The weather begins to cool and the leaves change color amid a backdrop of scenic coastline. Welcome to Cape Cod in the fall!
It’s no secret that Cape Cod is a popular summer destination. In July and August, vacationers head across the Sagamore Bridge in droves to enjoy the Cape’s endless beaches and sunshine. Cape Cod and the islands are teeming with life during those peak summer months, so you can expect lots of crowds and traffic during this time.
Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the peak season isn’t the best time to visit Cape Cod. The “second summer” in September and October, is.
If you’re looking to escape the long lines and standing shoulder to shoulder with other people, visit Cape Cod during its shoulder season, specifically from mid-September to mid-October. This is also known as the “second summer,” when you get to enjoy the Cape’s exciting outdoor activities along with some solitude. You’ll quickly find out why Cape Codders consider this the best time of year on the Cape.
Here are 12 reasons why you should visit Cape Cod in the fall!
1. Beautiful weather without the crowds
This is the main draw to visiting Cape Cod in September and October.
With warm days and cooler nights, the weather is still comfortable so you can enjoy the outdoors without bumping into lots of people. This is especially nice during COVID times when you can easily practice social distancing. Later in this article, I’ll mention some helpful resources and my experiences as it relates to COVID-19.
During this time of year, the weather is perfect for biking, hiking, kayaking, golfing, and paddle boarding, among other outdoor activities. It’s not uncommon to have some 80+ degree days thrown into the mix, so you can still go swimming at the beach or hotel pool as well. At the time of writing this article on September 16, 2020, the water temperature on Cape Cod is 73.4 °F (23 °C) according to watertemperature.net, which is still suitable for swimming!
I really enjoyed the weather during my visit in mid-September, wearing short sleeves and shorts during the day and a light sweater some nights. I prefer it this way when there’s less heat, humidity, and mosquitoes!
Come to Cape Cod in September and October, and you’ll never want to visit any other time of year.
2. Discounted hotel room rates
Like everywhere else, hotel prices in Cape Cod drop significantly if you go during the off season. After Labor Day, you’ll start seeing some discounts on accommodations that only get better as you move further into the shoulder season. Why pay full price in July and August when you can come a little bit later, pay less, and basically have the whole place to yourself? It’s a no-brainer, really. Fall in Cape Cod is where it’s at!
Where to stay in Cape Cod
Unless your heart is set on one particular area, I recommend staying somewhere near the “elbow” of the Cape. That way, you’re centrally located between Sandwich and Falmouth (in the west) and Provincetown (on the northern tip). Anywhere between Dennis, Chatham, and Orleans are convenient for getting around the Cape. The map below shows these three locations; I recommend staying somewhere within that triangle if you can!
During my recent visit to Cape Cod, I stayed at the Pelham House Resort in Dennis Port. It was recently renovated, so the rooms, facilities, and grounds are all beautiful! The hotel is also super close to Route 28, so it’s easy to get around the Cape (especially the southern parts).
The Pelham House Resort is a classic Cape Cod accommodation with beachfront hotel rooms, a pool, private beach, rooftop restaurant, and cozy patio where you can feel the cool coastal breeze and warmth of nearby firepits.
By day, relax at the pool with a cocktail in hand or soak in the sun at the beach. By night, overlook the Nantucket Sound from the rooftop terrace or your hotel room balcony. You’ll never want to leave – trust me!
3. The fall foliage
The fall foliage in New England never disappoints, and you’ll definitely want to add Cape Cod to your list of places to see it!
Take a drive down Route 6A (the Old King’s Highway), a scenic byway that takes you past some of the most beautiful towns and landscapes on the Cape. If you’re into bike riding, head down the Cape Cod Rail Trail where you’ll also find some spectacular fall foliage. Additionally, the Cape Cod National Seashore is a great place for hiking and leaf peeping. Nothing beats seeing red, orange, and yellow leaves amid a backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s no wonder that this is among the top things to do on Cape Cod in the fall.
In Cape Cod, the leaves typically begin changing color in late September, and the peak foliage is between mid and late October. I recommend checking out this New England Fall Foliage Map to see when you can expect the peak foliage on the Cape. Happy leaf peeping!
4. Whale watching
If there’s one unique thing you should do on the Cape, it’s a whale watch.
Cape Cod is globally renowned for being a top whale-watching destination. The Cape’s warm coastal waters host a variety of whales, including humpback, fin, minke, sei, and right whales. The one you’re most likely to see on a whale watch is the humpback whale, which grow up to 52 feet (16 m) long and can weigh 66,000 lbs (29,937 kg), or 33 tons. You can’t miss ‘em! But in the extremely rare event that you don’t see them, all whale watches provide refunds/credits.
I did my whale watch with Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch, which sets sail from Provincetown. Founded in 1975, this was the first New England whale watch, and based on TripAdvisor and Google reviews, it’s consistently ranked as one of the best. After doing a whale watch with them, I would recommend it to anyone!
It was an incredible experience to see these massive and majestic whales up close! I also enjoyed the commentary onboard, which helped me learn a little bit more about whales and their ecosystem. The whale watch was a little over 3 hours long (typical for a whale watch) and I got to see several humpback whales and even some dolphins.
Like the rest of Cape Cod, the whale watch crew did a great job ensuring passenger safety as it relates to COVID-19. Here were some safety measures that I noticed:
- Multiple sanitizing stations on board
- Railings and other surfaces on board were regularly disinfected
- Masks were required the whole time
- Vessel was kept at 50% passenger capacity.
These measures are particularly important on a whale watch, given that it can sometimes be challenging to maintain social distancing as passengers scurry from one end of the boat to the other in search of whales.
Responsible whale watching on the Cape is a great way to boost awareness of these beautiful creatures so we can do our best to protect them. This was an eye-opening experience and I’d recommend it for anyone who loves animals and the ocean.
This is a great activity in the late summer and early fall before the whales migrate south for the winter.
5. Farmers’ Markets
With fall weather comes the fall harvest, so it’s no surprise that farmers’ markets pop up all over the Cape during this time.
From Sandwich to Provincetown, there are many farmers’ markets held throughout the week where you’ll find everything from fresh corn and tomatoes to squash, apples, and pies. Local produce and artisan goods are sold here, so you’re bound to find something delicious and festive wherever you go!
Each town’s farmers’ market is held just one day a week for a few hours. Here’s the 2020 schedule of different farmers’ markets around Cape Cod:
If you don’t have time to visit a farmers’ market, don’t fret! Many restaurants around the Cape source ingredients locally, so you’ll have other opportunities to enjoy the local fall flavor.
6. You’ll have most bike trails to yourself
Cape Cod has mostly flat terrain, perfect for bike rides!
There are over 100 miles of paved bike paths, including the Cape Cod Rail Trail, which runs from Dennis to Wellfleet. There’s also a 7-mile path that runs along both sides of the Cape Cod Canal.
Unlike the summer, when you’re sharing these bike paths with lots of tourists, the fall sees mostly locals using them. There are far fewer locals than tourists, so you’ll have these bike paths almost all to yourself in September/October. Plus, it doesn’t get too hot during the day, making bike rides more comfortable and enjoyable.
Bring your own bike or rent one from one of the many bike rental shops sprawled around the Cape. I recommend calling the rental shop before showing up, though, as these businesses are seasonal and may have abbreviated hours due to COVID-19.
Soak in the foliage, crisp fall air, and gentle sea breeze as you cycle around Cape Cod. You won’t want to get around the Cape any other way!
7. Hiking is more enjoyable with cooler weather and fall colors
Nature walks are another amazing way to explore Cape Cod and take in the fall scenery.
From seaside sand dunes to dense woodlands, Cape Cod offers an array of hiking trails for hobbyists and advanced hikers alike. Here are my favorite hikes:
Dune Shacks Trail: This is one of the most unique hikes on Cape Cod. It’s a 2.6-mile out and back trail in Provincetown where you’ll pass by rolling sand dunes, sweeping coastal views, and historic dune shacks. Be sure to wear proper footwear, as trekking up these steep sand dunes can be pretty tough! This hike is featured in my article: best hikes in New England.
Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail: A 1.2 mile loop in Wellfleet where you’ll walk through Cape Cod’s scenic woodland and swampland. A boardwalk takes you past white cedar trees that have a cool and mysterious look to them. If you visit Cape Cod in early September, bring bug spray for the mosquitoes! Otherwise, in the fall you won’t have to worry about that. Don’t let the word “swamp” scare you, as this trail is incredibly inviting and picturesque.
Great Island Trail: A four- to nine-mile trail (depending on how far you wish to go) in Wellfleet, MA. The trail takes you along the Cape Cod National Seashore, one of the most beautiful and “wild” parts of the Cape.
Be sure to also check out some of Cape Cod’s State Parks, including Nickerson State Park in Brewster, South Cape Beach State Park in Mashpee, and Scusset Beach State Reservation along the Cape Cod Canal.
In addition, go for a stroll along the Cape’s many beaches, which are basically empty this time of year. Tip: many beaches allow dogs after Columbus Day, so be sure to bring your pup along!
8. Sunrises and sunsets are amazing in the fall
Fall sunrises and sunsets are the best, so find yourself a beach on the Cape and enjoy them!
During the autumn months, dry Canadian air begins to sweep into the northeast USA. This makes the sky more vibrant than in the summer. I’m not going to get into the science behind this, but as a travel photographer, I’ve found this to be true. If you don’t believe me, feel free to read this article on weather.com. 😊
My favorite sunrise spot is Nauset Beach in Orleans, MA (not to be confused with Nauset Light Beach in Eastham, which is home to Nauset Lighthouse – featured on the Cape Cod Potato Chips bags!). Here, you’ll have a great view of Cape Cod’s eastern shoreline when the sun rises over the horizon.
You can enjoy sunsets from pretty much anywhere on the Cape, but I recommend Bound Brook Island Beach in Wellfleet if you’re looking for solitude. This is a hidden gem on Cape Cod, especially during the fall months, so you’ll likely have much of the beach to yourself.
To get to Bound Brook Island Beach, park at the Atwood-Higgins House and then walk a mile down a dirt path to the beach. When you hit a fork in the path, keep left along Bound Brook Island Road until you find yourself next to sand dunes and the beach.
Catching the sunrise and sunset is a must when you’re on the Cape. So bring a sweater, camera, and companion, and enjoy!
9. Fall festivals galore
The summer isn’t the only time of year with fun festivals. Come here in the fall, and you’ll have plenty of festivals, fests, and fairs to choose from.
In a normal year, Cape Cod is bursting with fun fall festivals. Sadly, due to COVID-19, fests are cancelled this fall. Here’s what you can look forward to in 2021:
Wellfleet Oyster Fest: A popular event held in mid-October that celebrates the region’s local shellfishing traditions. Here, you can sample the town’s famous oysters, while enjoying art, music, and games.
Yarmouth Seaside Festival: A craft fair in October with a parade, music entertainment, games, contests, and more! The bonfire and fireworks are another highlight of this free event.
Cape Cod Brew Fest: A 3.5-hour beer festival where you can sample beer from over 100 local breweries. It’s definitely one of the top Cape Cod fall events.
Fall for the Arts Festival: A month-long celebration in October and November that hosts live music performances, art exhibits, and other family-friendly activities.
For more unique Cape Cod fests, check out the Cape Cod Chamber website!
10. It’s the best time of year to tour a cranberry bog
Ever thought about taking a tour of a cranberry bog? Make your taste buds tingle and support a local industry in the process by visiting one of these cool cranberry bogs on Cape Cod: https://www.cranberries.org/visit
Interestingly, Massachusetts harvests about 1/3 of the country’s total supply of cranberries. There are over 14,000 acres of cranberry bogs in the state, and many of them are on the Cape. These natural bogs were left behind by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago!
Massachusetts’ cranberry harvest season begins in late-September and usually wraps up by late October or early November. It coincides with the fall foliage season, so the Cape is brought to color in more than one way. You can also tour the bogs outside of this season, as tours typically run from June to December.
By taking a cranberry bog tour, you will not only learn about an important local industry, but also get your photo taken and try some fresh cranberries. They’re even better than the kind that ends up on your plate on Thanksgiving!
11. It’s a great time to visit the Heritage Museums & Gardens
Stroll around the Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich and you’ll see why this is one of the best Cape Cod fall activities. It’s home to over 100 acres of beautiful gardens filled with flowers, trees, and shrubs that will boost your mood.
Throughout the gardens, you’ll find a traditional Cape Cod windmill, a Norwegian-inspired treehouse, and so much more! There’s also a car museum housed in a building that was modeled after the Round Stone Barn at Hancock Shaker Village in the Berkshires (photos below). Though instead of finding cows and lambs inside, there are 40 classic American cars ranging from 1899-1962. To anyone who likes cars, it’s a very impressive collection!
The Heritage Museums & Gardens is the perfect outdoor outing in the late summer and early fall. It’s open through October 18, so be sure to squeeze in a visit before the weather gets colder. After visiting here in the fall, you’ll absolutely want to come back for more in the spring and summer when flowers are in full bloom!
12. Eat your way through Cape Cod without having to make a reservation
For many, eating and drinking is the highlight of any vacation, and that’s definitely the case on Cape Cod. Here, the restaurant and ice cream scene are fantastic, so take advantage!
Unlike the peak summer season when restaurants and ice cream shops are jam-packed, the late summer and early fall isn’t very busy. Aside from some weekends, you likely won’t have to make a reservation for dinner well in advance, nor will you wait forever in line at your favorite ice cream shops.
The farm-to-table dining on the Cape is especially awesome during the fall harvest season. Here are some places you’ll want to check out for a bite to eat:
The Canteen (Provincetown): A restaurant on Commercial Street in P-Town where you can dine alfresco in an oceanfront setting or pick up your meal to-go.
Beach House Grill (Chatham): A great place to enjoy fresh seafood with stunning views of the ocean. It’s located at the Chatham Bars Inn, one of the most famous hotels on the Cape. So be sure to take a stroll around the hotel!
Mac’s Seafood (Wellfleet & Provincetown): A shack in Wellfleet that prides itself on serving some of Cape Cod’s freshest seafood and other foods from the season’s local harvest.
Cape Cod Beer (Hyannis): A popular brewery in Hyannis with tours and tastings.
The Knack (Orleans): A roadside stand that sells Cape Cod classics including lobster rolls, fried fish sandwiches, burgers, and ice cream. They certainly have a knack for good comfort food!
Spanky’s Clam Shack (Hyannis): A seafood restaurant known for its clam chowder, fried clams, scallops, and shrimp.
And here are two ice cream shops I’ve had the pleasure of trying (the first one, I’ve been to several times):
Sundae School (Dennis Port and Harwich Port): A place that makes some of the best homemade ice cream I’ve ever had. It will cost you a pretty penny, but it’s 100% worth it.
Cape Cod Creamery (South Yarmouth & Hyannis): A family-owned ice cream place with some of the best frozen treats on the Cape.
Kream ‘n’ Kone (Dennis): A place that serves both fried seafood and ice cream. If you’re looking for some soft-served ice cream after a day of outdoor activities, this is a great choice.
All the places above offer outdoor dining and take-out options. Some also have waterfront views. Tip: Many restaurants are closed on Mondays, so be sure to check their official websites or give them a call before showing up.
Visiting Cape Cod during COVID-19 times
Cape Cod did an excellent job making me feel safe as a visitor in this COVID-19 era. In fact, I felt safer on the Cape than I do in my home city. I didn’t feel like visiting here exposed me to any risks that I wouldn’t assume at home visiting my local grocery store, restaurant, park, etc. It certainly helped that I visited after Labor Day, when most visitors had returned home for the season. This made social distancing much easier. Here are some specific examples of why I felt comfortable traveling here:
First and foremost, there are sanitizing stations everywhere, including at hotels, restaurants, shops, and even in some public spaces. This is a good indicator that local businesses are taking COVID-19 seriously. The signage was also very good throughout the Cape: “Feeling sick? Stay home!”, “Mandatory Mask Zone at all times”, etc. Some businesses have even injected some humor into it, like Cape Cod Beer’s sign that reads: “Stay Wicked Fah Apaht”, showing a diagram with Red Sox players standing 6 feet apart from a Yankees player. As a Bostonian, I really appreciated this!
Additionally, masks were required in most public spaces whenever social distancing wasn’t possible. I noted that all workers at hotels, shops, and restaurants were always wearing them as well.
Throughout my stay, I was never in a position where I was standing or sitting too close to anyone else. Businesses weren’t operating at full capacity, the beaches were pretty empty, and the trails were quiet and secluded. As far as dining goes, the alfresco scene in Cape Cod is excellent, so there were plenty of outdoor patios and waterfront terraces to choose from. Cape Cod’s handling of COVID-19 definitely exceeded my expectations.
In addition to my experiences on the Cape, I think it’s also worth pointing out that at the time of writing this article, Massachusetts—and much of New England in general— are handling COVID-19 quite well, especially when compared to other places. In fact, recently, Massachusetts’ positivity rates and new case numbers have been outperforming most US states and more than a dozen European countries, some of which have been praised by medical experts for their handling of the virus (data sources: worldometers.info/coronavirus, https://covidactnow.org).
When mentioning these things, my goal isn’t to encourage you to travel, but to show you that it can be done safely if you adhere to local guidance, follow social distancing measures, wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible, etc.
If you’re visiting Cape Cod from outside of the state, refer to the mass.gov website to see if there are any travel restrictions. At the time of writing this article, visitors from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut. Maine, New York, New Jersey, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington do not need to self-quarantine. For more resources and updates relating to Cape Cod and COVID-19, refer to reopeningcapecod.org.
Cape Cod in the Fall: Recap
I hope you enjoyed my article on Cape Cod in the fall! It’s truly an amazing place to visit any time of year, but the September-October timeframe is particularly special!
With beautiful weather and lots of fun outdoor activities in the fall, it’s no wonder why locals consider it the best time of year on the Cape!
For further reading, check out my other New England and East Coast articles: