When you think of Cape Cod, visions of sandy beaches and summer often come to mind. Yet, long after the crowds and traffic have departed, this famed sandy peninsula offers another, less-known treat in the form of foliage displays that last into November, featuring an array of natural communities that are uncommon elsewhere in New England.
Cape Cod’s forests have made a remarkable recovery after being cleared by early settlers; in his mid-19th century visits, Henry David Thoreau described a barren landscape devoid of mature trees. Much of the fertile soil that supported a variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers was stripped away, so it will be a long time before these woods regain their original richness. The predominant species now include scrub oaks and pitch pines, which are well-adapted to the sandy, acidic soils. Familiar foliage trees such as beech and maple thrive in rich, well-drained pockets. Adding additional waves of color are high-bush blueberries and marsh grasses.
Peak foliage on Cape Cod generally occurs in late October (or even early November in some places), several weeks later than in interior upland regions. Because some species such as red maples turn earlier than the oaks and beeches, you may want to plan visits on separate weekends. The hardwood forests and diverse habitats of the following locations offer some of the best viewing potential. Because most of the trails are short and easy, you can visit several in a day or all with an overnight stay. Another off-season advantage is that accommodations are easier to find and less expensive.
South Cape Beach State Park, Mashpee
From vibrant red blueberry bushes to russet marsh grasses, a full range of foliage viewing opportunities presents itself at South Cape Beach State Park. Here trails wind through a variety of habitats, including mixed forests, shrubby thickets, boggy wetlands, marshes, and beaches.
The interior trail network includes a 1.5-mile circuit that may be accessed at two crossings with the main entrance road north of the town parking lot. From the lower crossing, the trail winds through colorful shrubs to views of a marsh, then bears right to cross a paved road and follows wetlands associated with Great Flat Pond and a small bog. The lower marshes are easily viewed from the town parking lot. Contact the park at 508-457-0495 for hunting updates, because some trails may be closed on weekdays and Saturdays.
Directions: From the junction of Routes 28 and 151 at the Mashpee rotary, take Great Neck Road south for 2.7 miles, then continue on Great Oak Road for 2 miles, then left at sign for the park.
Lowell Holly Reservation, Mashpee and Sandwich
The Lowell Holly Reservation encompasses a scenic peninsula between the interconnected Wakeby and Mashpee ponds. The forests here include uncommon groves of large, mature beech trees and native American hollies for which the reservation is named, along with oaks, maples, pines, and birches. This is a good place to visit late in the foliage season, as the displays of the beeches and oaks can last into early November.
From the year-round entrance on South Sandwich Road, the main trail offers an easy 15-minute walk through the forests to a small sand beach at the tip of the peninsula. After crossing the narrow neck, a loop begins, with side trails to Conaumet Point and the peninsula’s southwest arm, where there are views of Mashpee Pond. The full 2.7-mile hike can be completed in 1.5 hours.
Directions: From Route 6 Exit 2, follow Route 130 south for 1.4 miles, left on Cotuit Road for 3.4 miles, right on South Sandwich Road for 0.6 miles.
Nickerson State Park, Brewster
For a true deep-woods Cape experience, Nickerson State Park offers nearly 2,000 acres of forests and glacial kettle ponds that provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, including migratory songbirds, deer, foxes, and coyotes. Once a large private estate, the park today is a popular recreation area with more than 400 campsites. This is one of the largest and most diverse forests on Cape Cod, with a mix of species including white and black oak, red maple, sassafras, pignut hickory, and pitch and white pines.
Hikers have a choice of trails, including loops around Cliff, Little Cliff, and Flax ponds; the former is the longest at 3.25 miles. There are also 8 miles of bicycle trails, including a junction with the 25-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail at the main entrance. In addition, visitors can enjoy the foliage displays from the paved auto roads.
Directions: From Route 6 Exit 12, follow Route 6A west for 1.5 miles to park entrance.
Red Maple Swamp, Cape Cod National Seashore Fort Hill Area, Eastham
The diverse habitats of Fort Hill include an uncommon red maple swamp, where a long boardwalk winds through groves of giant and unusually shaped red maple trees and shrubs that offer layers of colors. Though the size and shape of the maples has the feel of old growth, the swamp, like virtually the entire Cape, was logged by early settlers for firewood. Because red maples change color early, the peak season in the swamp generally occurs around the third week of October.
Many visitors include the swamp boardwalk as part of a 2-mile circuit that also leads to scenic vistas atop Fort Hill, a series of large open meadows, and the historic Penniman House. For a shorter outing, the boardwalk can be directly accessed from Hemenway Road, just north of the main entrance road.
Directions: From the Orleans rotary, follow Route 6 north for 1.3 miles, then right on Governor Prence Road, then right on Fort Hill Road to parking area at road’s end.
Small’s Swamp, Pilgrim Heights, Cape Cod National Seashore
Named for the family that once farmed this land, Small’s Swamp is a wetland in a glacial kettle behind a chain of dunes and marshes. It is especially colorful in mid-October, when maples and shrubs turn bright red. At the base of the kettle is a grove of tall quaking aspens, which are easily distinguished by their white trunks. From the hilltop above the kettle, there are two overlooks with panoramic views across marshes to the ocean.
The 0.75-mile Small’s Swamp Trail begins at a pavilion, where there’s a fine overview of the swamp. It descends into the kettle and follows a boardwalk along the edge of the swamp, then turns near the aspens to make a quick climb to the overlooks. The adjacent Pilgrim Spring Trail offers another short walk to an overlook and the Pilgrim Spring historical site.
Directions: From Truro-Wellfleet town line, take Route 6 north for 7.5 miles, then take Pilgrim Spring exit and continue 0.5 miles to trailhead.
Beech Forest, Cape Cod National Seashore, Provincetown
Nearly hidden amidst the rolling dunes of the Province Lands is a rare grove of mature beech trees that offers a glimpse of Cape Cod’s historic landscape. Prior to European settlement, these forests were much more common on the Cape, but when early settlers cleared the woods, the fertile soils were stripped away, and beech and other species have yet to recover. Complementing the foliage in the hollow are more colorful trees and shrubs that ring adjacent Beech Forest Pond.
An easy 1.1-mile trail offers a loop that follows the shores of the pond to the beech grove. Here the path winds to the top of a knoll, offering an interesting perspective of the forest. A short side path on the east shores of the pond offers views of another wetland. While driving the roads near the visitor center, watch for more colorful shrubs growing atop the dunes.
Directions: From Route 6 in Provincetown, turn right at traffic light on Race Point Road for 0.6 miles to trailhead.