Park agencies are contesting a law that currently maintains a 40-mile gap between the Appalachian Trail and The North Country National Scenic Trail, the longest hiking trail in the country.
The North Country Trail Association, based in Michigan, is working with the National Park Service, Vermont's Green Mountain Club and other organizations to create a trail to connect the two. The National Park Service must complete its feasibility study before presenting a plan to Congress.
The main challenge to moving forward now is deciding which path to take.
The groups are considering two main trail options. Both are in Vermont, where government officials objected to the prospect of a connecting trail in the mid-1970s.
The North Country Trail is one of 11 National Scenic Trails planned for decades and finally approved by Congress in 1980. At the time, Vermont officials objected to another trail in their state, out of concern that additional hiker traffic would overwhelm the Long Trail, a Vermont trail that runs from Massachusetts to Canada. But now, officials' sentiments have changed.
"This 40-mile gap is a gap in the system," said Bruce Matthews, executive director of the North Country Trail Association, "There's no logical reason for it."
Although the North Country Trail is the longest continuous hiking trail in the U.S., it's not nearly as famous as its cousin, the 2,170-mile Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine. Thousands of people have hiked the Appalachian, but only 11 people have completed the North Country Trail, a 4,600-mile route through seven states, from New York to North Dakota.
The North Country isn't as well-known as other trails, partly because it's still a work in progress and also because, unlike the Appalachian Trail, it does not have a defining feature. Instead of the more traditional hiking scenery that defines the mountainous Appalachian Trail, the North Country Trail travels along roads, farms and lakes.
"All the criticism that this trail gets really are some of its strengths," said Joan Young, 64, of Scottville, Mich., who completed the trail in 2010. The trail doesn't follow a particular geographic feature and isn't associated with one state or ecosystem, Young said: "Its strongest feature is the diversity of the experiences."
The connecting path that the North Country Trail Association and other organizations hope to see approved goes through Middlebury, Vt., and connects at the Appalachians Long Trail. So far, nearby cities have offered overwhelming support for a connecting trail at that location. Art Mooney, a Senior Field Instructor for Middlebury College's outdoor programs in Middlebury, Vt., said he imagined the new trail would add to the variety on both the Appalachian and the Northern Country trails. It also would keep the land protected from development.
"I'd rather have hikers going through that area than an electrical company," Mooney said.
The other route under consideration would connect to the Long Trail through Button Bay State Park and over Bristol Cliffs.
The North Country Trail Association and other trail organizations are hopeful that the feasibility study and National Park Service approval will be finished this summer, which would leave the next step to Congress. Forging the new trail requires an amendment to The National Trails System Act. But this is still only the beginning of the journey towards the completed connector. It could be years before the trail is actually carved out for use.
When it is, Matthews hopes more people will take the opportunity to explore the North Country route.
"It's one of those labors of love," he said. "It's a simple foot path, yet it connects all the peoples of the north country and their combined experiences. You set foot on the trail in New York, you're connected with somebody in Minnesota."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.