“You’re about to crash a wedding,” she said.
She kept on trail running down Jay Peak. I was finishing my ascent to the steep summit, streaked with grassy summer ski slopes. Mark was behind me somewhere. Andrew up ahead. A wedding, huh? We’re section-hiking southbound (SOBO) for the week on Vermont’s Long Trail, not chilling at a winery in suburbia.
Sure enough, I saw a crowd milling about the summit. Cocktail dresses and suits instead of hiking attire. Andrew beckoned me to one side where a ledge of rock gave us a full view of the ceremony unfolding literally on the trail itself. No sooner had I sat down than the procession started in earnest. Bride. 1 Corinthians. Vows. Photographers. Music. Mark’s face popped up on the other side of the crowd. We were completely cut off from each other by the ceremony on the trail itself. The Long Trail over Jay Peak skirts right by a gondola at the summit (what, you thought this crowd walked up several thousand feet?) and a set of fencing blocking off the other part of the ridge. Nothing to do but wait this out. While Andrew and I got a few grumpy looks from the older folks standing close to us, Mark reported that he encountered some younger fun people on his side who even featured him in their wedding ceremony video.
Jay Peak was a gorgeous, near-alpine zone that gave us our first 360 degree views of the Green Mountains stretching ahead of us, the White Mountains in the distance to one side, and the Adirondack High Peaks to the other. Halfway through our first day on the trail and we had already logged a few thousand feet of elevation gain. We checked our watches and glanced at how much sunlight was left. We had planned for what we thought would be an easy first day on the Long Trail with 18 miles from the trail head at Journey’s End Trail to our destination for the evening at Hazen’s Notch Camp.
Our day actually started a stone’s throw from the U.S.-Canadian border in North Troy, Vermont in the welcoming comfort of the Journey’s Salon & Guest House, where Mark, Andrew, and I experienced some Vermont town life after driving the night before from Virginia and Ottawa respectively — and setting our shuttle vehicle near Appalachian Gap in mid-Vermont. I even had a lovely late lunch with my sibling in Montpelier en route. Convenient to have family so close to the trail, no? (I wonder if that would come in handy later.) That night, we feasted on tacos from town, played some guitar, hung out with locals, and shared a cute room — sleeping pads on the floor; we didn’t cram into the little bed together. Oh, and in the morning we got a delicious breakfast and a ride to the trail head! We left my vehicle in town parked behind the fire station. If you’re in North Troy, you’d be remiss if you skipped out on this gem of a guest house sanctuary as part of your Long Trail experience.
After our drop-off, we set out on the one mile Journey’s End approach trail. The Long Trail proper begins at an obelisk on the U.S.-Canada border high over the forest. From there, it wends 273 miles south through Vermont and the Green Mountains to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Our plan was for one week of section hiking and about 110 miles. Just enough to get a little taste of a thru-hike experience. The weather was cool and sunny, the bugs delightfully non-existent. We were off.
The rigorous climbing and descending of our 18 or so miles for the day reminded us that this was a bit more of challenge than our usual hiking haunts in the mid-Atlantic (and Ontario, for that matter). I measured us on my GPS device at almost 7,000 feet of elevation gain for the day. Even after the up and down to get to Jay Peak, we continued on over Gilpin Mountain, Domey’s Dome, and Buchanan Mountain to end the day. I rolled in to Hazen’s Notch Camp as the sun was setting, a good 12 hours after our start. In what seemed like an allusion to the elves of Mirkwood mystically taunting the dwarves in the Hobbit, I heard camp before I saw it. A buzz of voices and a clinking of camp gear drifted through the twilight of the forest. Uh oh, I thought, as I strolled down the camp’s approach trail. Tents and kids were everywhere. Boy Scouts? A duo of “older” kids in their early twenties greeted me with the magic words, “Andrew said there is space in the back to camp.” I smiled, too exhausted to engage, and made my way to a blessedly flat area in the trees and found Andrew. I set up and waited a tad longer than was comfortable for Mark to roll in. For Mark and me, the day had been a bit harder on our aged bodies than we had thought when coming up with the daily mileage goals. We enjoyed a little recovery time together but it was already late and the morning’s 6:00 a.m. start time would come soon. I did manage to find out a little more about the 20 or so kids who occupied the vast majority of the Hazen’s Notch area. Not Boy Scouts, as I first surmised, nor even a church group, which was my second guess. Summer academy kids (ahem, not poor; but very polite), who included section hikes of the Long Trail on their annual activity list.
At dawn, the trail beckoned us onward for our second trail day as we crept by the sleeping academy kids. We had 21 miles and seemingly another 7K of elevation gain to go between Hazen’s Notch and our planned destination at Corliss Camp. We climbed up to Haystack Mountain for some great views then regrouped for a break at Tillotson Camp, which was located right by some impressive beaver dams and lakes. So impressive, in fact, that I plunged up to my knees in mud while admiring them. Other highlights for the day included an epic fire tower and traversing some fascinating rocks nicknamed Devil’s Gulch. Andrew was a good sport to wait for us at spots along the way, but it was slow going for Mark and me. At about 4:00 p.m. we made it roughly 15 miles for the day to Spruce Ledge Camp, a gorgeous spot with a view and only a handful of other hikers staying the night. We had another six miles to go. The trail conditions up to this point were pretty rough with rocks, roots, and sporadic elevation gains to impede a speedy pace, making it another late night for us.
I took a sad look at my whiskey and cigars, knowing that we weren’t really enjoying them as much as we hoped with these longer than expected days. Bowing to these desires, the three of us shrugged and decided to change up a bit. We would stay at this fine spot and adapt our journey going forward: new splits, a shortcut, and a commitment to enjoy ourselves along the way with more off-trail time. The company was also particularly good at Spruce Ledge Camp, including a couple from New Hampshire and a group from Maryland. Who knew it felt great to enjoy a long late afternoon at camp?
Day three started with a new plan and an extra challenge. The forecast called for pretty steady rain all day. We also had a very particular destination in mind. Not our camp for the night, which was Bear Hollow Shelter, but a bar we spotted during planning along the way, near the Long Trail in Johnson, Vermont. Andrew sped forward to make sure to stay on the Long Trail proper, rain be damned. Mark and I, however, took a long break at mile six at Corliss Camp (a really lovely cabin, btw) as the heavens opened and then decided to take the aforementioned shortcut to Johnson via backcountry roads. (Yes, if we ever decide that we need to account for every mile of the Long Trail we’ll need to come back and do the stretch between Corliss Camp and Johnson.)
Our bar, the incredible Moog’s Joint, opened at 3:00 p.m. Mark and I killed time around Johnson over the pleasant afternoon and let our bodies relax. At one point we even found ourselves under a river overpass hobo style. We had fun, YMMV. 🙂 We reunited with Andrew who made good time on the trail, we feasted, we drank, we made friends, we crashed a retirement party — and most importantly, we took shelter from the worst of the day’s rainstorms. Thank you, Moog’s Joint! You were/are an all-time great trail bar.
We strolled the last few miles to Bear Hollow Shelter in good spirits, arriving with sunlight to spare and in the mood to enjoy our evening at camp. When we arrived, however, we found the shelter itself full of sleeping thru-hikers. We still had fun but in a hushed, don’t-wake-anyone-up kind of way. Up to this point, we had met a handful of NOBO Long Trail hikers on the trail, and a few going SOBO too, but this was our first night at a shelter with thru-hikers in full trail mood/mode. I’m sure they would have been a blast had we arrived a few hours earlier. The rough terrain up here, I tell you.
We were even more excited for day four. We had a great climb up Whiteface Mountain, fogged in but beautiful in the hemlock and birch old growth forest. The area up and over the Smugglers Notch ski resort slopes was magical in its moss and sunlight. And, of course, its views. We even had a great time swimming in Sterling Pond. Day hikers giggled as the three of us stripped down to hiking underwear and plopped in, unashamed to be the only swimmers in a spot that wasn’t actually a swimming hole. It wasn’t exactly NOT a place to swim either.
The latter half of the day was one for the ages. We walked into Smugglers Notch, off trail and eager for some creature comforts. At first, the elegant exterior of the Lodge at Spruce Peak made it seem like the kind of place that wasn’t open to outside guests like us but as we made our way closer the front door crew welcomed us with open arms. We lounged the afternoon away with beers and food, then made our way to Smugglers Notch Campground, where I had cached our resupply on the drive in — complete with whiskey handle and shower accessories – and reserved us a lean-to for the evening. Mark, sadly, had to make the trek back up the highway to the Lodge twice after forgetting his phone. But with that blip aside, we cleaned up and enjoyed our night and fire.
The next morning we almost made it back to the Long Trail proper for the steep hike up Mount Mansfield without delay. Then we saw that an elegant brunch was on at the Lodge at Spruce Peak, which we had to stroll by to reunite with the trail. And we don’t skip brunch on the trail. Right? Right.
This day, our fifth, was all about mighty Mount Mansfield. 4395 feet above sea level, with a fascinating alpine zone and numerous features forming a resting face relief with such names as the Forehead, Nose, Chin, and Adam’s Apple. And two famous lodges, Taft and Butler, on either side of the approach. As the day started, Mark and I thought we had seen the last of Andrew. Andrew seemed set on finishing our original plan to hike to Appalachian Gap, where our end vehicle waited, as opposed to joining us on our shorter route. Mark and I had figured out a way to cut the strip short by ending at the Winooski River and having my brother drive over to pick us up from Montpelier and take us to the end vehicle to rendezvous with Andrew at App Gap — see, family geo-foreshadowing pays off! Mark and I picked our way up from Smugglers Notch, saying some brief goodbyes. We were going to take it easy and soak it all in.
Soaking it in started with enjoying Taft Lodge for a break on the way up, admiring the views and workmanship. Then we climbed up past the tree line and enjoyed the Adam’s Apple ridge and a surprise. Andrew, a speck at the top of the Chin, had indeed waited for us — the party would complete its section hike together. Mark and I made the somewhat technical climb up the Chin to reunite at the summit. There was at least one spot where it required swinging body and backpack over open space to complete the climb. Exhilarating and well worth it.
My favorite part of Mount Mansfield was the alpine zone trail that stretched out for a couple miles along the top ridge, with views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks on one side, New Hampshire’s White Mountains on the other, and Canada beckoning to us from the north. I found it a little odd we couldn’t climb the Nose, which apparently is dedicated to antennas instead of trails, though a local we met up there said we could attempt it if we wanted (we didn’t). And then it was back down the Forehead, also requiring a fascinating bit of rock jumping and swinging to make it down, where we met back up with the tree line and another choice.
We got to Butler Lodge and were struck by how lovely it was in its cabiny goodness with full western sunset view. It was mid-afternoon and our previous plan would have had us pushing on for a 20 mile day. We were freed from that plan now. We decided to make full use of our whiskey and cigar supply and enjoy the evening.
At first, we were alone. Then along came a day hiking couple with gargantuan Great Dane. They were awesome and we settled in to drink and smoke. Next, a concerned and lost duo of day hikers in rough shape arrived. Lucky for them, we had food and water to spare — and the Great Dane folks were local able to help orient the lost ones. Then the fun began. With another Hobbit throwback to dwarves at Bag End, thru-hikers kept arriving by the ones and twos. What started as an afternoon in which we thought we had Butler Lodge to ourselves turned into a veritable packed house party on the mountain. The twist here is that nobody was allowed to camp outside the lodge. We were all squeezed in together. To be honest, at this point we felt like section-hiking interlopers crashing their thru-hike evening.
An older — heavier — gentleman on a solo SOBO hike took to us as a Virginian (from Roanoke). Most of the rest of the thru-hikers were young folk in their 20s, though there was another thru-hiker roughly our age who had already completed the PCT and CDT who rolled in later. We watched the sunset together and regaled each other with stories. Including, incredibly, the older dude showing off his half a hand (lawn mower accident).
When it was time for bed we all crammed in on both cabin levels. Most of the young hikers were up top. This is when the night’s actual entertainment began. Our older Virginian began to thunder snore within minutes of going to sleep. And not just thunder. He modulated sounds, octaves, rhythms, and grunts. It was magnificent in its booming glory. Now, I’m sure Mark and I contributed to the symphony too. But even I was in awe at the sounds coming out of this guy, at least when I wasn’t worried that we were listening to him expire in choking huffs right then and there. I definitely fell fast asleep, though, because when it was time to stir in the morning we realized several of the other folks bunked down had given up and got back on the trail in the middle of the night. Turns out they didn’t enjoy the free show as much as the three of us did.
Day six was our final full day on trail. With a shortened plan, we enjoyed* ourselves and took our time. This included a long stop at the fine eastern view at Puffer Lodge, another at Harrington’s View, and eventually another early stop at Buchanan Shelter. At Puffer Shelter’s hour plus rest, our snoring older Virginian friend caught up to us. Andrew and I giggled and tried to stop from crying out in aggrieved alarm, when our friend turned to us to blame the three of us for snoring and causing the younger folks to depart in the night. (Now, I know Mark and I can snore, but light-sleeping Andrew confirmed that the volume difference between him and us was as staggering as I surmised.)
*Enjoyment in the backcountry where you have to schlep everything, however, comes with a number of asterisks. One of those asterisks is water availability and quality. The steep ridges of the northern part of the Long Trail had limited water generally speaking. But this stretch proved the most challenging. We filled up that morning at Butler but after that the going was tough. Things were either bone dry where it should have been flowing water or ended up as mere muddy puddles. We opted for the best of the puddles and dealt with odd colored water. (It tasted fine.) This was capped off by a search at Buchanan Shelter for a rumored black pipe sticking out of the ground that would mean the difference between a parched evening or a hydrated one. The three of us tried and failed. We accepted our fate and settled into our final night on the trail together. Luckily, a duo of great Massachusetts guys on their own section hike rolled in to share the shelter area with us and they persevered in their search until a scream of “Eureka!” echoed in the forest. They had found the black pipe, emitting a stream of liquid gold.
The Massachusetts guys also helped to answer another lingering question. The older, snoring fellow from the previous evening had not showed up at camp, though he was technically not supposed to be too far behind us after we met back up at Puffer Shelter. “Tell the DC boys I’ve called it quits and am leaving the trail,” the Massachusetts guys relayed to us. We wish him luck out there! Hopefully he gets back on trail — armed with the knowledge of his nocturnal sonic emissions.
Day seven was a handful of miles to the Winooski River, where my brother Cory would pick us up. The miles were pleasant. Gone was the tough going trail of the northern stretch, replaced by dirt pathways and even a few switchbacks. We even came upon a cooler full of trail magic designated for thru-hikers. We smiled at it, knowing it would make whoever happened upon it happy indeed as the temperatures began to rise from the cool 60s and 70s we experienced to the 80s.
And just like that, we were back in the real world. It was incredible to reconnect with Andrew and Mark — hiking buddies for over twelve years. We’ll be back on the Long Trail together one of these days, when wives and work permit. Until then, the Long Trail was a tremendous thru-hike taste, complete with challenging terrain, fellow hiker camaraderie, trail town magic, and the wonders of the natural world.
Long Trail, thanks for letting us crash for a week!