By Ellen Cliggott
If you’re a nature lover or a fan of wildlife, the Cape is a fantastic destination for you! From the canal to Provincetown, multiple organizations offer a variety of nature experiences. The beauty of the natural world that surrounds us is a vital part of Cape Cod culture and is here for everyone to enjoy.
Start your nature trip at the Cape Cod Canal! The National Marine Life Center (NMLC) in Buzzards Bay is a nonprofit marine animal hospital and science and education center. Visit NMLC’s Marine Animal Discovery Center and learn about Cape Cod marine life and the work it does to rehabilitate seals and sea turtles. See amazing specimens like whale vertebrae, baleen, seal pelts, turtle skulls, and the tools used in the marine animal hospital. You can even watch current patients receive care and recover on a TV broadcast live from the hospital.
The 300 Committee Land Trust in Falmouth safeguards natural resources and connects people with nature, preserving more than 2,500 acres of open space. The 300 Committee offers fun and informative nature walks and presentations on the wildlife of the Upper Cape. Download over 20 trail maps and explore ponds, rivers, farms, and conservation lands.
Must See in Falmouth: The Knob
The Knob, a unique, tiny peninsula located in Woods Hole, offers nature walks, birding, beaches, marshes, and spectacular views. On a clear day, you can stand at the top of the Knob and see not only Quissett Harbor and Buzzards Bay, but also New Bedford to the west, the canal entrance to the north, and the Elizabeth Islands to the south. Take a rest on the granite bench commemorating Cornelia Carey, the landowner who donated the Knob property as conservation land.
The Barnstable Land Trust stewards over 1,100 acres in the Town of Barnstable. You can visit the Barnstable Land Trust Conservation Center on Route 6A in West Barnstable, where the trail features views of the Great Marsh, Sandy Neck, and Cape Cod Bay. Over in Cotuit, Eagle Pond Sanctuary is open for walks and hikes, trail running, swimming, fishing, ice skating in winter, canoeing and kayaking, dog walking (on leashes), nature study, observation, and photography.
From Barnstable Harbor, take a whale watch cruise with professional naturalists. The Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises boat was designed without external propellers to protect whales and other marine life. Frequently seen whales include humpbacks, fin, and minkes, and dolphins are often seen as well. The cruise crosses Cape Cod Bay to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, off Provincetown.
Hike, Kayak, Boat Cruise, and Sunset Watching
Sandy beaches, butterfly-filled meadows, woodland trails, and farm animals combine to make Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary in Barnstable a unique experience. Gentle, varied trails lead to a stunning view of Barnstable Harbor and the dunes of Sandy Neck. Explore the expansive tidal flats or visit Long Pasture for a kayak tour, boat cruise, or family nature program.
To watch – or paint! – the sunset on Cape Cod, Gray’s Beach in Yarmouth Port is an ideal location on Cape Cod Bay. Gray’s features a charming boardwalk and the perfect light at sunset. Another option for sunset watching is Mayflower Beach in Dennis. Check the tides and spend an evening walking out on the tidal flats, teeming with crustaceans, sea birds, and other wildlife.
Further east on Route 6A in Brewster, the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History has two floors of exhibits exploring the coast of Cape Cod, the native animals and habitats, and an aquarium that is a microcosm of the Cape with salt, brackish, and freshwater specimens. The museum also offers films, lectures and workshops, and archaeological exhibits showing 8,000 years of human activity here on Cape Cod. Plus, the museum is surrounded by 300 acres, with nature trails meandering through woodland, salt marsh, and along the shore of Cape Cod Bay.
Seals and Sharks!
If you want to see Cape Cod’s enormous seal population, Monomoy Island Excursions in Harwich Port will take you out to the barrier island and wildlife refuge off the coast of Chatham where thousands of seals have made their home. A trained naturalist narrates the tour as you view harbor seals and gray seals, as well as some of Monomoy’s hundreds of bird species and other wildlife. Your trip through scenic harbors and Nantucket Sound gives you a feel for the seafaring life.
The nonprofit Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC) Shark Center in Chatham offers an in-depth look at the magnificent and misunderstood great white shark. Through interactive exhibits, videos, and displays, the Shark Center offers many ways to learn about one of Cape Cod’s most captivating – and famous – summer residents. The center also offers a “receiver” excursion, in which you get to bring up a shark receiver and analyze the data to find out if any tagged white sharks have passed nearby. Spend an hour cruising Chatham Harbor and exploring the sandbars where gray seals haul out, looking for evidence of a predation. You can also book a private white shark excursion, an opportunity to witness the apex predators in their natural habitat and get a close-up understanding of AWSC’s efforts to study the species.
The Cape Cod National Seashore is a national treasure, with over 44,000 protected acres, from Chatham to Provincetown. Located in Eastham, Salt Pond Visitor Center features a museum, emphasizing the cultural themes represented on Cape Cod, including the First People, the Wampanoag; European settlement culture; fishing, lifesaving, and lighthouses; and more. Nearby are the popular Nauset Marsh Trail, the Nauset Bicycle Trail, and the Buttonbush Trail, a .25-mile multi-sensory trail featuring a guide rope and text panels printed in large lettering and Braille, as well as discovery activities. The Cape Cod National Seashore offers guided tours and walks, lectures and other education programs, and fun events.
Overlooking Wellfleet Harbor, Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary provides a beautiful place to walk with wonderful views. Extensive trails bring you to a panoramic salt marsh, sandy barrier beach, and pine woodlands, each attracting a wide array of wildlife. The sanctuary features a universally accessible trail and an award-winning “green” nature center with numerous exhibits and aquariums.
Provincetown, A Nature Lover’s Delight
As you head to the end of the Cape, stop near Provincetown for one more trail walk. Among the many walks at the Cape Cod National Seashore, Sand Dune Trail is a 2.4-mile loop that offers the chance to see wildlife. It’s ideal for hiking and bird watching.
Provincetown, the closest port to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, offers another chance to go whale watching. Dolphin Fleet Whale Watches have been committed to promoting responsible whale watching since 1975, with the owner participating in the development of whale watch guidelines and designing a captain’s training program to safely work around whales in their natural habitat. Dolphin Fleet features experienced naturalists and offers a guarantee that you’ll see whales.
The Center for Coastal Studies SEA SPACE Marine Discovery Center, located in Provincetown’s Whaler’s Wharf, is just steps away from the beach. SEA Space offers interactive exhibits and fun, guided activities for kids and adults led by dedicated educators. The nonprofit Center for Coastal Studies works to understand and protect our coastal communities and marine ecosystems, and offers marine education programs that incorporate the cutting-edge research of CCS scientists.
The Cape’s natural wonders are here waiting for you to explore on a day trip or a vacation getaway, whether you want to do it on foot, by boat, by car, or by bike. You can also take advantage of many opportunities to learn more about the extraordinary land, water, and wildlife that make Cape Cod such a special place.
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