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National Park Getaways
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North Country National Scenic Trail
New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota
The word “hike” is probably not an accurate descriptor of how I travel through the outdoors. Although I can travel at hiking speed, I find too much that invites further inspection. I also find myself fantasizing I’m in another era – a scout for some party of explorers, perhaps, seeking out the best stream crossing or searching for signs of our next meal of wild game. Still, as adventurous and daring as I am in my own mind, I take comfort in knowing that early explorers themselves chose the easiest route available. On my excursions, that route is often the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT).
The NCT is the nation’s longest national scenic trail. Covering roughly 4,600 miles, it winds across seven states between North Dakota and New York. Roughly twice as long as the famed Appalachian Trail, it offers plenty of room to roam. The National Park Service partners with the North Country Trail Association and its dedicated volunteer chapters to build, maintain, and tell the story of the NCT.
Since I live in Wisconsin, I most often leave my boot prints on that portion of the NCT. The trail in northern Wisconsin is best experienced at dawn, when wildlife is most active. “Scouting parties” (of one, in my case) have an entire day of serious exploration ahead as the lifting fog seems to offer a passageway back in time. One last check of supplies, and it’s time to enter the wilderness.
Not far down the trail, a gurgling brook presents itself. The tea-colored water, stained from its travels through tannin-laced cathedrals of conifer forest, swirls in deep pools below the rustic timber bridge on which I’m standing. My thoughts are divided, contemplating the likelihood of wild brook trout finning out of sight below, and at the same time appreciating the work of NCT volunteers who packed lumber to this place to construct my vantage point.
Several miles of peaceful hiking bring abundant wildlife signs and sightings, rekindling fantasies of living in a time when a keen eye and strong legs meant more than a cell phone. Raccoon tracks dot the muddy fringe of the trail. I glimpse a bald eagle nest against the distant horizon and know I’m approaching the St. Croix River, where voyageurs once travelled with fur-laden packs. Raucous blue jays have accompanied me on this trek, and nervous red squirrels loudly scold me for forcing them to abandon their feeding perches littered with fresh pinecone remnants. In contrast to these noisy creatures, a deer browses just off the trail, relaxed in its surroundings. It reminds me that it’s time for a snack of my own, a brief respite on an inviting log, and, eventually, a return to my car and the modern world.
This has been my NCT adventure for the day. Depending upon the section you choose to hike, your NCT excursion could bring you in contact with prairie grasslands, Great Lakes shorelines, historic canals and towpaths, or stunning waterfalls. Pick your spot, lace up your boots, and take the first step into your NCT adventure!
By Daniel W. Watson, Volunteer Coordinator, Ice Age and North Country National Scenic Trails
NPS.gov homepage photo: Campers take a break along the NCT. (NPS photo)