward, which were the plans we originally announced back in August. Weren’t we headed back to our beloved SW desert this winter? What’s up?
Alas, things have changed yet again. Some of it is family stuff, some of it is personal, but after much thought and deliberation the net result is that we are headed back to Miami for Christmas. We will miss the West most terribly, but we are also excited to spend the holidays with our close family members. In addition more uncertainty and change lies ahead, so we’re in the midst of some rather intense planning & thinking. We don’t have all the answers yet, but we’ll share our plans with you as soon as we’re sure of our next steps. Suffice to say this next year could be a big one for us…
Allright folks that wraps up our trip to Cape Cod. Hope you enjoyed it and we’ll see ya in NYC 🙂
Useful External Links:
- Cape Cod National Seashore -> Official website HERE
- Cape Cod Lighthouses -> Great guide HERE
- Provincetown -> Click HERE for visitor guide
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