12. Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
No spot on Cape Cod is more than 10 miles from a waterside view, but as the drive heads north toward Wellfleet, the point is pretty much moot. Shrinking to a mere half-mile in width, the Cape’s forearm tapers to little more than a slender sandbar. Here, overlooking Wellfleet Harbor, sprawls the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. Managed by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the preserve embraces 1,000 acres of pitch pine and oak forest, marshland, and moors spangled with huckleberries. Just off Rte. 6 are two spur roads—one leading to Marconi Beach, a strip of sand backed by bluffs, and the other to the site of Marconi Station, from which Nobel prizewinner Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first transatlantic message from the United States to Europe in 1903.
Fronting one of the Lower Cape’s two great natural harbors, Wellfleet was once a lively whaling port, and the bells of the town’s First Congregational Church still keep ship’s time, ringing two, four, six, or eight bells according to the shipboard shedule used to change the crew’s watches. From Commercial Street follow Chequessett Neck Road west along the water to Sunset Hill and Great Island. Sunset Hill is indeed a terrific spot to enjoy one, but Great Island is long overdue for a name change; though still great by any measure, it hasn’t been an island since a sandbar connected it to the mainland more than a century ago. Seven miles of trails crisscross the dunes and salt marshes of this pork chop–shaped peninsula, where oysters and quahogs—the champions of Cape Cod clams—clot the mudflats like living stones. Digging for shellfish is allowed, but a town permit is required.
After returning to Rte. 6, the drive continues north to Truro. Knowing when you’ve reached the town, however, may not be easy. Truro doesn’t make much of a fuss over itself; the town center is a veritable pinpoint, with little more than a few stores, a library, a firehouse, and a police station. The beauty of Truro is its spaciousness. With about 1,400 year-round residents, Truro is one of the smallest towns on the Cape in population, but it’s one of the largest in area, spreading over some 20 square miles of dunes and moors. Numbered among the many artists who have sought out Truro’s inspiring blend of beauty and solitude was Edward Hopper, the American realist painter who summered and created his canvases here for 37 years.
15. Highland Light
Also known as Cape Cod Light, this bright beacon has been warning ships away from the treacherous sandbars found undersea off Truro’s coast since 1857. The original lighthouse, erected in 1797, was torn down when the bluff started to erode. Today its replacement is also on shaky ground, as the bluffs below it crumble slowly into the sea and the ocean’s waves undermine the shore. Just to the north is one of the Cape’s loveliest beaches, Head of the Meadow. A strong pair of legs can carry you there from the Highland Light, or you can return to Rte. 6 and drive east on Head of the Meadow Road.
Although Provincetown is the northernmost town on Cape Cod, it certainly is no lonely outpost. P-town, as the locals affectionately call it, combines the jazziness of a small city with the lazy charm of a coastal village. In summer the town’s population multiplies tenfold, bringing together such diverse groups as sightseeing families, a large gay community, Portuguese-American fishermen, and bohemian painters hawking their wares.
Stroll the busy environs of Commercial Street, then watch the day’s catch come in along MacMillan Wharf, one of only three surviving piers out of the 59 that once lined the harbor. (Throughout the mid-1880s Provincetown was known for a catch of a grander scale: it was the nation’s third-largest whaling center, after the towns of New Bedford and Nantucket.)
No tour would be complete, of course, without a visit to Pilgrim Memorial Monument, built to commemorate the first landing of the Pilgrims here in 1620. From atop the 255-foot-high tower, a 360-degree view takes in the entire Upper Cape, a boundless blue apron of ocean, and the whole of Cape Cod Bay from Provincetown to Plymouth.
17. Race Point Beach
Curving west on Rte. 6, the drive grazes the south shore of Pilgrim Lake, then jogs north on Race Point Road at the Province Lands visitor center. Because Race Point Beach faces northwest into the Atlantic, you can watch the sun here set into open ocean—perhaps the only spot on the East Coast where such a feat is possible—a fitting end for one’s first visit to Cape Cod.