The Cape Cod National Seashore waved their usual $15 beach entrance fees last weekend and the timing couldn’t have been better. After a rather chilly and wet summer, the weather has turned hot, hot, hot and I decided that there was no better way to cool off than to spend the day submerged in the bracing waters of the National Seashore. But settling on just one beach on such a perfect beach day simply wouldn’t do. So, yesterday I went to three out of the five beaches of the National Seashore (Race Point, Herring Cove, and Marconi) in order to conduct my own informal, unscientific survey of these incredible treasures.
It was 48 years ago (plus a week) that President John F. Kennedy signed a bill, on August 7, 1961, authorizing the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore Park. When he signed the bill, Kennedy said, “This act makes it possible for the people of the United States through their Government to acquire and preserve the natural and historic values of a portion of Cape Cod for the inspiration and enjoyment of people all over the United States.” And in our present age, when the people of the United States are busy unwittingly acquiring and preserving less inspiring entities such as AIG and Citigroup, it is nice to visit a more tangible and enjoyable example of our tax dollars at work.
If the Cape Cod pennisula can be understood as one that shares the exact shape of a curled arm positioned to show off its bicep, then Race Point Beach is located at the top knucle of that arm’s closed hand. Or, to put it in less obtuse terms, Race Point is on the northernmost point on the Cape – about a couple mile north on Race Point Road or Province Lands Road from Route 6. And let me pause here to praise these two roads. They are newly paved, surrounded by sandy dunes, beech trees, and pale blonde dune grass. They are really fun to drive, but avoid the (strong) temptation to go too fast because there are many cyclists relying on your good judgement not to run them over.
I arrived at Race Point Beach around noon and was happy to find plenty of parking still available in their large (though sometimes totally full) parking lot. To get to the beach, you have to take a small walk down the marked paths that have been cleared through the grass-covered dunes. There is no handicap access to this beach, but for those able to make the walk, the rewards are endless ocean views, a long, wide, largely stone-free beach, clear waters, and the occasional spotting of whales and seals. The beach was the least busy of the three I visited on that day. And as I put down my beach blanket, I saw two large seals swimming about 20 feet out along the shoreline and one swimmer frantically trying to steer clear of them. Not one for sitting on the sand, I jumped into the water right away. At around 66 – 68 degrees, the water is definitely cold at first, but it doesn’t take long to acclimate (or maybe the proper word for it is numb) to the temperature. After a few feet out, the bottom drops away and the water became very deep and extremely clear – allowing you to see to the bottom. I love this, but if I were a parent, it would make me incredibly nervous. So, for all those with little ones, be mindful that Race Point’s waters are not the friendliest for the less experienced swimmers.
With my bathing suit still damp, I headed off to Herring Cove, which is just a short drive/bike southwest from Race Point. If I may beg you to continue thinking of Cape Cod as an arm, then Herring Cove is located along the fingers of the fist. Now, there is only one Herring Cove beach, but there are numerous small socially distinct ecosystems that operate along these sandy shores. At its southernmost point, Herring Cove is mostly occupied by gay men who park their bikes along Province Lands Road at a spot by an entrance to the beach. But if you walk north along the beach, the scene changes from gay men, to a mix of men and women, to a predominately lesbian scene. Then if you keep walking north, you pass a concrete monolith that has a couple of picnic tables and restrooms, and from that point to the end of the beach, there are (mostly) straight families and older couples.
Herring Cove is much rockier, making a walk from your towel to the water a really tactile (slightly ouchy) experience. Though the upside of all those rocks is that many hours of cheap fun can be found searching for some of the most beautiful stones around. The waters tend to be less aggressive here and have a more subtly graded floor, which makes it a nice place for kids that wish to not be rocked by the monster undertow that is stronger at other National Seashore beaches. And for those with cars and a more limited ability to walk long distances, Herring Cove is a good choice. A single row parking lot abuts a large amount of the beach, allowing you to park, walk a couple of feet, and be at the beach.
Next up, I drove down from Provincetown to Wellfleet to check out the Marconi Beach. When I think of the National Seashore, I think of Marconi. It is where I used to come as a kid and I have decades worth of memories that are connected to this place. If I were forced to conjure up just one image of what would be my own personal quintessential Cape Cod picture, it would be the wooden boardwalk and steps that connect the parking lot to Marconi Beach. With the ocean on the horizon, the weathered, rickety fence, the dunes, the sand-covered walkway, and the smell of the sea mixing with bayberry, sweet fern and beach plum bushes, this brief stroll down to the beach holds for me all the things I love best about this land of ours.
Marconi was packed. So packed, in fact, that there was a very frightening “Lot Full” sign as I approached the parking lot. I saw the sign, and was crushed. So, instead of going to the beach, I drove to the historical Marconi Station Site, the place where the Italian inventor (and fascist apologist) Guglielmo Marconi sent the first transatlantic wireless signal from U.S to England. There is a wooden platform at the Station Site where you get unbeatable views of the Outer Cape, so unbeatable, actually, that, as I gazed at the turquoise waters and white sands way down below, I made up my mind get to the beach. A full lot would not stop me!
Lucky for me, the lot was very crowded, but nowhere near full, so it was easy to find a parking spot. By the time I got to the beach, it was low tide, and the surf was gentle. I have had so many encounters with the undertow at Marconi – an invisible force strong enough to steal my breath, knock me to and fro, and stuff an unthinkable amount of sand in my bathing suit – so I was very pleased to find the water to be as docile as a kitten. There were numerous surfers, though, that did not share my joy at the lack of rough waters. But they remained out there, along with many people on body boards, riding waves as small as the ones you making when exiting a bath.
In my mind, Marconi Beach is the most beautiful of the three, but it is by far the most popular. The sand is much finer than at Race Point and Herring Cove. The water is slightly colder (and the waves are usually much bigger). And though it can be crowded, the size of the beach is generous and its length is substantial, so if you are feeling in the mood for some isolation, a 15 minute walk will put you in fairly unoccupied territory.
So, all in all, each beach has its own unique charms and it is impossible to choose among them. Some are better for cruising, some for surfing, some for rock collecting, some children, but all are sure to please.
Click here for a detailed map of Cape Cod’s National Seashore.
A $15 beach entrance fee gives you all day access to all five beaches at the National Seashore.
All the National Seashore beaches have bathrooms and showers. But none have any food or drink of any kind, so come with lunch and snacks and drinks.