Nickerson State Park is a state-owned, public recreation area located in the towns of Hadley and South Hadley in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts. The park’s 736 acres (298ha) include forested hillsides, glacial lakes, waterfalls, and narrow valleys with steep banks that are ideal for climbing. It is managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation which protects forests throughout New England including maple, oak, and beech woods; fields of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and wildflowers; restored wetlands; and streams featuring trout, bullheads, catfish, sucker, perch, and bass.
There are eight miles (13km) of trails, including paved routes to the summit and Lake Groton, and unpaved ones that lead past ponds, waterfalls, gorges, and rock formations. The latter provide views of the Taconic Mountains to the east and the Catskill Mountains to the west. To the south, there is a view of the Berkshire Mountains, but these lie beyond the southern boundary of the park. Its fourteen glacial lakes have varying degrees of difficulty ranging from easy (Lake Groton) to difficult (Lake Awl). Easy lakes to ascend are highlighted in green, moderate lakes in yellow, and hard/impossible lakes in red.
The park has twelve easy lakes, 16 moderate lakes, and 5 hard/impossible lakes. All of the lakes are stocked with fish, primarily rainbow trout, though some contain brown trout as well. The primary attraction of ascending difficult lakes is the possibility of finding ice caves, which are protected from the sun and heat of the summer season. Caves typically form in frozen lake deposits near the surface, and may range from small nooks and crannies to huge systems spanning multiple caverns. Accessibility to ice caves varies depending on the lake. Some are easily accessible, while others are guarded by thick vegetation. Near the shore of Lake Awl, for example, there is a submerged cave entrance that is completely covered by about five feet of silt deposited by recent glaciation.
Other lakes feature heavily vegetated islands, making it seem as if there are many more coves and islands than there really are. Finally, some lakes are too shallow near the shoreline to allow access to the deeper coves. Lake Awl features three deep basins, each containing a rainbow trout farm. The farms are tended by full-time staff, and produce year-round harvestable eggs. Rainbow trout account for almost 100% of the catch, with just a handful of brown trout caught each year. Lake Awl is classified as a coldwater fishery, and anglers can enjoy ice fishing for rainbow trout during part of the winter months. Hunting is permitted on about 505 acres of Nickerson State Park, mostly in a mixed pine/hardwood forest environment. The hunting of groundhogs is prohibited. Hunters are expected to follow the rules and regulations of the Massachusetts Game Commission.
In May 1779, Elijah Pike and his men were dispatched from Fort Dummer to find an easier westward passage through the mountains, and to determine whether or not there was an Indian war going on. On May 23 they reached the summit of Mount Holyoke where they found a path leading northwest across what would become known as Pike’s Peak. From this point Pike could see the tops of trees growing out of the snow, indicating that spring was approaching, and he returned to Fort Dummer with this information. A week later, twenty men under Captain Seth Babson led another expedition up the mountain. This time they brought four horses and two goats, provisions enough for ten days, and a tent large enough for thirty men. At the top they met a Native American family, whose presence disturbed them greatly.
After sending back word that winter quarters were impossible, they turned around and headed down the mountain. They had gone less than half way when one of the horses stumbled and fell, breaking its leg. Soon after, another horse died from exposure. With supplies running low and only six men able to ride, they decided it best to return to Fort Dummer without delivering any messages. These failures caused General Washington to question why he should send more expeditions to the wilderness, and he called off all future operations. However, several other paths were explored, and eventually a route deemed safe and suitable for military use was located. One such trail passed through present-day Northampton, and crossed the Amherst Mountains via Hoosac Tunnel before reaching the Western Reserve.
Known today as the “Pinnacle Trail,” this road would prove invaluable during the Revolutionary War, serving as a supply line between the upper Hudson River valley and the middle of Massachusetts. When the war ended with no major battles being fought, the army demobilized and left the Pinnacle Trail alone. It was soon picked up by tourists who used it to reach Mt. Holyoke. The Appalachian Mountain Club began promoting the mountain region as a place to climb, ski, backpack, and camp, and within a few years over 150,000 people were coming annually. An AMC lodge opened at the base, and soon other amenities like roads, parking lots, and picnic areas appeared. Before long Mt. Holyoke became famous for its skiing, and hostels sprouted up along the ridge.
The success of tourism prompted the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to purchase land around the peak, and in 1957 157 acres, most of it woodlands, were transferred to the Department of Conservation and Recreation for $1 million, to create what was then named Mt. Holyoke State Forest. Another acre or so went to create a reservation for hunting deer, moose, and squirrels, and still more land was set aside for conservation easements. Development continued apace, with highways, hotels, conference centers, and ski slopes appearing. In 1980, however, environmentalists protested against plans to build a hotel atop the mountain, prompting the state to renege on their contract with the developer. Instead, the DCR listed the entire mountain as a conservation area, and development has been limited since to non-profit organizations, local governments, and private businesses interested in preserving open space.
At at Nickerson State Park, visitors can go:
- horseback riding
- cross-country skiing
- disc golf
Common game species are:
- white-tailed deer
- eastern gray squirrel
- wild turkey
- ruffed grouse
- common pheasant
- black bear