Riding the Rail
Biking on the Cape is a vacation from the ordinary
Its Tuesday morning, 75 degrees and sunny. Ive got the day off from work, a full tank of gas, and a bike in the trunk.
Whats the plan?
My wife and I jumped into the car and headed south from Boston. The destination: Nickerson State Park in the town of Brewster on Cape Cod. The agenda: Biking the second half of the Cape Cod Rail Trail, a 24½-mile paved path (it follows a former railroad right-of-way) that stretches from the mid-Cape town of Dennis (off of Route 134 just south of exit 9 from Route 6) up the arm to Wellfleet.
We weren't brave enough to tackle the entire trail, so we picked Nickerson as our starting point, about 11½ miles into it. I'd recommend you do the same unless you're in great shape. Though the path is relatively flat, I was flat-out exhausted by the end of it, and pretty sore the next day.
Besides, it's a very convenient place to begin. There's ample free parking, and if you're looking to rent a bike for the day (as we were), a small rental shack bumps up against the trail less than a mile from the park.
Barb's Bike and Blade (on Rt. 6A in Brewster; 508-896-7231) rents seven-speed cruisers (that's more than you'll need for this relatively flat trail) for reasonable rates. We spent about five hours biking and paid $16 for a rental. Full-day and weeklong rates are also available. For those interested in biking the entire trail, Barb has another shop near the start in Dennis. The trail is paved the entire route from Dennis to Brewster as well, though there are a few rough patches near Nickerson in Brewster.
The mother-and-son team that runs the shop is friendly and helpful, and their free maps are top notch. If you park at Nickerson, it's worth taking a short detour south to Barb's to grab one (or print one out here). It details virtually every mile marker and identifies places of interest along the route. They're the only paper maps available directly on the trail, which does feature map kiosks along the way. These stands identify nearby landmarks and have helpful "you are here" designations.
The path is paved the entire way from Brewster to Wellfleet, and is uninterrupted save for one stretch in Orleans, where it ends briefly before picking up again about a quarter mile down the road. This detour is well marked. The path crosses many roads along the way, and you're given ample warning (as are cars on the roads) before you need to stop and cross.
The trail is open year-round, but is obviously busier during the summer months. On this bright, sunny, weekday afternoon, there were few bikers around, which made for a smooth ride.
"Weekends are busiest now, but as soon as school gets out you can come here on any cloudy, cool day and we're going to be packed," bike shop operator and lifelong Cape resident Mike Garbitt, 27, told us. "August is our busiest month; we've been known to do a couple hundred rentals in a day."
Before heading out, we packed some snacks and a couple of bottles of water in a backpack. I can't stress enough the importance of having enough water. There aren't any water stations along the route itself (and just two public bathrooms), and we got pretty thirsty.
I'm not really built to wear padded spandex biker shorts, but if I pedaled the trail again I might seriously consider investing in a pair. Five hours on a bike seat is a prescription for pain ... trust me.
The best part about biking the Rail Trail is that you can make it a two-hour high-energy workout or a daylong tour of some of the Cape's most unique destinations. There are plenty of well-marked side trips, not to mention dozens of shops, restaurants and ice cream parlors, all of which welcome bikers with open arms (and bike racks).
Potential off-trail destinations include beaches (don't go into this thinking the trail runs along the beach; you can't see the ocean at any point along the trail from Brewster to Wellfleet.) and historical sites like the Nauset Light and the Salt Pond Visitor Center. All take you onto local roads.
Orleans probably offers the most for side-trippers, with dozens of shops and restaurants lining local roads and beaches nearby.
"As far as Orleans goes," Garbitt said, "you can pretty much just hop on a local road and go any which direction and you're going to hit ocean."
We pedaled north 13 miles straight through on our way to Wellfleet, stopping just a couple of times to rest along the route, which was lined with both the scenic -- foliage, marshes, ponds, dunes -- and the not-so-scenic -- power lines, industrial parks. There was no ticker-tape parade to herald our arrival at the end of the trail, just an empty parking lot, a general store and a porta-potty. Rather boring.
We made a couple of stops on our way back to Nickerson State Park. Our first was at Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, about a two-mile ride off the trail that was surprisingly hilly. The beach was nice, and the dunes were gorgeous. The entry fee for bikers was $3, though there was no one stationed at the entry gate so early in the season.
We next stopped at a famous local eatery, Arnold's (3580 State Highway / Route 6, Eastham; 508-255-2575), which was just off the trail (ask virtually anyone on the path if you're unsure where it is; they'll more than likely know). Arnold's is a must-visit along the bike route; it has a full bar, great seafood, onion rings, homemade ice cream, and even an air pump if your tires get low.
One word of warning, however. I enjoyed a full meal of steamers, a clam strip roll, and a heaping order of onion rings at Arnold's. While it was certainly satisfying, I neglected to take into account the eight miles I had remaining to ride after lunch. With a stomach full of greasy food, those eight miles were torture. Not fun at all. If I had to do it again, I would have ordered something much lighter.
Though the trail is mostly flat, it's more difficult than it would seem, especially on a windy day. With so many trees and plants around, allergies can also be a hindrance at this time of year. Both my wife and I were sneezing and rubbing our eyes by the time we finished.
Remember, don't bite off more than you can chew. If you bike the 13 miles from Brewster to Wellfleet, you also have to pedal another 13 miles back. Side trips are fun, but they can also take a lot out of you. Several of them stretch over the course of a few miles on hilly roads.
Bring a bathing suit as well; there's nothing better than taking a dip at the beach or a local pond after working up a sweat. If you're ambitious, there's a great swimming spot about four miles south of Nickerson State Park at Sheep Pond.
There were all types of folks enjoying the Rail Trail: kids, adults, rollerbladers, walkers, runners, and there's a non-paved path parallel to it that allows horses as well.
My wife and I biked about 30 miles from Brewster to Wellfleet to Marconi Beach and back to Brewster. We were on the path by 11 a.m. and back at the bike shop by 4 p.m. Out our door in Cambridge at 9 a.m. and back home by 6 p.m. Not bad for a day trip, albeit an exhausting one.
Of course, we didn't have to deal with Cape traffic on a Tuesday.