Aug – Vermont Peaks

Mount Pisgah (left) and Lake Willoughby, Northeast Kingdom of Vermont

Mount Pisgah (left) and Lake Willoughby, Northeast Kingdom of Vermont

You would expect Vermont to have good hiking. It is, after all, the least densely settled of the eastern states excepting Maine. It’s covered top-to-bottom by those famous Green Mountains too. Somehow, though, it had stayed off my hiking wish list. In part this was because, having seen bits of the state from the highway over the years, I thought its very greenness meant that most hikes would be below treeline. I’ve nothing against hiking in the woods, of course, but I can do it right here in Connecticut. Then there’s the competition. If you’re going to drive a few hundred miles to hike, you might as well go the whole hog to New Hampshire’s Whites – and the highest, wildest, barest hiking country in the Northeast. So, until this summer, while I knew Vermont had its Long Trail and a few 4,000-footers, I had no plans to head there.

Two things combined to change that. First, my youngest daughter and I were planning a trip to Quebec to hike and explore. Our first destination – Gaspésie national park – was 800 miles away. I didn’t want to drive there flat-out. Why not stop in northern New England on the way? I thought about Baxter State Park in Maine, but felt sure I was too late to get a campsite. I thought about Connecticut Lakes in northernmost New Hampshire, but knew nothing about trails there. Then – the second thing – I remembered a conversation from last winter. Alex and I had been walking down a churned-up track that was in the process of becoming a section of the Norwalk River Valley Trail. Alex works for Timber & Stone, the company building the trail in Wilton; and he, like the company, is based in northern Vermont. I asked about his favorite hikes up there, and part of his answer was Mount Pisgah. Now I looked it up on the map, and it fitted perfectly with our driving plans. And that is how Marjorie and I ended up at the Mt Pisgah trailhead (south end) around 8 a.m. one mid-July morning.

MOUNT PISGAH is in Vermont’s “Northeast Kingdom”, 20 miles due north of St Johnsbury and the same distance south of the Quebec border. It would make an attractive hike if it were plunked down just about anywhere, but what really makes Mt Pisgah is that it is right next to Lake Willoughby. Five miles long but nowhere near as wide, the lake is deep, clear and cold. It is narrowest at its southern end, squeezed between mounts Hor and Pisgah. Pisgah – at 2,752 feet – is slightly the higher. Both rise steeply from the lake, forest giving way to bare rock where steeply becomes vertically. The trail, thank goodness, gains the Mt Pisgah cliff-top by the backdoor, switchbacking through the forest. It is a popular trail, and there are rough, manmade steps too. As we neared the top, red squirrels darted in birch and pine. Then, reaching a bare shoulder of the mountain, the fields and forests – mostly forests! – of the Kingdom appeared to the south, mist lingering in a far-off valley. But it was the views from the next lookouts that everyone comes for, where Lake Willoughby seems just a wrong step and a 1,600-foot fall away. This morning, the lake surface was rippled here but placid there. Where it was placid, it reflected clouds and sky. Beyond, green hills stretched off to Green Mountains, their greenness light or dark according to sunlight or shadow.

At the end of our hike, Marjorie and I set off along the Kingdom’s small roads for New Hampshire and then Quebec. But on our way home we stopped in Vermont again. Mount Mansfield was not one of Alex’s recommendations. We came because, at 4,393 feet, it is the highest point in the state; and because I had read that it offers a decent length of above-treeline trail.

Top of Sunset Ridge Trail, Mt Mansfield, Vermont

Top of Sunset Ridge Trail, Mt Mansfield, Vermont

MOUNT MANSFIELD, in the end, felt like three distinct hikes. The first – a Civilian Conservation Corps Road and the Halfway House Trail – was unspoiled, solitary, but short on views. We climbed into cooler air, scrambled over boulders slick from the recent rain, and emerged at the treeline 2,000 feet above where we had started. The second hike, a mile of gently rising trail culminating at the summit, was long on views and human agency – the Green Mountains parading south behind a clutch of transmitters; alpine tundra carefully cordoned off with string; then, looking east, wooded slopes striped with ski runs. We had lots of company up here too, speeded up the mountain on the toll road from Stowe. But none of this could spoil sitting on the summit to watch clouds drift and transform themselves above, nor take away from the view over Burlington to Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks beyond.

The third part of our Mount Mansfield hike is what will bring me back to Vermont. It returned to our starting place via the Sunset Ridge Trail. Sunset Ridge is treeless, so there were views all the way – north, south, west; but not east over the resort anymore. To the south, the transmitters insignificant now, the mountains stretched away to Camel’s Hump and beyond, apparently pristine. The Hump is Vermont’s highest undeveloped peak, and 30 miles of the Long Trail would take me there. One day. [Photographs from both these hikes are available here.]

If you go …
PARKING Trailhead approx. 0.5 mi south ­of Lake Willoughby on VT Rte 5A. Underhill State Park campground, Underhill, VT.
DISTANCE 7 miles (2.8 on Rte 5A). 6.8 miles.
DURATION 3.75 hours. 5-6 hours, with lots of lingering.
MAP AND ROUTE Posted at trailhead kiosks. Up Mt Pisgah south trail; down north trail; return to trailhead on Rte 5A. Available from state park office. CCC Road–Halfway House Trail-The Long Trail-Sunset Ridge Trail.


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