Pros: Beautiful setting, plenty to do
Cons: Policy on arrivals/departures. Can be crowded, noisy.
I'm not into crowds. You'd never see me in New Orleans in March or midtown Manhattan on New Year's Eve. I live about an hour from Hyannis, but I've rarely spent time on Cape Cod during the summer, at least during the weekends. For some reason, I decided to buck the trend in June 2004. (There were still spots on ReserveAmerica, and we figured June would be more pleasant, crowd- and weather-wise.)
Nickerson is one of four state parks with camping facilities on the Cape (one, Waquoit, is accessible by water only), but easily the largest. There are 420 sites in 7 areas spread over 1900 acres. (Oh, there are "overflow" sites but these are parking lots! So, unless you have an RV and don't mind asphalt camping, make sure you've got a confirmed reservation before attempting summer camping here!)
I'd been very meticulous about the site we chose, and at first it seemed like there would be a pay-off...Area 7 was at the end of a very long entrance road (over 3 1/2 miles) and the first seven sites were tent camping only. Our spot was on a slight hill and well-wooded. (In fact, the whole park is very woodsy and it's easy to forget that the ocean is very close by...the Civilian Conservation Corps. planted nearly 90,000 pine trees at the park in the 1940s.) The site itself was quite large, but there was only one part level enough upon which to pitch our tent. I considered us lucky, though - I noticed later on that many sites throughout the camp had no such luck.
Trails and water fun
Eight miles of the 25-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail goes through Nickerson, so bring your bike if you're a cyclist. (Barbara's Bike Shop also rents bikes near the entrance to the park.) We spent most of our Friday on the foot trails -there are six miles of easy/moderate hiking trails within the park itself, most of which wind around the eight kettle ponds. If you walk on the trails, be sure to bring a map - the trails are not named and often not marked. Some of them intersect, so make sure you're following the right one back to your site.
Swimming and boating are permitted at some of the larger ponds, like Cliff and Higgins, and there is a canoe/kayak rental facility on Flax Pond. Cliff and Higgins are also regularly stocked with trout, and fishing is allowed.
But before you forget where you are...
What seemed to be a delightful, surprisingly large campground became pretty small as Friday night wore on. Eventually, every space within our loop became filled. At about 8 pm a couple of families took the two spots across from us. (I should note here that Area 6, the densest camping area, is especially popular with families with young kids. The childfree or retired should consider this when making reservations.) Since there is a four-person limit per camp site, this group got around it by paying for two sites, but only occupying one site. (Their cars, bikes etc. occupied the other.) Anyway, kids will be kids and I won't remark on what is not Nickerson's fault, but I *will* comment on the thing that spoiled the weekend for us...
I've been meaning to write to Nickerson about this, and I will - there is apparently no policy to enforce late arrivals, or late comings and goings. I was spoiled at Peaks-Kenny, where a gate would close at 10 pm - perhaps that is unrealistic at a popular place like Nickerson, but I was stunned at the volume of cars coming in and leaving the campground at late hours...since our site was right near the entrance to Area 7, we heard the approach and departure of every single car. At first I thought, "Okay, some late arrivals" but as 11:30 pm became 12, then 12:30 am, it went beyond ridiculous. (It seems ironic to post "quiet hours" and then not do anything to control traffic flow in and out of the park. Were people coming back from experiencing the night life in Brewster, maybe? Who knows. This is the first campground I've seen that's posted rules about campsites not being vacant for more than 12 hours, so maybe people just come to Nickerson to hang their hat and then take off for sightseeing.) My guess is that given the enormity of the park, it's hard for park rangers to regularly enforce rules.
Finally, at around 1 am I gave up and went to sleep in the car. I felt like a wimp the next morning, but my husband agreed when I suggested leaving early and finding a cheap hotel somewhere on Route 28. Look, it's a huge park, and the Cape is beyond popular in the summer - I can accept that. But cars coming and going at all hours wasn't acceptable.
I didn't use the showers so I can't speak to that (there were showers in Area 6, not Area 7 - they were half a mile away so you can decide whether that's walking distance or not). Given the number of sites in Area 6, I figured all the warm water would be gone anyway! There is a very well-stocked camp store halfway down the park road - there's virtually everything you could possibly need there, from citronella candles, firewood, and bug spray to hammocks, ice cream, rain slickers and groceries. Pets are allowed as long as you have proof of rabies vaccination.
I'm willing to give Nickerson another chance, but I would only go back in the off season. I would recommend Nickerson to a friend, but only with that caveat. (I think it'd be okay in the summer as a day trip - there was plenty of room on the trails.) I really don't like giving a lukewarm review to a state park - maybe I'll have something more positive to share after a spring or fall visit.