I’d heard a lot of warnings about hiking the Northville-Placid Trail (NPT) in the fall. The stream crossings would be difficult and cold. I imagined myself wading knee-deep through rivers. Hunting season would be in full swing. My boss, an Adirondacker, born and raised, sat me down and gave me a bear talk, complete with details about one woman who was solo hiking the trail and was stalked by a black bear. She ended up having to knife the bear. Other people just seemed confused. “Wait, so you’re not hiking with a group? You’re going alone?” To them, the prospect seemed absurd, at best.
But in my opinion, it was completely reasonable. My day job was slowing down enough so that I could take a vacation. The trail is just over 130 miles (209 km), which could comfortably fit into nine days of hiking. There would be rustic shelters that I could stay in so I could leave my tent at home. Instead, I could just bring a tarp for any nights I wanted to or had to camp out. Most tourists were out of the region, and the fair-weather hikers were home, so I wouldn’t have to deal with crowds. There would be no bugs or hot weather. Plus, the trail sticks to the valleys, so I would escape a lot of the harsher weather conditions in the mountains.
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The Adventure Before the Adventure
So, on October 19, I woke up amidst snow flurries and headed south to Northville to begin my journey on the Northville-Placid Trail. Admittedly, I was a bit under-prepared. My job had been busy, and I’d been out of town the weekend before. I ended up just throwing my gear and some food into my pack. I typed up an itinerary so I’d know how much I should hike each day and where I could get off the trail to resupply if need be.
Therefore, it was unsurprising that during my trip down to Northville, I learned that there was a new start to the trail that opened several months ago. The man who told me about the new trail didn’t know any details. So I opted to be dropped off in Northville proper instead of the parking area in Upper Benson, where most hikers start, to ask around about the new trailhead.
Strangely, despite its small size, no one in Northville seemed to have a definite answer. I consulted a kiosk in the town center that listed a trail section running from Benson Road to where the old Northville-Placid Trail crosses Stony Creek. The map at the kiosk displayed several possible routes to come in 2016 (and are now completed as of 2023). They would run through the woods from Northville to Upper Benson, eliminating nearly all the road walk. I later learned from the Adirondack Mountain Club that some parts of this trail are complete. However, other sections are pending permission from private landowners.
Ultimately, I walked most of the way from Northville along the road to the trailhead on Benson Road. All the trail markers on this section were new, with several inches of nails left out to allow the trees to grow. I often found myself losing the trail because of the leaf litter and the lack of erosion or compaction. The new trail wasn’t on my map, so it wasn’t easy to pinpoint precisely where I was.
Even with the difficulties, the frustration of figuring out how to start the trail was soon tempered by the trail’s surroundings. It was the first day of muzzleloader hunting season in New York State. So, the sounds of gunshots gradually faded as I traveled deeper into the woods with the deer bounding across my path. Throughout my trip, I’d heard shots as I approached roads and inhabited areas. However, I never ran into any hunters and frequently saw deer. Several miles down the trail, the late afternoon sun glistened off one lazy stream. I began to feel the joy of being in the woods.
An Eerily Quiet Journey
On my first afternoon, I saw a day hiker near Stony Creek. He turned out to be the last person I would see in the woods for about 100 miles (160km). There is something magical about hiking a trail with no one else on it. On my third night, when staying at Spruce Lake, I realized I had the whole, beautiful place to myself. While there was a slight chance that someone could have camped at one of the other shelters, there was absolutely no sign of another person. Looking at the stars reflected on the water, I stared into the darkness. As I readied my breakfast in the morning, I heard the haunting call of the loon rising over the misty water.
Days later, walking through Lake Durant State Campground, I passed by a group of employees in an otherwise deserted campground. “I thought I’d seen a ghost,” one man said when I returned to talk to them. And at times, the trail did seem to be inhabited by ghosts. Trash and belongings littered some shelters from visitors who used them during the summer season of camping and partying. They were long gone with only this evidence of their stays.
After days without seeing anyone, I began to hear voices in the water of the streams. When there were more deer and moose prints than human ones along the trail, solitude was knowing not just that I hadn’t seen anyone but also that there was no one to see. Startled grouse flew up in front of me as I hiked. I heard more coyote howls and owl calls than human voices. On one of my last days on the trail, I came across a small pile of rusted pots, pans, and scrap metal dedicated to Noah John Rondeau (1883-1967), the Hermit of Cold River. I shivered to think of living year-round in the cold, unforgiving woods. As I walked, I thought of the footsteps of those who had lived in and passed through the woods before me.
A Close Encounter
During the hike, I was constantly aware that my margin for error was far smaller than usual. I knew that one bad fall or even just a sprained ankle would be a serious problem with no cell phone reception and few hikers on the trails. Based on trail registers and footprints, it looked like a week could easily pass between visitors in some places. So when I heard a crash in the woods nearby, I froze. My heart started racing as I remembered my boss’s warning.
I was by Mud Lake on a particularly muddy and remote section of the trail. By this point in my trip, I could tell the difference in the sounds between “something big,” such as a deer moving through the woods, and “something really big.” After what seemed like a long time, but was probably no more than 15 seconds, I shouldered my pack and slowly headed up the trail, trying to make as little noise as possible. I’d only taken a few steps when there was some slow movement ahead of me behind some bushes.
Finally, I saw the head of a moose. We stared at each other for a long moment, and then it started moving awkwardly down the trail. I was struck by how closely the yearling moose resembled a donkey or a horse, just more strangely shaped and lankier. I had plenty of time to observe the animal as I followed it down the trail at a leisurely pace. It trotted or walked, stopping occasionally to stare at me. Although it seemed calm and wasn’t acting threatened, I was acutely aware of how alone I really was and that getting too close would be foolish. Finally, after about 10 minutes, it veered off the trail and headed up a hill. I watched it for a minute and then continued my hike.
The Muddy Terrain
Distractions like the moose weren’t the only factors influencing my hiking speed. My pace depended a lot on the trail despite only mild elevation changes. Many place names reflect the complex and inhospitable terrain of the trail. I first got one of my boots wet in Bloodgood Brook. Even the Cold River doesn’t exactly seem all that inviting of a place. But most characteristically, after the re-route from Northville, the NPT passes by three Mud Lakes.
As it turned out, the real-time sinker (often too literally) was the mud and bog bridges. I spent many hours slogging through mud and slowly, carefully walking over bog bridges, all the while debating which was worse: to face the mud with or without the bog bridges. The mud would pull at my boots and splatter my clothing as I skidded over it. The bog bridges provided cleaner passage with less trail erosion. But they were always slippery, covered in moss and slime, and therefore very treacherous. Even taking them slowly, with that knowledge, I flew off several.
Sometimes, stretches of bog bridges would span for what felt like a quarter-mile or more. The mud, too, could be extreme. At one point, I scared a frog off the trail. It was mostly underwater, so I hadn’t seen it. At another, I plunged knee-deep into a particularly bad patch. The naturally muddy terrain was further complicated by the area’s overly busy beavers, which delighted in submerging sections of the Northville-Placid Trail. The trail has been re-routed several times in response to beaver activity.
While the terrain near these dams is difficult and sometimes frustrating to navigate, it also provides wildlife viewing opportunities. One section of the trail crosses below a beaver dam where a large flooded area is brought down to a mere trickle of a stream. After crossing the water, I looked over and saw a small, furry creature scurrying up into a hole in the dam. My first instinctive thought was: “Look, a baby beaver with a really small tail.” Of course, in the subsequent miles, with little else to consider, I realized that just because I’d seen the animal near the beaver dam didn’t mean it was a beaver. The animal’s tail wouldn’t magically morph into a larger flat paddle as it reached adulthood. Instead, I’d just seen a muskrat for the first time.
Streams, Rivers, and Bridges
Streams and rivers are other important trail features usually accompanied by often-impressive infrastructure. The Northville-Placid Trail boasts some amazing cable bridges, more standard wooden bridges, and every hiker’s favorite: washed-out or partially washed-out bridges.
The washed-out bridges actually made the decision easy. There was really nothing else to do but get my feet wet. However, the partially washed-out bridges pose a dilemma. Would I try to cross a single, slimy log several feet over the water or just walk through the stream? My already wet feet made the choice easier. I even came across a submerged bridge that is still intact, just inconveniently underwater.
Even on dry sections of the trail, the leaf litter in some deciduous and mixed forests could make step placement difficult as the leaves could hide rocks. The trail didn’t have enough traffic for the leaves to be compacted or kicked to the side. It was surprisingly difficult to walk without a good sense of where my feet were landing, especially with a pack. Even so, I’d greatly prefer to have a problem with too many leaves on the trail than to find the trail crowded with people.
A Beautiful Finish
By the time I made it to Long Lake, with less than 40 miles (64 km) to go on the Northville-Placid Trail, I was convinced that the West Canada Lakes, where I’d seen the moose, would be my favorite area of the trail. But with only about 25 miles (40 km) left, I stepped onto a bridge to cross the Cold River, and everything changed. The rapids were spectacular, crashing down the river to my right and shooting over rocks straight under my feet. The bridge’s bottom was made from a metal mesh, so I could look through and see the water as it passed below me.
On the other side of the river, just to its side, sat a shelter. For the next three miles (5 km), the trail became the most pleasant it had been the whole trip. It gradually climbed alongside the river, moving down into and up out of its tributary stream beds. I reached Seward, my shelter for the night, alongside the river, just below several chutes. When I arrived, I stood on a rock in the river, gazing at the water flow in fascination. I thought elatedly: “This is my water source!” There was something immensely appealing about drinking water that had just passed violently through those rocks as if I would take on some of its power and resilience.
A Deeper Appreciation
When I started my trip on the NPT, the trail was just another thing to hike. I tend to stick to the mountains myself. But I figured I’d give it a shot even though its high point is a scant 3,000 feet (914 m), passing over a viewless ridge. Many people would find the NPT bland or unappealing, especially compared to many other Adirondack hikes with majestic 360-degree views and demanding trails that head straight-up slides and rock scrambles.
However, after several days on the trail, I felt like I’d left behind my normal life. I began to adopt a new set of senses and daily rhythms. As my vision shifted, I began to appreciate the trail’s subtle beauty. The sun hardly ever came out. My hike was accompanied by rain, and so many lakes and ponds took on a misty, lonesome quality.
And while the 3,000-foot (914 m) ridge offered no view, the forest was moist, green, and alive. It was covered in mosses and lichens, reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. I even came to appreciate the streams surrounded by dry vegetation that, when viewed from afar, looked like a river of grass. The fall foliage was well past its peak, but the tamaracks were still turning. At some points, yellow-gold needles littered the trail.
Hiking the Northville-Placid Trail left me with a deeper appreciation of everyday beauty and the renewed knowledge that one can always head into the woods to find a different perspective and sharper senses.
This article was first published on November 24, 2014, and most recently updated on October 17, 2023.