Hiking the North Country Trail in Addison County
EAST MIDDLEBURY — As the sun was coming up on Oct. 1, Kevin Russell embarked on a journey by foot and bike across Addison County.
He aimed to hike the 44.3-mile stretch of the North Country Trail, which winds its way on a proposed route through the Champlain Valley, up and over the spine of the Green Mountains to the Appalachian Trail’s junction with the Green Mountain Club’s Long Trail in Bridgewater, Vt.
Russell’s goal was to bolster support and awareness about efforts to officially complete the trail in Vermont and beyond.
Like the Appalachian Trail, the North Country Trail is a National Scenic Trail within the National Trails System. It spans 4,600 miles across eight states, from North Dakota to Vermont, with nearly 3,200 miles of road walking. Unlike many other National Scenic Trails, it winds through private land and relies on land easements — agreements between private landowners and trail associations — for hiker access.
In early 2019, the United States Congress approved an official reroute of the trail, which would add approximately 66 miles to its length and bring it through the heart of Addison County. Though the exact route is not set in stone, the Middlebury Area Land Trust (MALT) has been hard at work in recent years to establish a recommended path from Chimney Point in Addison to Route 7. The final route the trail will take from that point is unclear, but it will run up into the Green Mountain National Forest via the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area and currently involves some road walking.
John Derrick, longtime trails volunteer with the MALT, says the organization just this fall completed a new 1.5-mile section of the North Country Trail that connects the TAM (MALT’s Trail Around Middlebury) with the old Class IV Mill Road at Jeffrey Murdock Nature Preserve of Route 7 South in Middlebury.
According to Derrick, about 17.5 local miles of the trail have been approved by the National Park Service for designation as the North Country Trail, and consideration for approval of the full proposed route through Addison County is under way.
Once finalized, the designation will bring new funding opportunities and trail building and maintenance resources to the MALT through both the North Country Trail Association and National Park Service, says Andrea Ketchmark, executive director of the North Country Trail Association in Lowell, Mich.
“We have 28 local chapters that are all volunteer-based and do trail maintenance projects across the network. Over the next six months, we’ll be meeting with the Green Mountain Club and MALT to see what their goals are, how we can fill in the gaps and if there is a need for a chapter in Vermont,” Ketchmark said.
“We’d like to see as much as possible moved off of the road, but doing so will be a long process,” says Derrick. “We’d like, someday, to build a trail from the Elmer Farm property to the Oak Ridge Trail, but that would be five or more years in the making.”
Russell, who lives in Waitsfield, is no stranger to long distance hiking and travel. The 65-year-old works as a substitute teacher and ski guide in the winter and formerly served on the board of the Vermont Trails and Greenways Council.
“I was on a separate trip in the Alleghenies when I stumbled across this North Country Scenic trailhead, advertising the ‘longest National Scenic Trail in America.’ I decided to go for a run, and behind me, I heard a guy running a D.R. Power Equipment mower,” said Russell, who fell in love with the rolling path and decided to leave a thank you note and a can of Lawson’s Finest Liquids Chinooker’d beer (brewed in Waitsfield) at the trailhead for the steward. A few days later he got an email, with some more information about the trail and a hearty “Thank you.” He was fascinated by the way it wound through working landscapes as opposed to wild public lands, and thought more people ought to know about it.
Back in 2005, Russell hiked the proposed length of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail. He met with stakeholders and chatted the path up to locals as he traveled. He’s since hiked it two more times.
“The thing about trails is that it takes a village to raise them,” says Russell. He sees Middlebury and Addison County as the perfect communities to raise this one.
Though the trail is not officially complete, Russell picked his route according to recommendations set forth by the Middlebury Area Land Trust, using a variety of maps and resources to pick his way through existing footpaths, dirt roads and the Trail Around Middlebury.
On the first day of his journey, Russell biked from Crown Point on Route 125 to Town Line Road and eventually to the Snake Mountain Trail, where he stashed his bike to hike up and over the mountain. “I went from this stunning road, with only two cars for miles of cycling through rolling corn fields, to this forested landscape on a singletrack trail,” he recalled. When he summited Snake Mountain, he took in the sweeping view of the valley and the Adirondacks.
“Unlike the Long Trail, the North Country Trail goes through a wide range of valleys, hills and wetlands. Sometimes you’re on dirt roads; sometimes wild forest trails. It touches every part of the landscape,” he said, contrasting it with the Long Trail, which follows largely public land along a mountainous ridge. “You hike past historic barns, through villages, see bucolic country views. Sometimes there is silence, like in the Moosalamoo, and sometimes, there is the whirr of trucks, of cows in the barn.”
Each day on the trail, he carried a 25-pound pack with warm clothes, homemade cookies and two beers: one for an emergency and one as his “up-and-down” beer — a reward at the end of the day to be shared with a stranger or enjoyed as he saw fit. Members of the Moosalamoo Association and Middlebury Area Land Trust offered him shuttles to and from his home base at the Waybury Inn in East Middlebury.
“This hike flows as it is. Though this route is not permanently set, it’s beautiful,” says Russell. “From breweries to arts and culture, Addison County has a unique culture to add to this tour of the Red Flannel States,” said Russell, referring to the culture found along the North Country Trail. “We have the trails here.”
Russell traveled 8 to 17 miles in a day, depending on the shuttles to complete his trip. He suggests hiking the trail as a five-day trip from inn to inn, with a final overnight in the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area.
Beyond the funding and maintenance resources that a National Scenic Trail designation would bring to stretches of the TAM, Derrick, who has been a trail advocate and builder in Addison County for more than 30 years, likes the cultural value of the North Country Scenic Trail. “This is about connecting our little part of the world with a 4,000-mile trail that starts in North Dakota and meanders through other small communities across the United States to end here, at the TAM and eventually, the Green Mountains.”
For more information about the currently proposed route of the North Country Scenic Trail through Vermont, including hiking maps, contact the Middlebury Area Land Trust at 802-388-1007 or maltvt.org.