The North Country Trail: Hiking in the Heart of North Dakota

One of the longest trails in the U.S. crosses through five Midwestern states and ends in North Dakota. And many people in the Midwest have never heard of it. But there are dedicated groups of hikers, outdoor enthusiasts and preservationists who are doing their best to change that.

The North Country Trail starts in the Adirondacks and the Finger Lakes region of New York, crosses the Allegheny Plateau in Pennsylvania and Ohio and skirts the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. You’ll find forests and waterfalls in Wisconsin. Then the trail crosses Minnesota’s iron range and the headwaters of the Mississippi River deep in the northwoods and before turning toward the North Dakota prairies. It winds its way along the Sheyenne River valley before ending at Lake Sakakawea State Park.

Image provided by Rennae Gruchalla

In all, the North Country Trail runs 4,600 miles through seven states. (That’s more than twice as long as the Appalachian Trail, which clocks in at 2,200 miles.) In some places, the trail is no more than a footpath. In others, it’s a paved or gravel road. It links existing trails and parks, which requires cooperation from landowners, businesses, wildlife preservationists, park and trail officials, volunteers, hiking groups and outdoor enthusiasts all along the route.

It’s an effort that’s still continuing today. A hiker from Utah who goes by the trail name “Rub-A-Dub-Dub” just finished marking a long length of trail in North Dakota. (My apologies to Mr. uh…”Dub-Dub” if I spelled that incorrectly.) Volunteers like him come from all over the country to be a part of creating the North Country Trail, often spending time far from their home states. (If you want to volunteer on the North Country Trail, they could use you. Volunteers help mark trail, handle marketing and lead hikes and more.)

Image provided by Rennae Gruchalla.

I had the privilege of meeting Rennae Gruchalla, who is actively involved in the Dakota Prairie Chapter, a group that preserves and promotes the trail in North Dakota. I asked Rennae to share her thoughts about hiking the trail. She responded with observations and photos showing the beauty of the North Dakota portion of the North Country Trail in all seasons.

So here’s a closer look at the North Country Trail from a woman who knows it well. If you’d like to get involved with the North Country Trail or want to hike it yourself, keep reading for upcoming events and opportunities. Here’s Rennae!

Rennae Gruchalla stops along the North Country Trail. Image provided by Rennae Gruchalla.

“As I hiked for three days in the heart of our great state, I saw and heard wonders that one would never see or hear driving. I was filled with elation by these observations that field my heart and soul with joy. Here are just a few:

Graceful, tall, beautiful gold prairie grasses waving in the gentle breeze, hugging the numerous bodies of water.

Patterns made by eager farmers in the back gold — circles, loops, artists’ designs.

Azure lakes, ponds, sloughs, all teaming with varieties of birds. Geese cackling, the lonely cooo of the mourning dove, the desperate quack of the mallard strongly encouraging his mate to get the heck out of there before another crazy hiker meanders a bit too close!

Image by Rennae Gruchalla

As I listened to these melodies of nature, a train while blew in the distance, indicating human life was not far away.

Tiny villages, tucked between rolling hills covered with prairie grasses or stubble from last year’s crop, welcoming fatigued hikers with their own local flavors.

Members of the Dakota Prairie Chapter Along the North County Trail. Image provided by Rennae Gruchalla.

A gigantic sculpture placed on top of a hill along the trail. What is it? Who made it? Why is it placed here?

Vast stalks of corn as far as the eye can see — North Dakota gold…

Looking behind, viewing ribbons of trail cutting through nature, making their own paths, no one in sight for as far as the eye can see…

Give yourself a gift this spring. Go out for a hike and see your state close-up.”

The North Country Trail is pretty (and actively used!) during the winter as well. Photo by Rennae Gruchalla.

Want to get involved? Check out upcoming Dakota Prairie Chapter events like a gear swap and bike event at Wild Terra in Fargo on May 31, a day hike to North Dakota’s only waterfall near Lisbon, North Dakota on June 23. They also do urban hikes and workshops and can put you in touch with other North Dakota hiking groups, like the Sheyenne River Valley group that is offering this cool Fort Ransom State Park hike to celebrate National Trails Day June 2-3.

What about you?
Did you know about the North Country Trail before this post? (Don’t feel bad if you didn’t! I just learned about it a few years ago and knowing stuff like this is literally my job!)
What is your favorite hiking spot or trail?
What’s the coolest hiking experience you’ve ever had?
What kind of landscape do you prefer to hike?
Which part of the trail would you be most interested in exploring?
What questions do you have about hiking?
Is there anything holding you back from exploring on foot? Let’s talk about it. Maybe we can help!

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