Get outside and embrace “open air life” this winter with these scenic hikes suggested by local experts.

by Kelly Chase

The chilliest, darkest days of the year are upon us, but perhaps this year more than others, there are enough reasons to approach the season with a new frame of mind. Take, for example, Scandinavia. The region experiences frigid temperatures and short days, but the population reports some of the lowest cases of seasonal depression. So, what’s their secret? It could be friluftsliv, which roughly translates to “free air life” or “open air life.” The Norwegian concept is about finding cold-weather activities to enjoy and getting outside even in bad weather.

Stepping into nature regularly has proven benefits from increasing vitamin D levels to boosting endorphins and reducing stress. Cape Codders and Islanders know this, and as a result there’s been an increase in foot traffic on area trails. “More people are getting out there and finding space and refuge in nature, which is absolutely amazing because nature is proven to have healing qualities to it,” says Amy Henderson, executive director of Brewster Conservation Trust. “By spending just 20 minutes outside, it is really helpful and healing.” 

The same nature-induced benefits apply during the winter months, but when the wind chill is up, it can be hard to find the motivation. But don’t lose faith—sometimes the appropriate gear is all it takes. “As they say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” says Ian Ives, sanctuary director at Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary in Barnstable, who adds that the protected trails on the Cape and islands are some of the region’s best kept secrets, especially in winter. “There’s no safer place to be than a wildlife sanctuary right now,” says Ives. “Give it a try, get outdoors, get your endorphins going, you’ll feel more alive, and if you give it a shot, you might just connect with nature in ways you didn’t know before.”  

As daylight hours wane and temperatures drop on the Cape and islands this season, join us as we aim to embrace a spirit of open air living. Here are 20 trails that are open all year long. 

Outer Cape

Overlooking Wellfleet Harbor, Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is a destination for any season. The sanctuary’s waterfront location lends itself to stunning views, and also means that snowfall doesn’t stick around for long, which leaves the trails accessible for winter walks. There are five miles of trails that cross through salt marsh, sandy barrier beach, and pine woodlands. 

The Bay View Trail is my favorite in the winter,” says Christine Bates, visitor experiences and community outreach coordinator at the sanctuary. The trail is the longest in the sanctuary and is carved through pine and oak woodlands. “The trail is elevated so it has some nice expansive views over a large salt marsh and Cape Cod Bay.” A few years ago, when temperatures dipped so low that slushy waves rolled and ice chunks floated through the bay, the trail offered an interesting vantage point. “You could see the shiny, big chunks of ice out there,” recalls Bates. 

A shorter trek is the Goose Pond Trail, which is 1.4 miles and winds through a variety of habitats from salt marshes to heavily wooded portions and finishes at the sandy barrier beach on Cape Cod Bay. Roads and parking lots are open and plowed throughout the season. Check in at the nature center and remember to bring money for admission if you aren’t a Mass Audubon member. 

If you go…

Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, 291 State Highway, Route 6, South Wellfleet, massaudubon.org 

Lower Cape

Weather depending, all of Nickerson State Park’s trails are accessible to cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and fat-tire biking. The trails are also ideal for winter walks. The main park roads and parking lots are open and plowed in the winter. After a good snowfall, snowshoers can head out along Deer Park Trail, Cedar Trail, and Ober Trail. Cliff Pond is one of the longest hikes in the park at 3.5 miles, and it wraps around the pond that was formed by glaciers thousands of years ago. “Along Cliff Pond, there are a number of hidden alcoves that are really beautiful,” says Eric Levy, park superintendent at Nickerson, who adds that the trail and park also offer plenty of opportunities for observing wildlife. Most recently, two bald eagles have been spotted and named Ellie and Earl. 

Levy reminds those who are visiting the park to carry out what they’ve carried in, keep dogs on leashes, dress warm, bring water, and follow mask-wearing and social-distancing guidelines. Visit the sanctuary’s website and review the trail system before heading out. Winter may be chillier, but Levy says it’s worth it to get outside and breathe in the fresh air. “We’re a sanctuary. This is what Cape Cod looks like without homes and neighborhoods, there are kettle ponds and snow clinging to white pines,” he says. “The quiet and the serenity offer a stillness and a break from busy Cape Cod life.”

Amy Henderson, executive director of the Brewster Conservation Trust, recommends the Eddy Bay Trail on Lower Road in Brewster. “It’s a nice wooded trail through a white pine grove,” she says. “There’s a holly grove towards the end and a beautiful bluff that overlooks Cape Cod Bay.” When the white pines are dusted with snow, it’s particularly magical. The one-mile loop is a popular choice and has a rewarding view from atop the last wild bluff on the Brewster coast. “Any time of day is beautiful, but it’s a really great place to catch the sunset,” says Henderson. 

Close by Sheep Pond is a 152-acre freshwater pond that is considered one of the cleanest in Brewster. Sheep Pond Woodland is a 1.3-mile trail that leads to a kettle marsh and old cranberry bog, which is connected to the waterway. The quiet loop passes through oak and pitch pine forest.

If you go…

Nickerson State Park, Flax Pond Road,
508-896-3491, Brewster, mass.gov

Eddy Bay Trail, Lower Road
(past the Community Garden and Eddy Sisters Trail entrance), Brewster, brewsterconservationtrust.org

Sheep Pond Trail, Intersection of
Route 137 and Underpass Road, Brewster, brewsterconservationtrust.org

Mid Cape

The 110-acre Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary’s 2.5 miles of trails, including Harbor Overlook Trail and Beck Family Trail are open to hikers, cross country skiers, and snowshoers. “There’s a patchwork of interconnected trails that make their way through all sorts of habitats,” says Ian Ives, sanctuary director at Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary. Among the habitats, Ives points out Sandy Neck Barrier Beach as well as tidal flats, salt marshes, open pastures, and pollinator pastures, all of which are home to a variety of wildlife. “In the winter months, this is a great site to come and look out at Barnstable Harbor where there are huge flocks of wintering ducks that are looking for open water that’s not frozen over.” Ives mentions scoters, eiders, pintail ducks, wood ducks, loons, and owls. On a daytime expedition, hikers can search the snow for tracks of other animals like weasels, otters, fisher cats, and mink.

For a scenic walk, head to Barnstable Great Marsh, where trails have views of Barnstable Harbor and Sandy Neck Barrier Beach and its salt marsh. Keep an eye out on Otter Trail, where otters are most likely to be spotted in February and March. “This is a popular spot for owls,” says Ives, who adds that the 1.3 miles of trails pass through shady oak woodlands and trace the edges of two open ponds. Walkers might also find sea turtles making their way into the ocean. Sometimes the turtles get stuck, and if you come across a stranded turtle, call Mass Audubon (508-362-7475). The team rescues turtles and brings them to the New England Aquarium for rehabilitation. 

If you go…

Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary, 345 Bone Hill Road, Barnstable, massaudubon.org 

Barnstable Great Marsh, 244 West Main Street, Barnstable, massaudubon.org

Upper Cape

Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary in East Falmouth is home to over 1,000 American holly trees. Naturalist Wilfrid Wheeler, who owned the property in the early twentieth century, planted over 50 varieties. “In the fall and winter, the berries on the female trees come into full glory with bright red, yellow, and oranges berries,” says Ian Ives, who added that Wheeler propagated and sold the trees across the region, so chances are if there’s a holly tree on the Cape, it came from Ashumet Holly. The sanctuary has six trails including the Mystery Tree Trail and the Ashumet Farm Trail. “The sanctuary is smaller, but it’s a bundle of awesomeness with open fields, pitch pine forests, coastal habitats, playing ponds, and kettle ponds,” says Ives. Along the Grassy Pond Trail, is a Franklinia, a rare tree that no longer grows in the wild, but blooms inside the sanctuary every fall.

If you go…

Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary, Ashumet Road, East Falmouth, massaudubon.org

Nantucket

“Winter out on Nantucket means lots of wind,” says Neil Foley, Interpretive Education Coordinator and Ecologist at Nantucket Conservation Foundation, who guides walkers and others who are looking to embrace friluftsliv toward places that are more protected. Squam Farm and Squam Swamp are home to some of the oldest forests on the island, nearing 100 to 150 years old. Squam Farm has 1.8- and 2.1-mile loops through retired pasture. “An excellent spot for a stroll even when the winds howl and winter sets in,” says Foley. The trail connects to Squam Swamp Trail, which is a 1.8-mile walk through freshwater, spring-fed wetlands, and vernal pools of the eastern side of the island. “The striking shapes of the tupelos and beech trees will make you forget that you’re 30 miles out to sea,” he says.

Walk through retired cranberry bogs, hardwood forests, shrub swamps, and freshwater ponds at Windswept Bog and Stump Pond. Foley recommends the Easterly Edge Trail, a 3.2-mile trail around the freshwater wetland, Stump Pond. “Narrow forested paths, raised boardwalks, and places of quiet reflection make this trail a great way to spend a weekend of exploration,” says Foley. Nearby, the Middle Moors conserves over 3,200 acres of land and there are a variety of trail systems carved throughout. “Take the winding and hilly Meandering Firebreak Loop, which is 4.9 miles, over the exposed hillsides and hidden kettle ponds of this glacial landscape,” he says. Another option is Folger’s Hill Loop, a 3.4-mile steady climb to the second highest point on the island. 

Chances are the trail head that includes Sanford Farm and Ram Pasture will be busy with morning joggers and dog walkers. Be sure to maintain six feet apart and bring a mask. The North Look is a quick 1.7-mile loop while the Ocean Walk is 5.8 miles and treks to the south shore of the island. “Make sure to stop at the Sanford Barn overlook to see sprawling views of Hummock Pond and Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s permanently protected grasslands and outwash plains along Nantucket’s south shore,” says Foley. ACKTrails is free on iOS and Android has over 40 trails from 13 properties, and the app has additional information for hikes such as ecology, history, and current science and stewardship information. 

If you go…

Squam Farm, Squidnet Road, nantucketconservation.org
Windswept Bog and Stump Pond, Polpis Road,
nantucketconservation.org

Sanford Farm and Ram Pasture, Madaket Road,
nantucketconservation.org

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