The Beach Times

Getting to Know Eastham's Fort Hill Trail
Posted by Kinlin Grover | Monday, July 22, 2019

While heavily trafficked paths like the Cape Cod Rail Trail, Shining Sea Bikeway, Great Island Trail, and areas around Nickerson State Park get a lot of the attention, lesser-known places to hike are abundant on the Cape.

A small, yet incredibly scenic and worthwhile place to explore is Fort Hill Trail in Eastham, a one-mile loop trail featuring outstanding views, historic boulders, some of Cape Cod’s best birdwatching.

The trail will only take you about an hour to complete unless you venture down some of the smaller paths that shoot out from the main section. Keep in mind that these other pathways are only accessible during low tide because they head into the salt marsh. If you’re looking to spend a day away from the beaches on Cape Cod, you could certainly do worse than Fort Hill Trail.


Where to Start

There are two parking areas at Fort Hill Trail, both of which are on Fort Hill Road, just off the Mid-Cape Highway between Orleans and Eastham. If you're driving from the north, you'll turn left onto Governor Prence Road, which turns into Fort Hill Road. When arriving from the south, there'll be an exit onto a different section of Governor Prence Road, and you'll then turn right on Fort Hill Road. Highway signs mark where to turn in both directions.

As for the parking lots, the closest to the highway sits across from Captain Penniman House, an 1868 home constructed by a wealthy whaling captain. The home and its barn are open to the public in the summer and are worth a visit. The second parking area is at the end of Fort Hill Road. Both lots are free.


What's Along the Trail

The second parking area is less crowded in the summer, so we'll start there. As you begin, you'll immediately see secondary paths heading to the water. Check the tide chart before commencing your walk to ensure that you don't get stuck in high water.

Staying on the main path, you'll walk past a forest and reach a large glacial rock. The rock indicates that you're entering the most picturesque part of the hike because you can now see Nauset Marsh for the next stretch. You can also stand on the rock if you're struggling to see over the plant growth.

The next stretch of the trail takes you along Nauset Marsh, where you can see birds, boats, and scenic vistas. Eventually, you'll complete the section of the pathway that lines the marsh, but you can make a quick detour into the woods, which will take you to Indian Rock.

Once at Indian Rock, you'll have more great views of the marsh and can learn about this historic boulder, which was used to grind and polish tools for centuries before the arrival of Europeans. There is also a covered picnic area here if you've packed a meal.

The stretch of the path near Indian Rock heads onto Red Maple Swamp Trail, another scenic hiking area with a boardwalk, dense forests, and even a boat launch. Red Maple Swamp Trail is particularly scenic during the fall when leaves on the maple trees change color.

Finally, you can get back on the main path and complete your journey. The final stretch of the trail ends up at the parking lot near Captain Penniman House. From there, you'll walk on Fort Hill Road to your vehicle.

Overall, this is an easy hike with a gradual 64-foot elevation change, making it accessible for even novice hikers. You’re never far from your car when you explore Fort Hill Trail, but you’ll feel as though you’re miles from civilization because of the quiet atmosphere and scenery.


The Cape’s Best Birdwatching

Here's a little secret: those in the know believe that Fort Hill Trail is home to Cape Cod's best birdwatching. It seems incredible that such a small area would have such a distinction, but it's true.

The reason is that the marshland that runs parallel to the trail provides the perfect environment for both nesting shorebirds and waders that prefer to spend their time in the water.

On any given day in the summer, you could see nesting birds like the yellow warbler, cedar waxwing, Baltimore oriole, northern bobwhite, and willow flycatcher, in addition to waders such as the black-crowned night-heron, great egret, snowy egret, least tern, and osprey. It truly is a birdwatcher's paradise because there is so much to see in such a small area.

And that doesn't even include the winter when you could also see the Virginia rail, marsh wren, salt marsh sparrow, clapper rail, and American bittern, to name a few.

If you're visiting Fort Hill Trail during high tide, the birds will be closer to the shore, providing the best possible viewing conditions.


Make It a Day in Eastham

The Fort Hill Trail area in Eastham makes for a great place to spend the day. After your hike, you can have a picnic at the covered picnic tables at Indian Rock, followed by an afternoon spent kayaking or canoeing Nauset Marsh from Hemenway Landing, which is a short jaunt from Indian Rock.

If you didn't bring a boat with you on vacation, Cape Kayaking operates tours most days of the week throughout the summer. The voyage is $70 per person and lasts about three hours; it's the perfect way to finish off a day in Eastham.

Birding Birds On Cape Cod Birdwatching Captain Penniman House Eastham Fort Hill Red Maple Swamp Trail

Rare Birds You Can Find on the Outer Cape
Posted by Kinlin Grover | Monday, May 6, 2019


Part of any Cape Cod vacation involves getting into nature and exploring the local environment. And with this exploration, you are likely to come into contact with wild animals, particularly birds.

The Cape is the temporary home to migrating birds and the permanent home of others, and depending on the month in which you visit, you might have the opportunity to see all of them.

If you’re staying on the Outer Cape, keep an eye out for the following rare, or once rare, bird species that live in the area, particularly near the beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore.


Wild Turkeys

When Europeans started settling on Cape Cod in the 1620s and 30s, there was a significant wild turkey population. That's the reason why we have turkey at Thanksgiving, as it was an easily accessible source of food for the region's early inhabitants. By 1851, however, the last known native bird had been killed, and the wild turkey remained extinct on the Cape until 1995 when 28 turkeys from upstate New York were released in Wellfleet.

It didn't take very long for the wild turkey population on Cape Cod to rebound, as they are once again common. Estimates suggest there are 25,000 of these birds in Massachusetts, so it's likely that the Cape has thousands of birds living in its forests near the Cape Cod National Seashore. You might even see some wild turkeys in residential neighborhoods during your vacation. While you can’t call wild turkeys rare anymore, they were once extinct on Cape Cod, so they remain noteworthy creatures.


Piping Plover

Cape Cod residents have a love-hate relationship with the piping plover. On the one hand, it’s a rare bird, as this is a near-threatened species with an estimated 680 breeding pairs arriving in Massachusetts every spring, and fewer than 40 pairs coming to the beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore. On the other hand, their arrival means significant restrictions on beach access for locals and visitors. The restrictions are in place to protect these frail birds since they tend to camouflage into the sand and are sometimes crushed.

If there is a piping plover nest on a particular beach, officials often construct a temporary fence around it, and erect signs telling you to keep your distance. These nests are incredibly delicate and losing even a single mating pair would damage their numbers of the Cape. Those who are into spotting rare birds should keep an eye out for piping plover pairs and their young in the summer, as Cape Cod is one of the only places on the Atlantic coast where you'll find them.



Another rare bird that you'll find on the Outer Cape is the osprey. In the 1970s, the Cape's osprey population was decimated because of the use of DDT as a pesticide, as the chemical led to thinner eggshells and, eventually, the bird's young being unable to hatch. In fact, there were only a couple of nesting pairs left on Cape Cod at one point. DDT was banned in 1972, and the species has rebounded to the point where you're likely to see these birds if you're on Cape Cod between March and September.

On the Outer Cape, there is a nest on top of a utility pole at Wellfleet Pier. You can also keep up on the osprey population throughout the Cape by visiting the Cape Cod Osprey Watch website. There is an interactive map there that will point you in the right direction if you want to witness one of these large birds in its natural habitat.


Common Tern

The common tern is another bird that builds nests in the sand of the Cape Cod National Seashore in the spring. This species is listed as threatened in Massachusetts and estimates suggest that as many as 60% of the birds that migrate north for the summer live on the beaches of the Outer Cape.

The good news is that the common tern isn’t as delicate as the piping plover, so you don’t have to worry as much about accidentally stepping on them. It's still a good idea to keep your distance if you see a nest along any of the Seashore's beaches, however, as there are restrictions in place at certain times in their nesting areas.


King Eider

The king eider is a type of sea duck that appears in places like Race Point, and often heads deeper into Cape Cod Bay, with recent sightings occurring in Bourne, Sandwich, and Hyannis. Male king eiders are incredibly striking animals known for their black bodies, multi-colored heads, and bright bills, while the females are brown with a black or gray bill.

For the most part, these ducks live in arctic and subarctic climates, frequenting the waters off Alaska, Greenland, Russia, and northern Canada, although they head down the coast of Canada and the United States in the winter. It is the winter months when they are sometimes spotted off the coast of Cape Cod, so keep your eyes open for these beautiful birds.


There are More

This list is just a small sampling of some birds that you won’t have the chance to see in most parts of the country. The beaches, forests, herring runs, and marshland make Cape Cod a very appealing migrating bird habitat, and officials protect many natural areas to keep it that way.

Watch for these rare bird species on your next Cape Cod vacation because you never know if you’ll have another opportunity to witness them in their natural habitats.

Birding Birds On Cape Cod

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