From the June 2014 Conservationist
Celebrating an Adirondack Hiking Tradition
The Northville-Placid Trail turns 90
By Wes Lampman
Photos courtesy Adirondack Mt. Club and DEC
Hiking the Northville-Placid Trail (NPT) has been an Adirondack tradition for many a backpacker. Described as passing through some of the wildest and most remote areas of the Adirondack Park, the 133-mile trail has an appeal that lures thousands of people each year. Whether you hike short sections over a number of years, or thru-hike it in one trip, the satisfaction you get from completing the trail is something that stays with you.
I can attest to the lure of this trail as I hiked it in 1997. It was April and a friend and I decided we'd thru-hike the trail. Over the course of two weeks, we slogged through rain storms, circumvented beaver ponds, listened to loons, and watched some amazing sunsets. It was fantastic. When we reached the end, we were physically stronger. We were also hesitant to leave the pleasant pace of life we enjoyed while walking through the Adirondack wilderness. The memory still evokes smiles on both our faces.
(Photo: Susan Shafer)
During its 90-year history, the NPT has undergone several changes. In some cases, the trail was rerouted; in other cases, sections had to be reworked to address flooded areas and stream crossings. This is not surprising since the trail traverses north-south through the center of the Adirondack Park, and the Park itself has gone through considerable changes, such as the addition of large parcels of land to the Forest Preserve and natural changes to the landscape due to events like blow-downs, slides and flooding.
Construction of the NPT first began in 1922 as a cooperative venture between DEC's predecessor, the Conservation Commission, and the newly created Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). Charged with rallying public support for the creation of more trails and shelters in the Adirondacks, ADK helped pay to locate and establish the route, and constructed five lean-tos at various locations on the trail. At that time, the trail crew that completed the work used game trails, logging haul roads, and secondary highways as the trail's main corridor. Led by Edwin "Doc" Noyes and Howard Rowe, the trail crew (Bob Hughes, Walt Scott, Chris Henderson, and Bill Wasserman) finished blazing the NPT Trail by 1924.
For the next 80 years or so, the trail saw little change, with a few exceptions. The biggest change occurred in the Blue Mountain Lake region. Originally, the trail followed the dirt highway for 12.5 miles between Blue Mountain and Long Lake. When that road was paved, the trail was moved to its current location in the Blue Mountain Wild Forest. The work was completed by the Boy Scouts of the Schenectady Council under supervision of the Conservation Department.
A trail crew member working on a new
section of the Northville-Placid Trail.
Other small adjustments were made to the original route, largely due to beavers flooding the trail, private land issues, and the abandonment of sections containing excessive bridge crossings. All of these reroutes were improvements that created better trail conditions and a wilder character that enhanced the hiking experience. In spite of these improvements, large sections of the trail still remained on blacktop or improved dirt roads.
During my time on the NPT, I found that the least appealing parts were the road walks. I skipped the 10-plus-mile section between Northville and the Godfrey Road parking lot north of Benson. Another road section that was particularly tedious was the 6.6 miles between Wakely Dam and the former McCane's camping resort on the Cedar River Road.
For decades, ADK and DEC explored various routes that would bypass road sections, but two obstacles stood in the way: the proposed reroutes needed to go through private land; and a Unit Management Plan, or UMP (a detailed document outlining everything from the existing cultural and natural resources to the recreational activities allowed in a particular forest unit, written by DEC and vetted by the public and the Adirondack Park Agency) needed to be created that included these proposed reroutes. Fortunately, the state was able to acquire the necessary land, and the UMP was completed. So in 2009 the first modern reroute of the NPT began.
One of many bridge crossings on the trail.
The first section to be rerouted was the Cedar River Road walk. The majority of the new trail was placed in the Blue Ridge Wilderness Area with a small portion on the southeastern border of the Moose River Plains Wild Forest. I was entrusted with completing the layout and design work for the new trail section, so I spent that May scouting possible routes. I finally settled on a route that follows the existing contour of the landscape and traverses primarily through hardwood forest. While the trail does make use of some old logging haul roads, more than 80% of the trail had to be newly constructed. DEC funded the construction, and it took an ADK professional trail crew 12 weeks to excavate the tread (trail surface) and build the necessary foot bridges. The result: more than seven miles of picturesque trail that keeps hikers in the woods and off the road.
Last year, work began on rerouting the most southern road walk that runs between Northville and Benson. This reroute will be much longer and take several summer seasons to complete. In 2013, work focused on the northern end, in the Silver Lake Wilderness Area, where new trail was constructed along the southwestern slope of Little Cathead Mountain. Seven miles in length, the route joins the existing NPT just north of the bridge over the North Branch of West Stony Creek.
The next phase of this major project is currently in the works. The plan is to continue the reroute south of Woods Lake into the Shaker Mountain Wild Forest. Eventually, the trail will cross West Stony Creek and then head east towards Mud Lake and Gifford Valley Road, for a total added length of approximately twelve miles. One challenge will be constructing a bridge over West Stony Creek which is fairly shallow throughout most of the year, but maintains a wide channel very far upstream. Finding a reasonable place to cross will be the crux of this trail section.
Many lean-tos can be found
along the NPT.
Once this section of the trail is complete, hikers and backpackers will have access to another spot in the Adirondacks. So, whether you've already hiked the NPT, or you've been thinking about it for a while, why not come out and try it this year? Because to me, there's no place better to experience the wild outdoors than in the Adirondacks.
North Country operations director for the Adirondack Mountain Club, Wes Lampman feels privileged to have assisted in the design of the NPT's newest sections.
For further reading, see "Eight Days: thru-hiking the Northville-Placid Trail" in the October 2011 Conservationist.
Photo: Adirondack Mountain Club