Tucked away on the south end of the Cape Cod National Seashore is one of my favorite vistas on Cape Cod: Fort Hill. To get here, just follow Route 6 to Eastham, turn on to Governor Prence Road, and follow it past the Captain Penniman House to the top of the hill. My boys think I talk too much about Fort Hill, and I will admit there is some truth to what they say. I regularly bring our guests here for a photo and/or a hike, and always point out Fort Hill when I take passengers out on my boat. I also have a habit of showing Fort Hill to guests visiting our house for the first time, since we have a clear view of it from our side of the cove. Okay, okay, maybe I do have a Fort Hill problem. 😏
Fort Hill marks the start of the Cape Cod National Seashore. It is a relatively short walk with two major trails: Fort Hill and Red Maple Swamp. The Fort Hill trail will take you on a loop past the Captain Penniman House, up to the top of the hill, and along the shores of the Nauset Estuary. The Red Maple Swamp trail will take you on a short boardwalk above a marsh in the woods. These trails are popular among birders, providing opportunities to see a diverse range of birds in the spring and summer seasons. What these trails lack in length and difficulty they make up for with some of the best views on Cape Cod. Standing at the top of Fort Hill you can see the entire Nauset Estuary, from the Coast Guard Station in Eastham all the way to Nauset Harbor in Orleans.
This area of Cape Cod was first settled about 4,000 years ago by the Nauset Indians. Due to the location of the Cape, the Nausets were one of the first tribes to receive regular encounters from Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries. This early contact exposed the tribes of New England to diseases that would eventually decimate their populations. When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, they found empty villages and unplowed fields, which they mistook as the "providence of God" instead of for what it was: the remnants of a great pandemic. While the Nausets were likely less impacted than mainland tribes, both disease and encroachment by Europeans continued to reduce their populations. This decline was accelerated when settlers from the Plymouth Colony received permission to settle in the areas that today comprise Eastham, Wellfleet and Orleans. There was a meetinghouse for this settlement not far from Fort Hill, and the name for this area is likely derived from it being a good defensive location for the early European settlement (although a fort never existed on this hill).
Fort Hill also has a prominent place in the history of the Cape Cod National Seashore. In the 1950s, the United States was seeing its seashores rapidly disappear to commercial development. To prevent all of the shores from turning into the next Miami Beach - with high rises lining all the beach front - the Department of Interior launched a major initiative to create new national parks. While the legislation was crawling its way slowly through Congress, Fort Hill was purchased by a commercial developer and partitioned into lots for housing. This provided a key turning point in the Cape Cod National Seashore debate: a 1961 visit by key Congressional leaders. At the end of a helicopter tour, the Congressmen landed at what is today the top parking lot, where one of the aids pointed out the soon to be subdivision. “That decided it for me!” said one of the Congressmen. By August of 1961 the Cape Cod National Seashore bill was passed and this area preserved for future generations.
There are two parking lots, one at the base of the hill and one at the top. While the upper parking lot has limited capacity, the lower parking lot has good availability throughout all seasons. You should plan for about an hour to do both trails. Bring binoculars for better views of Nauset Estuary. You should be able to spot some birds and the Orleans-Eastham fishing fleet, which is moored by the Nauset Inlet. Follow the Fort Hill trail all the way to Hemenway Landing, where you can see fishermen working. Also, sometimes the best visit to Fort Hill doesn’t involve hiking at all. Try visiting any time just for the views. It is especially dramatic in the morning at sunrise. But whatever you do, you should take a picture by the split rail fence and send it to me so I can show my boys that I am not the only Fort Hill groupie they know.