JAMESTOWN, N.D. — It is 4,600 miles of what Kate Lemon and Mike Jensen call "beautiful desolation."
"The North Country Trail (NCT) is a wonderfully accessible National Scenic Trail, as it shares a pathway with many local-level trails in countless communities between North Dakota and Vermont," said Lemon, marketing and communications coordinator, North Country Trail Association (NCTA).
"It doesn't always take weeks or months of planning a large-scale backpacking trip to enjoy the NCT," she said. "It can be enjoyed on a workday lunchtime walk or while visiting your favorite county park. Alternatively, if it is wilderness you're seeking, the NCT offers plenty of that too. Anyone can find their adventure on the North Country Trail."
Lemon said the North Country Trail offers diverse landscapes across its eight states. The trail crosses through more than 160 federal, state and local public lands, including national forests, National Park Service areas and more than 100 state parks, forests and game areas.
"It winds along three of the Great Lakes, past countless farmlands, through large cityscapes and vast prairies, over many rivers and streams and through the famed Adirondacks," Lemon said. "The North Country Trail also shares routes with the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota, the Buckeye Trail in Ohio, the Finger Lakes Trail in New York, and the Iron Belle Trail in Michigan."
Lemon said when stay-at-home orders were in place in many states due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NCTA encouraged trail users to continue getting outside for their physical and mental wellness but urged everyone to stay local and to practice social distancing. The association did discourage through-hikes and long-distance hikes as more people would be passing through many communities, potentially spreading the virus.
"Also, many amenities like campgrounds or resupply locations were — and still are — shut down, meaning fewer resources available for those long-distance hikers," Lemon said. "We expected less long-distance trail use but we hoped many people would still find solace in the outdoors, even if it wasn't directly on the North Country Trail — and we believe many did."
Jensen, the outdoors promotion manager for the tourism division of the North Dakota Department of Commerce, said North Dakota Tourism has noticed an increased desire to get outdoors while doing a "safe" activity.
"North Dakota is looked at as a safe destination so there are these 'safecations' they are calling them where people go somewhere where places are not shut down because of COVID," Jensen said. "The nice thing here is, on something as vast as the North Country Trail, you end up having these experiences where the trail is wide open. That's what we are seeing — is people coming out and picking segments of the trail to do."
Jensen said one of the more popular pieces of the 430 miles of trail is near the Sheyenne River Valley. The hike to North Dakota's only waterfall is along the valley segment providing hikers with plains and wooded areas.
"Getting out and getting into nature has been something I think more and more people are realizing they need," Jensen said. "People are reporting that they are happier, they are getting more exercise, they feel better physically, they feel better mentally and emotionally."
Lemon said the NCTA loves to see people enjoying the North Country Trail in the ways that work best for them and wants everyone to stay safe for maximum enjoyment.
"The North Country Trail has offered peace of mind, connectivity and sanctuary during this time of restriction and uncertainty," Lemon said. "While we ask trail users to adhere to local regulations and stay close to home, we also believe fresh air and a short adventure on the Trail can do wonders for mental and physical health. Hiking is the perfect way to social distance as it's an easy activity to partake in by yourself."
Jensen added that the "beautiful desolation" and minimal crowding are what tends to make the 430 miles of trail in North Dakota a prime destination for both locals and visitors. The pandemic has also brought a whole new batch of adventure seekers to the trails.
"One of the things that we have happening that we didn't expect (to see) is that people who didn't do these activities before are doing them for the first time," Jensen said. "We have people who have never gone camping before in their life and they're going out camping or people who have never gone hiking are going out hiking. There are some growing pains to it but there is also the good side of it — there are people who are getting outdoors and doing outdoor activities they have never done before."
Lemon said adventure seekers should keep an eye on the Trail Alerts web page for updates on guidelines and restrictions in place due to coronavirus. Updates will also be available on the trail's social media account @northcountrytrail. Free maps are available at northcountrytrail.org as well.
"It really is an epic trail," Jensen said.