Experienced New England boaters, and especially fishermen, have long known that Barnstable Harbor serves as both a safe haven and a gateway to many kinds of watery adventure, but there’s more to this Cape Cod town than meets the eye. The Town of Barnstable comprises 7 villages, including West Barnstable and Barnstable Village. West Barnstable borders the inner harbor and the sprawling 4,000-acre Great Marshes, the second largest saltmarsh system on the East Coast (the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Chesapeake Bay is the largest), while the outer harbor belongs to Barnstable. Featuring majestic dunes rising up to 100′ tall in some spots, Sandy Neck presides over it all, making Barnstable the ultimate one-stop shop for some of the best boating, fishing, nature-watching and camping on Cape Cod.
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When entering Barnstable Harbor from Cape Cod Bay, it’s important to follow the markers carefully, as the narrow channel is surrounded by extremely shallow flats that have caused headaches for more than a few boaters.
To starboard, shoal water extends from beautiful Sandy Neck, a barrier beach marked by the Sandy Neck Lighthouse on Beach Point. The 182-year-old lighthouse watches over a cluster of venerable shingled cottages that are part of a private summer community on the Neck. Originally built in 1826 and rebuilt in 1857, Sandy Neck Light was decommissioned in 1931. Until the spring of 2007 it was regarded as an area oddity because of the fact that its lantern room was missing, giving it a peculiar “headless” look. Residents raised more than $65,000 in private donations, resulting in construction of a new lantern room in 2008. Today the light—all 48′ of it—stands whole again, although it and the adjoining lightkeeper’s house are not open to the public.
Fortunately, Sandy Neck Beach is. It’s a favorite summer and fall outpost for boaters and nonboaters alike. Each season a legion of off-roaders stake their claim along the beach (after securing a permit from the town) in RVs and pickup trucks, either carrying or towing campers. Long before the area became a summer playground, Sandy Neck played an early role in New England whaling, which got its start here in the 1600s. Colonists would venture into the bay in small skiffs and chase the whales onto Sandy Neck, where the animals were killed and processed. Bones and other artifacts from this industry are occasionally unearthed today. During the 1930s, the harbor was a major source for soft-shell clams, with 8,000 barrels harvested in 1936 alone. Another early industry that flourished in Barnstable was saltmarsh haying. The Great Marshes’ abundant cordgrass (Spartina altiflorens) was harvested by early settlers and dried for use as feed for livestock, bedding, insulation and mulch.
If you like backwater fishing, the Barnstable marshes produce some amazing action…
Evidence of Barnstable’s colonial past can be found a short distance from the harbor. This includes the stately captains’ homes on Route 6A, also known as Old King’s Highway. Originally a Native American trail between Plymouth and Provincetown, the Highway was used daily by early settlers to move supplies. In the 18th century, the sea merchant and whaling trades transformed it into a major route to Boston.
Back on the water, kayakers, canoeists and intrepid powerboaters can venture into the maze of tidal creeks wind through the Great Marshes in the western portion of Barnstable Harbor, behind Sandy Neck (although novices are advised to do so only on a rising tide and to get out of Dodge lest the rapidly falling water leave them marooned for the next 6 hours). It’s a good idea to carry a GPS and cell phone with you, and beware the onslaught of greenhead flies that rule the marshes in midsummer. The best times to boat or paddle the marshes are the months of May and June, and again from late August to mid-October. And if you like backwater fishing, the Barnstable marshes produces some amazing action with striped bass in June (see Barnstable Fishing Information). Barnstable’s Inner Harbor (Maraspin Creek) is accessed via a narrow (25′ wide) channel marked on either side by tall PVC pipes. Follow the markers closely, as the channel is bordered by extremely shallow flats. If unfamiliar with the harbor, you might consider entering on a rising tide, which may float you clear if you accidentally ground. A concrete state-run launch ramp with float provides trailerboat access immediately to port on Blish Point after clearing the inlet. This is a busy area in summer, with hundreds of boats and kayaks splashing and hauling on nice weekends. The small harbor features a restaurant and 3 marinas, as well as a nearby market for provisions. A whale watch boat that runs trips to Stellwagen Bank also operates out of the harbor. Be aware that there is little room for turning in the basin, so larger vessels should keep to the outer harbor.