Back when I was in grad school, Dave and I and a few friends randomly decided to go to Provincetown, MA one weekend….in January. There was still snow on the ground from a recent storm, but the actual days we were there were unseasonably warm. This was back before my obsessive planning phase, and one day we were wandering around downtown and came across what looked to be a pathway made of giant rocks stretching out into the ocean. So we started walking. Our dog, Oliver, was with us, and he scrambled over the rocks eagerly like a little mountain goat. And we were surprised to discover that it went on and on and ON for a very long time. We made it to the other side and encountered sand and dunes and could see a lighthouse off in the distance. But we’d set off totally unprepared for a long hike and probably didn’t even have any water with us, so at that point we turned around and headed back. That night, the normally endlessly energetic Oliver was so exhausted he couldn’t jump onto the couch in the condo without help. We dubbed our walkway the “not jetty” and reminisced about it fondly over the next couple of decades.
So when we were planning the Cape Cod part of our itinerary for the summer, I decided to check into this “not jetty” and see what exactly it was and whether it might make for a good expedition with the kids. I discovered that the rocks we had walked across were actually called the breakwater, built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1911 to protect Provincetown Harbor from shifting sands. The rocks go on for around a mile and a quarter and connect Provincetown’s West End to the curving tip of the Cape with its isolated beaches and lighthouses that can’t be accessed by car.
At low tide the floor of the harbor around the breakwater is exposed and open for exploration; at high tide, the tops of some of the rocks might be underwater. We checked the tide chart and arrived at low tide, with hours and hours ahead of us before we’d need to worry about slippery rocks on our return trip. The breakwater starts right across from First Landing Pilgrim Park at the west end of Commercial Street, and when we were there there was plenty of parking along the road (but this was early June and fairly early in the morning on a weekday).
I’d done a good bit of reading about walking the breakwater online before our trip, and it had left me a little nervous. Apparently it’s not at all uncommon for people to run into trouble traversing the gaps, hurt themselves, and have to be rescued. How embarrassing. I didn’t remember the walk as being particularly terrifying, but it had been nearly 20 years. And I hadn’t had four kids along with me.
I didn’t need to worry. The older kids took off immediately and we didn’t see them again until we reached the end of the breakwater. Dave’s parents were well ahead of us and did fine, too (the walk was a little challenging for Dave’s Dad, who still wasn’t 100% recovered after a broken ankle last fall, but he made it). Dave and I were left far behind, carrying a three year old most of the way and stopping for approximately 800 million pictures. There are a few places where the rocks don’t fit together perfectly and a small jump or a bit of climbing is needed, but I didn’t find the walk scary or dangerous at all, and I’m pretty much a big old scaredy cat.
Going at low tide was the right choice. It was beautiful, and it was cool to see the contrast between the way out and how it looked with the tide starting to come in when we came back:
There are amazing views of Provincetown Harbor on one side (the tall thing in the middle is the Pilgrim Monument):
And Wood End Lighthouse the other way:
I had hoped that the thrill of scrambling across giant rocks would keep Abe walking on his own much of the time, but no such luck:
It wasn’t exactly cold, but it was windy. We all started off with jackets, though some of us had shed them by the end.
Once you make it across the breakwater, you have a decision to make: you can make the short walk to the right to Wood End Lighthouse, the longer (a mile and a half I believe) trek off the other way to Long Point Lighthouse on the very, very tip of the Cape–word is there’s a boat shuttle that runs from Long Point if you aren’t up for walking all the way back (neither lighthouse is open to go up into, but you can wander around outside)….or you can just keep going through the sand like we did and find your very own beach to hang out on for awhile.
And then it was time to head back. We saw the older kids off and they ran off ahead again:
And then we tried to coax Abe in to walking under his own power for a little longer:
In the end, I’m so glad we went! It was such a different experience from a typical hike and with such a big payoff at the end. Now I want to go back and see those lighthouses that we didn’t make it to this time! If you go, bring along plenty of water and some snacks and wear good shoes, and you should be fine.
By the time we made it back, we were past due for lunch, so we headed back to town to grab something to eat while Nana and Grandpa went back to their cottage. After lunch, we had planned to go to the Pilgrim Monument, a granite tower in the center of town commemorating the Mayflower Pilgrims. Only after our 3 mile or so trek across rocks and sand that morning, no one was feeling up for the 252 foot climb. We also would have liked to spend more time wandering around downtown, checking out some shops and the reputed to be fabulous library. But, alas, we were on a tight schedule, because we wanted to make it to the Old Harbor Life-Saving Station during the narrow window when it was open to the public (partially because it sounded cool and partially for Junior Ranger badge obtaining purposes).
The Old Harbor Life-Saving Station was built down the road a ways in Chatham in 1897 and operated by the US Life Saving Service and then the US Coast Guard until 1944. The NPS took ownership of it in the 70s and moved it to its present location in Provincetown. It’s open for self-guided tours limited hours, and in summer there are sometimes reenactments of rescue missions.
It was cold here and Milo had shed his fleece for some reason:
This was a fairly quick stop, but fascinating. First you see all the boats and rescue equipment (there are signs on the walls explaining things and people there to answer questions):
Then you can tour the rest of the building and see the quarters where the men working here would stay for months at a time. I heard one of the rangers saying that these are indeed the original colors, in case you’re wondering about the interesting choices:
After we left here, we were pleased to find that we had just enough time to stop by Highland Light in Truro before we needed to pick the dogs up from doggie daycare. Abe wasn’t old enough for the tour, so he and Dave went off to buy some drinks in town while the older kids and I went up.
Highland Light is part of the National Seashore, but there was no discount here with Gus’ Every Kid in a Park pass. The admission is $6 for adults and $5 for students and seniors, and kids have to be 48 inches tall to go up. First we got a short introduction to the lighthouse and its history from our guide, including the story of how they moved it farther inland to protect it from erosion, and then we were free to climb up. There’s a spiral staircase followed by a ladder to get to the very top:
I’m not a fan of ladders, but it wasn’t so bad, and the view from the top was lovely:
And then we were out of time and we rushed back to Eastham to get the dogs. It was a busy, packed day, and there was still so much we didn’t get to see!