Hiking Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s Highest Peak
By Esha Samajpati
“Isn’t Vermont the place to go when you want to ski or see the fall colors?” I asked my husband incredulously. He seemed to think it to be a great place for a hike on a summer weekend.
When I picture Vermont, I see farmhouses, ice cream, maple syrup, cheese, coffee and B&Bs. Anything but hiking, that too in the middle of summer.
But a subtle reminder of the traffic snarls near most beach resorts was enough to make me vote for the hike, little knowing how pleasantly I was about to be surprised.
Summer in Stowe
From Connecticut, it took us almost five hours to reach Stowe, a classic Vermont village. Driving through Vermont, the irony hit me.
Vermont’s fall foliage and ski-slopes have overshadowed its summer; its quaint towns have stolen the spotlight from its rugged summits.
I was glad that my husband’s passion for hiking helped me discover a side of Vermont not known to many.
We had booked a room for Saturday night at Fiddler’s Green Inn in Stowe. We got special summer rates and the fun of choosing our room. We picked one with a crooked ceiling overlooking a babbling brook.
But it’s the kind of place where you just sleep after a day of hiking, ‘cause if you are looking for television, air-conditioning, wi-fi or anything more than a “bed & bath,” don’t even think of staying there.
Right after checking in at the Inn, we drove off to the Stowe Mountain Resort, from where we took a luxury Gondola to the Cliff House Restaurant, set against the backdrop of Mount Mansfield at an elevation of 3,625 feet.
Yes, we were ready for some Vermont fare. Lunch for me consisted of a diet soda and a Twice Baked Chevre Soufflé delicately placed alongside a cress salad drizzled with maple vinaigrette.
My husband opted for steamed mussels, again something you don’t readily associate with the town or the restaurant which essentially claims to use Vermont products and ingredients as much as possible.
By two in the afternoon, we were done with lunch and ready for some climbing. There are signs pointing to the Cliff Trail by the restaurant so we found the trail easily. But that’s about the last thing that could be called easy about the trail.
The morning showers had made the rocks slippery. We had to crawl through gaps, walk on ledges and climb up boulders. The trail refused to level out for even an inch.
The 0.7 miles to the ridgeline of Mount Mansfield seemed to take forever. We knew that the ridgeline is accessible from either this challenging Cliff Trail or the Auto Toll Road.
Obviously, we had thought this trail to be far more fun than the Toll Road but apparently it wasn’t. The air continued to get thinner and the trail trickier.
Finally, I gave up. Graded “DDD” or “very difficult” by the Mount Mansfield Visitor’s Guide, this trail was not a good idea on a rainy day.
Magic of Montpelier
Disappointed at our failed attempt to reach Mansfield’s ridgeline, we drove down to Vermont’s capital city, Montpelier. Parking opposite the State House, we walked down the streets looking for a place to get some coffee.
Built of Vermont granite and marble, the gold dome of the State building shone merrily in the sun.
The brick federal style mansions lining the streets made for a uniform architectural style with locally owned businesses, art galleries and cafés ruling the roost.
Don’t think you will spot a McDonald’s or a Taco Bell here.
A European style bakery called La Brioche caught our eye. Spotting free wi-fi and Green Mountain coffee, we walked in.
Many croissants and lattes later, we were done planning our hike for the next day. Feeling considerably better, we headed back to the Inn.
Maybe it’s the magic of Montpelier but we felt ready to take on the next day with renewed enthusiasm.
The next morning we got up early to the sound of a gurgling brook and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.
Politely declining breakfast, we bid adieu to our host, Bud, who wanted me to say “hello” to all the girls in Connecticut on his behalf.
Back on the road, we decided to take the easy way out this time. We drove 7 miles up Rt. 108 from the village of Stowe and turned into the Auto Toll Road.
But yet again, I was proved wrong. It may have been the easy way out for us but not for our Honda. The Toll Road was unpaved, steep and had sharp turns. Not exactly my idea of a “road.”
The ticket cost us $24, including an informative audio CD and a sticker for our car. The toll road is open daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., mid-May to mid-October, weather permitting.
The Face of Mount Mansfield
After 4.5 miles of driving uphill, we came upon the Visitor Center parking at an elevation of 3,850 feet. Mount Mansfield’s summit is Vermont’s highest peak at 4,395 feet above sea-level.
It resembles the reclining profile of a rather gnarly man which explains why the parts of the mountain are named Forehead, Nose, Chin and Adam’s Apple.
Close by the Visitor Center, we found a sign pointing towards the Long Trail which traverses the Mount Mansfield ridgeline. The Long Trail runs 272 miles from the Canadian border to the Massachusetts line.
Carefully keeping to the trail, we came upon the Frenchman’s Pile, a cairn marking a spot for a great view of the ridgeline hike which lay ahead of us.
We strictly followed the white blazes and did not disturb any of the rocks on the trail as we came to know that the trail vegetation is rare and quite fragile.
Further research (by research I mean listening to the audio CD) revealed that the Mount Mansfield ridgeline is a unique alpine eco-system, a remnant of the last glacial ice-sheets that retreated from the Northeast about 13,000 years ago.
It is an Arctic-Alpine Tundra environment, the largest of three in Vermont.
The Summit of Mount Mansfield
We began trudging uphill, surrounded by views of Lake Champlain, the Adirondacks, the White Mountains and the Green Mountains. The rays of the sun had begun piercing the morning mist which is why we were blessed with all-round amazing views.
Breathing in the crisp mountain air, I looked down at the steep drop beside me. Well, some parts of the trail are not suitable for anyone with fear of heights.
Minutes before reaching the Chin, we saw a sign marked as Cliff Trail dropping headlong into the valley below and were reminded of yesterday’s failed attempt.
Today, we had begun near the Nose and after hiking for about 1.5 miles, we reached the Chin, the highest point.
Standing at the summit, taking in the panoramic view of mountains and valleys and lakes for as far as we could see, we felt closer to nature.
Blissfully quiet, the peak imparted an unparalleled feeling of joy and contentment, making everyday problems seem so very insignificant. We could have stayed there all afternoon but with a five-hour drive ahead of us, we had to retrace our steps to the parking lot.
As I said, I was pleasantly surprised. I had always imagined Vermont as laid-back and charming, perfect for a fall or winter trip. Now I know better. Hiking Vermont’s mountains in summer can be just as rewarding.
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