The North Country Trail: Observations While Hiking In The Heart of North Dakota

The longest trail in the United States starts (or ends, depending on your interpretation) in North Dakota. But unless you’re a hiker, it remains one of the state’s (and the country’s) best kept secrets.

When completed, the North Country Trail will span 4,600 miles (more than twice the length of the Appalachian Trail) between New York and North Dakota’s Lake Sakakawea State Park. It cuts a path across the North Dakota prairie, around Minnesota lakes and past Wisconsin waterfalls. It skirts Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, passes painted cliffs in Michigan, rolling farmland in Ohio and quiet nature scenes in Pennsylvania and New York.

Volunteers are involved with every step of the process, from building and maintaining the trail to serving as “trail angels” who provide water, advice and guidance to the through hikers who aim to walk across the North Country Trail’s seven state route. You’ll also find them out on the trail themselves.

Rennae Gruchalla of Fargo is one of them. She maintains a grassland stretch of the trail in eastern North Dakota with her husband and is a member of the Dakota Prairie Chapter of the North Country Trail Association which, along with the Sheyenne River Valley Chapter, helps promote the trail and activities through group hikes and meetings.

She is also hiking her way across the entire North Dakota portion of the North Country Trail and is one of the trail’s fiercest advocates. I can’t think of anyone better to introduce you to the trail than Rennae.

She did a variation of this post for me last year that was lost in my website crash. I thought the information was important enough to share again. Here are Rennae’s thoughts about experiencing the North Country Trail in North Dakota. All words and images from here until the questions in bold letters at the end are hers.

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 filled 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 black gold — circles, loops, artist’s designs

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

As I listened to these melodies of nature, a train whistle 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 local flavors.

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.

What about you?
What’s your favorite way to get outdoors?
What’s your favorite trail and why should we try it?
What do you like about the North Country Trail?
What surprises you about the North Country Trail?
What outdoor and nature topics would you like to know more about?

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Alicia Underlee Nelson

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