The Cape Cod Rail Trail follows a former railroad right-of-way (it was operational and transported passengers and freight to Cape Cod in the early 1800s until around 1960) for 25 miles through the towns of Dennis, Harwich, Brewster, Orleans, Eastham and Wellfleet.
It’s a paved path, well maintained with very few hills. It’s a great way to see the (non-beach) scenery of the mid-Cape.
It’s also a good way to work off that lobster roll and get a little exercise while you are on vacation.
Here are my tips for 5 effective ways to get in a quality training session using the Cape Cod Rail Trail.
Go early (or late)
The Rail Trail is not a velodrome. It’s a recreational paved path full of people on beach combers, rented bikes, or walking dogs. If you want to get an effective training session in without risking your lives or their lives, you need to get out there early.
Most people using the rail trail are on vacation and don’t really muster up that energy to get out and work off those clam strips before 10 a.m. In my experience, peak rail trail usage is between 10 and 4ish. If you want some open pavement to really push the watts, you need to be out the door by 8, preferably earlier.
The other alternative is to go later in the day. As dinner time approaches and bike rental shops close up, the traffic again thins out. It might not be as free wheeling as the morning, but if you are distinctly not a morning person, you can likely find some decent open space between 5 and 7 p.m.
Use the street crossings for intervals
While the trail is nicely paved and follows the old tracks, it still crosses over streets at varying intervals. This can be frustrating, at times, to break or stop, wait for cars, before crossing and maybe repeating a few miles later. It’s hard to settle into a rhythm. One way to turn this negative into a training plus is to use the frequent crossings as a time to work on pick ups or sprint intervals. At each crossing, why not take the opportunity to go hard for 30 seconds? A few of those will have you thankful for the flat recovery section until the next crossing.
Use the flats for aero practice
The main parts of the rail trail are very, very flat. The only real “hill” I can think of is when you are going up and over the bridges to cross the highway. Being paved over railroad tracks, the low or non-existent grade makes sense. But the gentle, undulating pavement also doesn’t make for a very taxing ride. What it does do is provide a very nice clean stretch to work on your aero position (if you are a triathlete) or just a sustained period of staying in the drop position versus up on the hoods if you are a road cyclist.
Wellfleet/Nickerson Park has some hills
There are some climbs to be found if you are really intent on getting a little hill work in on your ride but you will have to get off the main rail trail to find any of them. The longer, sustained climbs can be found just after the the rail trail terminus in Wellfleet. If you follow the bike signs out of the parking lot, you can make your way up to Oceanview Drive and be treated with both hills and spectacular bluff views.
If you aren’t inclined to ride toward the Wellfleet end, Nickerson park in Brewster does have some rolling terrain. I wouldn’t call them hills necessarily, but it will have you changing gears and putting in some effort over short inclines. I tend to like this short loop better for running than biking but better than nothing if that’s what you’re after.
FInally, let me repeat, the rail trail is not a velodrome or time trial track. It’s a nice stretch of recreational pavement used predominantly by recreational vacationers, including kids. Buzzing by or expecting people to move out of the way as you try for that Strava KOM is not going to win you any friends. It might get you a ticket, too. Town and park police officers patrol the route. Just be smart. One day missed is not going to make or break your training. Enjoy your vacation. Go rent a paddle board instead.
Food, Drinks, Rest Stops
I am by no means an expert on all the food or drink stops along the rail trail and you’ll find plenty as you pedal. But if you are starting at either end, the Brewster area is about in the middle and offers a few good places to stop for a break.
Right across from Hinckley’s Pond on Pleasant Lake Ave, this is a nice spot to grab a breakfast or lunch sandwich. There is a porta-pottie, but not indoor bathroom.
403 Pleasant Lake Ave, Harwich, MA 02645
A new spot this year, right next to the Snowy Owl is Karma Foods which focuses on organic and gluten-free breakfast and lunch items, along with a variety of smoothies. I can vouch that the smoothies are the perfect end to a long ride. I might have also tried a delicious vegan brownie or two.
2628 Main Street, Brewster, MA 02631
If you need a caffeine hit to help you keep pedaling, this is the place. Right next to Karma, it’s a funky place that shares space with an herbalist, the hand crafted beverages and medium roast coffees are worth the stop. There is an indoor bathroom for customers.
2624 Main St., Brewster, MA
If you’re looking to balance out your calories and are in the mood for a traditional Cape Cod clam shack meal, you could do a lot worse than Cobie’s, which is directly off the bike path and serves up fried seafood, burgers and ice cream.
3260 Main St, Brewster, MA
If you’re just looking for a bathroom break, Nickerson State Park has indoor bathrooms right near the trail.