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"A man may stand there and put all America behind him," said Henry David Thoreau, and if that means forgetting daily worries and just contemplating the mystery of the Atlantic, he's right as rain. The great Outer Beach of Cape Cod consists of about 43,500 acres, along 40 miles of coastline, mostly unspoiled sandy beach, marshes, ponds and hillocks that support a wide variety of birds and animals designed to fascinate any curious mind. You can swim, walk, bike and hike, or just contemplate a vast swath of protected natural beauty.

Where America Begins, Almost

Created in 1961 by President Kennedy, the Cape Cod National Seashore is run by the National Park Service, which is charged with protecting the area and yet allowing the public to enjoy it. The Seashore consists of the Atlantic-facing (outer) edge of Cape Cod, linking from north to south the major towns of Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans and Chatham.

Arriving here in 1620, just 13 years after the settlement of Jamestown in Virginia, the Pilgrims decided to settle across the more placid bay in Plymouth rather than on the outer reaches of Cape Cod, ushering in European-style self-government, hot and cold relations with Native Americans, feasts of thanksgiving and funny hats. But you come here to celebrate nature above all, something the Pilgrims were justifiably nervous about.

There are two visitor centers, the Salt Pond Visitor Center on Route 6 in Eastham (tel. 508/255-3421) and the Province Lands Visitor Center on Race Point Road in Provincetown (tel. 508/487-1256). The Eastham Center is open daily from 9am to 4:30pm, the Provincetown Center 9am to 5pm from May through October. Both feature shops (including books), restroom facilities and orientation and trip planning assistance.

Highlights include the former North Truro Air Force base, which is now the Highlands Center for the Arts, the Marconi Station, site of the first two-way transatlantic radio transmission, and a peculiar glacial item known as the Doane Rock.

Seeing and Doing

From ranger-guided activities to tottering dune shacks, there's plenty to see and do here. There are 11 self-guided nature trails, open year round, with descriptive folders available at some trailheads or at the visitor centers. Five are in the Eastham area, two around Wellfleet, three near Truro and one near Provincetown. They range in length from three-quarters of a mile to three miles. Great vistas are found on several -- the Fort Hill Trail, Nauset Marsh Trail and Doane Trail out of Eastham; and the Great Island Trail out of Wellfleet.

Three bicycle trails help you keep fit, one each out of Eastham, Truro and Provincetown (1.6 to 5.45 miles in length). You can't camp in the Seashore, but it's OK at nearby private spots. But you can build a campfire, if you get a permit at the Oversand Station at Race Point. And they do allow over-sand vehicles in some areas (a mistake, in my opinion) if you get a permit at Race Point in Provincetown.

Other highlights of the Seashore (from south to north) include the Fort Hill Area, off Route 6 (the Nauset Marsh and Penniman House); the Coast Guard and Nauset Light beaches, Nauset and Three Sisters Lighthouse, again off Route 6; the Marconi Station Site, off Route 6; the Atwood Higgins House (difficult to reach), the Highland Lighthouse (also known as the Cape Cod Light) and Highland House, again off Route 6; Pilgrim Heights near North Truro; and the Old Harbor Life Saving Station in Provincetown.

New for 2007

For the 14th year, the seashore celebrates Cape Cod Maritime Days from May 13 to 20, with lighthouse tours and open houses, walks, slide lectures and more. Venues for the programs are in Truro and Provincetown and at the Highland Lighthouse and Nauset Light. Two programs that sound especially appealing are the family walk exploring "the legend of the pirate ship Whydah" on May 19 and a tour of the Penniman House at Fort Hill on May 16 and 19. Full details at www.ecapechamber.com/maritimedays/schedule.htm.

This summer for the second year, the new FLEX bus will run regularly between Provincetown and Harwich on a 30-minute pick-up summer schedule (there's also a 60-minute winter schedule), with special pick-ups (up to ¾ of a mile from the set route) that can be arranged with a two-hour notice, says the park superintendent, George E. Price, Jr. The vehicles are "green," using either propane gas or biodiesel fuel, and the cost is just $1 and up, depending on journey, half fare for seniors and the disabled. Details at www.theflex.org.

Favorites

As a vivid example of how widely varied pleasures can be at the Seashore, take a look at the entertaining report on night surfcasting (who knew?) in what aficionados call "the surfcaster's Graceland," by Eileen Mueller of the National Park Service Northeast Ethnography Program, operating out of the Boston Support Office. Surfcasting by day is difficult enough, I think, but doing so at night makes for a really wild experience. Details at www.cr.nps.gov/ethnography/research/surfcasters.htm.

Fees

Beach entrance fees are collected from late June through early September when lifeguards are on duty and on weekends and holidays from Memorial Day to the end of September. It's $15 per day for vehicles (and occupants), $3 for pedestrians and bicyclists. (You can get a calendar year pass for $45.) National Park Service General Passes are also good, of course.

Some interpretive programs have fees, such as canoe lessons and trips, surfcasting lessons and the like.

Visitors

In 2006, there were 4,517,285 visits to the Seashore, up 21% over 2005. The peak was 1994, with over 5 million visits.

Online Resources

Among the many associated websites about the National Seashore, I liked the following:

Find out about events in Cape Cod, Provincetown and the region this season.

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