Cape Cod National Seashore | BEACHES AT CAPE COD


Cape Cod National Seashore encompasses the entire Atlantic Ocean coastline of the outer cape of Cape Cod, plus sections of Cape Cod Bay, but not all of the established beaches are run by the National Park Service. There are at least two dozen town-managed beaches on the outer cape, many that are within the National Seashore boundary on federal property. Only six beaches are managed by the National Park Service. While most people visiting Cape Cod make no distinction between the beaches, there is a parking fee for every one of them regardless of which government is involved, so be sure you know which parking passes to purchase in order to enjoy your favorite beaches. Other than that, beach is beach.

Since National Park Planner is a National Park review site, only the six beaches managed by the National Park Service will be discussed.

Coast Guard Beach

Head of the Meadow Beach

Herring Cove Beach

Marconi Beach

Nauset Light Beach

Race Point Beach

You are free to hike the entire coastline within the park in search of the perfect beach, but only established beaches have lifeguards on duty (late June through Labor Day). As mentioned, there is also a fee to use these beaches during the summer season: daily from late June through Labor Day, and on weekends and holidays from Memorial Day through the end of September. Fees are paid at the beaches upon arrival either in cash or by credit/debit card. Prices vary depending on how you arrive. At the time of this writing, fees range from $25/day for vehicle parking to $15/day for those arriving on foot or bike. You can get an annual Cape Cod National Seashore pass for $60, or an annual National Park Pass for $80. Both are valid for access to National Park Service-managed beaches at Cape Cod, while the National Park Pass will also get you into any other National Park that charges an entrance fee. Keep in mind that neither of these passes is good for entry into town-managed beaches, even those within the National Seashore boundary. For the latest prices, visit the National Park Service’s official Fees and Passes web page.

Busy summer day at Cape Cod National Seashore's Coast Guard Beach

Busy summer day at Cape Cod National Seashore’s Coast Guard Beach

While each beach has restrooms, changing rooms, and outdoor rinse-off showers, other than a snack bar at Herring Cove Beach, there are no other amenities. You must bring everything with you—food, drinks, chairs, umbrellas, etc.

Beaches on Cape Cod often find their way onto Top Ten lists of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Now, I’m not going to discount their beauty—with their high dunes and cliffs, they are as pretty as any in the United States—but I don’t go to the beach to paint landscapes. I go to swim, and as far as swimming is concerned, the beaches at Cape Cod are far from the best that I’ve been to, and I’ve been to beaches on every coastal state in America other than Alaska.

The problem is threefold, but most importantly, it’s the geography of the cape that is the main culprit. Cape Cod is comprised of what is known as glacial till, which is the scientific name for small rocks, pebbles, clay, and sand left behind by glaciers over 18,000 years ago. It’s the small rocks and pebbles that can cause problems, though things change each year. In 2015 there were so many rocks on the beaches that kids were building rock castles, and that’s no exaggeration. During a 2021 visit, most of the National Park Service beaches had little to no rocks, which was a big surprise.

Nauset Beach at Cape Cod National Seashore

Nauset Beach at Cape Cod National Seashore

Rock castle built on a beach at Cape Cod National Seashore

Rock castle built on a beach at Cape Cod National Seashore

The people of Massachusetts must have half-inch thick callouses on the bottoms of their feet, or at least they can enjoy themselves without showing any signs of pain. I, on the other hand, spoiled by the soft, sandy beaches of Georgia and Florida, have feet so baby soft that it hurts me just to walk on asphalt. Call me a sissy, but the trek from my beach chair to the water was sheer agony, and to make matters worse, the rocks extend into the water, so there’s no relief once you get in the ocean. If I was wearing my water shoes—mess shoes used to walk in rivers and creeks—the situation would have been much improved, but alas, the thought of wearing them never crossed my mind. It’s a beach, after all.

The second knock against the Cape Cod beaches—and this applies to any beach north of Virginia—is that the water is just damn cold! Summer water temperatures average 69° F (July-September), compared to the low 80s down in Florida. I was at Cape Cod National Seashore on July 24th and the water temperature was 63° (temperatures are posted on bulletin boards at each beach). Prolonged swimming in water between 60° and 70º can result in hypothermia.

The third strike is mainly due to paranoia—and you can probably discount what I’m about to say—but you are bound to see plenty of seals swimming in the water. Of course seals are cute, and spotting them is a big thrill…until you realize what likes to eat them. GREAT WHITE SHARKS! I’m not making this up. There are signs posted on the beaches stating such, and closures for shark sightings are not uncommon. I will admit, however, that when it comes to shark attacks, New England doesn’t come to mind. In fact, the last attack I recall was back in ’75 out at Amity Island! Humor aside, there have only been eleven shark attacks off the coast of Massachusetts since 1900, and only two were fatal: one in 1936 and another in September 2018 off Newcomb Hollow Beach, a public beach within Cape Cod National Seashore (read the scary article on the 2018 attack, The Shark Attack That Changes Cape Cod Forever). However, of the eleven, seven have occurred since 2010, and experts say it may be due to an over abundance of seals, which are now protected and cannot be killed. Regardless, you still have a better chance of being attacked by a seal or a drunk beachgoer than a shark.

Seal surfaces off the shore of Cape Cod

Seal surfaces off the shore of Cape Cod

Sign warning of great white sharks at the beaches of Cape Cod National Seashore

Sign warning of great white sharks at the beaches of Cape Cod National Seashore

Despite all of this, the beaches at Cape Cod are packed during the summer. I suppose that’s simply a matter of convenience, for where else are people in Massachusetts supposed to go swimming? However, all things being equal, I’d rather be on a beach in Florida. Don’t get me wrong, for I love Cape Cod National Seashore. I just don’t care for the beaches, and there are many other activities in the park other than swimming.

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Last updated on February 19, 2024
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