- Margaret Grayson ©️ Seven Days
- A section of the North Country Trail near Middlebury
Ever considered walking to North Dakota? Ambitious Vermonters can now trek the whole way on the nearly 5,000-mile North Country National Scenic Trail. It was officially extended into the Middlebury area in 2019 after decades of advocacy efforts and now winds through eight states in total.
The trail, commonly called the North Country Trail, or NCT, was created in 1980 as part of the National Trails System. Other, better-known National Scenic Trails include the Pacific Crest, Appalachian and Continental Divide, though the NCT is the longest by more than 1,500 miles. After passage of the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act of 2019, the eastern terminus of the NCT was extended to Vermont, at the Middlebury Gap on Route 125. While much of the route is still roadway, not trail, NCT staff and volunteers hope to build a lot of new trail over the next decade.
From the Middlebury Gap, the NCT follows Route 125 into Middlebury and joins the Trail Around Middlebury, which is managed by the Middlebury Area Land Trust, an NCT partner. It winds through forest and pastureland before rejoining roads headed toward the New York State border.
The Vermont section is only about 70 miles long; another 4,530 miles pass through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota, crossing 10 national forests and more than 100 state parks.
National Scenic Trails were first established in 1968, beginning with the Appalachian and Pacific Crest. The impetus for the trail system is widely credited to Lyndon B. Johnson's February 1965 special message to Congress, in which he called for increased environmental standards and protections and stated that access to nature and natural beauty was an important facet of American life. Today, 11 National Scenic Trails cover more than 18,000 miles.
The National Park Service oversees the National Scenic Trails, but much of trail maintenance falls to nonprofit partners. For the NCT, that's the North Country Trail Association, based in Michigan. It works with 37 chapters, partners and affiliates to maintain and improve the trail.
The NCT, established in 1980, was always supposed to extend into Vermont and connect with the Appalachian Trail (which follows the southern section of the Long Trail). But, initially, trail advocates met with some resistance from Vermonters, who feared their trails were becoming too crowded.
"At the time, the Vermont delegation was not supportive of it. Even the Green Mountain Club, at the time, was a little nervous," said Andrea Ketchmark, executive director of the North Country Trail Association. "That is something that has definitely changed."
- Margaret Grayson ©️ Seven Days
- North Country Trail sign
In the mid-2000s, the association revived efforts to bring the NCT into Vermont. According to John Derick, a longtime volunteer with the Middlebury Area Land Trust, there were numerous community meetings in Addison County towns that could be affected by the trail. Derick began work on new trails for the NCT route in 2013, but it wasn't until 2019 that these Vermont sections officially became part of the trail. That required an act of Congress.
"For the most part, trails have been really bipartisan," Ketchmark said. Trails are considered not just natural assets but also economic drivers. But, she said, "It just hasn't been top priority."
Eventually, the bill to extend the trail and to reroute a section in Minnesota was added to an omnibus bill and signed into law.
"It's been a long, long haul with the North Country Trail since they started," Derick said. He has built trails for the land trust for more than 30 years; it's strenuous physical work and requires plenty of behind-the-scenes negotiations with landowners and regulatory agencies. Many sections of the NCT have required easements from private landowners because it doesn't have eminent domain authority: Landowners can't be forced to sell land for use in the trail. Currently, about 1,600 miles of the NCT are along roadways, though Ketchmark said that rural roads can be just as scenic as off-road trails.
While more than 20,000 people have completed the entire 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, Ketchmark knows of fewer than 20 who have hiked the entire NCT — not surprising, given that it's more than twice as long. Other National Scenic Trails have been increasingly popular.
"I think we will continue to see an increase, because the other trails are getting so crowded," Ketchmark said. "That's drawing people to different trails, which is great."
Derick said he's met only a handful of thru-hikers on the Vermont section of the trail, but he's seen a huge increase in the number of locals on the TAM looking for an outdoor escape during the pandemic. "More than one person said having the trail there saved their sanity," he said.
Vermont's section of the NCT is easily accessible off Hamilton Road in Weybridge near Sheep Farm Road. From there, hikers can walk south toward Middlebury College on the Jackson Trail or west along the Blue Trail toward Snake Mountain.
"Even though there's a lot of work to be done [on] the section in Vermont, it's relatively small," Ketchmark said. "We hope to see, in the next 10 years, close to completion of the trail in Vermont." The North Country Trail Association recently hired a regional coordinator, who will help organize trail construction in New York and Vermont.
Derick thinks the section of trail toward Crown Point, N.Y., will be the most difficult.
"That's going to be a toughie, because you've got so much wetland to cross," he said. "You'd have to build so much boardwalk."
Derick, 73, said he typically spends a few hours per day working on the trails in the summertime, and he usually has help from a Middlebury College intern. But he hopes to find ways to get more young people involved in maintaining the trails.
"We'll just keep pecking away at it," he said.