There’s always a danger in writing about “hidden gem” destinations. Drawing attention to what was once “secret” risks that it will soon become flooded with people and the problems they bring.
But there’s reason to believe the Northville-Placid Trail (NPT), which stretches approximately 138 miles across New York’s Adirondack Park, can stand up to a bit more traffic. This trail is low-lying and avoids more sensitive ecosystems at higher elevations, which are particularly vulnerable to erosion. Much of its route traces reclaimed roads, so it’s pretty durable. And, as some experts observe, people who thru-hike have a stronger connection to the trail than day-hikers, and are more likely to contribute time or money to trail work and conservation.
The history of the NPT is in many ways the history of Adirondack Park, which was established in 1892 for the “free use of all the people for their health and pleasure, and as forest lands necessary to the preservation of the headwaters of the chief rivers of the State and a future timber supply.” At six million acres, it is the largest park in the lower 48. More than half of the acreage is privately owned, home to towns and villages, farms, timber forests, and other businesses; the remainder is publicly owned Forest Preserve land, designated by the state constitution to remain “forever wild.”
In a recent survey of Adirondack hikers, 79 percent said they were there to “enjoy the solitude and wilderness character of the Forest Preserve.” But trails have never been more crowded, said New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos, even though Canadian travelers normally account for 30 percent of visitors and the border has been closed to nonessential travel since March. (Actual visitor numbers, which are based on voluntary reporting in trail registers, are not yet available for 2019 or 2020, but the DEC expects this year’s volume to “far exceed” the previous two years.)
To divert some of the foot traffic off of Mount Marcy, Cascade Mountain, and other popular peaks, the DEC and the Adirondack Mountain Club have begun promoting alternative destinations, including the NPT. Encouraged by this, I set out to see for myself.
Seek other hikes
Most days on our nearly two-week thru-hike, my boyfriend and I could walk hours at a time without seeing anyone else. When we finished the trail at the northern terminus in Lake Placid, it had been a full day since we last saw other hikers. We had more than 24 hours alone in the woods—and during peak leaf-peeping season, too.
This is hardly the norm in the High Peaks Wilderness, an area within Adirondack Park. That same day, on the drive back to civilization, we passed trailhead parking lots overflowing with vehicles. Flashing signs warned away would-be hikers: “Seek Other Hikes.”
Overcrowding isn’t a new problem in the Adirondacks. The DEC convened four focus group meetings in 2018 and a stakeholder meeting in 2019 to discuss how to adapt to the steady increase of visitors to the park over the past decade. Seggos said some of the biggest concerns are trail erosion, litter, and human waste disposal, as well as dangerous road conditions caused by hikers illegally parking on the side of the road. But the influx of people creates another concern for those who seek out the mountains and woods as a quiet refuge—a population the NPT was designed to serve.
Construction of the NPT began in 1922, the first project undertaken by the new Adirondack Mountain Club. The beginning and end points were chosen because each had a train station, so nature-starved urbanites could access the trail with ease. (Unfortunately, train service to both communities has been discontinued.) Much of the region had been recently logged, and many of the old logging roads were repurposed as foot paths. In the intervening decades, the forest has grown up and reclaimed much of the land, so that few remnants of the old timber industry and its attendant camps and roads remain.
The trail goes through some of the most remote parts of the state—places where you could walk miles in any direction before coming to a road—but it also passes close to three villages (in addition to the villages where it starts and ends). The NPT’s most distinctive feature is that it keeps to the lower elevations, from lake to pond to river to vlei (a seasonal lake), never going over a single mountain peak or ridge. The highest point of the trail is at 3,008 feet, on a viewless col (the lowest point between peaks) off of Blue Mountain.
Reconsidering the “Green Tunnel”
There’s a derogatory term for trails that primarily remain below tree cover: the Green Tunnel. It’s most often lobbed at the Appalachian Trail, which is perhaps unfair, because if you ask a thru-hiker how many peaks the Appalachian Trail goes over, they’ll joke “all of them,” including many with spectacular views. What is clear is that woods walks of any length provide a different sort of reward than peak-bagging.
“It’s not a summit trail,” said Andrew Hamlin, trails coordinator of the Adirondack Mountain Club. “It’s not like you’re going there for a particular vista. You’re there for a very immersive experience ... that getting-lost-in-the-wilderness feeling.”
10. Virgin Islands National Park
This pristine tropical reserve—covering almost two-thirds of St. John, plus 5,650 acres underwater—saw 133,398 visitors in 2019. Leisure travel to the Virgin Islands has been closed and reopened several times throughout 2020. Virgin Islands National Park is currently open to local visitors, who are asked to practice social distancing, even on park beaches.
Mary Glynn, an outdoor skills coordinator with the Adirondack Mountain Club and a volunteer trip leader on the NPT, said it is largely defined by its remoteness, in contrast to the “highway” of people climbing Marcy on any given day. Out on the NPT, “the beavers are in charge,” she said. “Nature tends to prevail a little bit more.”
This was certainly the case on our hike in September, when we had to wade through 400 feet of frigid, mucky water because beavers had flooded one of the meadows the trail passes through. But that intimacy with nature is also the primary draw: On a stop to refill our water bottles at South Canada Lake, we threw our heads back to watch two bald eagles circling above, so close we could hear the wind in their feathers. One evening at Tirrell Pond, we sat and watched a loon swim from one bank to the other and back again, diving for dinner all the while.
Some nights we fell asleep to the otherworldly cries of coyotes. Our days were spent in mostly quiet contemplation of the woods as we walked, sometimes together, sometimes a little apart, rarely running into other hikers. At every opportunity, we swam, the water achingly cold even after absorbing the heat of the sun all summer. We started the trail just as the leaves were beginning to turn, and as we walked north watched them grow brighter and more colorful every day, a cathedral of golden birches and crimson maples.
A good problem
Mary MacDonald, the Northville-Placid coordinator for the Schenectady Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, handles all of the patch requests from hikers who have completed the trail in its entirety. She said the number of people thru-hiking this year is probably double what it was last year. For the first time, she saw notes in trip reports about shelters filling up, and other crowd-related complaints.
But this long trail still sees significantly less traffic than others. From 1970 to 2019, only 2,355 people had completed the NPT in its entirety; more people than that attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail every year. The NPT is also much shorter than the Appalachian Trail, so there are fewer hikers on the trail at any one time. I saw one note in the register at Moose Pond bemoaning the loneliness of the trail. That solo hiker expressed regret that the trail didn’t have the same camaraderie as other trails. For some hikers, that’s the appeal.
Some people feel that crowded trails are good problems to have. DEC Commissioner Seggos points out it brings much-needed tourism dollars to isolated communities. Kate Van Waes, executive director of the American Hiking Society, said the more people who find outdoor recreation, the better. “We are happy to see that so many people are excited to get outdoors now,” she said. “We realize that it’s one of the few things that have kept people mentally and emotionally and physically fit during the pandemic.”
She added, “we all need to learn to share the trail.”
One could argue that it’s the responsibility of longtime hikers and backpackers to minimize our impact on public lands by frequenting less-popular trails and parks, heeding the request to “Seek Other Hikes.” But when we seek out experiences like the Northville-Placid Trail, it can be our privilege, too.
Solitude and space
The sky outside the lean-to was only just beginning to lighten when we woke on our last morning in the Adirondacks. We were high on a hill above the marshy expanse of Moose Pond in the High Peaks Wilderness and could hear something very large moving through the water.
We slipped out of the warmth of the sleeping bag. After pulling on our shoes, we crept down the hill, wincing when small sticks crackled underfoot. The pond was still, not a ripple upon it. We craned our ears and eyes to the right, where we heard the sound of water sloshing against something—perhaps a moose! But we couldn’t see through the thick shrubs that choked the edge of the water, obscuring that side of the pond from view. Instead, we turned our attention to the serene scene before us. Clouds hung over the dramatic ridge line of the Sawtooth Range. An atmospheric drizzle began to fall.
It may have been damp and gray, but that morning, the woods were peaceful and quiet. They were ours and ours alone, give or take a moose.