Massachusetts’ Cape Cod Rail Trail

Posted 07/06/17 by Laura Stark in America's Trails, Trail Use

Photo courtesy The Shared Experience | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Trail of the Month: July 2017

The trail is part of the culture here.

Nestled in an iconic vacation destination about 75 miles down the coast from Boston, the flavor of the Cape Cod Rail Trail is pure summertime: sun-warmed beaches, sparkling waves, refreshing swimming holes and state park campsites nestled among the pines and oaks. The paved rail-trail rolls 22 miles through Massachusetts’ southeastern peninsula and into the Cape Cod National Seashore, connecting half a dozen New England towns full of 17th-century charm.

Photo by TrailLink.com/matthewlupoli

“The trail is part of the culture here,” says Glenn Cannon, director of technical services at the Cape Cod Commission, a regional planning agency. “It’s amazing when you’re on the Cape Cod Rail Trail and you see that every house has a path to the trail because so many people are using it. They can go from their homes right to the trail.”

With plentiful bike shops, restaurants and other amenities dotting the route, it’s easy for families to customize their experience into smaller trips. While its sandy beaches justifiably garner much of the attention, the more tranquil and wooded areas of the trail are no less worthy of exploration. Dan Driscoll, director of recreation facilities planning for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages the trail, enjoys its middle section between the communities of Brewster and Orleans. Here, the trail winds by freshwater ponds and marshlands, and through Nickerson State Park with, opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing and other activities.

Photo by TrailLink.com/matthewlupoli

“When people come to Cape Cod, they want to be outside,” says Cannon. “We believe that there’s a thriving green economy here. The Cape Cod Rail Trail is another reason to come. It provides a way to relax and enjoy being outdoors.”

At the northern tip of the rail-trail is the expansive Cape Cod National Seashore, known for its pristine beaches and picturesque lighthouses. With thousands of acres of land preserved since the park’s creation in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, Driscoll calls it “a timeless place.” 

The pathway continues through the national park to its end in Wellfleet, nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Cod Bay. The maritime town is famed for its oysters, and celebrates them with a two-day OysterFest each October. Plans are in motion to extend the trail north another mile and half to Wellfleet Center, a historical district and retail area known for its artisan shops and galleries. Driscoll estimates that the design work for the project will get underway this fall.

Photo by TrailLink.com/dj123_45

Although not yet accessible from the rail-trail, an excursion to nearby Provincetown is worthwhile. Located a few miles farther up the cape, where the land curls into a beckoning finger, history buffs may recognize the spot as the landing site of the Mayflower in 1620. Pilgrim Monument, a 252-foot-tall granite tower, commemorates the occasion.

The trail corridor itself dates back to the mid-1800s, when the Old Colony Railroad Company began laying tracks between Boston and the popular summer resort communities on Cape Cod. With the later growth of automobile traffic, passenger train service declined and eventually ended, though the tracks continued to be used for freight until the mid-1960s.

Construction of the rail-trail began in the late 1970s, and its first 19 miles opened in 1981. Another 3 miles opened in 1995, bringing the trail to its current length. A beloved asset for more than three decades, the rail-trail is still growing and will play a central part in a plan to develop an interconnected, off-road trail system spanning 88 miles across the entire cape, a project known as Vision 88. Other existing trails in the network include the incredibly scenic Shining Sea Bikeway, the Cape Cod Canal Bikeway, which runs between Cape Cod Bay and Buzzards Bay, and the Old Colony Rail Trail, which directly connects to the Cape Cod Rail Trail in Harwich.

“Vision 88 is very new, but we’re excited about it,” says Cannon. “A lot of it has been done already; now we’re just closing up these gaps so there’s one continuous path. We have 6 miles under construction and 10 miles under design. More is planned but [is] in need of funding.”

Gov. Baker attends the Route 134 bridge celebration. | Courtesy Massachusetts Dept. of Conservation and Recreation

Just last month, a celebratory event was hosted at a bike and pedestrian bridge being built over Route 134 in Dennis by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. The new bridge, which is anticipated to open this September, is part of a 3.7-mile extension to the rail-trail that’s being built through Yarmouth in three phases. In a remarkable show of support, a number of the state’s top officials were there, including Gov. Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Gov. Karyn Polito, who jointly announced a 60 percent increase to the state’s Recreational Trails Program budget, from $1.1 million to $1.8 million.

The Route 134 bridge celebration was attended by Gov. Baker. | Courtesy Massachusetts Dept. of Conservation and Recreation

“Trails like the Cape Cod Rail Trail provide countless benefits to those who use them and the communities that support them, whether it’s access to open space and waterfronts, reduced congestion and carbon emissions, or opportunities to enjoy healthy recreational activity,” stated Gov. Charlie Baker in a press release for the event. “We are committed to working with our municipal partners to make the investments that can maintain and expand these vibrant assets for generations to come across the Commonwealth.”

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