Saturday, August 14, 2010

Provincetown Dunes Hikes: 08/13/2010

For the past 3 years, we've been taking a week's vacation at Cape Cod, near Provincetown at the outermost tip of the Cape. For me, one of the draws of this part of the Cape is the extensive dune landscape which is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Provincetown Dunes view

With two young kids, we've had lots of great family beach days, but haven't really had the opportunity to explore the "backcountry" areas of the several thousand acres of dunes and remote beaches. But the arrival of Grandma and Grandpa yesterday gave us a couple of hours this afternoon without the kids to explore an interesting area that I had my eye on.

Trail through the dunes

Less than a 10 minute drive towards Provincetown from our vacation rental house is a fire road that heads directly east in the direction of the Atlantic. Although there are no obvious trail markers or signs, I had always noticed several cars parked along the roadside there, as though the fire road was a trailhead of sorts. I knew that it must head into the dune lands and towards the beach, and would likely prove to be an interesting area to explore.

View of the Atlantic from the dunes

From the roadside trailhead, the fire road leads for about 150 yards through a maritime oak forest and emerges onto a landscape of rolling sand dunes. Although the air temperature today was a very comfortable 75 degrees with low humidity, the intense sun reflected back in the sand landscape created an environment that might as well have been the Sahara. The 3 mile round-trip hike to the beach felt much like some of the hiking I've done in parts of the desert Southwest.

Scrub pines and dune shack

The trail to the beach leads through some brief areas of scrub pine and oak, mainly in low-lying areas between the dunes where moisture settles and enough organic matter can accumulate in the soil to support more than the lichen, dune grasses and other pioneering species that dominate much of the landscape. On the edge of one of these "forested" areas we caught our first up-close glimpse of one of the Provincetown dune shacks.

Another dune shack

A short while later, an unmarked side trail led us directly to another unoccupied dune shack. The Provincetown dune shacks have always fascinated me. Around 80 years ago, in the 1930's and 40's, dune shacks were cobbled together out of driftwood and scrap lumber by squatters in the dune lands surrounding Provincetown. These shacks became a refuge of sorts for artists, adventurers and eccentrics. There is no water or electricity, and access is by foot or jeep trail. With the formation of the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961, the dune shacks were incorporated into the lands administered by the National Park Service.

Dune shack detail

Whatever the dune shacks lack in creature comforts, they make up for it in solitude and location. Over the years the dune shacks have been occupied by poets, artists and writers such as Jackson Pollock, Eugene O'Neill, Norman Mailer, Tennessee Williams and others. The dune shack pictured above was unoccupied and appeared to be more austere than the others that we saw, but it was the one that we got the closest to. Of the twenty or so dune shacks that remain today, many are still occupied by artists under a program administered by the NPS while others are private residences grandfathered in by NPS.

Perhaps ee cummings stayed here

The dune shacks are spread out along a line of wild outer dunes close to the beach. An encouraging sign (clearly not NPS signage) pointed the way onward, and we eventually emerged onto the gentle beach grass covered dunes which led to the ocean.

No caption needed

Jeep track along the edge of the dunes

Finally, the edge of the Atlantic

Cape Cod owes its existence to the whims of the ocean currents that sculpt its shoreline. Geologists and oceanographers estimate that within several thousand years it will no longer exist at all. Here, on a remote beach on the edge of the Atlantic with no other people in sight, we were reminded of that fact and how lucky we were to be here, now.


  1. 7 Archived Comments:November 5, 2010 at 10:52 PM

    Aug 14, 2010; 06:03am
    Great pics..i know that area well.
    Your in P Town, what, no pics of dudes in high heels?

    Aug 14, 2010; 07:33am
    Great TR. Never been there.
    Jeff certainly gets around during the summer.

    Aug 14, 2010; 10:03am
    The ee cummins shack is a classic. Love the way the guy took the effort to put a diagonal window into the door.
    Is the shack being used — the buoys look current?
    Didn't look like you guys were restricted with where you could walk on the dunes? Do they try to keep you off the grass?
    Sweet TR Jeff.

    Adk Jeff
    Aug 14, 2010; 09:49pm
    Harv, all of the dune shacks have a similar charm... it's part of their appeal.
    Although this dune shack was unoccupied at the time of our visit, it is not abandoned. It is one of the 18 or 19 shacks that remain. I believe it may be the most primitive dune shack, it is only approximately 9 x 12. But all of the dune shacks are small and austere. BTW, I didn't mean to imply that ee cummings had actually stayed in THIS shack, I just know that at some point he had stayed in one.
    As for walking on dune grass, there were no barriers or signage restricting access anywhere. However, common sense prevails and one would want to avoid disturbing sensitive dune vegetation.

    Aug 14, 2010; 10:47pm
    Jeff well knows: I am a big fan of very small buildings. There's a great architect in Maine named Robert Knight. He and his wife have a division of his company called "Lucia's Little Houses." The Robert Knight quote that I love ... "the beauty of the small house is that it can be captured in your imagination, all at once." I figured it wasn't really ee's place ... it's just that the building itself seems so "lower case." I thought it was a perfect description.
    It's great that humanity can be counted on to walk on the existing sand trails and not to widen them. It's hard to find beautiful places on the east coast, without lots of rules, that work pretty well. Actually I think the Adks fall into that category to some extent.

    Aug 15, 2010; 07:35am
    Great trip report and pics. I really like that part of CC the best. We've biked through the Province Land bike trail to Race Point Light Beach, which was great, but I have to find the trail you where on our next time out.

    Adk Jeff
    Aug 15, 2010; 10:42pm
    HDP, the trailhead is easy to locate. At the first Provincetown exit on Route 6 (just past Pilgrim Lake), look on the right hand side of the road for an obvious fire road / trail leading away through the trees. There are almost always several cars parked here. There is no formal trailhead sign or trail markers. If you enjoyed the biking through the Provincelands, I think you'll really like this hike.
    Incidentally, you'd think a 3-mile round trip hike across rolling dunes to the beach would be a pretty easy hike. It's much harder than you might think. The entire distance is on loose sand, and sections of the trail climb some steep dunes. Shoes are more of a hinderance than a help IMO, so Beth and I opted to ditch our shoes and do the entire hike barefoot. With or without shoes, walking on sand is much more strenuous than on a firm trail. At times, the sand seemed to scorch the soles of our feet. Exposure to the sun is unrelenting. Our kids have done great on hikes that we've taken them on in the Adirondacks this summer, but they would have been toast (literally) after a quarter mile on this hike.

  2. regarding your picture that said "perhaps e.e.cummings stayed here", it was actually a picture of Harry Kemp-the Poet of the Dunes, shack!