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National Park Getaways
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Cape Cod National Seashore
The old saying, “A picture's worth a thousand words,” is often used when words alone can't fully describe a landscape. In rare instances, however, even the best pictures can't communicate the entirety of a place. Such is the case with Cape Cod. It is not enough to see with your own eyes; you must also feel it, hear it, and smell it — only then can you come away with the entirety of the Cape Cod experience.
Cape Cod National Seashore preserves that experience, which truly is the sum of all its parts. Visually, the park is stunning, and yes, it often leaves visitors at a loss for words. Gazing out from the Fort Hill vista the eyes drink in the colors: the soft green of the salt marsh grasses in spring – a palette that changes to a deep, life-giving green in summer and creased gold in the fall. Beyond is the silvery thread of the Great Outer Beach, and beyond still, an ocean whose colors change as frequently as its moods.
At Cape Cod, the sensory experience can be subjective, as when artists and writers feel an intangible yet very real inspiration. It can also be quite literally in your face, as when a visitor standing on the edge of the bluff at Marconi Beach faces a howling northeast wind off the sea and feels every inch of exposed skin pelted by driving rain and sand.
The sounds of Cape Cod National Seashore are as numerous as its habitats. A stroll along the Beech Forest Trail may offer up a winter afternoon's cool silence or an orchestra of birdsong on a spring morning. Sometimes, when the wind is right, from nearly any spot in the seashore you might hear in the background — like a distant heartbeat — the muffled sound of the ocean. The sound serves as a reminder on this slender sandy land: nothing is constant; everything changes.
The Cape can get under your skin in a deep and irreversible way (or as we say locally, you can get sand in your shoes). The Pilgrims, who in 1620 landed first on Cape Cod before moving to Plymouth, felt it. Several eventually returned to settle here, in a place that native peoples had been calling home for thousands of years. It happened to this Colorado girl when she found that, of all things, she could not live without the smell of the ocean. The sea has different scents around the world, all of them wonderful. But here on Cape Cod we are like a ship at sea, some 35 miles off the mainland Massachusetts coast, and so there is no escaping the smell of the Atlantic: a deep, pure, bracing smell.
Whether your initial interest in Cape Cod National Seashore lies in its rich cultural history, its miles of walking trails, its sunny beaches, or its solitary places, once you've been here you'll find that Cape Cod lingers in your heart. It lingers because of something that is subtle in its parts, but expansive in total: it is the entirety of the Cape Cod experience.
By Jenna B. Sammartino, Interpretive Park Ranger, Cape Cod National Seashore
NPS.gov homepage photo: Unbroken miles of coastline and sandy beach invite exploration. (NPS/Robby McQueeney)