The trail runs parallel to the road for a short distance, the turns east and climbs gently through the forest. This section of trail is very narrow and super charming. Then the trail intersects the Highland Forest trail system, and turns north, following the park trails north. The shared park trails are much wider than the NCT; perhaps by design, or maybe they just get more use. There were certainly more wide mud wallows on the park trails that people keep expanding by walking around. Not me! Always, always, always: right straight through.
The NCT diverges from the park trail about 2.3 miles in, to cross an abandoned parking lot and a service road, then pass by some historic structures before rejoining the park trail system again. From here it is a short, level stroll to the Skyline Lodge with its vast parking lot. The visitor center is relatively new and contains restrooms and a drinking fountain with a water bottle refilling station. It also has a sign indicating hikers must pay a $3 per person for a trail pass. I have paid this fee before when parking at the Skyline Lodge, but today the desk was unmanned and I didn't hang around waiting for the opportunity to pay. However, it's probably a good idea to bring some cash when hiking here. Definitely take a short detour and walk around to the north side of the Lodge; there are expansive views to the north.
After departing the developed part of the park, the trail ventures back into the forest, heading generally south and then east, intermittently utilizing park trails. After crossing a powerline, the NCT leaves Highland Forest behind and begins the descent to DeRuyter Road. This part of the trail passes through private property and signs warned of hunting from sunrise to noon throughout the month of May. For what I don't know; perhaps turkey? Either way, we stayed on the trail and encountered no man or beast. There are numerous switchbacks keeping the grade easy, and the reservoir was soon visible through the green mist of the bursting leaves. This is such a gorgeous time to be on the trails, green and blue abound.
|Cowles Settlement Road -- this is part of the trail, but we drove up and parked where the trail enters the woods|
|we started the hike here|
|the green mist|
|red trillium (Trillium erectum)|
|view north from Skyline Lodge|
|the trail emerges onto DeRuyter Road just north of Dam Road|
|it is a very short road walk to the parking area on Dam Road, the entrance to which is visible ahead of Erwin on the left|