The cliffs offer a slight elevation to overcome, but the real difficulty is the seemingly random assortment of trails leading to, at times, nowhere in particular.
Time To Complete
There are trails spread out all over this lake. One hour seems a reasonable estimate in terms of how long the average hiker would wish to spend.
As with most activities in the state of Alabama, all seasons are doable for those willing to put up with mild temperatures and intermittent rainy seasons. Fall is my favorite because of the scenery, particularly when combined with large bodies of water.
Picture yourself cruising along the prototypical Alabama backroad - nice weather, seldom motorists passing by, the top down on your dreamy candy-apple red convertible. You're wearing your favorite pair of sunglasses and feeling pretty fly. You turn off the main drag and follow the signs pointing to a nearby lake. The dappled sunlight slaps your face and neck as you begin to sense a slight variation in temperature caused by elevation change. You head down series of switchback turns until faced with a slightly surreal image: the glassy surface of a large body of water reflecting the foliage as if the sky and trees were doubled. This is one of many possible circumstances that one might experience when first encountering the singular beauty that is Lake Nicol.
What Makes It Great
Lake Nicol is much less structured, organized, and traveled to than its' big sister, Lake Lurleen. This can definitely be a good thing. It's also not a recognized state park, which means that you'll be saving those precious dollars in day fees. Hiking here is extremely accessible and rewarding, particularly along the chert cliffs that surround the lake. As it happens to be substantially less attended than Lurleen, it offers visitors a chance to get off the beaten path and explore the wonder of the natural world without having to worry about less than ideal human interactions.
That said, there is a house within rock-throwing distance of the entrance which offers a bit of the "neighborhood" feel. Also, important to note should you find yourself bitten by, say, a Timber Rattler. Fret not, however, because snakes aren't real! Just kidding--seriously watch out for poisonous snakes, particularly when out and about by your lonesome.
The many trails surrounding the lake offer even the most experienced hikers a welcome challenge--not only are the trails here plentiful, but they aren't exactly mapped out and handed to you on a silver platter. You must, at times, find your way around these trails, which can often lead to strange places. This is definitely part of the fun for those who seek their own path rather than abiding by the routine humdrum reality of mapped and catalogued trails.
Who is Going to Love It
Hikers who love blazing their own path will find this lake particularly enjoyable. Hike along the cliffs, pull out a fishing pole, set up a hammock, read a book, the options here are endless. Finding oneself at a location like this during peak season, at sunset, is unreal. Watch the sky light up and the moon wink as the hues of the sun bounce off dappled clouds. Trust me on this--you're going to love this place.
Hikers who also happen to posses a penchant for birding will also enjoy these helpful tidbits from the Alabama Birding Trails website: "Pine Warblers and Brown-headed Nuthatches are permanent residents here, as are Red-headed Woodpeckers and Eastern Bluebirds. In winter, this the best place to see Golden-crowned Kinglets." Consider heeding their advice and check out some of the wonderful Avialae that can be found here.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Be wary of simply typing in "Lake Nicol" to Google maps or the like. Be sure to follow the coordinates listed herein, or use these easy-to-follow instructions via the Alabama Birding Trails website:
"From the intersection of McFarland Boulevard east and University Boulevard in Tuscaloosa (fuel, food, lodging available nearby), proceed north on McFarland Boulevard for 1.6 miles. Exit onto Rice Mine Road, and follow Rice Mine Road northeast for 2.6 miles. Turn right on New Watermelon Road (CR 87) and follow for 4.6 miles. Turn right onto Watermelon Road (CR 47) and continue for .7 mile, turning right on Nicol Park Road, which dead-ends at the park in 1.2 miles."