Hiking in the North Country has long been associated with the High Peaks, with places like the Champlain Valley getting overlooked.
The nonprofit organization Champlain Area Trails (CATS) is trying to change that perception. The group officially began developing trails in 2009, and on Saturday, May 3, it hopes to showcase them with a new event called the Grand Hike.
The Grand Hike will be an "Inn to Inn" walk in the spirit of self-guided walks made popular in Europe. Hikers will depart at 9 a.m. from the Westport Hotel in Westport, traversing along a mix of Champlain area trails and scenic back roads to the finish at the Essex Inn in Essex.
The Wildway Overlook Trail, located on Brookfield Road in Essex, offers great views of the Champlain Valley.
(Photo — Betsy Aigner)
"The idea is to have a trail network sort of like they do in England, where people walk from pub to pub and town to town," said CAT Executive Director Chris Maron. "So that's the thing we're putting in place here."
The complete journey is 14 miles long, but participants will be able to select from several shorter distances to hike. The trip is divided into five segments, with four "oases" along the trail from which hikers can start or finish. Each oasis will provide port-o-potties, water, snacks, maps and complimentary shuttles to and from the Westport Hotel, Essex Inn and the Essex Ferry dock.
Maron said the idea for the Grand Hike was born out of last fall's hamlet-to-hamlet hike from Wadhams to Essex. That event drew about 60 people without a lot of publicity.
"It's encouraging a new sense of optimism here," Maron said about the trails. "Formerly people would come to the Champlain Valley and just drive through to go to the High Peaks and hike, and we want this to be a destination where people come and hike here."
One of the biggest assets of the region is that it has relatively short and easy hikes that just about anyone can enjoy, according to Maron.
"The studies from the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism show that the kind of hikes that people generally prefer are one- to three-hour hikes on relatively easy terrain and that's the kind of hikes we have," Maron said. "And again, we have fabulous views. You don't have to hike forever. The Wildway Overlook Trail is just a great view."
The day will begin with breakfast available at the Westport Hotel at a special hiker's price. Box lunches will also be available for purchase and delivery to the oasis of choice. Hikers will be celebrated at the Essex Inn block party from 5 to 8 p.m., with live music by the Wadhams Waddlers, restorative yoga and chair massages by Lake Champlain Yoga and Wellness, photo booth provided by Overtime Photography, face painting, food, drink and other activities.
"This walk is an exact reflection of the vision that the CATS founders intended," Maron said. "We're looking forward to this springtime ramble that will link communities, promote economic vitality, and connect people with nature and each other."
Participants who complete the entire Grand Hike will be rewarded with a free cocktail courtesy of the Essex Inn, and all participants will receive a reusable eco-friendly bag and 4x6 inch keepsake photo taken at the end of the hike.
Registration is $5 per person or $10 per family, and pre-registration is encouraged and can be done by completing the online form at www.champlainareatrails.com. The block party is free and open to everyone. More information is available by calling 518-962-2287 or visiting www.champlainareatrails.com.