North Country Trail in New York State
This article is reprinted from the Spring 2010 issue of Adironodack Peeks, the Magazine of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers, by permission of the author
The North Country Trail
By Ray Bell
You hiked to the summits of the forty-six 4,000-foot peaks in the Adirondacks. You suffered from heat, cold, rain, snow, black flies, mosquitoes, exhaustion, hunger, thirst, and sore muscles. You many times possibly thought, why am I doing this? However, you continued on through all kinds of weather, unbelievable hardships, and one day you became a 46er.
But life doesn’t end when you complete a goal. You set another goal. As a 46er you have the skills to help the National Park Service, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and the hiking community at large with the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT). The trail is being planned right now through the Adirondack Park between Forestport, near Booneville, NY and Crown Point, NY.
This 165-mile stretch marks a major incomplete section of a trail from North Dakota to Crown Point. Seventy-four miles of existing foot trails in the Adirondack Park could be incorporated into the NCT. Approximately fifty-five miles of new trail will be needed to complete this section of the NCT.
In 1976, a few friends and I climbed Dix Mountain from Elk Lake. We had absolutely no inclination to become Forty-Sixers. Then we climbed Giant. A funny thing happened after the first few summits. We realized we had climbed several difficult peaks and thought the rest would be easy. What a mistake that was. There are no easy hikes on any of the Forty-Six! In August, 1980, on Seymour Mountain, I became 46er #1653. In 1991 I became New England 111 #192, and in 2003 I completed the Appalachian Trail. I thought, what now? Then I heard of the NCT, a footpath through the forests of seven northern states. Starting in Sakakawea State Park in North Dakota, it winds 4,600 miles to its eastern terminus. It is twice as long as the 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail.
The NCT is one of eight trails the United States Government proposed in 1972. The trail was originally laid out over Mount Marcy, but several influential hikers objected to the potential increase in traffic in the High Peaks. As a result, the trail was left incomplete in New York. Other states started work on their sections. Today about 2,200 of the 4,600 miles have been certified as complete. Work on the trail hasn’t started in the Adirondacks. The present plan is to route the NCT south of the High Peaks in what is called the “central” zone.
The number of NCT thru-hikers who have gone over Mt. Marcy now totals, after thirty-seven years, one. Yes, one hiker in thirty-seven years. Was the fear of too many NCT hikers in the High Peaks overestimated?
From Sakakawea State Park, the trail travels through six states: North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. At the border of Pennsylvania and New York, the NCT meets the Finger Lakes Trail (FLT).
The NCT crossed the state border at the Allegany State Park. From there the Finger Lakes Trail “carries” the NCT northeast, skirting Salamanca and Ellicottville, passing the junction with the Conservation Trail, and, later, the south end of the Letchworth Trail. (These are two of the five branch trails of the FLT system).
Marked with white blazes, the main FLT/NCT trail continues in a generally easterly direction through the Finger Lakes, skirting around Hornell, Bath, Hammondsport, Watkins Glen, and Ithaca. Along this segment, two branch trails offer optional treks.
Leaving the area south of Ithaca, the main NCT tracks northeasterly toward Cortland, then to a junction with the Onondaga Branch Trail in the Cuyler Hill State Forest, not far from the village of Cuyler. The NCT follows the FLT Onondaga Branch, marked with blue blazes, for some forty miles through the southern portion of Onondaga County. Crossing the Onondaga County Highland Forest Park, the NCT enters Madison County, reaching its junction with the Link Trail in the northern portion of the Tioughnioga WMA. The approximate mileage for the NCE carried by the FLT system from the Allegany State Park to the Link Trail is 420 miles. Connecting the main FLT to the Old Erie Canal Historic Park Trail in Canastota, the Link Trail is a north-south trail.
The main FLT reaches into its most northerly point in Chenango County, a short distance south of the Madison-Chenango County border, then turns southeasterly to its terminus with the Long Path Trail in the Catskill Park.
From the Onondaga Branch Trail, the Link Trail/NCT goes through Cazenovia to its terminus at the Canastota Canal Museum. The NCT continues eastward along a composite of the Old Erie Canal towpath and a section of the Barge Canal toward the Old Erie Canal Village site at the west edge of Rome, about thirty miles. Route planning from this point to the Fort Stanwix site and north toward Boonville is a challenge.
The route alog the Black River Canal between Rome and Pixley Falls in the Boonville Gorge was largely absorbed by a NYS highway. The City of Rome is developing a multiple use trail from the Mohawk River and the NYS Barge Canal northward to Delta Lake State Park. This might become part of the NCT.
From Pixley Falls, the Black River Environmental Improvement Association carries the NCT along the route of the Black River Canal, abandoned around 1923, about six miles to Boonville. There the Black River Feeder Canal towpath provides an attractive route of about ten miles to Forestport, a gateway to the Adirondack Park.
A possible route for the NCT was laid out by Clair Cain, an employee of the North Country Trail Association. This route is described in the “Final Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement” that went to public hearings in 2007. The report is not as specific as some of the recommendations below, but experienced hikers shouldn’t have many problems. Getting from Forestport to Crown Point does require some bushwhacking. Three National Geographic maps are useful: numbers 743, Adirondack Park Lake George/Great Sacandaga; 744, North/Raquette Lake; and 745, Old Forge/Oswegatchie. The trail numbers listed below are taken from those maps.
Starting in the village of Forestport, walk ten to twelve miles along the North Lake Road to the beginning of the Stone Dam Trail #103; take this to the Gulf Lake lean-to for overnight shelter. Take the North Lake Road east toward Ice Cave Mountain and into West Canada lakes Wilderness.
Next hike into the Moose River Plains Wild Forest. Possible stops include lean-tos at the West Lake and Cedar Lake. Follow the Jessup River Road and the Doug Mountain Road to the Siamese Ponds Wilderness along the Puffer Pond Tr4ail. The Old Farm Clearing Trail provides access to Peaked Mountain.
Now the hike gets interesting as one must bushwhack to the parking lot at Route 288 near Lake Snow Road. There are multiple streams in this area and the hiker may be advised to follow the high ground. At Route 28 you mush bushwhack all the way to the Hudson River. To avoid private property, the trail goes north to the Blue Ledge Rapids and then east along the shore of the Hudson River.
Cross the Hudson on the old Railroad Bridge (see photo). The bridge itself isn’t shown on the map, but the railroad track is.
After a short walk up the tracks to the North Woods Club Road there is another opportunity to test one’s bushwhacking skills; in fact the stretch from that intersection to the Stony Brook Trail #58 an on to the Crown Point is perhaps the most challenging for the trailblazer.
Finally we go to the last of the three National Geographic Maps, number 743. Bushwhacks are required past Center Pond, Hayes Mountain, Hedgehog Hill, and to Severance Mountain. Your author has not located a crossing of I-87, the Northway, supposedly accomplished via culverts. Another challenge for the hiker!
With some additional bushwhacking one can get to the Moose Mountain Lean-to or the Hammond and Bloody Ponds Trail. These lead to Sawmill Pond and eventually to Narrowtown Road. From there to Crown Point is a long road walk. Where to construct a parallel trail through the forest might be a good problem for 46ers to solve.
Some NCT bakers hope to extend the trail over the new Crown Point Bridge (currently under construction) to join up with the Appalachian Trail in Vermont. Imagine being able to hike on trails from North Dakota to either Spring Mountain in Georgia or Katahdin in Maine! The extension would require an act of Congress, as did the North Country Trail, so any progress would be years off.
The North Country Trail Association has approximately 2,500 paid members. Of those, about 140 belong to the Central New York Chapter. With government cutbacks and the increasing average age of members, how can serious hikers help complete the NCT? Some of us who are members of the Adirondack Mountain Club and Forty-Sixers as well as the NCT have a burning desire to see the trail finished. Right now we are evaluating existing trails and trying to find suitable bushwhacks. We’ll deal with the politics the same way we deal with blowdown: find a way around it, make a trail of some sort, even just establish coordinates.
Ed Eberhard, who uses the trail name Nimblewill Nomad, is the only person so far to have crossed the entire North Country Trail in a single year. A seventy-year-old retired optometrist, he had to make his way through an eight-mile section of the McCormack Wilderness (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) where the United States Forest Service does not allow the NCT to be blazed. Eberhard said he felt like Daniel Boone. In an article in the North Star, he reported finding a few small cairns in what was a “difficult” stretch. “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for a few weeks”, he said.
Since completing the Appalachian Trail in 2003, I have been enlisting other hikers to help find a route for the North Country Trail through the Adirondack Park. Current plans call for the trail to follow State Forest Preserve land, public Highways, or land where the Department of Environmental Conservation has an agreement with land owners. We want to make hikers aware of the opportunities to explore the wild reaches of the Adirondacks. By working with the National Park Service, Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), and the North Country Trail Association, someday we will actually have a trail.
Right now I’d recommend the NCT only for experienced hikers who are used to bushwhacking, have a working knowledge of map and compass, and are prepared to stay overnight if the route becomes too difficult. If you want help or advice about NCT route-finding in the Adirondacks, you can e-mail me at email@example.com.
D&H Railroad Bridge across the Hudson River.