The North Country National Scenic Trail’s Beginning

On March 5, 1980, Congress passed legislation authorizing the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCNST), culminating efforts that began even before the National Trails System Act of 1968, which established the Appalachian and Pacific Crest National Scenic Trails (NST’s) as the nation’s first.

gilbertThe Appalachian Trail, conceived by Benton MacKaye and others in the early 1900’s, popularized the notion of long distance hiking trails in the U.S. By the early 1960’s, with that decade’s growing national momentum in conservation, environmental and outdoor recreation initiatives, establishing a national trails system become one of the priorities.

Recommended as part of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission Report in the early 60’s and supported by President Johnson’s “Natural Beauty Message” in 1965, subsequent federal studies and reports led to the enactment of the National Trails System Act of 1968 (Public Law 90-543). In addition to establishing the AT and Pacific Crest as the first NST’s, the Act also called for further study on 14 similar potential projects, one of which was the North Country Trail.

In 1971, a combined federal-state task force was assembled to study the feasibility of the North Country Trail. Initially overseen by David Schonck and later Bob Martin out of the Ann Arbor, MI office of the then Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, this study was supported by a new and now-familiar face in 1973—a young, newly graduated Tom Gilbert. A new hire at the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (an agency whose functions were later absorbed by the National Park Service), Tom Gilbert was assigned to developing materials to support the series of public meetings to be held across the northern tier of states where the North Country Trail was being proposed. Tom Gilbert later became the first and currently only Superintendent of the North Country National Scenic Trail for the National Park Service.

The authorized route that the NCNST follows today differs significantly in many areas from some of the initial proposals. Some of the early proposed route highlights and suggestions included:

  • Linking up with the Appalachian Trail in Vermont
  • Transecting Ohio through Columbus to the Michigan/Indiana border
  • Following the Lake Michigan shoreline
  • A large loop in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
  • Hugging the Bayfield Peninsula in Wisconsin
  • Following the length of the Sheyenne River in North Dakota

The Trail’s current route was—and continues to be the direct result of public input received during those early and subsequent public meetings. Uniting America’s red plaid nation, the North Country NST immerses the hiker in the best natural features and cultural heritage the North Country has to offer.

The North Country Trail Association’s Beginning

On March 28, 1981 the first gathering of about 12 volunteers, including Lance Feild, Ginny Wunsch, and Ken Gackler, gathered at the bank in White Cloud, MI to discuss forming an organization to become the major non-profit partner with the National Park Service in building the North Country National Scenic Trail.

Dues were set at $20, and Lance Feild, now the newly appointed President of the NCTA, was the first to make his payment as member # 1.

Early records are a bit sketchy (we don’t have meeting minutes from that first meeting) but among our list of current 30 year NCTA members are a few who joined in 1981 along with Ken Gackler—Don Beattie, Cecil and Joanne Dobbins, Milton Jones and Barbara Smith.

As we celebrate our beginnings, we recognize these pioneers whose faith in the legacy effort that will become a completed NCNST is the foundation of our organization. Their hard work has enabled us to be where we are today, and as we survey our landscape, we can see a LOT to be grateful for!


hikers-on-puncheon-west-of-400th-aveSo we should also list our 30-year members not already mentioned:

  • Pat Allen and Mark Miller (1983)
  • Joseph Brennan (1985)
  • Buckeye Trail Association (1985)
  • James Davis (1983)
  • Tom and Jan Gilbert (1982)
  • Anthony Haswell (1984)
  • Margaret Hutchins (1982)
  • James Kenning (1984)
  • Robert Krzewinski and Sally Allen Lund (1984)
  • Kalista Lehrer (1982)
  • Harlan Liljequist (1983)
  • Glenn Oster (1983)
  • James and Mary Richards/Maplelag (1983)
  • Dewey and Kay Wobma (1984)

So, step outside and join us in a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday, to US! The North Country Trail Association!

Some highlights from the North Country Trail history:

1963—the national Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRC) issues recommendation that a national system of trails be developed.

1968—National Trails System Act passed by Congress.

aber-sign-on-cr81-web1971—Feasibility study begins for the establishment of he North Country National Scenic Trail.

1980—North Country NST authorized by Congress

1981—North Country Trail Association established.

1982—First issue of “The North Country Trailblazer” newsletter published and edited by Dr. John Hipps from Pennsylvania.

1989—Wes Boyd’s “Following the NCNST” becomes the first book published about the Trail.

1990—NPS locates administrative offices for the North Country and Ice Age National Scenic Trails, and the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail to Madison WI, and selects Tom Gilbert as superintendent.

1991—Byron and Margaret Hutchins publish their guide to “Certified Sections of the NCNST.”

1992—More than 1000 miles of NCNST now certified.

1995—The NCTA newsletter becomes the “North Star.”

1998—More than 1500 miles now certified.

1999—First hiking maps published by NCTA.

2000—NCNST named as one of only 16 National Millenium Trails by the White House. The only other National Scenic Trail so named is the AT.

2011—NPS Superintendent Tom Gilbert retires.

2012—NPS hires Mark Weaver as superintendent.

2015—NCNST grows to 2880 completed miles. Over $1.5 million in sweat equity spent by 1095 volunteers, almost $5 for every federal dollar supporting NCTA’s base operations.