Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Dan Crane: The Northville-Placid Trail Experience

Bushwhacking Fool near South PondThe Northville-Placid Trail is getting a face-lift. The initial 10-mile stretch that started at the west end of the bridge over the Sacandaga River along State Route 30 is no more, or at least soon will be. Instead, the famous trail will soon officially start in the village of Northville and mostly stick to State Forest Preserve for the first ten miles all the way to Upper Benson.

This is not the only recent change for the famous trail. Combined with other alterations over the last few years, the singular long trail of the Adirondacks is going through a transition, giving it a whole new look; one that makes it wilder and more remote.

At least as far as I am concerned.

My memory of the Northville-Placid Trail (NLP) is largely based on two adventures along its length, both from many years ago. The initial encounter was a solo thru-hike way back in 1999, well before I ever considered leaving the trails behind to bushwhack through the Adirondacks instead. It was my first extended solo hike, taking about two-weeks to complete, and still stands as one of my longest continuous periods in the Adirondack backcountry.

The sequel hike was a radically different experience. It consisted of a section-hike in two parts, each with a small group of companions. The first section was a shorter two-day affair, followed months later by a second, longer stretch, celebrating the 50th birthday of one of my frequent hiking companions.

The NLP was not a complete mystery on that first thru-hike. When the Five Ponds Wilderness Area closed its trails after the trashing it received by the 1995 Microburst, I searched for new fertile hiking grounds and quickly zeroed in on the West Canada Lake Wilderness Area, mostly due to its remoteness. My exploration of the area took me along the NLP frequently, mostly from the West Canada Creek crossing to the Cedar Lakes.

That experience gave me little solace during the planning stages of my first major thru-hike. This trip was highly spontaneous, with the planning taking just a few days. After a summer of performing fieldwork on a study of the effect of the 1998 ice storm on biodiversity in northern New York, I decided that I needed something big to top off the summer before returning to my rather boring full-time office job.

The Northville-Placid Trail was just what the doctor ordered.

Quickly assembling an itinerary for the big trip, including packing a resupply package for the Long Lake post office, I started my first long hike within a few days at Upper Benson. It was after much hemming and hawing that I decided to skip hiking the initial 10-mile road stretch, as well as the concluding road section to Old Military Road in Lake Placid. The Piseco section and the long hike along Cedar River Road were more than enough road for my liking as it was. Luckily, those hiking the trail today can look forward to a foot trail instead of the six-mile road section I had to endure those many years ago.

Although mostly a solo adventure, a group of five friends met me at Wanika Falls. It was only partly for celebratory purposes, as they were accompanying me on my first climb of Street and Nye Mountains, both needed for my quest of becoming a card-carrying Adirondack 46er. Conveniently, they were also my ride all the way back to my vehicle in Upper Benson too.

I remember encountering few individuals along the first half of the trail on this hike. For such a famous trail, I anticipated a slew of hikers, but this was hardly the case. In fact, I spent every night in a lean-to all by myself until reaching Long Lake, where I spent it with a father and son that found it after aimlessly hiking from the Newcomb area several days before, without the aid of a map I might add.

The time spent between my two NLP trips was not spent avoiding the trail. While working on the New York State Breeding Bird Atlas in 2001 and 2002, I spent a lot of time along the trail in both the Silver Lake and West Canada Lake Wilderness Areas. Although much of this was spent off trail visiting searching for birds in such places as The Notch, the Three Ponds, Spruce Mountain and Sampson Bog, the NLP often connected one place to the other or offered easy access to the trailless interior.

My second hike of the Northville Placid Trail was a section hike in two parts back in 2008. While the first part was in spring, the second took place much later in the summer in celebration of a friend’s 50th birthday. This year was a wet one and the NPT’s condition reflected that fact with much flooding and more arduous stream crossings.

The first section of the sequel hike took my friend and me from the Upper Benson trailhead to Piseco for a two-day hike with a single night spent at the Mud Lake lean-to. It was a wet hike, with rain and fog dogging us the entire time. With so much ground to cover, little time was left for exploring or getting into any trouble. Few people were out on the trail, the only exception being the occupants of a tent inside the Hamilton Stream lean-to.

The second section was a more festive affair. As part one in the birthday celebration of the same friend that accompanied me on the first section, three of us started the trail from the end of Haskell Road, with a fourth joining around Long Lake just before July 4th to continue all the way to Lake Placid. Several more celebrators joined us in Lake Placid for the second part of the celebration, which included climbing Giant Mountain and Rocky Peak Ridge.

Not much of the NPT had changed during the intervening years between my two hikes. Water was much more abundant the second time around, with major flooding around South Pond, a fording through the Sampson Bog outlet and a shabbier bridge over the West Canada Creek, but other than that the trail followed the same path as my initial thru-hike.

Since the time of my last NPT experience, the character of the trail has changed. The changes have made the trail wilder, with less road and more forest, swamp, bog and vly than in the past. This is a good thing, as most hikers take to the trail to experience the wild, not walk along a road beneath a hot summer sun.

These changes make me feel as if a third time might be the charm on the NPT. Then again, maybe I will wait and see if the next few years make it even more wild and remote.

Photos: The Bushwhacking Fool on the Northville-Placid Trail near South Pond by Dave Killius.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

7 Responses

  1. Marco says:

    The NPT is a bit of A hike. I think it took me 9 hiking days the first time. I spent two weeks the second and spent some time fishing on another week through there. Now that I am retired, I can do that. It is possible to hike down to Santanoni, Panther and Couchsachraga peaks from Duck Hole. There are several other peaks that can be bagged with a days hike off the trail.

    Yes, the trail is typical of most trails in the ADK’s. A huge pile of blow downs forced a reroute, likely permanent, along the Cold River. The old sunken bog bridge (near the West Canada?) has been rebuilt. Lots more… Changes in trail conditions means changes in the trail. It seems thay have a life of their own. The old bridge at the West Canada is gone and was replaced with a new one.

    Anyway, a good reminder on the trail! Thanks!

  2. Richard Morrison says:

    The first paragraph of this story is completely wrong. The last section of this trail which will take it off of RT 30 and the Benson road, is not only not completed it has not even been started. This section of the trail from Upper Benson to the Collins Gifford Valley Rd was scheduled to be completed 6 years ago. So instead of celebrating the completion of this section in June we are really celebrating the start.

    • Dan Crane says:


      I left out a link to the Adirondack Enterprise Newspaper, which was my source for the information about the new trailhead, including a June celebration at the new trailhead in Northville. The DEC spokesman even indicates a lot of the work has already been completed. Since I indicated it will SOON have a facelift, I feel the first article is accurate. I’m sorry if you don’t agree.

      Check out the following link (which will soon be incorporated into the article):

  3. Charlie S says:

    I would love to hike this trail from one end to the other.I could use the spiritual boost it would surely instill in me.I’m too busy with work and other things to do this hike…………..but one day!

  4. catharus says:

    ‘Best hike I ever did! Sept 2009.

    I concur, “The Piseco section and the long hike along Cedar River Road were more than enough road for my liking”…

  5. stilt says:

    My son (16) and I (52)completed a thru-hike last August in 8 days. We are going to attempt it in 5-6 days this late August. I(and my left knee) would prefer to take 2 weeks but my son likes the challenge. Ultra-light weight,not even a stove. We’ll see!

  6. Jason says:

    I am a native of Galway, NY but have lived in California since 1993. I spent my youth and teenage years camping throughout the Adirondacks (made the Mt. Marcy ascent in the summer of 1986 with my dad). Sure, here in California we have the “majesty” of the sweeping vastness of Yosemite, Kings Canyon and the the Sierra forests and mountains….but nothing. Nothing will ever displace the Adirondacks from my heart and the very unique wilderness area that it indeed is.

    I am planning to return to New York State and hike this famous trail in the summer of 2017. We are planning to take almost two weeks, he’s almost 60 and I am 45. Your page here is really informative. Thanx!