Two campgrounds on the Outer Cape offer visitors a serving of nostalgia.Text by Greg Melville | Photography by Julia Cumes
Every summer, families return to Paine’s Campground, pitching tents at the same primitive campsites year after year, generation after generation. A similar scene takes place 10 miles up Route 6 in Truro at North of Highland Camping Area, owned by the Currier family since 1954. These two campgrounds offer a rare sliver of old-time vacationing on Cape Cod, from low-cost rates to the multi-generational roots and deep connection to the outdoors.
The office at Paine’s Campground is nothing fancier than an ancient, weather-beaten shed at the edge of the parking lot. When no one is inside, a sign on a piece of paper tells you to “Please honk for help.” Behind it sit two vintage pickup trucks, which look even older than they are, shaded by scrub pines deep inside the sea-kissed woods of Wellfleet. Owner Bud Paine, who was handed the role of running the property from his father nearly 20 years ago, lives on-site with his wife, Sheila.
Paine’s was established in 1958 by Bud’s father, Robert, atop the site of former wood lots used long ago by Wellfleet residents to harvest timber for fueling their homes in winter. Today, the land is prime real estate and only a short walk to freshwater Duck Pond and the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Bud and his five siblings grew up spending their summers helping out at the roughly 30-acre tent-only campground, living in an old school bus. From June through Labor Day, they barely bothered to wear shoes. “My friends thought we were like Swiss Family Robinson,” says Bud.
Now, two of his daughters help out at Paine’s, as do his grandchildren. Not much has changed at the campground over the decades, though the school bus was removed awhile back, and the bathroom buildings were wired for electricity in 1974.
“People come here from the city or suburbs to unwind and listen to the surf or the birds, and see the stars at night. To ‘improve’ upon this place would be to take away from all that,” says Bud.
They’re also attracted by the price. Rates on the campground’s 150 sites start at $45 a night for the first two people, with a minimum stay of three nights. Reservations are generally made the old-fashioned way—by snail mail. Amenities at each site include little more than a fire ring and picnic table.
180 Old County Road, South Wellfleet,
NORTH OF HIGHLAND CAMPING AREA
North of Highland Camping Area, surrounded entirely by the Cape Cod National Seashore, is slightly more modern than Paine’s Campground. In addition to its 237 primitive camping sites spread across 58 acres, it also boasts a small section for RV hookups, a fireplace-heated recreation building with ping-pong and pool tables and a laundry room with coin-operated washers and dryers.
The campground is owned and operated by Steve Currier and his adult sons, Greg and Brandon. A path from the property runs directly to Head of the Meadow Beach, about a six- or seven-minute walk away.
Steve’s father, Malcolm, created the campground more than 60 years ago, inspired by the primitive campsites at Nickerson State Park—where the family would spend their summers living out of a tent. “It was total wilderness out here in the beginning,” says Steve, as he sits with his two sons outside the campground’s office. “The only access was a one-lane beach buggy road.”
The family improved the road, cleared off the tent sites, and welcomed their first guests. Malcolm ran North of Highland for three decades until retiring in the mid-1980s. Steve, who was working as an electrical engineer in Illinois, moved with his young family back to Cape Cod to take the reins.
“I’ve always liked the area, and this place,” says Steve. “But as much as anything, I had decided I was never again going to sit in another meeting.”
Recently, Greg and Brandon followed a similar path, leaving careers in other parts of the country to help their dad and ensure the family tradition continues.
“Both of us have a pride in the campground,” says Greg. “When we were kids working here, every week was like a Christmas present. New people would arrive, and you didn’t know who you would meet or see.”
In 2010, the family sold a conservation easement to the National Park Service to ensure that it will remain a tent-oriented campground in perpetuity, never to be sold for residential development. Rates at North of Highland start at $40 a night—with a minimum two-night stay—for the first two people, and there’s a 25 percent full-season discount for anyone who reserves a space for 108 nights or more.
Like at Paine’s, many guests are repeat customers. “We have campers who have been coming for 20 or 30 years or more. Some came with their parents, and now they’re coming with their kids or grandkids,” says Greg.
During those years, while so much of the world has changed, these two campgrounds on the Outer Cape remain surprisingly, blissfully, the same.
52 Head of the Meadow Road,
North Truro, 508-487-1191,