Vermont and New Hampshire Adventure, Day 2 | September 7, 2016 | Hiking Mount Mansfield and visiting Vermont’s State Capitol
[Written by Curtis]
Wednesday we woke up earlier than one normally would on vacation. We had plans for the day, and those plans weren’t going to do themselves. We were going to reach the highest point in the state. We ate what we could of the continental breakfast and our own granola and yogurt, repacked the car, and hit the road.
For those who don’t know, at its simplest, Vermont is divided North-South by a ridge of mountains: The Green Mountains (or as I figured out this trip the “Vert Mont” –> Vermont). Water to the west drains into the Hudson River Valley or the Lake Champlain/Richlieu River Watershed. Water to the east drains into the Connecticut River. While the Green Mountains are not the highest around (New York and New Hampshire both have higher peaks), they are quite scenic. Hence why two of the most popular long distance backpacking routes, The Long Trail and the Appalachian Trail, traverse them (with the Long Trail going the full distance from South to North).
Our time was limited though, so we figured we may as well hit the highest point: Mount Mansfield. Mount Mansfield is actually more of a ridge with several “summits”, which when viewed from the East or West give the appearance of a very elongated face with summits at the forehead, nose, chin, and Adam’s apple. (And no, the peak isn’t called “MANS”-field because of this — it’s named after a now extinct town). The highest of these summits, the only one that really counts in hiking challenges, and our goal for the day, was the Chin.
We drove out of Burlington on I-89 only to get off right away at exit 11 and follow county highways to the town of Underhill and Underhill state park. After paying a small parking fee, we grabbed our bags and hit the trail. Now I must confess that both Jessica and I were kinda nervous for our hiking on this trip. After the trail trial that was Giant, our confidence in our hiking ability was pretty shattered. As such, we tried our best to be better prepared, primarily by bringing more water (5+ liters), but also with more food.
And, you will be pleased to note, that whether through our better preparation, or perhaps because it was a better trail, this hike (and basically all other hikes since) have gone much better for us. We started up the mountain around 9:30 am, loosely following an old CCC road until we came to a trail intersection where we began to follow the Sunset Ridge Trail. While steep in some places, this trail was quite pleasant as was the weather. We made a brief sidetrack to see “Cantilever Rock” and stopped occasionally to hunt for letterboxes. But by and large the hike up was uneventful. As we neared the top we began to leave the pine forests and enter into scrub forests of the sub-alpine zone and eventually made it to the Alpine Tundra (Mount Mansfield has most of the Alpine Tundra found in Vermont).
Hiking in Tundra is such a unique experience. Due to the change in elevation and thus the reduced effectiveness of the Greenhouse effect, trees are unable to grow above a certain elevation (hence the existence of a tree line). No trees means that you are guaranteed to have a bald summit and an expansive view. What’s more interesting to me though is where this occurs at different Latitude. In Arizona, the only location in the entire state with Tundra is Humphrey’s Peak which is at an elevation of 12,637! (Latitude 35 degrees 20 minutes). Mount Mansfield has it at only 4,393′ (Latitude 44 degrees 32 minutes). But Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, the highest point East of the Mississippi River, has an elevation of 6,684′ (Latitude 35 degrees 45 minutes) has no Tundra to speak of.
Unfortunately for us, even with the advantage of tundra removing the trees, our view got blocked yet again by clouds. Just as we reached the summit a bank of clouds rolled up and over the peak from the east. It wasn’t especially cold, and we did get some views to the West before our visibility got reduced, but this is the third time that this has occurred to us at a high point (both at Mount Mitchell and Sassafras Mountain). What’s more, even with the wind blowing the clouds over us, the gnats and flies were especially bad. So we ate a quick lunch, got our pictures and headed back the way we came. We briefly considered making a longer hike out of the day by following the Long Trail south across the “Face” of Mount Mansfield, but decided better of it. After all, we had other plans for the day.
After an uneventful hike down (overall the hike was 5.5 miles and around 2500′ elevation gain and took us about 5 hours), we loaded Ghillie back up and made our way back to the interstate. But not before first stopping by the town of Jericho. Through letterboxing clues I had learned that there was a very picturesque watermill located in the center of the town and that the photographer/scientist Wilson Bentley (a.k.a Snowflake Bentley, the man who took pictures of snowflakes during the late 19th century) had been born here and had (maybe?) done much of his work in and around the town. We stopped at the Old Red Mill and took pictures from the outside, but with Charlie we couldn’t go inside, although I am told that the Jericho Historical Society has the largest collection of his photographs inside the Mill.
From Jericho, we got back on the interstate and headed East towards Montpelier, the capital of Vermont. Jessica had learned that Montpelier was the smallest capital city in the United States, and since it was “on the way”, we naturally had to stop and see the state house and the rest of downtown. And let me assure you, it is quite small. We parked downtown and then took all of 20 minutes to walk essentially the length of the downtown and back, most of which was spent taking pictures of the State House. The majority of the building was designed in 1833 and completed in 1838 by Ammi Young, who, for his work here, would become the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury and would then design Custom Houses and Post Offices across the country.
Once done with the downtown, I convinced Jessica to let us go to a large park just north of town and do some letterboxing. There we found a large stone tower built sometime in the 1920’s if I remember. It didn’t offer much of a view, but was still an enjoyable walk through the woods. As it was getting late, we soon left to find a campsite to stay at somewhere in the Groton State Forest.
From Montpelier, we headed out US Route 2 to around Marshfield, VT where we headed south on state route 232. It didn’t take us long to find an available campsite at New Discovery State Park. We set up camp before it got dark (hear that family, it can happen!) and had some canned soup on my camp stoves. We even tried (successfully as it turns out) to make popcorn using my mess kit before turning in for the night.