I spent many seemingly endless childhood summers in Cape Cod, Massachusetts at a family lake house. Long humid days were measured in low-tide beach treasure hunts, nature walks in the marshes, coveted trips to the Ice Cream Smuggler for delicious scoops of maple walnut (always in a waffle cone, please and thank you), confounding games of pirate themed mini-golf (never my forte), and lazy mornings with a summer reading book or two. As a city kid, my time in Cape Cod meant the rare opportunity to stay outside with minimal supervision waiting for the fireflies to wake up. It meant sleeping with the window open and listening to crickets instead of honking horns and loud music. It meant time spent without tv, playing board games or doing puzzles. It meant sharing a room with my brother, staying up way too late and giggling at nothing and everything. For me, Cape Cod was the perfect summer paradise, encased in the everlasting glorification of happy childhood memory.
Shortly after college my boyfriend (now husband) and I were adrift looking for the ideal place to settle down. Cape Cod seemed as good a place as any, so we became what the locals call “wash-ashores”. We chose East Falmouth — the tricep on the Cape Cod map locals lovingly display on their flexed left arms — for its accessibility and year-round population and settled into life in one of America’s top tourist destinations. We arrived in the height of summer and fell in love with the constant stream of activity. Festivals, fireworks, outdoor concerts, and trips to the beach became part of the regular routine. I had recently decided to pursue photography professionally and Cape Cod was the perfect artistic incubator for me, providing endless inspiration while I learned, practiced, and built a portfolio.
The summer flew by. The traffic thinned. Public activities were fewer and farther between, and I was introduced to a completely different side of my childhood wonderland. Cape Cod is very seasonal. For workers in the service industry, the off-season can be punishing — many businesses, restaurants, and hotels close, so jobs can be much harder to come by. Add huge snowfalls and bone-chilling yet humid winter days and it would have been easy to become disenchanted. Yet, in the off-season, Cape Cod comes alive photographically. There’s no fighting through crowds at a sunset. Beaches are quiet and contemplative. Cooler temperatures overnight lead to incredible low hanging fog in the marshes and bogs. A totally different energy takes hold. There is so much beauty everywhere you look. What you lose in ice cream and mini-golf, you gain in color, light, and atmosphere. If you’re planning a trip to Cape Cod, consider visiting the off-season and plan to visit some of my favorite photo locations…
Woods Hole & Falmouth
Home to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, this area has year round activity. Small cottages and narrow streets harken back to the original settlement of the area and clearly demonstrate why this region was dubbed New England. The drive along Shore Road offers beautiful views of the Nantucket Sound, and on clear days Martha’s Vineyard seems impossibly close. The coastline is dotted with areas of marsh, osprey nests, and salt ponds, and inland you’ll find scrubby pine forests.
Must-see spots include The Knob, Nobska Lighthouse, Little Island Road, The Cranberry Bogs along Old Barnstable Road, Chappaquoit Beach, Spohr Gardens, and Old Silver Beach.
Yarmouth, Dennis & Brewster
On the bay side, or the bicep of the cape, Yarmouth, Dennis, and Brewster feature warmer waters, calmer surf and an abundance of marshlands. These are my childhood stomping grounds. Good for long walks or drives in golden light, these towns feature some of my favorite photographic locations on the Cape.
Must-see spots include The Boardwalk at Gray’s Beach, low tide at Corporation Beach or Cold Storage Beach, and the trails at the Cape Cod Natural History Museum.
From the elbow of Chatham and Monomoy Island to the northern towns of Orleans, Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown, this part of Cape Cod is far more windswept and feels wilder as a result. The drive along Rt 6 (Cape Cod’s only “highway”) gradually opens up through sandy forests of pine as the peninsula grows narrower and more exposed to the elements. In some portions of the drive (as you reach the upper forearm and wrist of the arm) it seems as though there is only the road separating Cape Cod Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. For that reason, travel in snow and heavy rains is much slower and more treacherous, but well worth the effort for the photographic opportunities. In season or out, Provincetown is one of my favorite places on the Cape. A rugged low-tide hike beginning at Pilgrim’s First Landing Park will lead you across a long breakwater to the very tip of the Cape, where Wood End Light and Long End Beach will reward you.
Must-see spots include Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge for viewing seals and other wildlife, Chatham Lighthouse, Mass Audubon’s Welfleet Bay nature trails, Cape Cod National Seashore sand dunes, Marconi Beach, Highland Light, Wood End Light, and Long End Beach.
Other Things to Consider…
Visiting Cape Cod in the off-season will take a little more planning and preparation. With so many businesses closed, you may want to do some research ahead of time to plan the best base of operations for your visit. Falmouth, Mashpee, Hyannis, and Dennis all have year-round populations, so you’ll have an easier time finding convenient hotels and restaurants if you stick to those areas. (If you do pass through Mashpee, check out two of my favorite year-round restaurants, Wicked Pizza, and Oak & Ember for reliably delicious food, a cozy atmosphere, and excellent service.) If road conditions are good, you should have very little traffic to navigate in the off-season, so you can plan day trips to the outer cape without losing extra hours in the car. Remember, because of population demand, or lack thereof, snow removal in the outer cape can be slower and less frequent than other areas. If you’re visiting during a heavy snow, prepare with plenty of supplies and blankets in your trunk so you can comfortably wait for a tow if need be, but don’t let the road conditions dissuade you. There’s nothing like a Cape Cod beach blanketed in fresh snow for outstanding photographic inspiration.