How to (Still) Enjoy Cape Cod’s Best Beaches

Social distance in the sun.

At this point, we all know that outdoor activities pose fewer COVID-19 risks than indoor ones. In fact, we can say from experience that some leisurely outdoor lounging can go a long way toward maintaining sanity. Translation: It might be a good time to hit the Cape.

So upon which sand should you lay down your towel? Different beaches come with different rules this year. Facilities are limited in many spots, lifeguards are scarcer, and parking looks a lot different than seasons past. But don’t let those factors alone dictate your decision-making. Do you prefer the waves of the Atlantic or the calm of Cape Cod Bay? The visual appeal of dunes or flats? Seals (aka shark bait) or no seals? Whatever your preference, there’s a patch of sand on the Cape waiting for you, face mask, hand sanitizer, and all.

herring cove beach
Swerve the parking mess and bike to Herring Cove Beach for a dip at sunset | Halee Burg/Shutterstock

Herring Cove Beach

In both normal times and non, Herring Cove gives you everything you crave in a Cape Cod beach: picturesque dunes, miles of warm sand, and a healthy mix of families and couples both gay and straight. Its sheer size also makes it easy to set up your setup at a distance from others. Due to staffing reductions this year, there will be no lifeguards on-site, but you’ll still need to pay the entrance fee -- $25 per car. So as usual, the best choice is to hit the nearby bike trail for a bit, then lock up your two-wheeler for a discounted entrance ($10) and a well-earned dip. If you crave even more pre-beach exercise, there are dune hikes aplenty. Here’s more good news: Far Land on the Beach, the on-site concession stand, is open from noon to 5pm every day (cash only), which means you can still get your lobster rolls and fish tacos. And never forget: The sunsets here are some of the most beautiful on the Cape.

head of the meadow beach with seals
Squawking sunbathers at Head of the Meadow Beach | Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Head of the Meadow Beach

Want nature? Want semi-seclusion? Head of the Meadow is a rare bird -- a beautiful, wide Atlantic side beach that stays strangely uncrowded. In other words, exactly what the public health official ordered. Even better? The entrance fees have been waived for the season. You also get a little history with your tanning session: A vessel named Frances ran aground off this beach in 1872, and, during certain low tides, you can still catch a glimpse of the wreck’s remnants. Take your après-sand self to Truro Vineyards for socially distanced glasses of locally produced wine, an additional cocktail made with spirits from the onsite South Hollow Spirits distillery, and lunch from the outstanding food truck Crush Pad, all enjoyed alfresco on the property’s dog-friendly lawn. (No reservations required, but you might have to wait for a seat during peak lunch hours.)

cahoon hollow
A massive dune at Cahoon Hollow Beach | Flickr/Jay Colbath

Cahoon Hollow Beach

First, a warning: Access to this wide-sand beach requires a 75-yard trek down a steep sand dune. Reasonable enough, but it’s the trek back up that can exhaust many beach-goers, especially those who’ve averaged 500 daily steps during quarantine. The journeys both down and up are well worth it, however, for an iconic Atlantic-side, wide-sand beach complete with dozens of seals popping their heads out of the water just offshore. (Which, yes, means Great White warnings.) The nightmare parking scene is to be avoided at all costs, especially this year; bike or Uber if you can. As for the Beachcomber, the iconic spot atop the beach, a new tent setup means you can still enjoy some oysters and a potent cocktail after some prime beach time. Or you can drive or bike the two miles to PJs Family Restaurant, a seasonal clam shack that serves the Cape’s best lobster roll and has set itself up well for socially distanced ordering.

marconi beach
The panoramic view from Marconi Beach cliffs shows the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Cod Bay and Outer Cape | mayakova/shutterstock

Marconi Beach

John F. Kennedy himself recognized the appeals of this spot early: In 1961, he signed a bill authorizing the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore, the first time a national park was created out of previously private land. For a little more history, the beach is named after Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, who in 1903 sent the first US-originating transatlantic radio transmission right from the Cape. OK, enough social studies. This is a massive, gorgeous beach with towering dunes, intimidating waves, and endless views in each direction. Owing to its sheer size, it’s pretty easy to stay far apart from one another; it’s also dog-friendly year round, lest you worry about leaving behind your now-spoiled pooch. Wellfleet Center, about four miles away, is far mellower this season but still the place to go for a proper evening meal. Mac’s Shack has expanded its patio seating into its large parking lot, while the more relaxed Mac’s on the Pier, a takeaway spot right on the water, has painted circles six feet apart to help those in line.

old silver beach
Shallow, warm waters at Old Silver Beach | Michael Sean O'Leary/Shutterstock

Old Silver Beach

North Falmouth
The sand is white and fine, the water clear, warm, and azure blue, the sunsets frankly stunning. Don’t feel bad about that canceled Carribean trip this spring: This is as tropical as a beach gets in New England, which easily explains why the Old Silver Beach parking lot is still filling up by 11am right now (you can get daily parking lot updates here). Is that a problem during the Covid era? Frankly, yes, as the public portion of the beach isn’t large enough to accommodate huge numbers of socially distanced groups. Go early, and with the understanding that you won’t be able to make a full day of it. Parking is still $20, but folks who have gotten there and found the crowds too unsettling have been able to get their money back. For a post-beach snack or drink, head to the nearby Sea Crest Beach Hotel, which recently reopened its outdoor bar (they’re taking good precautions) and is also offering takeout from its onsite restaurant.

Nauset Beach
Sharks sightings are not unheard of at Nauset Beach | John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Nauset Beach 

When National Geographic Traveler calls a beach “nearly perfect,” you’re all but obliged to check it out. The Atlantic-side Nauset earns its accolades, with its sandcastle-ready sand, boogie board-friendly waves, and abundance of nature, from eiders to seals. (Yes, gotta beware those Great Whites again.) Early risers also know the beach to be the best place on the Cape for an IG-worthy sunrise, especially during quarantine times. It’s even a great spot for fishing -- another ideal Covid-19 activity -- which explains all those anglers angling for blues and bass. Just know that you’re trekking back into town for sustenance. The Knack is one of Orleans’ newer additions, an intriguing reinvention of the classic clam shack -- phone and online orders encouraged, and no outdoor seating. If you plan to get your ice cream fix at Sundae School afterward, please treat your scoopers with the utmost decency and respect.

Breakwater Beach
Brewster's famed flats at Breakwater Beach | Allison Richards/Flickr

Breakwater Beach

A popular local beach, Breakwater isn’t the Cape’s largest stretch of sand, but it is one of its most serene. Read: a prime spot for social distancing. This is a bayside beach, which means clear, calm waters and level topography. Stay around for low tide, when you can walk out for what seems like miles and explore the teeming sea life contained within the tidepools. (Beware: The tide here comes in much faster than you would expect.) If you seek some sustenance afterward, Breakwater Fish and Lobster Market is a casual takeaway restaurant where you can get your fried clams, lobster roll, and oysters, even during these uncertain times.

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Meaghan Agnew just spent a few socially distanced days on the Cape and will carry those memories for many months to come. See those memories by following her on Instagram.
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