The 22-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail serves up a genuine Cape Cod experience, stretching through quaint villages and along sandy beaches past a diverse landscape of salt marshes, pine forests and cranberry bogs. The trail is paved, with few inclines, and trailheads sprinkled along the route offer restrooms, food, water and swimming areas. You'll also find trailside shops where bicycle—and even handcycle—rentals are a breeze.
The trail follows the former Old Colony Railroad right-of-way from South Dennis to South Wellfleet, via Harwich, Brewster, Orleans and Eastham. The railroad laid the tracks linking Boston and Sandwich in 1848, and by 1873, it had pushed all the way to Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod. As the Cape gained popularity with vacationers, more railroad connections were made to New York, Connecticut and other parts of Massachusetts. Passenger service ceased in 1937; transport freight hung on until the mid-1960s. By 1978, the trail was in place, and vacationers once again hit the corridor—this time on foot, inline skates and bicycles.
Near its western trailhead in South Dennis, the trail is at its busiest. The first 4 miles offer ample opportunities to picnic, indulge in ice cream or detour to other trails and towns. From a large, unique bicycle rotary in Harwich, the Old Colony Rail Trail continues through Harwich and the Hacker Wildlife Sanctuary and ends in Chatham. The beautifully landscaped rotary doubles as a gateway to the rest of the Cape Cod Rail Trail, providing a picnic area and trail information kiosks.
Heading north from the rotary, you'll soon be sailing along busy US 6 past glacial ponds. Along the way, you can pop into a quaint general store for a refreshment or take a break at a trailside picnic table. At the trail midpoint near mile 11, you'll reach Nickerson State Park, which offers swimming pools, picnic areas, walking and biking trails and restrooms. The forested trail here makes for a shady, cool ride.
Past Nickerson, the trail breaks and continues along the road for about 0.5 mile and crosses a bridge before rejoining the corridor into the delightful town of Orleans. Boasting a range of restaurants and specialty stores, Orleans is a good place to stop for lunch. Also, watch for the trailside water fountain and bike rental shop.
As you approach mile 16 along the Cape Cod National Seashore, be on the lookout for the Salt Pond Visitor Center. The remaining miles of the corridor are lightly forested in trees and shrubs that have adapted to drier, sandier conditions. This stretch offers public camping facilities and coastal overlooks.
At trail's end, the South Wellfleet trailhead provides a parking area and basic restroom. The town itself occupies a narrow strip of the cape, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Cod Bay. It's well worth continuing another mile on LeCount Hollow Road to Maguire Landing Beach, where you can look for shells, take a dip in the Atlantic or simply enjoy the rewarding ocean view.
Continuing all along the Eastern Seaboard is the East Coast Greenway of which the Cape Cod Rail Trail is a part. The vast trail network will one day span 2,900 miles.
The Cape Cod Rail Trail is in the mid-Cape area in southeastern Massachusetts. Free parking is available at several locations, including the trailhead on State Route 134 in South Dennis and the trailhead on LeCount Hollow Road in South Wellfleet. To reach the South Dennis trailhead, take US 6 to Exit 9 and head south on SR 134, past Patriots Square Plaza and Cumberland Farms. The trailhead parking area is on the left about 0.5 mile south of the exit.