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

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