Summer on ever-popular Cape Cod, Massachusetts conjures up images of traffic-clogged streets and jam-packed beaches. “That's the problem with peninsulas”, lamented Dennis Moran, who drove 320km from Russell, Massachusetts for a week of seaside living. “There's only one way in and one way out.”

The cape's 900km of coastline fills up quickly, as every year millions of visitors come in search of a sunny spot where they can soak their toes in the ocean waters. The Upper Cape (the part closest to the mainland) offers shorter distances, more development and draws more crowds; while the Lower Cape (or less confusingly, the Outer Cape) requires more time on the road but rewards with pristine landscapes and less people.

If the goal is getting back to nature -- whether beach or dunes or woods -- pitch a tent at one of the Outer Cape's excellent atmospheric camping areas. With easy access to beaches, bicycle trails and other recreational facilities, these campgrounds offer the best of Cape Cod at a fraction of the cost of staying at a hotel or bed and breakfast. Best of all, they guarantee guests a private patch of wilderness.

On the beach

Moran follows two strategies for avoiding the crowds: he comes in June to beat the hordes of holiday-makers that descend on the cape later in summer; and he pitches his tent in the tree-shaded ocean-side camping area North of Highland, which is set on 60 acres of woodland in Truro. As Moran's wife Catherine pointed out, the sites are laid out for maximum privacy, taking advantage of the landscape's natural hills, dales and scrub pine growth.

North of Highland is renowned for its family atmosphere, spacious sites and well-maintained facilities. Owned and operated by the Currier family for nearly 70 years, the camping area has more than 200 sites, plus other facilities like a camp store and a rec room. “These people are incredibly fastidious,” Moran asserted. “Have you seen the restrooms at this place? They could do surgery in there.”

Good management and ample privacy aside, the real draw to North of Highland is the ocean. Part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, the spectacular, secluded Head of the Meadow Beach is a seven-minute walk from the campground. Here, beachcombers wade among the shifting sandbars while bodysurfers ride the waves. The good ship Frances, shipwrecked in 1872, is visible from the shore at low tide. And since the National Seashore stretches some 40 miles along the coast of Cape Cod, it is easy to lose the other sunbathers and surf-riders simply by walking a little bit farther.

In the dunes

Max Imhoff and Eric Jenkins make the three-hour drive to Cape Cod from Portsmouth, New Hampshire every year. Their destination of choice is Dunes' Edge Campground in Provincetown on the Lower Cape. The smallish sites are wooded and shady, but the 100-site campground is surrounded by miles of pristine sand dunes -- also part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. “We've come here for the past three or four years because it's right on the dunes,” Imhoff explained. “We pretty much spend all of our time in the sand.”

Sand dunes are the quintessential Cape Cod landscape -- an endless vista of sand and sky, sculpted by the wind. Walking trails crisscross the shifting landscape, winding around beach grass, saltspray roses and scrub pine. This natural wonderland is bypassed by most tourists, who make a beeline for the beach, so Dunes' Edge offers the ultimate escape. The campground is not only at the edge of the dunes, it is also at the edge of Provincetown, a historic retreat for artists and writers that has morphed into a hot-to-trot gay and lesbian destination. A 15-minute walk lands campers in the middle of Cape Cod's most vibrant street scene. Spend an evening browsing art galleries, sipping sophisticated cocktails and being wooed by beguiling cross-dressers, then retreat to the tranquillity of camp at the Dunes' Edge (where quiet hours are strictly enforced).

In the forest

About 30 miles south in the town of Brewster on the Lower Cape, would-be campers sign up six months in advance to get a spot to sleep at Nickerson State Park. The 400-plus campsites set on 1900 acres of land fill up in July and August since sites are spacious, private and affordable, even by camping standards.

Oddly enough, at Nickerson, sand dunes and salt marshes are nowhere to be found, let alone an ocean beach. Instead, the sites are shaded by pines and oaks. Eight fresh-water kettle ponds sprinkle the inland grounds, offering endless opportunities for swimming, canoeing and fishing.  Besides the eight miles of paved bike trails within the state park, there is also the Cape Cod Rail Trail, a 22-mile cycling route that runs along the Outer Cape from Dennis to Wellfleet, cruising past pine forests and cranberry bogs.

Park ranger Eric Levy raves about the natural beauty of the park and the many ways to enjoy it. ”Flax Pond has a sweet little beach. You can rent a boat and go fishing or just explore the hiking trails and spot the birds...” He broke off mid-thought. “Do you want a poem? Wait right here, let me get you a poem.”

Levy is so inspired by the magnificence of life on Cape Cod that he has taken to penning poetry about it. He shares his writing with campers, if they are interested, as a way to encourage them to tune in to their surroundings and tune out the crowds and stresses of daily life. “Inhale a breath from around the globe / And see yourself as this moment unfolds / Know eternity as this moment gets old.”

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