Cape Cod is known for white sand beaches, but spend too much time there and you'll miss the area's rich diversity of habitats. These ecosystems make the Cape a spectacular place to bird-watch and spot local plants and animals. The network of bike trails (many on old railway lines) that lace the region offers green travel at its finest --- a way to enjoy nature without the fossil fuels or fights for parking.
I've lived on the Cape my whole life, and, as a birder, the Shining Sea Bikeway is my top choice for a nature ride. I remember the excitement surrounding the initial development of the trail, which involved turning unused rail tracks in Falmouth (and elsewhere) into working bike trails. Despite initial controversy and opposition, there are now miles of pathway reserved exclusively for non-motorized traffic. Amateur naturalists can see a variety of riparian and woodland habitats by hopping on a beach cruiser bike and hitting the trail with binoculars, a camera and some trusty field guides. (Sunscreen and bug spray won't hurt either.)
Don't expect to have the trails all to yourself. In the decades since these bikeways were created they've become extremely popular, so you're likely to share the path with bikers, inline skaters, joggers and walkers, both tourist and resident. Early morning and late evening will bring you the most peace and quiet and the best chance for bird-watching. On this ride, I didn't strike out until later in the morning, but I was still able to glimpse a fair amount of wildlife.
My trip started in Falmouth Village: first I pedaled south, past the beaches, to nearby Woods Hole, then turned around and headed north, back through Falmouth and up toward the Sippewissett River and the verdant salt marshes. Follow along in the slideshow below.
Beach Biking on Cape Cod
My beach cruiser ride begins with a visit to Corner Cycle, where I’m outfitted with a beach cruiser, helmet and trail map. Tucked into a cedar-shingled “Cape“-style shack in the heart of Falmouth Village, Corner Cycle’s “half day” rate actually covers any return before 6 p.m., leaving plenty of time to enjoy the trail.
A 10-minute ride from Falmouth brings me to gorgeous white sand beaches and the “Shining Sea” that gives the trail its name. Shore birds like plovers, sandpipers and a host of ducks are easy to spot here, as are occasional land-based creatures. Shortly before I snapped this photo a tiny rabbit darted into the bushes from just beside the trail. The lifeguarded part of the beach is private, but there are long stretches of identical, non-guarded public beach along the trail, perfect for sunbathing or checking a few more birds off the Life List.
Just a few hundred yards from my first stop, I pull over again to watch double-crested cormorants sunning themselves on the sea-worn pilings of an old dock. It’s a particularly quaint Cape Cod scene.
Before leaving the beach I take advantage of the chance to get a big cup of icy lemonade at a trailside stand. Nothing beats the heat quite so well, and though it’s not yet noon, it’s already so hot that I’m sweating. This particular seller was hoping to raise money to bring the five living presidents to nearby Otis Air National Guard Base as a fundraiser. My $2 got me a thirst-quenching drink and may eventually help me meet a president!
I could easily stop every 5 minutes along the Shining Sea Bikeway to look at something wild and beautiful. This trailside tangle of wild sweet pea was another 10-minute ride along, close to the Woods Hole end of the route.
Coast Guard cutters rest along with private sailboats at Woods Hole, the terminus of the first leg of my trip. Salt spray rose, also known as Cape rose, a now ubiquitous part of Cape Cod beaches and bays, was introduced here in the Clipper Ship Era when a vessel heading for Boston wrecked on the treacherous shoals off of Provincetown. Among other cargo, it was carrying a few specimens of salt spray rose, a common source of Vitamin C, for a botanical exhibit. Several years later, the first wild plants appeared here.
I arrive at the end of the first leg of my trip: the lovely research town of Woods Hole. A biker zips past the Captain Kidd, one of the favorite local watering holes. A great view of the bay makes it a perfect stop for lunch on a hot day. Spend some time exploring town by visiting the Woods Hole Aquarium or watching the drawbridge between the harbor and Eel Pond go up.
I turn around in Woods Hole and backtrack to Falmouth Village, where I head north on the second leg of my trip. A shady stop beneath an overpass shows a trail-related mural (pictured here), with mosaics on the opposite wall. Jewelweed (a member of the impatiens flower family) lines the shady areas, so thick in places that it’s become the only plant.
A little farther along the trail the trees thin out and I’m treated to lovely salt marsh vistas. I spot an osprey carrying not only a stick to add to a nearby nest, but also a fish in its claws (unfortunately, this angle doesn’t show the fish). These birds of prey were once rare due to the effects of DDT spraying in the 1960s but have made a comeback and are are now abundant -- you can see them soaring over almost any Cape bay, estuary or pond.
I could continue to cycle north, eventually reaching the Cape Cod Canal and its bikeways. But I’m hot, tired and ready to head back. Before I leave, I spend some time taking in the salt marshes along this part of the trail. These are an astonishingly rich breeding ground for all kinds of marine life, from Diamondback terrapin turtles, bass and other game fish to birds and insects. Although building codes have reduced some of development’s threat to these resources, pollution and runoff are a problem. If you value these wetlands as you bike by, consider building or buying in places that won’t pose a threat to the beauty and value of these vital areas.