WESTPORT - An idea born two years ago aimed at creating a new network of hiking and cross-country ski trails in central Champlain Valley is taking shape with the opening of three new public footpaths.
The new paths are just the beginning of what organizers hope will be a contiguous series of trails that will link Lake Champlain with surrounding communities, the High Peaks and points beyond.
The concept was the brainchild of a group of avid nature enthusiasts who created the nonprofit corporation Champlain Area Trails, or CATS.
"Our dream is to eventually create a network of trails like they have in Europe, where visitors take the train to a trailhead, hike from town to town for a week or two, and then return to their homes by train," said CATS board member David Reuther.
To begin, the group created three new trails connecting the Essex County towns of Westport and Essex. They hope to extend the system this summer north to the hamlet of Essex, creating a 25-mile loop between the towns.
But the goal doesn't end there.
"We also plan to create trails north from Essex to Willsboro and Keeseville and south to Port Henry and Crown Point, as well as west to Elizabethtown and the Jay and Giant wilderness areas," Reuther said. "This would connect us to the 4,200-mile North Country National Scenic Trail that joins New York to North Dakota, and also to New York's Long Path between New York City and the Canadian border."
Chris Maron, program director for the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, said the trails will not only open some pristine Adirondack land to the public, but will help stimulate local economies.
"Most people now drive to the High Peaks in order to hike in the Adirondacks," Maron said. "Our goal is to help residents appreciate the tremendous natural beauty of the Champlain Valley, as well as the many historic and cultural features. These trails will also benefit the region as visitors hike and ski between the lake towns, in the same way the Jackrabbit Trail brings skiers to Lake Placid and Keene."