Cycling Cape Cod in the summer is like experiencing an ice cream cone; you'll wait in line, be surrounded by kids and end up sticky. But bike riding the Cape in the fall? That's more like a cranberry cocktail; slightly sophisticated, cool and colorful.
Just as both refreshments are special treats, so is cycling here in either season along one of the paved, car-free paths. Here are some of the options.
CAPE COD RAIL TRAIL: This flat, 22-mile trail runs through oak trees, evergreens and marsh between Wellfleet and Dennis. It passes through Eastham, Orleans and Harwich, where a bike rotary connects a seven and a-half mile spur to Chatham. The Nickerson State park bike network connects to the rail trail and offers another eight miles of hilly cycling around ponds, lakes and bogs.
SHINING SEA BIKEWAY: This flat path runs 10.7 miles along the coast from Falmouth to Woods Hole, through salt marsh, cranberry bogs, ponds and woodlands. It's the only bike path on Cape Cod that runs along the seashore.
PROVINCE LANDS TRAIL: This roller-coaster trail snakes for seven and a-half miles through the dunes, wetlands and beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore near Provincetown.
CAPE COD CANAL BIKEWAY: This flat, concrete path runs about seven and a-half miles between the Bourne and Sagamore bridges, offering great views of the canal's boat traffic.
With such great cycling options, it's no surprise that these multi-use paths are crowded in summer, bustling with parents pushing strollers, summer camp groups and young children learning to ride. The tourists who flock to the Cape's beaches in July and August also mean heavy car traffic, long waits for restaurants and even longer lines for ice cream, which must be gobbled up before melting in the 80-degree heat.
But after Labor Day, the visitors leave, the temperatures cool and the Cape takes on a quieter, more relaxed flavor.
"The weather is gorgeous, the crowds are done, the birds are still interesting and the ocean is right there. It's beautiful," said Wendy Fox of Boston, who spends many weekends in the fall cycling the Cape. "And as the weather cools down, bicycling is a lot easier."
There isn't the vibrant autumn foliage found in Northern New England, but there are subtle changes in the oak leaves and sea grass, as well as brilliant red cranberry bogs and deep purple grapes awaiting harvest.
"And as the leaves start to drop, the views improve," Fox said.
Indeed, locals — from bike shop owners to the bicycling park ranger who patrols the rail trail — admit that fall is their favorite time to ride on the Cape. And what was good has gotten even better. Many paths have been improved in recent years. The rail trail was repaved; the Shining Sea Bikeway more than doubled in length and parts of the Province Lands Trail — which opened in 1967 as the first bike trail built by the National Park Service — were widened with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
With little to worry about in terms of where to cycle, visitors should focus on planning other parts of their trip. Many shops and restaurants scale back their hours come September, so it's a good idea to call first. Advance planning can also help cyclists find one of the many fall festivals on the Cape. For instance, the Truro Vineyards of Cape Cod is an easy six-mile ride from Provincetown along Route 6A anytime between May to mid-December, when it closes for the winter. But fall brings the harvest and with it the annual the Grape Stomp and Jazz Festival, on Sept. 19 this year.
On the rail trail in Eastham, Arnold's Lobster & Clam Bar, an award-winning, fast-food style restaurant, has a loyal summer following that doesn't mind waiting up to an hour for food. After Sept. 12, however, the restaurant and adjacent miniature golf course are only open Friday though Sunday, and they close for the season Oct. 11. (The outdoor restrooms and vending machines are left along the bike path until November.)
Still, other dining options are apt to be more accessible in the fall. A new French restaurant near the start of the rail trail in Wellfleet, PB Boulangerie Bistro, plans to close only for January. Although there was seldom a wait for dinner in the restaurant, summer vacationers were lined up nearly an hour before the bakery opened at 7 a.m. to feast on take-out croissant, brioche, bread and pastry. They snapped up nearly 250 baguettes and 1,500 plain, chocolate, and almond croissants each day, keeping the lines going until the bakery closed at 7 p.m.
Owner Boris Villatte said he couldn't imagine crowds like that in the fall. For cyclists that's an especially good thing. It means that after all that riding, there's a slice of well-earned flan waiting at the end of the trail.