• A Tour of Nickerson State Park

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    A Tour of Nickerson State Park
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    Did you know?

    Massachusetts is ranked 45th by size, but it is sixth when it comes to the number of state parks.

    And on Cape Cod, Nickerson State Park in Brewster is the top recreational facility in the state system, open year round for countless explorations.  By recreational, we mean that no development or hunting is allowed. Just recreation.

    Trails for hikers and bikers abound, whether you are dedicating an entire day to the outdoors or have only an hour or two between meetings during a busy work day.

    With lots of time and a good pair of hiking shoes, you can circumvent most of the kettle ponds within the abundant forest lands. The trails are well marked and are accessible to hikers of every age. They are challenging, but safe if you watch your step.

    Otherwise, take a stroll along the paved Cape Cod Rail Trail or simply down the main road toward the park’s nature center. The Luxx Concierge recently did this in business shoes and a tie, attracting only minimal stares from passing bikers.

    What’s truly amazing about Nickerson is its easy access and proximity to other amenities along Route 6A and other cross streets such as Millstone and Underpass roads. Amble down the Rail Trail west from the main entrance and you can access Cobie’s during the summer months for fried clams or one of the best grilled chicken sandwiches on the Cape.

    Where can you hike in the afternoon, cook dinner over an open fire and then cross the street for an evening play at Cape Rep, enjoying Equity actors on the stage, which once was part of a summer camp, one of the many that dotted the Lower and Outer Cape a half century ago.

    During the summer, Nickerson State Park is teeming with campers, many representing families who have returned to their favorite campsites for generations at a time. Some of these “regulars” actually are Cape Cod residents who rent their homes during July and August to supplement mortgage payments and take their tents (or more commonly, their campers) into the park.

    By count, there are about 420 camp sites in seven designated areas spanning nearly 2,000 acres.

    We waited to share our favorite parts of Nickerson State Park until the summer ended. Now, as fall arrives – and even into winter – the park takes on a far more serene character, especially as leaves start turning rust and gold.

    Now, it’s THE time for full-time residents and second homeowners coming up for long weekends to truly appreciate Nickerson, not only for its uncommon recreational opportunities, but also for its absolutely indispensable value to our every-day quality of life.

    That’s because the amazing kettle ponds that populate the park are the sources of fresh water for tens of thousands of homes from Brewster to Eastham. Their surfaces are the water table – the virtual reservoir – for fresh water, especially for homes that still depend on wells.

    Deep below are the sole-source aquifers whose integrity depends on how protected these ponds remain from pollution.

    That’s a main reason you are encouraged to use kayaks, canoes and rowboats in the park, but not motor boats. Internal combustion engines are banned. Some fishermen are allowed to use electric motors for trolling.

    The Cape Cod Rail Trail

    One day not too far in the distant future, you probably will be able to bike from Sandwich to Provincetown without ever leaving a bike trail.  Local, state and federal officials are working together to tie current trails together seamlessly.

    Currently, eight miles of the 25-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail goes directly through Nickerson State Park, and there are several very accessible bike shops to rent from if you don’t have your own bike.  The most convenient to the park are:

    Barbara’s Bike & Sport Equipment, 3430 Main Street in Brewster, www.barbsbikeshop.com

    Rail Trail Bike & Kayak Shop, 302 Underpass Road in Brewster, www.railtrailbikeshop.com

    Brewster Bike Shop, 442 Underpass Road in Brewster, www.brewsterbike.com

    Swimming and Boating

    Swimming and boating are permitted at some of the larger ponds, including 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, here it is critical to respect and not abuse this access – again because the water you swim or boat in serve as the reservoir for tens of thousands of homeowners.

    Is this really Cape Cod?

    What may amaze a first-time visitor to Nickerson State Park is that it doesn’t conjure up the common image of Cape Cod. It feels more like the Berkshires, with its abundant forest and plant life that actually is more southern than northern – a phenomenon attributed to how Cape Cod was formed more than 10,000 years ago.

    Despite the many ponds (they are not lakes), there are no streams or rivers feeding them. These are all “kettle ponds,” formed by the ancient glaciers. They are totally dependent on precipitation, especially snow in the winter, and the groundwater that forms in aquifers deep below the surface.

    Here’s another amazing fact. Until 1934, most of this state park belonged to a single family, that of Roland C. Nickerson, the son of a father who made his fortune in Chicago. The Nickersons were Cape Cod’s first family, and today you will likely encounter a descendent of Roland among the thousands of Nickersons still living here.  At one time, a Nickerson owned Mid-Cape Home Centers.  Annually, the namesakes converge for a giant family reunion.

    After it became a state park 80 years ago, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed the first roads and campsites, as well as parking and picnic areas near Flax Pond. They also planted an astounding 88,000 white pine, hemlock and spruce trees.

    The invaluable kettle ponds

    The true glory of Nickerson State Park are its kettle ponds.

    Recently, Todd Kelly, a Cape Cod native and Chatham resident who works for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation led a hike around the kettle ponds.  He explained the difference between them and lakes.

    “Ponds are shallow and clear enough to support plant growth completely along the bottom,” he said.  Lakes are deeper and will receive so little light at the bottom that vegetation cannot be sustained.

    Kelly explains that the ponds are the legacy of the glacial ice that covered what is now the northeastern United States as far back as 60,000 years ago. Back then, Cape Cod was part of an exposed continental shelf that stretched from what today is known as George’s Bank (the fertile fishing grounds for New England fleets) to Newfoundland.

    Theoretically, you could walk from the Cape to Nantucket back then.

    About 15,000 years ago, a dramatic rise in the earth’s temperature began to occur, causing the glaciers to melt rapidly. As they did so, huge blocks of ice broke off and were covered by glacial debris, eventually creating deep depressions in the earth’s surface that filled with water.

    Thus, the term “kettle” ponds.

    You can follow Todd Kelly on one of his walks with this photo gallery.

    The four primary kettle ponds

    The largest of the four kettle ponds is Cliff Pond. Adjacent to it is Little Cliff Pond. The first pond you encounter driving into the park from the main entrance on Route 6A is Flax Pond. The last pond you can reach is Higgins Pond.

    Main roads connect all four ponds for driving or hiking. Smaller trails circumvent each pond for wonderful hiking. On a recent trip, the Luxx Concierge, led by Todd Kelly, was able to explore parts of Cliff, Little Cliff and Higgins via connecting trails.

    There are numerous beach areas along each trail to stop, relax and during the summer take a dip.

    Be sure to explore the abundant plants and wildflowers that are at the waters’ edges, but be careful not to damage them.

    For a map of the pond systems, please click here:


    To download the map, please click here


    Plants and birds

    Because of the way Nickerson State Park’s topography was created when glaciers melted, many of the plants now populating its acreage were cut off from other environs. As a result, they represent very rare species, some found only here.

    Today some plants such as bayonet thrush and are dependent on the pronounced fluctuations of the kettle ponds. During summer especially and into the fall, they grow at the pond’s edges and are extremely sensitive to trampling.  That’s why hikers are encouraged to follow marked trails around the ponds.

    Birders are inclined to visit the two Audubon Society locations in Wellfleet and Barnstable, and the nearby Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, also known as Cape Cod’s Nature Place in Brewster.

    They maybe are not so aware of the opportunities to discover favorite birds at Nickerson State Park, which is a regular stop on the migration route. You can find finches, larks, thrushes, warblers, wrens and woodpeckers here. Make sure to look skyward routinely for soaring hawks, osprey and even eagles who hunt small animals below.  A rarer sight could be owls.

    Closer to the bayside, where there are salt marsh and dunes, you can encounter great Blue Heron, cormorants and eiders.

    How to enjoy and respect the park

    Here are some important do’s and don’ts when visiting Nickerson State Park:

    • The speed limit along its paved roads is 25 miles per hour.
    • Campers may occupy a site for up to two weeks between the last Sunday in June and the Sunday before Labor Day.
    • Pets are allowed but must be restrained and not left alone
    • Cutting, defacing or injuring trees is prohibited. Only downed wood can be used for campfires.
    • Open fires are permitted only in designated fireplaces and cannot be left untended.
    • Soap and shampoo is prohibited in the ponds.
    • Trash must be deposited in designated dumpsters. Recycling bins are available.
    • There are no RV hookups.
    September 22, 2014