The Nauset Estuary is a coastal marsh on Cape Cod that spans the towns of Orleans and Eastham. It includes an incredible diversity of landcape, such as coves, ponds, grassy shores, hills, meadows, hummocks, a barrier beach, and narrow marsh channels - all fed from an inlet to the Atlantic Ocean that cleans and replenishes the nutrients of the estuary through tidal action. The estuary is about 3.5 miles in north-south length about 2 miles east-west, with numerous public landings, three boat launches, and one public dock.
While the estuary is one of the most scenic areas of Cape Cod, it is also one of the less explored ones due to the lack of clearly marked public access and a less than friendly inlet. To make it a little more approachable, I am chronicling my top things to do on the Nauset Estuary:
1 - Powerboating
The Nauset Estuary is a popular place for powerboating. We enjoy taking our boat out for tubing, waterskiing, fishing, sunset tours, seal tours, going to the beach (a.k.a. the Outer Beach), and even just having an evening cocktail on the water. But one of our favorite things to do lately is to find a quiet spot out of the channel, drop the anchor, and then swim away the afternoon in the warm inner coastal water.
If you don’t own a powerboat, you can rent a pontoon or a small aluminum boat at Goose Hummock on 6A in Orleans. Warning: many areas of the estuary can get very shallow at low tide, so you should either: a) stay in deep areas (i.e. Town Cove), b) put in the time to familiarize yourself with the area, or c) go slow. It helps to have a boat with a low draft though. My boat has a 16” draft, which allows me to navigate most but not all of the estuary. The Starcraft boats you can rent at Goose have a 6” draft - but even then I still see boaters beach themselves when leaving the marked channel. But if you are willing to go slow, even a new boater can safely navigate the estuary.
The channel is marked by the harbormaster using traditional red/green buoys from Town Cove all the way to Nauset Harbor. Once you veer off of this channel - i.e. to go north to Cable Creek or to head toward the Nauset Spit, navigation will change to orange fisherman buoys. If you are not familiar with these buoys, they are meant to be run buoy to buoy (no red right return rule here). This is sort of the harbormaster's way of telling you: proceed at your own risk. It can get very shallow around here at all tides, and I've seen boaters run aground on numerous occasions. Be careful.
2 - The Beach
About three quarters of a mile north from the Nauset Beach parking lot in Orleans is the start of the Nauset Spit. The spit is a two mile long barrier beach that separates the Atlantic Ocean on the east from the Nauset Estuary on the west. It is accessible by foot, boat, or oversand vehicle. The beach stretches from Orleans in the south to Eastham in the north. It is about 400-500 feet wide, and consists of pristine white sand and low dunes covered with beach grass. If you walk all the way to the northern tip of the spit, you will be at the Nauset Inlet, which connects the estuary to the Atlantic Ocean.
Since Orleans allows oversand vehicles on the Nauset Spit, you will see a lot of vehicles on the south side during the summer months. You will know you are entering Eastham when you see a turnout with a sign telling you not to drive any further. A favorite activity for Orleans residents is to drive out on the spit via Callanan’s Pass to spend the day on the beach. But I personally enjoy the Eastham side more, since it is much less crowded due to it being accessible only via boat or a long oversand walk. It’s a really unique Cape Cod experience to beach your boat on the spit and claim your own private beach for the day.
3 - Kayaking / Paddleboarding
There are several public landings and docks in Orleans and Eastham from which you can launch a kayak or paddleboard. You can explore Town Cove, which is sort of like a saltwater lake that includes Hopkins Island. You can also navigate through the narrow channels in the marsh, go to the Nauset Spit, and even go all the way to Mill Pond if you have the endurance. Depending on the time of year, you will likely see many different types of marine creatures, waterfowl and even seals. But what I enjoy most is the incredible scenery: from the green of the coastal marshes to the wildflower meadows of Fort Hill to the yellow-green of the Nauset Spit to the glistening boats on mooring in Nauset Harbor.
If you don't have a paddle kayak, I highly recommend you plan your trip around winds and currents though. I personally only go out on days with little or no wind, and plan my return trip for a rising tide, which will usually generate a current to push you back toward Town Cove. I’ve watched many kayakers and paddle boarders struggle against an opposing current when returning from the Nauset Spit due to poor planning. One year my niece and her friends had to call home for a boat rescue after tiring themselves out.
4 - Swimming
The Atlantic side of Cape Cod has gained a reputation in the last few years as being dangerous for swimming due to sharks. The growing seal population has brought Great White sharks closer to shore. We averaged about 30 shark sightings per week last season in the 35 mile stretch facing the Atlantic, with many just a few yards off the shore. For this reason, I won't go in the ocean deeper than my knees. But I make an exception for the Nauset Estuary, which as an inland coastal waterway is entirely shark free. In fact, in its 400+ years of recorded history, there has never been a shark in the estuary. Unfortunately what makes it shark free also makes the Nauset Inlet hard to navigate to the Atlantic Ocean, which we will discuss in more detail later.
The water in the estuary is always several degrees warmer than the Atlantic and Cape Cod Bay, making it very comfortable for swimming from June through September. The best places to swim are from a public landing / dock, Nauset Harbor, Nauset Beach, or directly from your boat (note: see the harbormaster websites for each town for landings / docks; e.g. Orleans). While there is limited parking, you can also swim at Priscilla Landing, which has a nice estuary-facing beach. If you have a small powerboat, kayak or paddleboard, one of my favorite things to do is to bring it to the Nauset Spit, which allows you to to swim on either the Atlantic side (sharks) or the estuary side (no sharks). I’ll let you guess which one I prefer. 😉 Please note that there are no lifeguards on the Nauset Spit, so you are on your own with respective to safety.
5 - Hiking
There are several short walking trails around the Nauset Estuary that offer some great vistas. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Fort Hill - This is my go-to walk when I have visitors. What this trail lacks in length, it more than makes up for with its scenic vistas - from wildflower meadows to a Cape Cod whaler home to the Red Maple Swamp.
- Nauset Marsh Trail - This trail loop starts at the Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham and brings you to the back of Coast Guard Beach. It includes one of my favorite vistas on Cape Cod: the view looking out from the Vistor Center across the marsh and to the barrier beach.
- Woods Cove - This is my own improvised trail that starts at the Woods Cove trailhead on Tonset Road, follows around Weeset Point to Nauset Harbor, and then continues along the shore until you get to the entrance of Mill Pond. Please note that the path around Weeset Point is transiting private property so it is important you be respectful to the owners. Parts of this trail will flood at high tide during some seasons, so you should plan accordingly.
- Doane Trail - If you want some great views of the Coast Guard Station, park at the Doane Rock Picnic area in Eastham and follow the Doane Trail path through the woods toward the beach. At the end of the bridge over the marsh you will find a faint trail on the right on the far side of the bridge that takes you through back toward the marsh and to the south side of Coast Guard Beach.
- Nauset Spit - If you are up for a moderately difficult beach walk, start at the parking lot at Nauset Beach and walk north until you get to the Nauset Inlet (about 0.75 miles to the spit, about a 6 mile hike roundtrip). I like to bring my surfcasting rod along for this walk just in case I run into fish blitzing near the beach. The best way to guarantee you'll see a fish blitz though is to not bring your fishing rod.
6 - Fishing
While no one will ever accuse me of being a fisherman, I do like getting some lines wet each season. Thanks to the continued advice of Phil at Goose Hummock, I occasionally even catch fish too. While the Nauset Estuary has several different species of fish - e.g. flounder, needlefish, poppers, bluefish, mackerel - most people fish it for the stripers (a.k.a. striped bass). Starting around May the stripers will have made the way from their winter grounds in the Chesapeake Bay and Hudson River to the Nauset Estuary. For the most part, you will only find small striped bass - a.k.a. schoolies, which are less than 28” - in the estuary. That said, schools of larger stripers do occasionally make their way in the estuary and I have caught (rarely) slot limit stripers from the shore.
You can fish from the shore or a boat. Shore fishing can be done from any public dock, or by finding a landing and walking along the shore. If you are not sure where to start, I recommend going to the Goose Hummock docks in Orleans and casting a line in. While the shores around the estuary are mostly private land, Massachusetts grants the general public the right to fish or shellfish along the water's edge. This means you can fish almost all the estuary without worrying about trampling on private land... as long as you stay below the high tide line and have a fishing pole in your hand. While I have had a lot of success fishing from the shore, I can't say the same about fishing from a boat in the estuary. I do however see a lot of bass boats that seem to have some success fishing the marsh and hummocks out near the spit.
Assuming you have the right gear, another option is surfcasting from the Nauset Spit. My typical strategy here is to walk along the shore from the Nauset Beach parking lot to the Nauset spit at changing tide while looking for beach blitzes. If you time it right, you can catch some big stripers and blues surfcasting from here.
7 - Shellfishing
The Nauset Estuary is filled with shellfish, including quahogs, steamers, razor clams, cherrystones, mussels, oysters, lobsters and more. I’ve been told there are places you can recreational dive for lobsters, but have never been able to pry this jealously guarded secret from the people who know it. But it is surprisingly easy to fill a bucket with fresh shellfish by just going a few feet into the water and digging.
The first step of shellfishing is to get a permit for the town in which you will fish (e.g. Orleans). It is important to read the regulations before your first trip, which will include permitted locations and limits for keeping your shellfish. Unfortunately the Nauset Estuary will periodically have a red tide bloom, so you will also need to pay attention to notifications on the town websites about shellfish closures, which will happen a few times a year.
The most common approach to shellfishing is to use a rake and basket to collect the clams, which live an inch or two in the soft bottom of the estuary. But we also have a luck walking in the water until we feel the clams under our feet and pulling them up with our bare hands. Shellfishing is a surprisingly fun activity for all ages.
8 - Birdwatching
I’m not a birdwatcher so won’t be able to give a lot of detail here. That said, I know the Nauset Estuary is one of the more popular locations on the Cape for birdwatchers. I have seen blue herons, egrets, hawks, cranes and more in the estuary. There is also a flock of swans that live in Town Cove, and a pair of ospreys make a nest on the pole on Hopkins Island every year, from which they will lay eggs and raise their chicks. The Massachusetts Audubon in Wellfleet will usually charter a pontoon boat to take members on a trip in the estuary each season. I wish I could tell you more, but unfortunately this one is just not my jam.
9 - Seal Watching
The seals start to make their way into the estuary in May, and by August you will find herds of them lounging on sandbars. The Cape has two types of seals: the smaller harbor seals, and the giant gray seals (500+ pounds). They are best seen from a boat, so if you don’t have one, you can either rent a boat from Goose Hummock or go on one of the boat tours (e.g. Nauset Boat Tours).
While the location of the herds will shift around throughout the season, I generally find them on my way to the spit, near the fishing fleet, or sometimes on the sandbars at the entrance to the Nauset Inlet. While they are surprisingly cute - sort of looking like puppies with their big eyes looking our from the water - I’ve seen one too many YouTube videos of a 500 pound seal jumping in the back of a fishing boat to ever want to get too close.
Please make sure to view from a distance and stop or slow the use of your motor as you near them.
10 - Watch a Sunrise or Sunset
With the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Cape Cod Bay to the west, you can see spectacular sunrises and sunsets from the Outer Cape. The best places to watch a sunrise in the Nauset Estuary is either from Fort Hill or Nauset Beach. Fort Hill offers the most convenience, since you can park in the small lot at the top and wait for the sun to start its rise. But it's also nice to go to Nauset Beach and watch the sunrise from the comfort of your beach chair. On occasion I've even caught a whale sighting from the shore while watching the sun come up.
While the estuary does not have the same dramatic sunsets as the bay side, if you are on the Nauset Spit at dusk, you will sometimes catch some nice views of the sun setting over the marsh. I never tire of a great sunrise / sunset.
11 - Drive Oversand
If you are an Orleans resident, own a four wheel drive vehicle, and are willing to pay for an oversand driving permit, you can take your vehicle out on the Nauset Spit via Callanan’s Pass. As a general rule, you will find the trails on Nauset Beach South to be much longer and more interesting - but we will only talk about Nauset Beach North since this post is about the Nauset Estuary.
You will need all the requisite equipment - e.g. tire pumps, tow straps, shovel, tire gauge, wooden boards. Since the section of beach permitted for oversand is relatively small on the Nauset Spit, it is primarily used by people who are looking to spend the day at the beach. In the summer you will see a continuous row of Jeeps and trucks lined up facing the beach, surrounded by their toys - e.g. grills, wind breaks, beach chairs, volleyball nets, beach umbrellas, surf casting rods, and more. The entrance to the pass will be guarded in season by someone who will validate your Orleans OSV sticker, so don't bother trying to get on the beach without a proper permit. This one is truly a unique Orleans experiences.
Oversand driving has been a source of tension between the towns of Orleans and Eastham in the past. Until the 1990s, the inlet into the estuary was located much further south on the Nauset Spit in Orleans. But a storm opened up the current inlet, cutting Eastham off from its direct access to the Nauset Spit. As the old inlet filled in, the only way to get to the Eastham section of the spit was through Orleans. Eventually Eastham banned Orleans residents from driving oversand on their section of the Nauset Spit, which is why the turnout / signs exist today.
12 - Sailing
I managed to sink the first sailboat I ever sailed as a young adult, so I really shouldn't be offering sailing advice. That said, the Town Cove area of the Nauset Estuary is a great place for small sailboats, such as catboats and sunfish. Over the last few years I've also seen an increasing use of windsurfers and eFoils all the way out to the Nauset Spit. Unfortunately there is no place to rent sailboats in the estuary, so you will have to bring your own. Alternatively you could get a membership at the Orleans Yacht Club, which would give you access to their fleet of member-only sailboats. Only a couple miles from the estuary is Arey's Pond Boat Builder, one of the top custom boat builders on Cape Cod, that specializes in cat boats that are perfect for Town Cove.
13 - Go for Bike Ride
The Cape Cod Rail Trail is one of the hidden gems of the Cape. It is a 25-mile paved trail that runs from Yarmouth all the way to Wellfleet. Built on the former location of a railroad line that went bankrupt in the 1970s, it is wide, flat and incredibly scenic. The specific stretch we will focus on here takes you from the trail entrance on Main Street in Orleans (right near the rental shops Orleans Cycle and Idle Times Bike) all the way to Coast Guard Beach. Note: you will need to leave the main trail in Eastham to follow the signs to the beach, which will take you across Route 6, to the Salt Pond Visitor Center, and then back on a bike trail through the woods. It's a beautiful ride that will give you several great views of the estuary as you approach the Coast Guard Station. If you have energy left when you arrive at the beach, bike up the hill on Ocean View Drive until you reach the Nauset Light lighthouse. This is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the area, and is featured on every bag of Cape Cod Potato Chips.
14 - Cocktails & Food By the Water
There are two restaurants with waterfront views to the estuary: the Orleans Waterfront Inn and the Double Dragon Inn (ask to be seated on back deck). While I can’t vouch for the food in either location, I have enjoyed a cocktail from the Orleans Waterfront Inn on several occasions. If you have a boat, you can use the public dock in front of the inn to arrive in style. You should keep an eye out for ghosts while sipping your cocktail though, since the Inn of the Dead episode of Ghost Hunters was filmed here.
15 - Boating on the Atlantic Ocean
Access to the Atlantic Ocean from the Nauset Estuary comes via the Nauset Inlet, which is a narrow channel that is one of the more challenging inlets on the Cape. I like to go out the inlet for touring the Cape Cod National Seashore. It’s an incredible experience to see the seashore from the water. Once out the inlet, you just head north within a mile of shore, passing from Coast Guard Beach in Eastham through Wellfleet, Truro and even all the way to Provincetown if you are ambitious. I also like to fish out the inlet, which offers both nearshore and offshore fishing. As mentioned previously, I always check in with my friends at Goose Hummock before making a fishing trip out the inlet. But even with my limited skill, I've caught some big stripped bass and bluefish right off Nauset Beach. I've even seen Great White sharks out the inlet.
Now for the warning: remember when I told you a shark has never been sighted in the esturary in 400+ years of recorded history? Well there is a good reason for that. Navigating the Nauset Inlet can be very challenging, so please don’t try this unless you are an experienced boater. The multiple sandbars near the inlet make for a narrow channel through which you can safely pass, with breakers that usually hit you broadside as you are making your way out. You generally have to restrict your time out the inlet to the two hours on either side of high tide due to shallow water in the estuary and inlet. The Eastham harbormaster marks the channel with orange buoys each season that you can use to navigate, but even then you'll have some white knuckes making your way out. It took me two years of boating in the estuary to work up the courage to go out the inlet - and even then I only did it my first time with an experienced captain. Even today I will only go out in clear weather, no / low wind, and less than 2' waves. I usually use one of the many surf report sites to get a sense of the conditions outside the inlet. I also have learned to clear all my GPS tracks at the start of each season since the sands shift around so much over the winter.
16 - Reading
I know reading is something you can do anywhere, but it’s worth mentioning there are two must-read books that were written right here on the Nauset Estuary. The first is The House on Nauset Marsh, by Wyman Richardson, which was written in the 1940s and captures the beauty of this area in an era when it was much more rural and isolated. You will pass Richardson’s former house, which is still owned by his family, if you walk the Nauset Marsh Trail.
The second book - and my favorite on Cape Cod - is Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, which chronicles a year the author spent living on the outer beach in Eastham in the 1920s. The beach shack Beston lived in was located not far from the northern side of the Nauset Spit. Unfortunately it was washed into the estuary during the great blizzard of 1978 (note: the actual location of the house was a couple hundred feet off the shore now due to erosion). If you really like The Outermost House, you may also want to read Orion on the Dunes, which is a biography of Henry Beston.
17 - Instagramming
If you are looking to take some great photos for your Instagram account, the Nauset Estuary won't disappoint. Here are a few of the top spots for photos:
- Salt Pond Visitor Center - Behind the Salt Pond Visitor Center is one of the most iconic views of the Nauset Estuary, providing a scenic view of Salt Pond, the marshes, and the barrier beach.
- Fort Hill - If you drive to the top of Fort Hill and park in the small lot at the top, you will be looking across the full expanse of the estuary. It's hard not to get a few great shots from here.
- Mill Pond - At the end of Mill Pond Road you can walk around the shore of a point. The views looking east toward the barrier beach never disappoint.
- Nauset Harbor - You can go to the end of Tonset Road or Snow Shore Road to get a nice picture of Nauset Harbor, with its boats on mooring and stacks of lobster traps. Some of my best pictures here are taken early morning of just before dusk.
- Nauset Inlet - If you can get on the Nauset Spit, there are many great photos to take - from the dunes to the ocean to the fishing fleet.
- Bridge over Nauset Bay - If you follow the Doane Trail to the wooden bridge, there are some great photos to take of the marsh, the bridge, and the Coast Guard Station (if you follow the trail to the right at the end of the bridge).
I'd love to see your photos so feel free to pass them on to joe.kinsella on Instagram.
18 - Learn About the History of Area
With a history spanning thousands of years, you can uncover stories from each era - e.g. from the thousands of years the Nausets inhabited this land, the arrival of the Pilgrims, the first settlement from Plymouth, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, World War I, and more. Below are a few of the many sites you can use in your own personal history tour:
- Nauset Beach - This has the distinction of having been the only place in the United States to be attacked in World War I. In 1918 a German sub surfaced off Nauset Beach to attack shipping and shelled the heights. Some believe their true intent was to cut the transatlantic telegraph cable that ran through Town Cove.
- Jonathan Young Windmill - Built in the early 1700s and moved in 1839 to its present location, this may be the oldest mindwill on Cape Cod.
- Orleans Waterfront Inn - The Snow family was one of the original settlers to Cape Cod from the Plymouth Colony. A descendent, Aaron Snow, built this home for his general store and for his family to live in. With less shoaling in the 19th century, big schooners would make their way to the docks here to unload their cargo, making this the commerce hub of the Outer Cape.
- Jeremiah's Gutter - In the early 1700s, a storm created the original Cape Cod canal: a narrow waterway from Town Cove to Cape Cod Bay. The canal has since been filled in and covered with the Route 6 rotary, but you can still find the location where it would have entered Town Cove.
- Sea Call Farm - This was one of the last trunk farms in the area, and thanks to the town, has been preserved for future generations. This is also near one of several salt works that were operating here, in an era when Cape Cod supplied much of the nation's salt (this ended with the discovery of salt mines in Syracuse, New York).
- French Cable Station - This current day museum was the termination point for the second transatlantic telegraph cable, which ran from France all the way to Orleans through Town Cove. All the communications to the US army in World War I would have been routed through this station.
- Nauset Harbor - In 1605 the French explorer Samuel de Champlain moored his ship off Nauset harbor and made what may be one of the best historic maps of this area. Skirmishes with the Nausets convinced Champlain not to make a settlement on Cape Cod.
- Nauset Heights - This area was one of several that were used by the Nauset Indians for farming. They were the original inhabitants of Cape Cod: a peaceful Algonquian tribe that inhabited this area for over 4,000 years until they were pushed out by violence, racism, disease, and encroachment from European settlers. It is worth taking a moment here to acknowledge the Native Americans who inhabited Cape Cod and surrounding lands from after the Ice Age until the arrival of Europeans. The Native people who once lived peacefully in these lands suffered greatly, and their descendents continue to experience injustices today.
- Fort Hill - In addition to being inhabited by Native Americans, this was also a gathering place for the early settlers from Plymouth. It is also the sight of a key moment in the construction of the Cape Cod National Seashore, where key Congressmen arrived here via helicopter to see the lot markings for the housing development that was to be built here. Fortunately they went back to Washington DC and passed the Congressional act that created the National Seashore.
Okay I'll stop here since this section could easily become longer than my entire post. You should never let me get started talking history. Please check in with the Centers for Culture & History in Orleans for additional information on this area.
19 - Community Gardening
I know I’m digging deep on this one, but this really is something you can do on the Nauset Estuary. On the western edge of Town Cove is Sea Call Farm, which offers plots to garden. This was one of the last trunk farms on Cape Cod: small farms that produced diverse vegetables for sale in local markets in an era when the lack of major roads and railways made it hard to get fresh produce this far out on the Cape. There is also a path here that you can take down to Town Cove.
The Nauset Estuary is one of the most beautiful areas of Cape Cod, and one I believe that gets overlooked due to its lack of clearly marked public access. I hope these activities help get you started on your adventure on the marsh. Enjoy.