Cape Cod Beaches - Regulations
Cape Cod has some of the most unspoiled beaches in the world, in part due to the foresight of President John F. Kennedy who signed a bill on August 7, 1961, making the Cape Cod National Seashore a reality. Stretching the entire length of Cape Cod's Atlantic shoreline from Chatham to Provincetown, the National Seashore (see our chapter on Cape Cod National Seashore for more information) operates ocean beaches through six towns along this coast. Called the "outer beach" by locals, the surf-washed sands and ocean rollers are bordered by a continuous sweep of sandy cliffs and windswept dunes.
Of course the National Seashore isn't the only place to enjoy a beautiful beach. The Cape has more than 150 saltwater and freshwater beaches, offering something for everyone. Some Cape beaches have rough-and-tumble waves great for surfing, such as Coast Guard Beach in Eastham or LeCounts in Wellfleet; others are gentle and quiet, like Corporation Beach in Dennis or Old Silver Beach in North Falmouth. Some are broad, like Nauset Beach in Orleans; and others are narrow, such as Nobska in Falmouth. Some are rocky, like Town Beach in Sandwich; and some are all sand, like Craigville Beach.
The beaches of Cape Cod Bay, crooked in the inner curve of Cape Cod's bent arm from Dennisport to South Wellfleet, are vast tidal flats that can be up to a mile wide at low tide. A long walk on the flats out to the water's edge will afford you the opportunity to view and gently handle many creatures of sea and shore life in the intertidal zone such as moon snails, hermit crabs, starfish, and horseshoe crabs. One of the best starting points for a walk along the flats is from Paine's Creek in Brewster, but be sure to check the tide charts before you leave or you might get caught too far out on the flats when the tide starts coming in (we provide more information on tides under the section on Beach Safety, below).
Cape Cod's bay beaches are naturally calmer and safer for young children, and to the south of the Cape, the warm waters of Nantucket Sound play host to families with kids and the younger adults who gather at Craigville Beach in Centerville and along the Falmouth Heights Beach. The bays and sounds are relatively shallow bodies of water and warm up faster than the Atlantic Ocean, which reflects rather than absorbs light and heat. In the height of the summer, average temperatures in Cape Cod Bay on the north side are in the high 60s, while the beaches on the south side in Nantucket Sound reach the high 60s and mid-70s. Ocean temperatures on the east side linger in the high 50s, rarely getting higher than the low 60s.
There are also many freshwater lakes and ponds that have calm waters and small sandy beaches, many with picnic facilities. The 700-acre Mashpee-Wakeby Pond is the Cape's largest freshwater body. Swimming in the pristine waters of a brilliant blue Cape Cod kettle pond on a hot summer's day is a unique experience.
As you venture into the water, here are some things you should know to make your days at the beach safe and serene. Lifeguards are posted at many beaches from mid-June through Labor Day to oversee hundreds of swimmers, but their watchfulness should not be a replacement for adult supervision of children. Be aware of the waves, the currents, the undertow, and the tide.
The ocean surf provides an experience completely different from the conditions found in Cape Cod Bay, Nantucket Sound, or any nearby pond or lake. At sea, powerful forces generated by water movements are continuously at work. Ocean waves crest and become more rounded as they move in from the open ocean and before they break on shore.
When a wave breaks in shallow water, a vigorous suction is caused both by the breaking wave and by the backwash of the previous wave. Those unfamiliar with this ocean action should know that a person can be swept off his or her feet and actually be pulled into the oncoming wave. If this should happen to you, don’t panic. Push under the water and toward the oncoming wave, and curl your body to form a smaller mass; this will allow you to withstand the force of the wave. Once the wave has passed, you will pop up on the other side.
A lateral current, also known as a long shore current, runs parallel to the beach and perpendicular to the direction at which waves approach the shore. This current is usually strong enough to move you sideways along the shoreline. Again, don’t be alarmed if after an extended period of time of swimming in the ocean you notice that you don’t recognize any of the beach umbrellas or landscape on shore. You have probably moved with the current and are in a new position relative to shore. Those who pay no attention can be swept sideways into a rip current and then beyond the breaking waves.
Rip currents occur when waves breaking over an offshore sandbar spill into a trough on the shoreward side of the sandbar, pile up, and then exit quickly through any break in the mound of the sandbar that had trapped the water. Water rushing out to sea from the trough seeking a seaward outlet may move faster than a swimmer can swim, sweeping him or her out with it. Although rip currents can vary greatly in appearance, as a general rule they look especially rough or choppy, may have the dark color of deeper water, and may or may not have foam.
Considering the seriousness of a rip current, it is clear than any swimmer caught in one should stop, look and study a rip before making his or her next move. There is usually no suction, so remain calm. If you feel you can swim across the current, parallel to the shore, you can work yourself back to the beach at an angle. A rip current can also be escaped when you relax and allow it to carry you to the outermost limit, which is usually not far beyond the breakers. After judging the width of the rip current, you can swim parallel to the beach in the relative calm water outside the breakers, reenter the surf at the end of a set, and then swim safely to shore and your beach blanket.
At surf beaches, we were told that the greatest percentage of drownings result from persons exhausting themselves fighting currents and waves. By understanding how a wave works you will understand how to react to certain circumstances when they occur. For instance, when a wave breaks on the beach and returns back to sea, , it gains momentum and can knock individuals off their feet and sweep them swiftly into the surf. If you are carried out, don’t resist. The undertow will subside once it hits the surf line. Swimmers get in trouble in the undertow when they panic. The ocean is a great place to be if you know what to look for and how to react if caught off guard.
Most visitors to the Cape today have little reason to pay attention to the ebb and flow of the ocean’s tide. A hundred years ago, the lives of the people of Cape Cod were inseparably connected to the sea. They relied on the ocean-going vessels for their food, travel, and trade, so an understanding of the tides was essential for their survival. Today, though the tides play a smaller part in daily life, they are still an important factor to bear in mind when living at or visiting the coast.
The tides are an essential consideration when planning your day in or around the bay, sound or ocean. Visiting a bayside beach during low tide when the flats extend out for more than a mile can be a dangerous situation as the tide can sometimes rush in over the flats quicker than you could walk back to the shoreline. Cape Cod, like most places on the coast, experiences semidiurnal tides, meaning that two high and two low tides occur daily. Each tide, controlled by lunar movements, takes place fifty minutes later than the previous day. The moon completes a full circle around the earth every 24 hours and fifty minutes, causing the variation of tidal timing from day to day. Translated, this means that if high tide is at 10:00 AM on Tuesday, it will be high at 10:50 AM on Wednesday. To make matters more confusing, because Cape Cod is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the canal, the bay, and the sound, the tides vary in time difference by as much as two hours between the Upper and Lower Cape. Ask for a tide chart when you arrive for your visit—all the area newspapers publish a tide chart. Or you may want to plan your vacation around the tide during a specific week—you can access an up-to-date tide chart on our website at www.insiders.com/capecod.
Children should not take water toys such as boogie boards, flotation rings, or rafts into the ocean because they can quickly be carried out to a depth that’s over their heads, or even be swept far away by off-short breezes. And while many of us remember digging in the sand to “bury” each other as children, that activity can be dangerous as well, which is why notices at the Cape Cod National Seashore warn against it. The sand can easily collapse and trap a child. Each year we hear of a child being buried while digging in the sand and having to endure a life threatening experience that could have easily been avoided. Also, don’t forget sunscreen. And while you’re protecting your child with it don’t forget yourself. The cool salty salt air may makes it seem as if you aren’t getting too much sun, when in fact you are.
Tips for the Disabled
Most towns now have beaches that are wheelchair accessible; several have purchased special beach wheelchairs that are available for those who request their use, and many beaches are equipped with heavy rubber mat planks that make it easy to bring a wheelchair out onto a sandy expanse.
Parking is a big consideration when you're planning a day at the beach. Many beach lots fill quickly on nice summer days (Nauset Light Beach in Eastham, for instance, is often full by about 10 AM in July and August). Most beaches either charge admission or require a parking sticker, generally available at town halls or, in some cases, at certain beaches. Requirements differ from town to town and, within towns, from beach to beach, with some beaches offering parking by sticker only and others staffed with attendants who sell daily passes. We've detailed the procedure in each town in this chapter's listings. A note of caution: if you park illegally, you will be ticketed and fined. Sometimes public transportation is an option--Hyannis, for instance, offers a beach trolley. Or, ride a bike--admission to most beaches is free for those who walk or bike in. Also keep in mind that the rates printed here are subject to change; when towns decide to raise their beach parking rates, they usually do so in the spring at annual town meetings.
Some towns have beaches that are designated for residents only. This means the beach is town-owned but supposed to be reserved for the use of resident taxpayers. In most cases, this designation is made because these beaches are small and have very limited parking. Generally, "resident only" means you must have a resident/taxpayer sticker on your car to park in these areas, but there's nothing to stop you from walking or biking there. So we have included these beaches in the listings for each town with the caveat that they are intended for residents only--please, don't try parking at such beaches without a resident sticker--you will be ticketed and in some cases towed! And respect the rules at all beaches.
Yes, there is such a thing, though this issue has been and will continue to be debated, particularly in reference to shell-fishing rights. Unlike most other states, in Massachusetts, waterfront property owners may own the beach in front of their home to mean low tide--an imaginary line between high tide and low tide. This line obviously varies with the moon, season and atmospheric conditions. (See our section on tides in this chapter.) What it boils down to is an archaic law we have all learned to live within. It actually dates back to colonial times, when the king granted waterfront deeds that specified the owner had ownership of the beach to high tide rather than low tide. Someone then came up with the phrase "mean low tide" and it's impossible to generalize with any certainty how close you should hug the waterline when passing in front of private property. The law reads that access across beaches is allowed for "fishing, boating, and waterfowling," so you might want to carry a fishing pole just in case. What you need to know is that many of the public beaches are alongside private beaches and as inviting as that nearly empty beach past the public beach may appear, you don't have the right to spread your blanket on it. These private beach areas are usually marked with small "no trespassing" or "private property" signs. Most waterfront property owners understand the lure of the open beach and they certainly relish a beach walk. If you pass with respect they won't get upset--some of our best walks are across miles of bay beach, both public and private.
Cape beaches operate a dog ban between April 1st and October 1st. It doesn't matter if your dog is on a leash or under control of your command: Taking a dog on the beach during these months is punishable by a fine of up to $50. Some beaches like Nauset Beach in Orleans and Craigville in Centerville will not permit you entrance into the parking area if a dog is in your vehicle. At the smaller beaches, signs are posted at the entrance path to the beach area.
If you bring your dog during the off-season when the crowds have gone and the rules are more relaxed, be sure your dog is under your control at all times. Remember, it's not just humans your pet can disturb--it's nesting birds, or stranded seals. The Endangered Species Act provides penalties for taking, harassing, or harming the piping plover, for example, and we take the law seriously here: It's likely that if your dog disturbs a plover's nest or otherwise disturbs one of the protected species, someone will be waiting for you in the parking lot upon your return.
Also, please remove your dog's waste from the beach. It's a form of pollution that contaminates our shellfishing beds, as well as the wetlands. Most trails and beaches offer some sort of doggie "dispoza-scoop." The Cape Cod Canal Bike Path offers a pooper-scooper bag at the trailhead that is convenient to use. Other mitt-like contraptions are available.
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