Five beautiful places to rejuvenate your soul while social distancing

by Maria Allen

After many weeks of sheltering in place, nothing feels better than taking a peaceful walk in the summer sunshine. Spending time outdoors can have both physical and mental health benefits, boosting your mood and reducing anxiety, which is especially beneficial during a period of elevated stress. If you’re lucky enough to live on Cape Cod or the islands, there is no shortage of great places to go for a hike while staying close to home. Here are a few nearby nature trails that offer breathtaking scenery as well as space for social distancing.

Great Island in Wellfleet

The tides are constantly shifting the sands of Cape Cod and this is particularly evident at Great Island in Wellfleet. Part of Cape Cod National Seashore, this peninsula was an actual island until the 1830s. Eventually, buildup of sediment reconnected Great Island with the mainland. The strip of land juts into Cape Cod Bay like an arm protecting the western edge of Wellfleet Harbor.

The Great Island Trail is eight miles long, round-trip, and features a mix of woodland paths and sandy terrain (walking can be laborious, so this trail is best suited for more serious hikers). A marsh-side trail hugs the beach and passes by a section of the Herring River known as the Gut that offers scenic views of Wellfleet Harbor. Shore birds and armies of fiddler crabs are common sights. The path winds through sand dunes and eventually ends at the Jeremy Point Overlook. There is also a wooded trail route that offers some shade and beautiful scenery. Allow three to five hours to explore the Great Island Trail. Signage is sparse, so be sure to bring a map.

Directions: Corner of Griffin Island and Chequessett Neck Road. From Route 6, follow green signs to Wellfleet Center; turn left onto East Commercial Street (follow signs to Wellfleet Harbor); continue along the shoreline from town pier via Chequessett Neck Road to the Great Island parking area. For updated trail information, visit nps.gov.

Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail in Wellfleet

Walking through the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail in Wellfleet is an enchanting experience. Located within one of the largest remaining white cedar swamps on Cape Cod (many were cut down in the 19th century to be turned into cranberry bogs), this trail offers a cooler, shadier alternative to many hiking spots in the region.

Situated within the Cape Cod National Seashore, the trailhead is a stone’s throw from the historic Marconi Site (named for Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor who sent the first public two-way wireless communication between Europe and America in 1903). Standing in the parking lot you can hear the loud roar of the Atlantic Ocean just beyond the nearby bluff and smell the salt in the air. The 1.2-mile trail loop begins as a sandy path that leads downhill, past twisted scrub pines and into a mature woodland. Eventually, hikers reach a thick grove of cedar trees and begin following a wide boardwalk that winds between tree trunks in a serpentine-like fashion. The air is damp and the lighting is dim. Pools of water collect between the trees and green moss covers the mounded tree roots, creating an otherworldly effect. The trail returns via the historic “Wireless Road” (a sand road) back to the starting location.

Directions: 195 Marconi Station Road. At the stop light, turn east off Route 6 into the Marconi Station Area, South Wellfleet. Follow brown signs to the Marconi Site and White Cedar Swamp. For more information, visit nps.gov.

Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, Chatham

Stretching for eight miles off the elbow of Cape Cod, Chatham’s Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge is made up of the barrier islands of North and South Monomoy, Minimoy Island and 40 acres of Morris Island, where the refuge headquarters and visitor station are located. Managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, this 7,604-acre sanctuary was established to provide important nesting and feeding habitat for many endangered species of migratory birds, such as the federally protected piping plover. A 0.75-mile walking trail on Morris Island, offers a glimpse at the wild beauty and unique habitats found here (North and South Monomoy islands are only accessible by boat).

The coastal landscape at the Morris Island Trail supports an amazing diversity of wildlife and plant species. Hikers can spot songbirds, shorebirds, horseshoe crabs, and the occasional seal. Refer to informative panels along the trail to learn more about various examples of flora and fauna. The second trail marker is Island Lookout Point, where hikers can gaze out at South Beach, managed and owned by the town of Chatham, and also see North and South Monomoy Islands in the distance. From August to October, the salt marshes near the Morris Island Trail turn purple with blooming sea rocket and lavender. Watch as shorebirds scurry to the water’s edge to gather food and quickly rush back to their nests in the nearby grasses. Trails are open from dawn to dusk.

Directions: Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters, 30 Wikis Way Chatham. Take Route 6 East to State Route 137 South, to State Route 28 East. Take Route 28 East to the rotary. Take the Main Street exit, up the hill to Shore Road. Turn right and proceed past Chatham Lighthouse. Bear left after lighthouse onto Morris Island Road. Follow Morris Island Road to signs for the refuge on the left, on Wikis Way. Limited parking is available at the visitor center. For more information, visit fws.gov/refuge/Monomoy/.

Menemsha Hills Reservation in Chilmark

Managed by the Trustees of Reservations, Menemsha Hills Reservation is located on the northern side of Chilmark, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. The 211-acre nature preserve features a variety of coastal habitats, a mile-long rocky shoreline and sandy bluffs overlooking Vineyard Sound. 

There are three-miles of trails (two interconnected loops) that lead across marshes, woodlands, and windswept hills. Along the way, hikers pass large boulders, called erratics, that were dropped approximately 22,000 years ago when the land was being shaped by glaciers. Follow the path to the top of Prospect Hill, the second-highest point on the Vineyard, and you’ll be able to see clear across to the Elizabeth Islands. The trail eventually leads to the coast, where scrub pine trees and beach plum bushes help to anchor the sand on the seaside cliffs. The trail ends at a staircase that leads down to a rocky beach. This reservation is open year-round, sunrise to sunset. Allow a minimum of 11/2 hours for your visit.

Trail Advisory: The eastern half of the Harris Loop is temporarily closed. To access the reservation, take the Western half to the base of Prospect Hill and proceed from there. 

Directions: From State Road in West Tisbury, turn right onto North Road toward Chilmark and follow for 4.7 miles. The trail entrance and parking (20 cars) are located just past Tabor House Road, on the right. For more information and to download a trail map, visit thetrustees.org.

The Knob in Woods Hole

Tucked down a quiet residential street in the village of Woods Hole, the Knob is a narrow peninsula of protected land situated between New Bedford and the Elizabeth Islands that provides spectacular views of Quissett Harbor and Buzzards Bay. Originally a gift of Cornelia Carey, the 12-acre conservation area is now managed by Salt Pond Areas Bird Sanctuaries, a small private, nonprofit conservation organization. Access to the Knob is on property of the Quissett Harbor House Land Trust, Inc. A 0.8-mile long path travels along scenic marshland, forest, and the rocky shoreline.

Near the beginning of the trail, along the inner harbor, Little Sandy Beach is an ideal spot for small children to play in the shallow water and look for shells. On the Buzzard’s Bay side, there are access points to Crescent Beach, which is a good place to stop to take in the view. The outermost point of the trail is the Knob Lookout, where visitors can stand atop a platform of large stones and take in the panoramic views (make sure young children stay away from the edge). On a clear day you can see New Bedford in the west, the entrance to the Cape Cod Canal to the north, and the Elizabeth Islands to the south. This picturesque land preserve offers travelers the perfect escape from crowds. The Knob Trail is relatively narrow, but it’s very limited parking area helps ensure that there are never too many people traversing the trail at one time. The Knob is open to the public from dawn to dusk for bird watching, strolling, beach combing, and swimming.

Directions: 36 Quissett Harbor Rd., Falmouth. Limited parking is available at the end of Quissett Harbor Road. For more information, visit saltpondsanctuaries.org/the-knob.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVHPSs587K8

Dos and Don’ts of Hiking Safely

Do download a trail map to bring with you and be sure to check trail websites and social media pages before you leave for current information on restrictions.

Do carry water, insect repellent, hand sanitizer, and a face mask. *Massachusetts residents are required to wear a face covering when outdoors, if they cannot remain at least six feet away from others. Since summertime is a popular time for hikers to hit the trails, do your part to keep yourself and others safe.

Do follow trail etiquette. If you are on a narrower trail, it is okay to step off the trail to let people pass. If you’re approaching someone, let them know you’re coming and take turns using bridges or boardwalks.

Do respect the environment. Pay attention to signs marking delicate habitat, such as eroding dunes, and carry out whatever you carry in. Remember to take only memories and leave only footprints.

Do avoid coming in contact with poison ivy, which often grows in the sandy soil. Remember the phrase, leaves of three, let them be.

Don’t travel out of state. Instead, visit less-trafficked trails, parks, and forests that are close to home.

Don’t congregate in large groups and remember to remain six feet apart from others on the trail.

Don’t leave your house if you exhibit symptoms of illness.

Don’t forget to “go” before you leave the house. At this time, most park facilities, including public restrooms, remain closed.

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