Road Trip: Cape Cod, Massachusetts -- National Geographic (2022)

  • Travel

Take your time hopping from one clam shack to the next around vintage Cape Cod.

Published September 14, 2010

9 min read

A drive around Massachusetts' vintage Cape Cod serves up miles of beaches, restful resort towns—and, yes, lobster and clam shacks.

There are capes all along the New England coast, but when anyone talks of "the Cape," the meaning is immediately clear. This drive takes in virtually all of Cape Cod: the quiet villages along the bay side, the beautifully desolate dunelands of the outer Cape's national seashore, lively Provincetown, and the busy resorts that face Nantucket Sound.


You'll begin this 160-mile (257-kilometer) circuit at Cape Cod Canal, on the Cape's northern coast, and follow the contour of Cape Cod Bay to the Cape's "elbow." From there you'll drift north to Provincetown, then retrace your way back south to Orleans. You'll proceed farther south to Chatham, then head back west toward the mainland, cruising through Hyannis and Falmouth.

Start in Sagamore

Cross the Sagamore Bridge from the mainland to Cape Cod. The first town will be Sagamore, where the Pairpoint Glass Company carries on the local tradition of hand blowing lead crystal into functional and decorative items. Visitors can watch artisans blow, shape, and finish glassware.


Proceed east from Sagamore to Sandwich, the oldest town on the Cape. Settled by Puritans in 1637, this town flourished in the 19th century as a glass-making center. The many kinds of decorative and table glass—clear and colored, blown and pressed, cut and engraved—made Sandwich famous. The Sandwich Glass Museum preserves much of the best works from all different eras. Reproductions are available in the gift shop. Across Sandwich's tree-shaded village center stands the beautifully preserved Hoxie House, which dates from the 1600s and may very well be the Cape's oldest saltbox house. Also dating from the 17th century, the adjacent water-powered Dexter Grist Mill still turns out delicious stone-ground (organic) cornmeal, which can be purchased on site. On nearby Shawme Pond, the Thornton W. Burgess Museum honors the Sandwich native who wrote The Adventures of Peter Cottontail and other classic animal stories for children. The author's colonial-era home contains early editions, original Harrison Cady illustrations, and a gift shop filled with Burgess books. Set on the manicured grounds of a former estate just outside town, the Heritage Museums and Gardens of Sandwich showcase all kinds of reconstructed historic buildings. Among the many exhibits is a working 1912 carousel, Currier & Ives lithographs, military firearms, and one of the nation's finest collections of classic automobiles. A look at Gary Cooper's 1930 Duesenberg alone is worth the price of admission (and a good deal more).

Yarmouth Port

Proceed east from Sandwich along Sandy Neck beach (off Sandy Neck Road), a splendid barrier beach of low dunes; a 6.2-mile (ten-kilometer) trail leads to the Sandy Neck Light. Back on Mass. Route 6A is Barnstable, settled in 1639 and for years thriving on fish caught in the Great Banks. In the 1800s, scores of sea captains lived in town; many of their houses still stand. Continue to the Yarmouth Port, part of greater Yarmouth. Longtime resident Mary Thacher bequeathed her collection of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century furniture, along with the circa 1780 Winslow Crocker House, to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Nearby, the oriental treasures carried home by its sea captain owner fill the 1840 Greek Revival Captain Bangs Hallet House.

Nickerson State Park

From Yarmouth stay on Mass. Route 6A through Dennis and Brewster, which boasts more 19th-century homes of sea captains. Also here: the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, with exhibits on Cape ecosystems. Continue on to Cape Cod's most expansive inland preserve, Nickerson State Park, encompassing nearly 2,000 acres (809 hectares) of rolling pine forest dotted with freshwater ponds. Options include hiking, fishing, swimming, bike riding; a trail connects to the 22-mile (35-kilometer) Cape Cod Rail Trail.

Cape Cod National Seashore

Proceed through Orleans, which is edged by some of the Cape's best beaches, including Skaket (on the calm bay side)and Nauset (on the ocean side), where bracing Atlantic waters offer excellent surf casting. From here the drive enters scrubby pitch pine and oak forest and a world of lonely beaches, sea cliffs, and dunes. A good portion of this landscape has been preserved as the 44,600-acre (18,049-hectare) Cape Cod National Seashore, with a visitor center at Salt Pond in Eastham. Trails and boardwalks lace 1,100 acres (445 hectares) of pine woods, marshes, and tidal creeks at the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. Whimbrels and yellowlegs are two of the more than 200 species of birds spotted here. Just ahead, an outdoor exhibit at the Marconi Station Site commemorates the clifftop spot where radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first message across the Atlantic in 1903. A Marconi station operated here until 1917; among the signals picked up were distress calls from the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912.


Stay on Route 6 through the quiet town of Truro, then bear left onto Route 6A, the scenic bayside approach to the popular summer resort town of Provincetown. A picturesque jumble of narrow streets, this colonial seaport possesses elements of a Portuguese fishing village. The Pilgrims landed here in 1620 before settling on their final destination of Plymouth. The stop is commemorated by the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, a 252-foot (77-meter) Italian Renaissance granite tower erected in 1910. The spectacular 360-degree view at the top encompasses the Cape's variegated landscapes and the sea beyond. Ship models, whaling equipment, and other maritime artifacts fill the museum near the monument's base. For local history, stop in Provincetown Heritage Museum; there is even a half-scale model of a Grand Banks fishing schooner. Perhaps the most dramatically beautiful portion of the national seashore can be found at nearby Province Lands; its visitors' center offers information. A short climb to the observation deck provides majestic views of dune, village, and sea. Take hiking trails that meander through the dunes, or bike a five-mile (eight-kilometer) loop.


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Leaving Provincetown, the drive follows U.S. 6 toward Orleans. From the traffic circle there take Mass. 6A and Mass. 28 north (though the road actually goes south) to Chatham, at the Cape's outer elbow. Smaller and more sedate than Provincetown, Chatham nevertheless offers plenty of shop and gallery browsing, as well as splendid sea views from the overlook at Chatham Light. Tucked among the 18th- and 19th-century houses of its leafy residential neighborhood is pleasant Chase Park, where you'll find a 1797 gristmill and the historical society's 1752 Atwood House Museum, filled with period furniture, Sandwich glass, seafarer tools—and a series of murals by Alice Stallknecht Wight depicting Chatham people she knew in the early- to mid-1900s.

End in Woods Hole

Leaving Chatham, amble westward alongside Nantucket Sound. In the 1960s, the seaside quarter of Hyannis Port, in the village of Hyannis, became one of the world's most famous addresses. That era is recalled at the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum, which really is an extensive gallery of large-format photographs that capture the 35th president's lifelong romance with the Cape. Kennedy is also remembered at the John F. Kennedy Memorial, a harborside fountain and reflecting pool. Proceed farther west to Falmouth, the Cape's southwesternmost point. Settled by Congregationalists in the 1660s, the town became a whaling and shipbuilding center in the 19th century. Clustered around the classic village green are the 1796 First Congregational Church, with its steeple and Paul Revere bell, and two historic-house museums, the 18th-century Julia Wood House and the Conant House Museum, with mementoes of Katharine Lee Bates, the Falmouth native who wrote the song "America the Beautiful." From Falmouth take Woods Hole Road south to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, founded in 1930 as "the world’s largest private, nonprofit ocean research, engineering and education organization." Its Exhibits Center showcases the various activities and discoveries of its scientists—including a full-size model of the inner sphere of the deep submersible Alvin.

Road Kit

Allow three to four days to enjoy this 160-mile (257-kilometer) circuit, which can be traveled spring through fall, when the seasonal weather is generally temperate and most attractions are open. Note that summer traffic can be heavy, especially on weekends. For more information, contact Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce:; 888 33 CAPECOD.

—Text by Kay and William G. Sheller, adapted from National Geographic’s Driving Guides to America: New England

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