If you have ever run or walked on the path behind Simpson Dorm that connects to Oak Grove Cemetery, you have traveled part of the longest National Scenic Trail in the United States.
The North Country Trail winds through America’s Northern Heartland for 4,600 miles and, for a small portion, it cuts Hillsdale County into near-perfect halves.
“The North Country Trail has value in Hillsdale because you don’t often feel like you are in an area that is untamed or untouched by farming or by the town,” said senior Matthew Wylie, who has hiked portions of the trail numerous times.
The trail, which begins at Crown Point State Historic Site, New York and ends at Lake Sakakawea State Park, North Dakota, runs south from Upstate New York down to Cincinnati and then turns northward through Ohio and Michigan’s lower and upper peninsulas where it veers westward toward the Canadian border and the central Dakota plains.
The Hillsdale County section of the NCT is one of the only sections in Southern Michigan without significant stretches of hiking on the side of the road. It is long enough to make a weekend out of hiking and camping in the well-preserved forests of the area.
During spring, summer, and early fall, branches of hickory, birch, and oak trees form a tight canopy over the stretch of trail near Hillsdale, and wildflowers bloom at the margin of the path.
Flocks of starlings migrate from tree to tree as grouses, wrens, and ravens call to their lovers hiding behind leaves turning scarlet in the autumn chill. Migrating geese arrange themselves to signal where to head to escape the oncoming chill.
“There is one section we have taken the Outdoor Adventures Club to a couple of times,” Outdoor Adventure Club President junior Emma McCormick said. “You feel like you are a lot farther than 15 minutes from campus when you are out there.”
As the path breaches the Ohio border, it enters Hillsdale County and follows Tuttle Road north until it turns west and enters Lost Nation State Game Area. The trail then continues northwest through Osseo, around Lake Baw Beese, and follows Baw Beese Trail past Stock’s Mill and Wal-Mart through Jonesville and Litchfield and then out of the county.
Patches of blue paint (called “blazes” by hiking folks) adorn the trees and mark the trail. Though it crosses the St. Joseph River and several drainage creeks in a number of places, hikers are not forced to ford the streams. Members of the Chief Baw Beese Chapter of the North Country Trail Association, the group that maintains Hillsdale’s County section of trail, have made rustic log crossings and small wooden bridges to keep adventurers dry during their hikes.
In the summer, the NCT is perfect for trail runners, hikers, and fishermen looking for a secret spot. In the winter, the slight changes in elevation make for great cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Near Skuse Road, the trail skirts the edge of a ravine where there is a cave made infamous by the 19th-century horse thief and murderer, Silas Doty.
According to a Natural Features Inventory prepared by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources: “a larger cave occurred in the vicinity but was destroyed to prevent the local brigand Sile Doty from using it to hide stolen horses in the mid-1800s.”
And with Halloween quickly approaching, this cave on the edge of the NCT offers adventurers the opportunity for a scare.
“It is also said that if you go to Doty’s cave at night you will find a dead fox and some black walnuts,” wrote the author of “150 Years In the Hills and Dales.” “If you look real hard you will see the ghost of Silas Doty that is said to haunt the cave, and he is smiling.”
If spooky encounters are not the goal, the North Country Trail’s proximity calls Hillsdale residents out of their homes to enjoy some of Michigan’s natural beauty.
“It is a cool reversal of circumstances: Normally you are looking at one cool tree on the quad or a farm field near the road, but on the North Country Trail, you get the chance to feel surrounded by places that are untouched,” Wylie said.