Welcome to a journey that spans eight states, diverse landscapes, and countless adventures. The North Country Trail is a national scenic trail maintained primarily by volunteers and the North Country Trail Association.
It is not just a hiking path; it’s an odyssey through the heart of America’s natural beauty and history.
Stretching from the wilds of North Dakota to the lush forests of Vermont, this remarkable trail passes through some of the most stunning landscapes our country has to offer. From the western terminus to the eastern terminus, the North Country Trail invites outdoor enthusiasts to lace up their boots and embark on a journey that winds through the heart of the Midwest, over rolling hills, across streams, and past pristine lakes.
As you traverse its path, you’ll explore county parks, county forests, and state game lands, all interconnected by a trail system that covers thousands of miles. Whether you’re seeking a challenging thru-hike or a leisurely day hike, the Trail has something for every hiking enthusiast.
It’s a collaboration between local chapters, partners, and the National Park Service, offering an opportunity to develop a deep connection with the public lands it passes through. Among the highlights are the pristine forests of Michigan’s Manistee National Forest, the rugged terrain of Minnesota’s Chippewa National Forest, and the tranquil beauty of Brule River State Forest in Wisconsin.
Join us as we dive into the adventures, challenges, and rewards of hiking the North Country Trail through the heart of America.
The North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT) is more than just a hiking trail; it’s a living testament to the historical tapestry of the United States. As we explore the NCT’s rich history, we’ll journey through time and uncover the fascinating origins of this remarkable national scenic trail.
The story of the NCT begins in the mid-20th century when a vision emerged to create a hiking trail that would span the northern tier of the United States, connecting the great outdoors from North Dakota to New York. This vision was driven by a desire to provide outdoor enthusiasts with access to the diverse landscapes and natural beauty of the northern states, much like the other Top-Rated Long-Distance Hiking Trails like the Appalachian Trail.
In the 1960s, the dream of a northern counterpart to the Appalachian Trail started to take shape. Early advocates for the trail recognized the need for a dedicated organization to oversee its development and maintenance. This led to the formation of the North Country Trail Association (NCTA) in 1981, a pivotal moment in the NCT’s history.
The NCTA, a nonprofit organization, has played a central role in the NCT’s growth and success. Committed volunteers and supporters have tirelessly worked to establish, maintain, and promote the trail over the decades. Their dedication has been instrumental in creating a continuous footpath through a diverse range of landscapes, from the hills of Ohio to the rugged beauty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The history of the NCT is marked by the efforts of individuals and communities along its route. Pioneering trail enthusiasts and local champions have advocated for the NCT, lobbied for its development, and worked tirelessly to ensure its sustainability. Their passion for the trail has left an indelible mark on the NCT’s legacy.
Beyond its natural beauty, the NCT has significant cultural relevance. The trail crosses paths with historic sites, Native American heritage, and the stories of early settlers. Hikers have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the rich history of the regions they traverse, gaining a deeper understanding of the people and events that shaped the northern United States.
Today, the North Country Trail is part of a trail-wide coalition that works to preserve and promote the natural beauty of America.
So, take a moment to appreciate the historical significance of each mile as you hike because each step you take connects you to the generations of trailblazers and volunteers who have made the NCT what it is today.
Key Facts About The North Country Trail
Total Length: About 4,600 miles (7,402 kilometers) long.
Number of Visitors: Over 3 million each year.
Established: The idea was conceived in the 1960s and officially established as a National Scenic Trail by the National Park Service and Congress in 1980.
Difficulty: Easy-to-challenging, especially in mountainous regions.
Time Frame Needed to Hike: Hiking the entire NCT as a thru-hike can take 6 to 12 months, depending on the hiker’s pace and weather conditions.
Lowest Point: At the eastern terminus, Crown Point, New York, near Lake Champlain, at sea level.
Highest Point: In the Green Mountains of Vermont, at over 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) above sea level.
Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Route Options
The North Country Trail (NCT) offers several route options, each with its unique challenges and captivating highlights. From the eastern end of New York to the western end in North Dakota, the path offers endless possibilities for hikers of all levels of experience.
Western Terminus: North Dakota to Michigan
The North Country Trail begins its epic journey in the west, in Lake Sakakawea State Park. Here, hikers can take their first steps along the trail and start a long-distance thru-hike or opt for shorter day hikes in this picturesque state park. The trail crosses North Dakota’s diverse landscapes, from the rolling hills of the western prairies of the eastern part of the state.
As you venture eastward into Minnesota, you’ll traverse the Chippewa National Forest, where the NCT passes through a landscape dotted with lakes and dense woodlands.
Crossing into Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Continuing east into northern Wisconsin, you’ll find yourself in the heart of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Here, the NCT winds through lush vegetation, past pristine lakes, and offers access to a well-maintained trail system.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula greets hikers with rugged terrain, including the iconic Manistee National Forest. This section of the trail features diverse landscapes, including hardwood forests, rolling hills, and stunning river valleys. The North Country Trail Community in Michigan is known for its hospitality and support for thru-hikers.
Through Ohio and Pennsylvania
As you make your way southward, the NCT intersects with the Buckeye Trail in Ohio and offers hikers the opportunity to explore this state’s beautiful landscapes. The Buckeye Trail Association collaborates with the NCTA to preserve this section of the trail.
Pennsylvania presents its unique challenges with its hilly terrain and scenic beauty. Here, hikers can enjoy the rugged hills and forests of the Allegheny National Forest, passing through county parks and accessing the North Country Trail Community.
Eastern Terminus: New York and Vermont’s Green Mountains
The journey culminates where the Finger Lakes Trail in New York intersects with the NCT, providing access to even more hiking opportunities. You’ll discover the historic sites and serene beauty of Lake Champlain as you approach Crown Point.
For those seeking the ultimate adventure, the NCT can be connected to Vermont’s Long Trail and the Appalachian Trail, which stretch through the Mountains. Here, you can hike amid stunning alpine scenery and pass through state parks and county forests.
Throughout its course, the North Country National Scenic Trail offers thru-hiking, backpacking, and day-hiking options, making it accessible to many hikers and draws over three million visitors a year.
The trail passes through public lands, access points are well-marked, and local chapters of the NCTA provide valuable resources and support.
Preparing for the Trail: Physical Fitness
When preparing for the North Country Trail (NCT), it’s essential to address multiple aspects of readiness, including physical fitness, mental preparation, and logistics.
Here’s a breakdown of what to focus on for each of these components:
1. Physical Fitness:
- Cardiovascular Endurance: Hiking the NCT involves long hours on the trail, often covering substantial distances. Build cardiovascular endurance through activities such as hiking, running, cycling, or brisk walking.
- Strength Training: Strengthen your leg muscles, core, and upper body to better handle steep ascents, descents, and carrying a backpack. Exercises like squats, lunges, push-ups, and planks can be beneficial. You can access valuable information in our guide to Hiking Exercises.
- Flexibility: Maintain flexibility to prevent injuries. Stretch regularly, focusing on your legs, back, and shoulders.
- Load-Bearing Training: Gradually increase the weight you carry in your backpack during training hikes to simulate the load you’ll carry on the NCT.
2. Mental Preparation:
- Goal Setting: Clearly define your goals for the NCT, whether it’s thru-hiking the long trail or completing specific sections. Having a clear objective can help maintain motivation.
- Mindfulness and Resilience: Hiking long distances can be mentally challenging. So, practice mindfulness techniques to stay present and build mental resilience when the going gets tough.
- Research and Planning: Familiarize yourself with the trail’s route, terrain, and potential challenges. Knowing what to expect can reduce anxiety.
- Visualize Success: Visualize yourself completing the trail. This positive imagery can boost your confidence and mental preparedness.
- Trail Maps and Guides: Acquire up-to-date trail maps and guides specific to the sections you plan to hike. These resources provide valuable information on trailheads, water sources, campsites, and more.
- Permits and Regulations: Research the permits required for the specific sections you’ll be hiking. Be aware of any camping, campfires, and waste disposal regulations.
- Gear and Equipment: Ensure you have the appropriate gear.
- Resupply Strategy: Plan your resupply points for food and other essentials. Many NCT thru-hikers use mail drops or rely on nearby towns for resupplies.
- Navigation Skills: Familiarize yourself with map reading, compass use, and GPS navigation. The NCT is well-marked in many areas, but navigation skills are essential, especially in remote sections.
- Safety Preparedness: Carry essential safety items like a first-aid kit, a multi-tool, and communication devices such as a satellite phone or personal locator beacon.
You should check our guide about the cost of thru-hiking to help you plan a successful NCT trip.
Seasonal Considerations: Best Times to Hike Pacific Crest Trail and Weather Conditions
The North Country National Scenic Trail is a long trail of contrasts, offering hikers a chance to experience diverse climates and weather conditions.
Here’s the climate and weather along the NCT in each of the four seasons to help you plan a safe and enjoyable adventure:
Spring (March to May)
Eastern End (New York): Spring in New York’s Crown Point brings milder temperatures, with daytime highs ranging from 5°C to 15°C (41°F to 59°F). However, expect occasional rain showers, especially in April and May.
Western End (North Dakota): Spring in this section is a season of transition. Daytime temperatures range from 5°C to 15°C (41°F to 59°F), but snow and ice may persist in some areas. Be prepared for rapidly changing conditions and potentially muddy trails.
Summer (June to August)
Eastern End (New York): Summer is warm in this section, with daytime highs averaging 21°C to 28°C (70°F to 82°F). Humidity levels increase, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. Pack lightweight clothing and rain gear.
Western End (North Dakota): North Dakota’s western end experiences a semi-arid climate. Summers are hot, with daytime temperatures exceeding 30°C (86°F). Prepare for intense sun and carry plenty of water. Thunderstorms can provide relief from the heat, but be cautious of lightning.
Fall (September to November)
Eastern End (New York): Fall brings crisp, cool days with daytime highs ranging from 12°C to 20°C (54°F to 68°F). The foliage transforms into vibrant colors, making this a popular time for hiking.
Western End (North Dakota): Fall is a season of change. Days become cooler, with highs between 12°C and 20°C (54°F to 68°F). Nonetheless, nighttime temperatures drop, and snow may arrive in late fall.
Winter (December to February)
Eastern End (New York): Winters can be harsh, with daytime highs around -1°C to 4°C (30°F to 39°F). Snow and ice are also common, especially in higher elevations.
Western End (North Dakota): North Dakota’s western end experiences cold winters with daytime temperatures ranging from -9°C to -1°C (16°F to 30°F). Snow cover is typical, and temperatures can drop significantly at night.
Best Time To Visit
The North Country Trail offers a wealth of natural beauty and outdoor adventure throughout the year. However, the ideal time to visit depends on your preferences and the experiences you seek.
Spring along the NCT can be a breathtaking experience as the trail comes alive with colorful wildflowers and budding foliage. The weather is generally mild, making it an excellent time for hiking without the intense heat of summer. However, be prepared for occasional rain showers and wet trails, especially in April and May.
Summer is the high season for the NCT, attracting the most visitors. But it’s an excellent time frame for hikers who prefer warm weather and extended daylight hours. The trail is usually at its driest, and you can explore the scenic beauty of lakes, forests, and meadows. Summer is perfect for thru-hikers, families, and those who enjoy long days on the trail.
Autumn is a favorite season for many NCT hikers, as the trail is adorned with stunning fall foliage. Cooler temperatures make for comfortable hiking, and the crowds tend to thin out after the summer rush. Fall is perfect for those seeking a quieter and visually striking hiking experience.
Winter along the NCT is a stark contrast to the other seasons, offering solitude and a unique perspective of the trail. If you’re an experienced cold-weather hiker or a snowshoer, this can be a rewarding time to explore the NCT. However, be prepared for challenging conditions, including snow-covered trails, frozen water sources, and limited daylight.
Essential Gear and Equipment For a Successful NCT Hike
Planning a hike along the North Country National Scenic Trail requires careful consideration of the gear and equipment you’ll need. The trail’s diverse terrain and changing weather conditions demand a well-thought-out packing list.
Here’s a comprehensive guide to the essential gear:
- Backpack: Choose a comfortable and appropriately sized backpack to carry your gear. Look for one with adjustable straps and ample storage space.
- Footwear: Invest in high-quality hiking boots or trail shoes that provide good ankle support and traction. Ensure they’re broken in before your hike to prevent blisters.
- Moisture-Wicking Layers: Dress in moisture-wicking base layers to manage sweat and keep you dry.
- Insulating Layers: Pack insulating layers like fleece or down jackets for warmth.
- Weather-Appropriate Outerwear: Bring a waterproof and breathable jacket or windbreaker, depending on the season.
- Convertible Pants: Consider convertible pants that can be converted into shorts in warmer weather.
- Headwear: A sun hat and a beanie or warm hat for cold weather are essential.
- Gloves: Carry lightweight gloves for sun protection and warmer gloves for colder seasons.
- Shelter: Tent or Shelter: Choose a lightweight and weather-appropriate shelter. Options include tents, tarps, and hammocks. Ensure it’s suitable for the season and conditions.
- Sleep System:
- Sleeping Bag: Select a sleeping bag rated for the lowest expected temperatures on your trip.
- Sleeping Pad: Use an insulated sleeping pad for insulation and comfort.
- Cooking Gear:
- Stove: A lightweight backpacking stove is essential for cooking meals and boiling water.
- Cookware: Carry a compact cookware set with a pot, pan, and utensils.
- Food Storage: Use bear-resistant containers or hang your food to prevent wildlife encounters.
- Maps and Compass: Always carry detailed Trail maps and a reliable compass.
- GPS: A GPS device or smartphone with GPS capabilities can be helpful for navigation.
- First Aid Kit: Assemble a compact first aid kit with essentials like bandages, antiseptic wipes, pain relievers, and blister treatment items.
- Water Filter or Purification Tablets: Ensure you have a way to purify water from natural sources.
- Water Bottles or Hydration Reservoir: Carry sufficient water containers to stay hydrated between water sources.
- Headlamp: A lightweight headlamp with spare batteries for nighttime use.
- Multi-Tool or Knife: A versatile tool for various purposes.
- Trekking Poles: For stability, especially when navigating steep terrain.
- Duct Tape: Handy for quick gear repairs.
- Trash Bags: Leave no trace by packing out all your trash.
- Personal Items:
- Identification: Carry identification, including an ID card and emergency contact information.
- Permits and Documentation: Ensure you have any required permits, trail maps, and trail guides.
Remember that your gear choices should be based on the specific section of the NCT you plan to hike, the season, and your personal preferences.
Navigating the North Country Trail: Maps, Markers, and Permits
Here’s important information to help you navigate this epic trail with confidence.
Trail Maps and Sections
The North Country Trail’s expansive trail systems offer hikers a variety of experiences, ranging from leisurely day hikes to challenging thru-hikes.
Hikers looking for a more leisurely experience may want to look into the shorter sections of the NCT, which can be completed in 1-2 days, and require access to detailed trail maps and resources.
You can find maps and guides specific to certain regions, such as the Buckeye Trail in Ohio or the Finger Lakes Trail in New York:
Official NCTA Maps:
The North Country Trail Association (NCTA) provides official NCT maps that cover different sections of the trail. These maps are an invaluable resource for thru-hikers, section hikers, and day hikers. They offer comprehensive information about the trail’s route, topography, access points, and important landmarks.
- NCTA Website: Visit the NCTA’s official website to access digital maps and resources that allow you to explore the trail’s route and access points.
- Interactive Maps: The NCTA’s interactive maps are a convenient way to plan your hike and explore the entire trail.
- Digital Downloads: Some sections of the trail offer digital map downloads that you can print or use on your smartphone or GPS device.
- NCTA Map Sets: The NCTA offers map sets for different regions of the trail, available for purchase through their website.
- Trail Guidebooks: In addition to maps, consider using trail guidebooks that provide detailed descriptions of the NCT, including trailheads, points of interest, and terrain information. You can get it here.
- Local NCT Chapters: Many local chapters of the NCTA maintain regional information and maps for their specific sections of the trail. These chapters can provide valuable insights, local knowledge, and printed maps for their areas.
Markers and Trail Blazes
While hiking the North Country National Scenic Trail, keep an eye out for distinctive trail markers and blazes that guide you along the route. The trail is marked with blue blazes, often accompanied by the NCT’s logo. These markers are typically found on trees, posts, and signs, helping you stay on course, especially in sections where the trail intersects with other paths or roads.
Permits and Regulations
- National Park Service (NPS) Sections: Some segments of the NCT fall under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. In these areas, specific regulations and permitting requirements may apply. It’s essential to check the NPS website or contact the relevant park offices for up-to-date information on regulations, permits, and camping restrictions.
- State Parks and Forests: The NCT passes through numerous state parks and forests in the states it traverses. Each state park system may have its own set of rules and permit requirements. So, research and familiarize yourself with the regulations for these areas before your hike.
- Private Lands: Parts of the North Country National Scenic Trail cross private lands where landowners have generously allowed the trail to pass through their property. It is imperative to respect these landowners’ rights and abide by any posted regulations, such as no camping, no fires, or specific access hours.
- Camping Regulations: Camping along the NCT often follows a “Leave No Trace” ethic. Camp in designated areas when available, and if dispersed camping is permitted, follow guidelines for camping at least 200 feet from water sources to protect water quality. Check local camping regulations, including fire restrictions, to ensure compliance.
- Group Size Limits: In some areas, there may be limits on the size of hiking groups or camping groups. This is typically to minimize impact on the environment and maintain the quality of the hiking experience. Check for any group size restrictions and make necessary arrangements in advance.
The NCT offers numerous access points along its route, making it convenient for day hikes, resupplies, or rest days in nearby towns.
Use the North Country Trail Association resources to identify trailheads and access points for planning your stops and logistics. These access points often have parking facilities and may serve as meeting points for trail communities eager to support thru-hikers.
Camping and Overnight Stays Near The North Country National Scenic Trail
Here’s a breakdown of available camping options as you embark on your thru-hike:
Crown Point, New York:
- Crown Point State Historic Site: Thru-hikers starting at the eastern terminus can begin their walk by camping at Crown Point State Historic Site. Camping options here may vary, so it’s advisable to check with park authorities for up-to-date information.
- Green Mountain National Forest: The NCT traverses the Green Mountains in Vermont. You’ll find numerous opportunities for dispersed camping within the national forest. A backcountry camping permit is required and can be obtained from the Green Mountain National Forest website.
- Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest: While hiking through northern Wisconsin, the NCT passes through the Brule River State Forest and Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Here, you can enjoy dispersed camping in the forest, provided you follow Leave No Trace principles. Luckily, no permits are required for dispersed camping.
- Manistee National Forest and Huron-Manistee National Forest: As you make your way through Michigan, you’ll have the opportunity to camp in Huron-Manistee National Forest. Dispersed camping is usually permitted, but it’s essential to adhere to forest regulations, including campfire restrictions. No specific permits are required for dispersed camping.
- Allegheny National Forest: In Pennsylvania, the NCT passes through Allegheny National Forest, offering camping opportunities in a beautiful forested setting. Dispersed camping is allowed, and you can obtain information on regulations from the Forest Service.
- Various Locations: As you hike through Ohio, you’ll find numerous camping options, including state parks and public lands. Some locations may require camping permits, so check with the respective park authorities for specific regulations and fees.
Private Land Crossings:
- Respect Landowner Rights: The NCT crosses private agricultural fields where landowners have graciously allowed its passage. So, it’s essential to respect landowner rights and follow any posted camping guidelines.
Resupplying and Refueling: Surviving on the NCT
It’s essential to plan your resupply and refueling strategy carefully to ensure you have the sustenance you need throughout your journey.
Here’s a comprehensive guide to resupply options.
Crown Point, New York:
- Local Stores: As you begin your NCT thru-hike in Crown Point, you can stock up on essential supplies at local convenience stores or markets in the nearby communities.
- Towns and Communities: The trail passes near several towns in Vermont, including Maidstone (about 10 miles/16km from the trailhead), where you’ll find grocery stores and resupply options. Plan your resupply stops to restock your food supplies.
- Augusta, Michigan: The trail crosses the border into Ironwood, Michigan. Here, you’ll find grocery stores and dining options for resupply and refueling.
- Battle Creek, Middleville, and Other Towns: As you traverse Michigan, plan your resupply stops in towns like Middleville and Battle Creek. These towns offer grocery stores, restaurants, and opportunities to restock your provisions.
- Various Towns: While hiking through Ohio, you’ll pass through or near various towns. Towns like Zoar, Lisbon, and Dayton provide opportunities for resupplying and dining at local establishments.
- Towns and Communities: Pennsylvania offers resupply options in towns such as Darlington, Wampum, and Parker. Stock up on food supplies and enjoy meals at local eateries.
- Strategic Planning: Thru-hikers often use mail drops to receive essential supplies at predetermined points along the trail. This allows you to customize your resupply based on your dietary needs and preferences. Work with friends, family, or trail angels to coordinate mail drops.
Check out this link for other Resupply Trail Towns.
Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options
Navigating to and from the North Country Trail is an important aspect of planning your hike. Careful consideration of transportation options, especially when it comes to reaching trailheads and resupply points, will contribute to a smoother and more enjoyable NCT adventure.
Here’s a guide to help you explore the NCT from its eastern to the western terminus.
- John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK): If you’re starting your NCT adventure from Crown Point, New York, JFK Airport in New York City is the nearest major airport. It’s approximately a 5-hour drive to Crown Point. [Direction]
- Burlington International Airport (BTV): Located in Vermont, Burlington International Airport is another option for thru-hikers planning to begin their journey on the NCT in Vermont. The airport is about a 1-hour drive from the trailhead. [Direction]
- Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport (MSP): For those planning to hike sections of the NCT in Minnesota, the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport in Minnesota is a major airport hub in the region. It’s approximately a 3-hour drive to the North Country Trail – Samples Rd Trailhead, Brule, WI 54820, United States. [Direction]
- Bismarck Municipal Airport (BIS): Thru-hikers starting or ending their NCT journey in North Dakota can use the Bismarck Municipal Airport, located 74 miles (119 Km) near the Lake Sakakawea State Park. [Direction]
Transportation to Trailheads:
- Rental Cars: Renting a car from the nearest airport is often the most convenient way to reach your chosen trailhead. This provides flexibility in reaching the trailhead and accessing resupply points along the NCT.
- Shuttle Services: Some trail communities along the NCT offer shuttle services to and from airports or trailheads. Check with local trail organizations, chapters, or outfitters for shuttle options in the region you plan to hike.
- Public Transportation: You may find public transportation options, such as buses or trains, that can take you to nearby trailheads or towns along the NCT, depending on your starting point.
- Trail Angels and Local Support: The North Country Trail Community often includes trail angels and local volunteers who may offer transportation assistance to thru-hikers. Reach out to local NCT chapters or online forums for information on available support.
Getting Around Along the Trail:
- Local Transit: Some towns and regions along the NCT have local transit options, such as buses or shuttles, that can help you reach resupply points or return to the trail after a break.
- Hitchhiking: While hitchhiking can be a viable option in rural areas, exercise caution and prioritize safety when hitchhiking. Be sure to follow local laws and guidelines.
- Trail Angels: Trail angels and supportive local communities may offer rides or assistance along the trail. These individuals can be invaluable resources for thru-hikers in need of transportation or support.
The North Country National Scenic Trail is a hiker’s paradise, offering an opportunity to witness the diverse beauty of Vermont, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio, North Dakota, and New York as you cover the miles from east to west.
As you embark on your journey, remember to prepare yourself physically and mentally, and to respect the beauty of nature.
With careful planning and determination, you will experience the ultimate adventure of a lifetime on the North Country Trail. Happy hiking.
Check out our Hikes & Trails page for other exciting long and short-distance treks as well as day hikes.