Hey all, I’m Joel Wagner. Jared and I are longtime friends. I’m a naturalist, birder, trip leader, educator and photographer currently living in Truro, MA on outer Cape Cod, and bikes have been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. I’ll be contributing content to Super Nice highlighting my rides, trips, exploration, discoveries and whatever else I come across up here in New England. This introductory write-up is my first in a series about the trails of Cape Cod.
When I moved to Cape Cod in 2017 to take up my position as a naturalist at Mass Audubon in Wellfleet, I was eager to bring my freshly-built Surly Pugsley along with me. “I’m moving to a giant sandbar,” I thought, “there have to be loads of options for chomping through loose stuff.” Getting lost in the woods on flowy single track wasn’t on my radar at all, much less discovering an extensive network of such trails.
As I started to settle into life on the Cape, I tried to find cyclists interested in the mixed riding I like to do. I asked everyone I met if they rode bikes, trying to glean any bit of information I could about the good local spots to ride. My efforts weren’t very fruitful; most of the responses I got were, “Oh no, it’s too busy to ride bikes here,” or, “The National Seashore doesn’t allow those fat-tired bikes on the beach.” Even more disappointing were the couple of rides I took expecting sandy trails, only to find private dead-end roads and “no bikes” signs. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but it felt like I was striking out in my quest for premium fatbike riding.
So, for a while, I mostly rode my all-road bikes (Surly Crosscheck & Kona Rove ST) around. Cape Cod is a pretty cyclist-friendly area, and the riding opportunities are not limited. I explored the roads, powerline cuts, dedicated bike paths and conservation areas, and managed to find some real nuggets of quality riding.
Eventually, I checked out a network of trails that NEMBA (New England Mountain Bike Association) calls “the Badlands” located on the Mid Cape. My brother Justin (owner of Freeze Thaw Cycles of State College PA, and pictured below) happened to be on the Cape visiting, and came along with me to scope these trails out. They were a lot of fun- nice singletrack where we even found a secret stash of some pretty serious jumps! It was great to find some dynamic, real trail riding, but The Badlands were still almost an hour from my house. I just knew there had to be similar riding in my neck of the woods.
I was on property that belonged to Cape Cod National Seashore, along an old dirt road with a sign that read “Fire Road” on the gate. I’m no stranger to fire roads – I grew up in PA, where state forest fire roads provide some of the best gravel riding around - I just didn’t realize that I’d find them on the Cape. I had come here for work- I would be guiding a hike through the area in a few months, and my job now was to get familiar with it. I went home to grab my bike and the recon began.
This initial fire road discovery in South Truro has led to months of exploration (exploration that is still continuing). I've since learned that close to 80% of the land on the Outer Cape belongs to the National Park Service - it includes most of the oceanside the whole way from Eastham to Provincetown. On that land are hundreds of miles of mostly unmapped trails and fire roads - all open to cycling. Most people refer to this area as the Seashore Trails or the Pine Barrens; some parts are well used, and others are entirely neglected. Most of the trailheads are along backroads, but there are plenty of access points from NPS facilities and parking lots.
The trails of the Pine Barrens are navigable by most bikes suited with somewhat knobby tires, anything from a skinny cross to a full fatbike are fun in their own way. I’ve enjoyed the trails most on my single speed Surly Pugsley and mostly-stock 2018 Kona Rove ST. Dozens of fire roads intersect the barrens, with veins of single track sticking out on all sides. Most of the trails are dirt with a bed of pine needles, but you’ll find sand or loose gravel in some places. The trails make for fun and varied riding in all seasons - a fresh coat of snow can transform the flowy turns and quick up-and-downs into soft and floaty fatbike food. Whatever bike you’re riding and whatever season you’re riding in, the Pine Barrens seem to always remove you from the busy feeling that the Cape can sometimes produce. It’s refreshing to be suddenly surrounded by what feels like wilderness.
Each ride on these trails seems to provide something new or unexpected. Sometimes it’s a vista on top of a bluff overlooking the Atlantic, sometimes it’s a bird that has chosen to spend the winter there rather than flying to Central America, and sometimes it's a nondescript abandoned building whose past purpose is completely puzzling. It seems that every ride I take through the Pine Barrens reveals new secrets and stories, both long and short.
Perhaps the longest story that a ride through the Pine Barrens reveals is geological. 15,000 years ago, the Seashore Trails (along with the entire Cape) were covered by a mile-high glacier. Over the thousands of years it took the glacier to retreat, it left behind huge chunks of ice which created large “kettle” holes (that would become kettle ponds), as well as a varied topography with miniature peaks and valleys. Over many generations of small plants growing, dying and decomposing, the soil in the hills could support the succession of larger trees and coastal forest habitat - creating a similar ecosystem to what we can see today.
The forest as it stands today isn’t just a product of these incredibly powerful natural forces, though, but also of a long history of human interaction and use. Native Americans had a more adaptive and immersive outlook on this environment than the later European settlers who eventually ended up clear-cutting the entire peninsula. The Pine Barrens I ride my bicycle in now were just rolling grassy hills when Henry David Thoreau visited the Cape in the late 1800s.
It’s quite possible that many of these trails originated as meandering cart paths carved by early European settlers- many such paths eventually became town roads. The network was certainly extended in the 1920s, when an eruption of forest fires in Massachusetts eventually led to the construction of government-funded fire roads across the state. The land in between this network of unmapped trails has itself seen a storied history of multiple different uses. Within the boundaries of National Park Service property, you can explore remnants of old federal coastal lab research buildings, an abandoned Air Force Station site, giant stone monuments, and a multitude of other oddities. I continue to find structures whose purpose isn’t readily explicable.
I leave each ride I take through the Seashore Trails with new questions. There seem to be countless rabbit holes to jump down, each one revealing a unique and fascinating history. I plan on diving into the parts of the Barrens that I find interesting most in the coming parts of this series. Hopefully you all are as captivated and eager to explore as I am. 🤙
Until next time,