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Aquinnah Headlands Preserve

Size

49.4 acres

Description

Long the symbol of Martha’s Vineyard, the Gay Head Cliffs rise 100 feet above the Atlantic Ocean at its confluence with the Vineyard Sound. The preserve naturally divides into two areas — the north head and the south head — with the town’s municipal parking lot located in the middle. The north head, open annually from September 15 to June 14, enjoys high views of the chain of the Elizabeth Islands, the Buzzards Bay coastline, the Rhode Island shore and, directly below, the Devil’s Bridge, a mile-long string of boulders and other glacial shards that have been responsible for many maritime disasters. The south head is open year-round and includes Moshup Beach and its surrounding low heathlands. The beach itself is nearly a half-mile long and both ends are marked; beaches to the east are private, while the town of Aquinnah allows access to its under-cliffs beach on the west.

Access

Ride the transit authority bus to the State Road loop to avoid parking dilemmas here. Racks, for cyclists, are available at several locations on the south head. For those driving to the preserve, parking is available in the town lot at $20/day in the season; a beach dropoff is provided on the Moshup Trail, at the base of the slope. Mopeds must park at the municipal lot. Trails on the north head are open from September 15 to June 14; south head trails are open year-round.

Historical Highlights

  • once a shallow seabed, the colorful cliffs bear fossils of pre-historic sea monster bones, giant clam shells, crabs and vegetation
  • Devil’s Den here was said to be the home of the giant Moshup, his wife Squant and his children … as the legend goes, he pulled up trees by the roots to keep a fire going, resulting in the absence of trees on the headland; he pulled whales out of the ocean to be cooked over his ever-burning fire; and left the red stains on the cliff-face from the whales’ blood
  • a portion of the preserve served as a United States life-saving station; most notable was the effort of native surfmen in response to the wreck of the City of Columbus in 1884
  • during a period between 1890 and 1897 the family of William Adrian Vanderhoop and Beulah Ocooch Salisbury Vanderhoop built the house that is now home to the Aquinnah Cultural Center and abuts the preserve on the south head bluff; its current name is attributed to one of their elder sons, Edwin DeVries Vanderhoop
  • at the turn of the 20th century the cliff area was used for both tourism and clay mining — a steamboat landing for day visitors was constructed at the east end of the preserve in the late 1880s and in 1893 the incorporated town of Gay Head leased the cliffs to the Gay Head Clay Company for $500 per annum, with the clay to be shipped to kilns for brick manufacture