Cape Cod by Bike, a Family Trip

Email|Print| Text size + By Jane Margolies
August 15, 2003

THREE miles into the trail, I break out the gummy bears. My son, who has spotted some children splashing in the shallows of a glistening pond, has steered his bike off the path and wants to join them. I've got to coax him back on track this is supposed to be a biking trip, after all. My husband and I and our two children have come to Cape Cod to ride the paved path that runs from South Dennis to South Wellfleet on the bed of the Old Colony Rail Road.

But given the distractions of the trail (ice cream! swimming holes!) as well as the Cape itself, we seem to be spending as much time off our bikes as on.

The Cape Cod Rail Trail is one of 1,241 paths that have opened on former railroad rights-of-way across the country since 1965, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.

Often flat and almost always scenic, such rail trails which range from the one-fifth-mile Watts Towers Crescent Greenway in Los Angeles to Missouri's 225-mile Katy Trail have become increasingly popular with families. This is the fourth that my husband, Steve, and I have ridden with Daniel, 6, and Hannah, 10, having discovered that vacations planned around biking give us a chance to pursue a sport we love while exploring a new place with our children. We have driven from Manhattan in early July with bikes mounted on the back of our car, waving at other cars with bike racks on the way, to stay three nights, with the goal of covering as much of the trail each day as the children can comfortably manage.

Day 1. Water bottles? Check. Helmets? Check (state law requires head gear for ages 12 and under). Trail map? Check. We are at the Bike Depot, which occupies an old granary in North Harwich, to rent wheels for Steve (our car rack holds only three bikes). We've decided to launch here, a little over a mile into the trail, rather than at the very beginning, on Route 134 in South Dennis, because we heard that the first segment is one of the most crowded and least picturesque stretches (it skirts a quarrying operation and a lumberyard and intersects two busy roads).

The Harwich part of the trail, we quickly discover, is lovely. It is bordered by oak and pitch pine, and tree branches meet overhead, forming a green tunnel to ride through. Pine needles are scattered at the edges of the path and wild roses and honeysuckle scent the air. As we clip along we see cranberry bogs on either side, flat fields of short, shrubby plants with pinkish flowers. "This is cool!" crows Hannah, who seems as thrilled as I am with the trail.

The 19th-century rail line that preceded it connected Boston and Provincetown at the northern tip of Cape Cod. Passenger rail service ended in the 1930's when new bridges allowed automobile traffic to cross the Cape Cod Canal. Trains continued to carry freight until the 1960's, when the entire enterprise was shut down and the tracks were ripped up. The biking path was constructed in sections beginning in 1978, and it's noticeably narrower than those designed today (eight feet rather than 10 to 12 feet). Another sign of age: Over the years tree roots have caused the paving to buckle and crease in older sections like the stretch through Harwich.

Riding with children that is, riding slowly gives us plenty of time to negotiate the bumps. A mile or so into our jaunt Hannah and I pull alongside another mother and her son who are crouched on the side of the trail.

Vacationers from New Jersey, they've spotted what the boy identifies as a baby snapping turtle plowing through the pine needles, and the two children try to nudge the small brown creature farther off the trail so it won't get run over.

By the time we catch up with Steve and Daniel, my son, who normally spends most of his waking hours zipping around on his bike or scooter, has decided he needs a rest. Although we have done a few 6.7-mile circuits around Central Park in preparation for this trip (and Hannah, riding an 18-inch six-speed bike, hasn't had to switch out of fifth gear yet), Daniel, still on a 16-inch single-speed model, has to pedal a lot harder just to keep up.

Although stopping again is the last thing I want to do, I remind myself that this trip is supposed to be fun for the children, not grueling, so we all pull over and watch other riders sail by.

In the early morning, local dog walkers, joggers and stroller pushers make good use of the trail. By midday the trail teems with vacationing families who tend to travel in packs. Here comes one now: a mother on a bike pulling a trailer with a toddler nestled inside, a father with an "alleycat" (a small half-bike that attaches to the rear of an adult bike and allows a child to pedal when so inclined), and an older boy weaving along on his own set of wheels. Everyone has to stay to the right so as not to impede oncoming traffic, and parents up and down the trail shout to wayward young ones, "Get over!"

We join the throng, and what looks like a lake coming up on the left turns out to be 40-acre Hinckley's Pond, according to our map. It's one of the many freshwater kettle ponds along the trail formed thousands of years ago by the retreating glacier that covered New England and created Cape Cod. It is here that Daniel pulls over and wants to stay put. The blue water does look alluring, but we haven't brought our bathing suits and I am forced to ply my son with candy, packed for just such an emergency, to get him rolling again.

His reward is just ahead: lunch at the Pleasant Lake General Store. Housed in one of the old train stations, this family-owned shop offers sandwiches, ice cream and what appears to be every power bar known to man. We share a picnic table with a Gatorade-guzzling cyclist, and strike up a conversation with a family of four from Connecticut. A few more miles, and a few more ponds, and we call it quits for the day. Our tally: about 8 miles.

Day 2. Today, we're better prepared. I roll up our swimsuits in a towel and ride on my own from South Dennis to Nickerson State Park, the halfway point on the trail, barreling through Harwich and into the town of Brewster. At first I'm skimming by backyards (some children have dragged a table to the trail and are selling juice for 25 cents a cup) and crossing roads. Then the path veers deeper into the woods, and I have the sense, for a while at least, that I've left civilization behind.

Steve and the children, who have driven to Nickerson with their bikes, meander down the trail to meet me, and then we ride northward together, Hannah and Daniel taking turns passing each other, having picked up the proper trail etiquette (call out "on your left" as you whip by).

North of Nickerson, we leave the woods and enter an open, marshy area. The air is bracing and salty here. Coastal grasses sway in the breeze. A new bridge takes us up and over Route 6, and we cross the shop-lined main street of Orleans. In a few miles there's a sign for the Cape Cod National Seashore. We turn off the trail and head for the beach.

It's about half a mile on town roads to the Salt Pond Visitors Center, where we pick up a narrow park path with hairpin turns that eventually deposits us under a big blue sky at Coast Guard Beach. I watch the children play in the waves (ocean temperature: 58 degrees) while Steve, still in the mood to ride, backtracks to the car. We rendezvous at a picnic area where Hannah and Daniel marvel at Doane Rock.

Jutting 18 feet into the air and extending 12 more feet underground, this boulder was carried here by a glacier, possibly from as far away as Canada. The children, though, are just as impressed with the 12 miles they've traveled themselves today.

Day 3. Up toward South Wellfleet, the path, which runs roughly parallel to Route 6, is smooth, wide and easy to ride. But there are fewer trees shading this north end of the trail, so it's best to bike early or late in the day to avoid the sun. We didn't know this. Well, we always could stop for ice cream again. There are a number of frozen custard stands just off the trail; I wonder if people can actually gain weight cycling the Cape.

A group of cyclists laden with sleeping rolls and saddle bags file out of a campground that abuts the path and plod along in a wobbly line.

The summer after high school I packed my own bike with my belongings for a two-week trek through parts of France and Switzerland, and someday, when the children are older, I would like us to take a trip where we use our bikes not just for daytime recreation but for getting ourselves and our stuff from place to place.

For now, I'm grateful that they are still pumping gamely along, determined to get to the end of the trail. And then, suddenly and without fanfare, we reach it.

"Bike trail end," says a marker where the path runs into a parking lot. But what's that on the other side of the lot? A sign for LeCount Hollow Beach, which, according to our map, is just north of the Marconi area of the National Seashore. These are the beaches with striking bluffs rising behind them. The arrow points to LeCount Hollow Road. I think we'll take it.

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