The North Country National Scenic Trail may not carry the cachet of the Appalachian Trail or its counterpart in the Pacific Northwest.
With 1,500 miles still uncompleted, the path has hundreds of gaps — including a big one in Minnesota. But at 4,600 miles, winding from the North Dakota plains through Minnesota and eventually to New York, it is the longest by far of the country’s 11 national scenic trails.
And now, thanks to the huge public lands package that passed the U.S. Senate earlier this month, that large gap in the trail’s Minnesota section will finally get fixed. The Natural Resources Management Act approves a dramatic reroute for the trail, across the Iron Range and into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and extends the path into Vermont, where it will connect with the Appalachian Trail.
It’s one of several Minnesota provisions tucked away in the massive legislation, some given a home-state push by Sen. Amy Klobuchar. The bundle of bills is expected to pass the U.S. House this week and head to the White House.
A second provision authorizes a set of land transfers designed to improve Voyageurs National Park, and another permanently reauthorizes a national trust fund that has provided billions of dollars to conserve public lands, including scores of projects in Minnesota.
The new route of the North Country Trail will head north from Grand Rapids, through the Iron Range to Ely, and then to Snowbank Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, where it will connect with the Kekekabic Trail. Eventually, following linked trails, hikers would complete a big hairpin loop through Minnesota’s Arrowhead and wind up at Jay Cooke State Park southwest of Duluth.
Veteran outdoorspeople welcomed the news.
Luke “Strider” Jordan, a thru-hiker who has walked the trail’s full length, called the reroute “a no-brainer.” A Minnesota native, Jordan wrote a book about it — Thru and Back Again: A Hiker’s Journey on the North Country Trail. He said the Arrowhead reroute was one of the best parts of the entire trail. “The North Country Trail is simply not on people’s radar yet, but it should be,” Jordan said.
The new course will improve hikers’ experience of the north country wilderness, said Matt Davis of Detroit Lakes, the regional trail coordinator for Minnesota and North Dakota for the North Country Trail Association.
“This is the largest reroute in the history of the national trail system,” Davis said.
Many hikers have already cobbled together a route of their own to bridge the missing section, from Grand Rapids into the Boundary Waters, using the Mesabi Trail, a paved bicycle trail through the Iron Range. But that’s not a solution, Davis said. Hikers prefer a primitive dirt footpath that is gentler on the body and provides a more intimate experience of nature, he said.
As Davis sees it, the reroute finally corrects an error in the original 1980 North Country route, which had the trail heading straight east from Grand Rapids to Cloquet. That portion was never built because it would have plowed through extensive wetlands.
“I don’t think 70 miles of boardwalk running through a bog compares to hiking through the North Woods [and] the Iron Range, and seeing some of the cultural history, and getting up in the Boundary Waters and going down the North Shore,” Davis said.
The update is not quite a done deal. While the law gives the National Park Service and local volunteers of the North Country Trail Association permission to develop the new route, it does not carve out money for it. Davis estimates it could take up to $2 million and “decades” to complete the 4-foot-wide dirt footpath, with the Park Service and grants providing the funds.
Trail-building itself is not difficult, Davis said, the challenge is finding the volunteers to do it. “It’s a pretty low-budget operation,” he said.
The Senate package also sets in motion two Minnesota land deals with the National Park Service. In one, the Bureau of Land Management will transfer 49 acres of land it owns inside Voyageurs National Park to the Park Service, clearing up some of the patchwork ownership inside the pristine wilderness. The parcels include 61 islands.
“It’s definitely a big win,” said Christine Goepfert, a senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
In the other, the state of Minnesota would swap 40 acres of tax-forfeited land managed by Koochiching County that sits inside Voyageurs National Park for a nearby 32-acre parcel just outside the park boundary, now owned by the Park Service.
According to Goepfert, the exchange would clear up management responsibilities and some longstanding public frustration about what recreational activities are allowed on which land. The state will likely allow hunting on the 32 acres just outside the park, Goepfert said.
Koochiching County Land Commissioner Nathan Heibel said he doesn’t know of any interest in hunting on that parcel. He described the lands as a mix of aspen, balsam, birch and maple near the road to the park’s Rainy Lake Visitor Center. The swap will require appraisals, approval by the Koochiching County Board and other work, Heibel said, but the federal measure “opens up the door” for a deal with the Park Service.
The measure’s crown jewel, conservationists say, is permanent reauthorization of the federal government’s Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund, fed by royalties from offshore oil and gas revenue, expired in September.
Since its creation in 1964, it has provided billions of dollars for improvements at sites such as Yellowstone National Park and the Appalachian Trail, and about $250 million for scores of Minnesota projects, including the Boundary Waters, the Chippewa and Superior national forests, the St. Croix National Scenic River and the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge.
Elizabeth Crow, director of government relations for the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, said it’s a huge relief to have such a crucial conservation tool stabilized: “It touches down in so many different ways.”