Champlain Valley trails feature pastoral beauty
By Mike Lynch
It was a cold January day, and I was standing in a farm store at the trailhead and looking at quiches in a fridge. This wasn’t the typical way I start an excursion, but this wasn’t your average Adirondack trip on a trail through the forest preserve. I was exploring farmlands in the Champlain Valley.
DaCy Meadow Farm
The trailhead is at DaCy Meadow Farm, a meat and vegetable farm in Westport owned by Dave and Cynthia Johnston, a retired superintendent for the Keene Central School District. Though farmers now, the pair are no strangers to the hiking community. They are the former owners of The Hostel in Keene Valley, a bunkhouse that has served as a basecamp for High Peaks hikers for years. Dave was inspired to start that operation after staying at hostels along the Appalachian Trail in 1994.
DaCy Meadow Farm allows the public to access several short hiking trails on its property. The trails cross numerous habitats, including meadows, oak glades and a sugarbush.
In addition to the farm store and hiking trails, it features a couple of greenhouses, a shed with firewood, and what appeared to be a sugar shack, with a sign for trailhead parking on the corner of the building.
This trail system and the two others I explored for this article are managed by Champlain Area Trails (CATS), a nonprofit land trust whose mission is to not only preserve land but build trails. CATS-managed footpaths in the Champlain Valley generally go through private lands, lands it owns or lands owned by a town.
The organization has created 40 new trails through woods, alongside farms and rivers, and up mountain summits since its inception in 2009. It owns 190 acres and has protected 792 acres through conservation easements. They’ve provided a different kind of Adirondack hiking experience.
Before starting my trip at DaCy Meadow, I decided to grab my skis. From the trailhead, I followed a snowmobile trail down a hill along the edge of the field next to the dirt road. At the bottom of the hill, I came across a wood trail sign on a post that pointed right, along the edge of a stream.
Skiing through the field, I finally came to a section where I had to head into the small wooded area. To enter, I ducked under some maple sap lines running across the trail, and carefully navigated a section that is better suited for walking. I crossed a stream and left the path to check out the livestock milling around in the field.
Here, I ran into Dave, whom I had met previously. He told me about his passion for the DaCy Meadow trails, and that some rerouting was currently taking place. After talking for a few minutes, I headed back down the hill to the trail and went back into the small patch of woods, over the stream and back into the field, where I took a 10-minute ski back to the car. I switched into hiking boots—which probably would have been a better option for the first trip—and then headed down the drive again to a different section of the property to walk on the meadow and oak glade loops.
After finishing up my two short trips at the DaCy Meadow Farm, I headed to the Riverside Trail in Willsboro, to walk along the Boquet River in the last light of day. The Riverside Trail, which is a roughly 1-mile loop, runs through fields and forests on land owned by the Triple Green Jade Farm, a small operation that makes bread for farmers markets, restaurants and co-ops.
The trailhead is next to an old brick-red farmhouse that sits on a stone foundation. When I pulled into the tiny lot, sunset was approaching, and a nearly full moon could be seen above the building.
Just downhill from the parking area is a large field that eventually leads to a forest along the Boquet River. But the hike starts by running parallel to the road, before heading into the woods and continuing along a tributary to the Boquet River.
Check out a photo gallery from Mike’s trips on the CATs trails mentioned in this story
The tributary connects to the Boquet at a large bend, which allows for views up and down the river. This evening, the river was coated with smooth black ice. Standing there on the snowy shoreline in the fading light, I could hear what sounded like the hooting of an owl.
According to Chris Maron, executive director of CATS, the Riverside Trail is a great place for birding in the spring and summer. The river offers opportunities to see waterfowl, kingfishers, and great blue herons, while the grasslands attract birds such as bobolinks and field sparrows.
“(The trail) really provides an awful lot of habitats in a short span for bird watching,” Maron said.
This is typical of many of the Champlain-area trails, said Derek Rogers, development director for CATS and an avid birder. He noted that the Bobcat Trail, Art Farm Trail and Ancient Oak Trail are all great birding spots.
The highlight of my trip on the Riverside Trail was walking next to the frozen and scenic Boquet River. After doing that for a stretch, the trail headed back to the field and eventually the trailhead.
One of CATS’ long-term goals is to link communities through trails, and although the Riverside Trail might not seem to be an obvious fit for that goal and is a great standalone hike, Maron said the intention is to have it play a role in a bigger trail system running along the Boquet River from Willsboro south to a trail system CATS manages in the western part of Essex.
“We saw this as a good opportunity to have that first trail in place that would link Willsboro to the trails going to Westport,” he said.
The beginnings of a trail system from Willsboro to Essex are now evident, but the system between Essex south to Westport is more developed. There are about 12 miles of trails there, Maron said. CATS also hopes one day to connect Willsboro to its northern neighbor, Keeseville.
North Boquet Summit Trail
One of the places Maron mentioned along the Boquet in western Essex is the North Boquet Summit Trail, which opened up to the public in 2020. I visited this small mountain in January with Maron and Bill Amadon, stewardship coordinator for the organization.
For this trip, I parked in a tiny lot with enough space for a couple vehicles at the corner of Jersey Street and Leaning Street. Here, I met Maron and we walked down the street to Amadon’s house before heading to the trailhead.
This trail starts as the Rocky Ledges, but after four-tenths of a mile you turn right and head up the eastern slope of this small mountain. On the way, Amadon and Maron talked about how botanist Jerry Jenkins did several studies that noted how ecologically diverse the habitat is in the small hills on the western side of the Champlain Valley, including the slopes of North Boquet Mountain.
“In four years of research in these hills, we have discovered that they are as remarkable biologically as they are visually,” Jenkins wrote in a 2008 study of what he called the West Champlain Hills. “They contain the richest forest and ledge communities in northern New York, with the most ecologically specialized species, and with more rare plants than any other Adirondack community, or perhaps even than all other Adirondack communities together.”
In another study from that period, Jenkins wrote that North Boquet has hemlock-hardwoods on the lower slopes, open glades with moss and lichen slabs in the middle, and oak-hickory glades on the eastern slope near the summit.
One of the reasons for this biodiversity is the open nature of the woods, which allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor. That creates changeover in plants throughout the summer, Maron said
On this day, though, snow blanketed the ground, and the value of the sunlight was purely aesthetic. As we weaved through the woods on switchbacks designed by Amadon, his other passion—art—became apparent. Amadon paints, and he frequently commented on the patterns and shades of light hitting the forest floor.
The trail offers several lookouts with views eastward toward Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains. As we hiked in the last light of day, Amadon noted how the shadows were giving definition to the snow-covered mountains, such as Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield. They also gained an orange hue in the alpenglow.
The summit itself is an open area but there are no views. You have to walk west, where you get views of South Boquet Mountain and the High Peaks. From the vista, you can see Big Slide, Hurricane, even Mount Marcy. After enjoying the views, we headed back down the trail the way we came. However, there are numerous route options when you leave the summit area. You can take a loop trail back to the trailhead or, if you’re looking for a longer excursion, you can head south and explore the numerous trail options that connect to Whallonsburg and Wadhams. There is also another nearby trailhead for North Boquet Mountain on Jersey Street.
CATS publishes new maps annually and has detailed maps on its website that highlight these options. I recommend grabbing a copy before you hit the trail.