Prior to 1848, Cape Cod was rather difficult to access, with visitors only able to traverse by boat or stagecoach, limiting tourism and the ability to make a home on the island. Once the first railroad tracks were laid, connecting Boston and Sandwich, life on the Cape changed completely. By 1873, extensions on this railway connected Boston to Provincetown and tourists starting flocking to the Cape in droves, making it the premier summer vacation destination.
With the invention of the automobile and the construction of bridges for automobiles, the train soon lost its status, and by the 1960s service was discontinued and most of the rails were torn away. Today, a former right of way for the railroad has become a popular path system for hikers, bikers, and even horseback riders, offering an opportunity for a glimpse of historic Cape life. This path is called the Rail Trail.
Stretching out over 22 miles and through six different Cape towns (Dennis, Harwich, Brewster, Orleans, Eastham, and Wellfleet), the Rail Trail is a popular tourist destination spot on Cape Cod. The flat paved surface makes it easy for people of all physical activity levels to traverse and often you will see inline skaters, mothers pushing strollers, and people in wheel chairs traversing its length. A limited number of hand bikes for the disabled are available to rent, in addition to bikes, on the off chance you haven’t brought your own.
Along the trail, you will find many beach access points, concession stands, and public restrooms. On occasion, you will even see bits and pieces of railway relics; most have been torn up or torn down, but some have managed to survive. The opportunity to get out of a car and really experience the Cape in all its glory is one that should not be missed. Make a day out of it, possibly ending with a picnic on the beach as you watch the majestic beauty of a Massachusetts sun setting over the waters. It won’t get much better than this!
Rules of the Road
You’re sharing this trail with a large segment of the population, so please be courteous. Hikers and walkers should stay to the unpaved shoulder; it’s wide and there is plenty of room for everyone. Dogs on a short leash are allowed, just be sure to clean up any messes. Stay off private property, carry out whatever you carry in, and if you are on a bike, helmets are required. The trail is open from dawn to dusk, so if you are planning a sunset beach trip, make it for one at the end of the trail. And finally, have fun! There is no better way to enjoy the beauty of the Cape than a journey along the Rail Trail.
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Photo By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10567938