New England Hikes #1- Cape Cod's Highland Lighthouse Area
By Christopher Seufert
Whether you're driving from on or off Cape Cod a great sunset hike can be had at one of the most beautiful vistas in New England. Truro's Highland Light and the Jenny Lind tower are located about 75 miles down Cape Cod and frame an easy, but naturally and historically interesting, hike. Actually this is more jaunt then hike. Traveling north on Route 6, the Highland Lighthouse area is 3.3 miles north of Truro Center. Take the "Cape Cod Light/Highland Road" exit. Turn right onto Highland Road and follow to the Highland Lighthouse area, where there is plenty of free parking for your car. Don't forget your camera and binoculars on this one.
In front of you is the Highland Lighthouse, which was the first lighthouse built on Cape Cod in 1797, though the present 66-foot brick tower dates from 1857. Today the lighthouse is automated, as are all the lighthouses on the Cape now. A 1,000 watt bulb now does the job that, in earlier years, was accomplished with fifteen whale oil lamps or a huge Fresnel lens. Plan to take the Truro Historical Society tour (Children must be 51" tall). The hours are May 1st through October, 7 days a week, 10:00 am until 5:45 pm, and the Lighthouse Gift Shop is open 10 a.m. until sunset.
Once at the top of the tower you'll be treated with a magnificent vantage point of the 100-foot cliff. The Highland cliffs were once considered the ideal location for a lighthouse. Clay deposits in the cliffs, referred to as "Clay Pounds," were seen as a buffer against storm waves. Yet, it is clear today that the clay is unstable and slides off in tremendous chunks when undermined by waves. Though this clay was in the past used by the local people it is now a federal law to dig it out, although it can be taken freely if it is loose.
In July 1996, the lighthouse you're standing on was jacked up and moved back from the eroding cliff to save it from falling into the ocean. Catch the 10-minute video before exiting and then take a short walk from the lighthouse to the observation deck, where you can get a closer look at the bluff, clay pounds, and wild Atlantic. The view as the sun sets, with nothing but ocean between you and Portugal, really is a one-of-a-kind experience, and that's saying something for a place that wants little for ocean views. When you've had your fill head back up the walkway toward the building on your right.
Keep in mind, as you walk back, that there are a few pieces of the landscape that are now missing from the Truro Highlands today. At one time, numerous wind-driven grist mills dotted the area. The deck house of the barge, Coleraine, which wrecked below the cliffs here in 1915, was salvaged and used as a bar until the 1950s. The Highland Life Saving Station (1872) was located by the beach, at the end of Coast Guard Road.The lifesavers from that station patrolled the beach on foot and rescued shipwreck victims in dramatic fashion with their surfboat and breeches buoy.
To find out more about all these things, the Truro Historical Society Museum, which stands just next to the lighthouse, contains seventeenth century firearms, shipwreck mementos, early fishing and whaling gear, household tools, farming implements, furniture, Sandwich glass, a pirate's chest and lots more. If you wanted to make a whole day of it the town-run Highland Links golf course, the oldest on Cape Cod, abutts this area, but if you're not golfing take note of the signage requesting that you not tresspass down the fairways. Now on to the hike.
On your left, across the golf course, you'll see our final destination- the medievel-looking Jenny Lind tower. Originally part of the Fitchburg Railway depot in Boston, it was moved here in 1927 by Henry Aldrich. It seems that Aldrich was a fan of the famous Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind, who performed in the hall above the station and is rumored to have sung from the tower to those unable to attend the concert.
Leave your car in the parking lot and walk down the road the way you came. Take your next left and walk down toward the beach until the road ends at the former government air force station. Now follow the path to your left until you see the castle-like shape of the Jenny Lind tower and head in through the overgrown woods and dunes. (Remember, steer clear of the old military installation- there are trespassing signs that are quite serious and there is still communications equipment at work there.)
As you approach the tower you'll soon see that it really is just a tower, with no castle attached below, as you might have imagined from a distance. For those who are braver (or if it's raining) you can poke your head and step into the hole in the base. It's not very pleasant in there, with broken glass and old beer bottles, but looking up gives a very good view of the internal architecture. If you listen carefully you'll hear the ocean pounding away below you. You can exit the area taking the opposite trail on your way out or come back in the way you came. Despite the government signs I see no indication that these trails are off- limits if you're respectful. Photos from this article can be seen at www.MyChatham.com.
About The Author
Christopher Seufert is a Cape Cod native who runs MyChatham.com, the online guide to Chatham, Cape Cod.
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