Developing trail connects 8 northern U.S. states
By Tim Rowland
Throughout the northern U.S. backcountry, as part of a monumental idea conceived a half century ago, a trail is being born. It is visible but not really, like a skim of ice materializing on an Adirondack pond. Epic in its scope, it is referenced here and there in state land-use plans, but otherwise is seldom mentioned in print or in the ever-growing colony of online trail guides.
You can hike on it without knowing it. You can see it here and there, all marked and official in some spots, and in others manifest only as a trail of ribbons through the forest, not unlike Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs.
The finished trail will join an interstate route that is now more than 4,600 miles and will be about 5,000 miles when new segments draw hikers away from some roadside traverses. That’s longer than the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails combined.
Known as the North Country National Scenic Trail (and referred to variously as NCNST, NCST and NCT) it will eventually break from the Appalachian Trail in Vermont and cross into the Adirondacks on the Lake Champlain Bridge at Crown Point.
From there, it hops across some beautiful, balding hills in the Hammond Pond Wild Forest before dipping southwest through the Hoffman Notch Wilderness, Vanderwhacker Wild Forest and Siamese Ponds Wilderness to Speculator.
Then it bisects the West Canada Lake Wilderness to the west before exiting the park near Forestport in the Black River Wild Forest. Once it leaves the Adirondacks it just keeps on going and going, dipping down through Pennsylvania and southern Ohio before heading north through Michigan and ending up in North Dakota.
Much of the route in the Adirondack section was mapped by Mary Coffin, a member of the Onondaga Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, who plunged into uncharted wilderness territory, doing battle with spruce boughs, swamps and deadfall, seeking ground for a sustainable trail while toting sustenance and survival gear on her back. The challenge has been both physically and mentally demanding, piecing together a wilderness walk that will be unlike anything else in the park.
She has been at it for nearly 15 years now, battling blowdown and bureaucracy with equal tenacity, as the project inches along.
But each year brings the trail ever closer, Coffin said, as it approaches a form that offers relative continuity for someone wanting to hike from one end of the park to the other. Of the route, more than 80 miles cross existing trails while another 39 need to be built. The rest for now is road walking, but the goal is to gradually replace these stretches with hiking trails.
A wintry taste
Those who want a taste of the North Country Scenic Trail as it plies the Adirondacks have plenty of choices. Many of the existing Adirondack trails that will be part of the NCT are lightly used alternatives to more popular trails in Keene Valley and the Tri-Lakes regions. ADK member and trail volunteer Dan Smith offered to take us out on one of these trails that will soon see an elevation in status as part of an epic North American odyssey.
To meet up, we took the Northway to Schroon Lake, then headed west for a few miles on Hoffman Road to a clearly marked trailhead to Big Pond on the southern edge of the Hoffman Notch Wilderness. Ideally, we might have been on skis or snowshoes, but with the mid-January snow resembling little more than a heavy frost, such accessorizing seemed like overkill.
Smith has helped map and sketch out several miles of new trail that need to be built connecting Big Pond Trail to State Route 9 north of Schroon Lake. With a keen eye for the topography, Smith said he enjoys the strategizing that comes with route-finding in the wilderness. For fun, he likes to traverse watershed divides, ferret out the remnants of old military turnpikes and make up routes that don’t exist, such as a backwoods circumnavigation of the High Peaks.
But Smith will take an existing trail when he has to, and on a perfectly still day we tramped past an erratic the size of a laundry room and through a mixed forest to a beaver pond studded with old snags that is something of a detached lower appendage of Big Pond. If the ice is hard, bushwhackers can roughly parallel the trail by crossing the pond and following a stream to Big Pond. A storm was on the way, and clouds were hanging low but, in better conditions, snowshoeing to the middle of the pond will open up vistas of big mountains to the north, most notably the long ridge leading to Hoffman Mountain, one of the Adirondack Hundred Highest that clocks in at a respectable 3,700 feet in elevation.
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The national trail is designed for backpackers, so as a rule, Smith said, it will avoid steep ascents and rugged terrain. It will, here and there, pop over some bare prominences with views of the type that instantly make hikers forget the stress and strain it took to get there. It will also skirt some desirable but more rugged mountains that will allow through-hikers to ditch their packs and spend an off-day of sorts in pursuit of more dramatic views.
The Big Pond Trail offers the classic Adirondack palate of snowy whites, brooding evergreens, and brassy beech leaves that rattle in the breeze and click in a most comforting way if there happens to be sleet. Not far after the beaver pond we came to a junction that does not yet exist. This is where the Big Pond Trail intersects with the NCT proper. Continuing straight, the NCT will head west to Baily Pond, while, when the section is completed, turning right at this point, hikers will follow a new section of trail up and over Jones Hill to the Dirgylot trailhead on Route 9.
While some work has been done on this section, the trail is not officially open. Smith said it will probably take about a season of work to complete, but—as with all Adirondack trails at the moment—it remains on hold pending the outcome of litigation over tree cutting on state lands.
We continued to Big Pond, which appears, barely, through the trees on the left after a mile or so.
The goodly handful of ponds in the southern reaches of the Hoffman Notch Wilderness have, through the years, tended more to be the haunts of local anglers than of visiting hikers, and as such there are multiple fishing trails and occasional battered rowboats that, by the looks of them, had best be left alone by people who don’t know how to swim.
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A lonely herd path
We followed one of the herd paths down to the shore, and despite being only a mile or so in, it was utterly still, one of those spots where it is possible to sit on a log and become lost in thought, or no thoughts at all, and come away with the sense that the world isn’t in as bad a shape as it seems.
From here, the Big Pond Trail proceeds up and over some rugged ground before settling back down into an easy hike to where it meets the north-south Hoffman Notch Trail. Turning left will bring you to the Loch Muller Road trailhead where, if you have parked a second car, you have now finished your traverse. Or, if the day is still young, journeying another mile will bring you to Bailey Pond, reached by means of an abandoned road that will itself briefly become part of the NCT before it wanders off to the southwest.
The seeds of the North Country Scenic Trail were planted in 1968 when Congress passed the National Trails Systems Act, which designated the Appalachian and Pacific Crest as the two initial components and ordered the study of dozens more long-distance trails. Today, 11 national scenic trails are in various stages of existence.
Because the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails got the lion’s share of the publicity and funding, other scenic trails have been slower to evolve, said Andrea Ketchmark, executive director of the North Country Trail Association.
The hardy few
So far, according to the association, 20 people have hiked the current iteration of the NCST. If you wish to be No. 21, feel free. “It’s fully hikable end-to-end,” Ketchmark said. “There’s an increasing popularity in thru-hikes; people want to get away from the more crowded trails and find something new and different.”
But its northern breadth means that the NCST will never have the same culture of the Appalachian Trail, where hikers typically begin in the south and follow the warm season north, and its length means that it will more reasonably be attacked in sections than in one long slog. Because it is still evolving, there are still ample amounts of road hiking, although there is an unbroken stretch of nearly 700 miles extending through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota and through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The calling card of the NCST, Ketchmark said, is its extensive travel along bodies of water, including rivers and the Great Lakes. Through its journey in the Midwest, it runs through historic and culturally rich settings that include farmlands and other working landscapes that tell the American story.
Early on, it was questionable whether the Adirondacks would even be part of that story. Even in the late ’70s, there was concern about overuse in the High Peaks, and the decision was made to avoid the more dramatic but fragile parts of the park. And as late as 1993, the New York State Trails Council resolved that the route should run from the Finger Lakes through the Catskills, bypassing the Adirondack Park altogether. But the change would have required gubernatorial and congressional approval, and the request was ultimately ignored.
A patchwork map
Even 30 years after it was initially envisioned, little had been done. But with the help of Adirondack guidebook author Barbara McMartin and volunteers such as Coffin, the project began to gain critical mass in the early 2000s.
“I had been hiking on the Finger Lakes trails for quite a while before I actually realized it was concurrent with the NCT,” Coffin said. As she began mapping the Adirondack sections, “it began coming together, kind of like a patchwork quilt.”
Working with the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Adirondack Mountain Club and a number of volunteers, the route began to take shape. The trail will feature incredible diversity, offering opportunities not just for thru-hikers, but for families looking for an easy out-and-back, and backpackers interested in piercing some of the most remote wilderness the Adirondacks can offer.
And any project that diverts hiker attention from more heavily used portions of the park is welcome.
“The NCNST is a great opportunity to bring attention to a less-utilized part of the Adirondack Park,” said Ben Brosseau, ADK director of communications. “Once completed, the trail will not only offer an approachable thru-hiking opportunity, but also numerous day hiking and weekend-length backpacking routes through remote sections of the central Adirondacks.”
Considering that hikers need supplies, thru- hike trails by their nature also tend to wander past towns, which adds a local economic benefit, Brosseau said.
A new challenge
In the case of the Big Pond Trail, if you’re hiking 5,000 miles, what’s another 4 miles to Schroon Lake? Most travelers will likely be like us, though, nibbling on a bit of it at a time. Smith said he expects the lightly used Hoffman Notch trails to notice an uptick in use, both because hiker challenges have grown in popularity and because new trails attract hikers like bees to maple syrup.
Completing the Adirondack section of the NCT may become an ADK bucket-list item, much like the Northville-Placid Trail. “People are taking on bigger and bigger challenges, and hikers constantly want to do something new,” he said.
Instead of retracing our steps, we walked through the woods to the north, where the NCT will one day go, and aimed for the shores of North Pond, a smaller but attractive sheet of water deep in the forest. Once again, the anglers had beaten us to it, and a herd path led down to the cozy shoreline, set off by Hoffman Mountain and the long ridge leading up to the summit.
When we rejoined the Big Pond trail, a set of ski tracks told us that we were not alone. But we might as well have been. It may be another couple of years or more before new sections of the NCT are open for sanctioned hiking.
Meanwhile, pond-hopping in the little-used Hoffman Notch is a good way to anticipate the coming of something big, while appreciating that there is still time to beat the rush.