Trail Blazing: Merging The Nation's Scenic Routes

Forty miles is all that separates the longest of the National Scenic Trails, the 4,600-mile North Country Trail, from its world famous sibling, the 2,170-mile Appalachian Trail.  Now a hiking advocacy group is trying to bridge the gap.

"This 40-mile gap is a gap in the system," said Bruce Matthews, executive director of the North Country Trail Association, who is leading the effort to bring the trails together. "There's no reason for it."

That may be true, but the trails are vastly different from each other. Thousands have hiked the Appalachian Trail, while only 11 people have finished the North Country. The NCT isn't well-known and lacks some traditional elements—it runs along roads, and many sections have no spots for camping. Still, the trail has its admirers. "All the criticism that this trail [the NTC] gets really are some of its strengths. It doesn't follow a particular geographic feature. It's not associated with one state. It's not associated with one ecosystem," said Joan Young, 64, of Scottville, MI, who completed the trail in 2010. "Its strongest feature is the diversity of the experiences."

But the process of merging hasn't been without difficulties or controversy. In the 1970s, when the North Country Trail was being mapped out, Vermont officials objected to it entering the state, worried that it would overload Vermont's own 273-mile Long Trail. Therefore the trail, which begins in North Dakota, was stopped at the eastern edge of Lake Champlain in New York. In the years since, things have changed, at least politically. There's a growing movement behind connecting the country's longest trails, and objections in Vermont seem to have dwindled. If the trails were indeed connected, by running the NCT through Vermont to the Long Trail (which parallels the AT at that point), hikers could potentially trek straight through from North Dakota to Georgia.

Before work can begin, the National Park Service must complete a feasibility study which will eventually be presented to Congress. Matthews hopes that approval can come by the end of summer. "It's one of those labors of love," Matthews said.