Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Trail Runners Chapter 5: Underhill State Park

I met Steve, Jay and Matt at Underhill State Park on Thursday evening after spending the day at Grand Isle State Park (I know, I lead a difficult life). Mt Mansfield is the first immovable mass blocking your path as you approach from the west, its size and impressiveness grows as you drive through the wide Champlain Valley on the approach. 

We had the perfect day for this trail run, eighty degrees, sunny and dry. I arrived a little early and spent some time talking with Jacob, the Underhill State Park Ranger.  He advised me that typical speedy trail runners can run the loop we planned in about 4 hours and the distance was longer than we read on the map.  We were talking while he dragged away some large beech limbs he had just trimmed using a method I will not divulge here.  

Our planned route was the CCC Road to Maple Ridge Trail, across on the Long Trail and then descending Sunset Ridge Trail. The potentially disappointing news about the inaccuracy of our map was tempered by Jacob booking us into newly painted Ash lean-to for the night.  If you are unfamiliar with Underhill State Park, Ash is the second nicest lean-to in this beautiful campground with walk-to only sites.

We set out around 6pm from the parking area in front of the park office. The CCC Road is a nice moderate climb and then slight descent to the Maple Ridge trailhead. Once again I am amazed at the work of the CCC boys and their ability to create long lasting infrastructure. The road is in nice shape, it becomes more of a tote road as you get higher on the mountain, but it still has even footing.

Maple Ridge is a beautiful trail.  From our approach on the CCC Road, you do not need to climb very far up the Maple Ridge Trail before you are on the open ridge with schist under your feet and incredible views all around you.  It’s a good thing the exposed rock under your feet is so stable, it’s easy to get distracted by the view and not pay any attention to what your feet are doing. 

Popping out of dense forest and standing on the same rocks, which I watched grow larger as I drove toward Underhill earlier that day, was a magical moment.  It’s such an abrupt experience moving from a forested habitat directly into an alpine zone.  We timed things right, the extremely rare Mountain sandwort flowers were blooming everywhere across the entire ridge.  These little white flowers bloom only a short period of time in July, and I have never witnessed this before.  They are really striking, patches of white emerging from green pincushions of moss and plants clinging to life on the exposed mountaintop rock. 

Maple Ridge concludes at the Forehead, where we stopped and enjoyed some snacks before running the entire ridge along the Long Trail to the chin.  This stretch is also full of distracting views and schist under-foot, and includes a little bit of work road which is a kind of a bummer when you run through thick forest and up over rocks for a couple hours to get there.  Still, all the views afforded on this stretch are well worth the effort and make me willing to overlook the work road experience.

If you have never enjoyed the view from the chin on Mt Mansfield, you should stop what you are doing and head directly to Underhill State Park.  We stood on top of Vermont, looking out at Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks to the west and beautiful green Vermont in every other direction.  Standing on the chin, we could clearly see the profile of Mt Mansfield and all its facial features in the shadow in the valley below us.  On this clear evening we looked to the south and north along the entire ridge of the Green Mountains. I felt connected to every peak in Vermont at that moment. 

The giant red sun was beginning to sink low on the horizon and an enormous moon (just a couple days before the full super moon) was rising golden in the sky.  This was the perfect combination for a stunning sunset, with a few clouds above the Adirondacks.  We had some more food, changed into dry long sleeve shirts and then started our descent on the Sunset Ridge trail. 

That big red sun continued to slide down the sky, and we stopped to watch it drop behind the Adirondacks while standing on the aptly named Sunset Ridge.  I cannot remember the last time I watched the sun sink down below the horizon like that. If you have not enjoyed that moment recently, I highly recommend taking the time to slow down and witness the end of a day. 

Sunset Ridge is as rock exposed as Maple Ridge, with incredible views. Shortly after we entered the woods after the exposed section, we turned on our headlamps to help us see the footing.  There are lots of stone steps and stepping rocks on this stretch of trail.  Quickly after turning on our lights, we reached the trail head at the CCC Road where we made a quick descent to the campground and Ash lean-to.  We enjoyed some hotdogs and sausages grilled by Jay and washed down with PBR and Wolaver’s Brown Ale.

Steve and I were the lucky two who enjoyed a peaceful night’s sleep in our comfortable lean-to and woke to sunshine and Robin songs Friday morning early. This whole running adventure took 3 hours and 24 minutes and logged 8.16 miles on Steve’s Garmin watch and 8.4 miles using Jay’s iPhone app.  So the total mileage is still undecided, but there is no debate about the incredible experience it was to run to the top of Vermont with good friends.

View Underhill Trail Run Page 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Trail Runners Chapter 4: New Discovery State Park

The hot, sticky humidity broke as Jay, Matt and I carpooled up to New Discovery State Park to meet Steve in his lean-to for our Groton State Forest trail running adventure.  Severe thunderstorms were passing to the south, bringing cooler air perfect for an evening run. 

Steve was settled in Raven lean-to in New Discovery campground.This quiet park is exquisitely maintained with spotless toilet buildings, neatly raked campsites and completely empty fireplaces. If you are looking for a quiet retreat in a beautiful forested setting, New Discovery is the campground for you. The greater Groton area is phenomenal for a variety of outdoor pursuits, and will be featured in additional blog entries by our crew. There is so much to explore.

We headed down Blake Hill Road a dirt road which conveniently starts at the gated end of the campground road where Raven is located, in campground loop B. A short way down Blake Hill Road, Big Deer Mountain trail turns off on the right...which we managed to run right past only to discover our error after a few more minutes of running. Oops! The Big Deer Mt. trail runs through a pine plantation and later a nice mixed hardwood stand. The forest is beautiful and quiet, you feel like you really are in the middle of a peaceful retreat, an undiscovered area. We passed some interesting relics of Civilian Conservation Corps work, which is scattered throughout the entire Groton State Forest. When I see a beautifully constructed fireplace out in the middle of the woods, I cannot help but ponder what this place was like when it was constructed, and what the plan for it was.

The trail stays pretty flat until around 1.1 miles, where there is a trail intersection and the trail rises steeply the last half mile to the summit of Big Deer Mountain. Views are fantastic from two rocky outcrops on the top. You can see Peacham Pond, Lake Groton, and Peacham Bog. It was overcast while we were there, but on clear days you should be able to see the White Mountains from the summit. There is also a very impressive boulder at the top, a large glacial erratic appearing to be dropped on its side by a receding glacier 10,271 years ago. There was a nice breeze on top, which was great for keeping away the pesky deer flies which were otherwise in full force during our run.

From Big Deer Mountain we dropped back down to the intersection, where we turned left on the other Big Deer Mt. Trail, this one leading to the Osmore Pond Trail. This trail crosses a wetland area, with a series of puncheons that were a little slippery, but easy to navigate and better than getting wet feet. This trail crosses a couple intersections; from there you could connect to Big Deer State Park and the nearby nature center located close to Lake Groton, a hub for many other trails. You could easily plan a really nice long trail run starting from the same place where we started. (It would be a spectacular run too!)  We also crossed the new power line trail, which is a new multi-use trail—it is wider and more even terrain than the hiking trails we ran on and is worth an exploration. 

We reached the trail to Little Deer Mountain and decided to throw in another mountain.  This was a quick half mile ascent with wonderful views of Lake Groton and the surrounding mountains. There are not many places in Vermont where you can stand at a scenic vista and not see very many signs of human beings. That combined with not seeing anyone else on the trails makes you feel like you really are out on a wilderness adventure. 

From there we dropped back down to the Osmore Pond Trail, which runs along the boulder strewn shoreline of this remote pond. This pond hosts a pair of nesting loons and is a wonderful place to paddle around on. There are some beautiful remote campsites along the shore that would be worth paddling (or hiking) into with your camping gear.  From there we ran back to Steve’s campsite where we enjoyed some Guinness (Brilliant!) provided by Matt (trying to redeem himself after bringing Budweiser on the last run), and watching Steve prepare his dinner. Reluctantly, Matt, Jay and I left to head home. 

Driving home we watched an enormous crescent moon rise over the Green Mountains.  Matt, who was the sage of the day captured what we were all feeling when he said, “It is always worth getting out the door.” Getting a few scratches on your shins, some mud on your feet, beautiful views of Vermont and some free pizza with good friends are the very best reasons to get out the door.

View New Discovery Trail Run Page 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Trail Runners Chapter 3: Perry Hill Trails, C.C. Putnam State Forest

The smell of damp earth with falling summer rain takes me right back to childhood adventures camping in state parks with my family. Every summer we spent three weeks at our favorite state parks. We went on these extended camping adventures no matter the weather. My favorite childhood memories are those damp, rainy camping days and nights. Jumping in a lake in warm rain, standing on top of a mountain peak in a sea of clouds, watching my sleeping bag spin around in a commercial dryer, that time the novel I was reading expanded to four times its original size. Don’t cancel your family camping trip because of rain; instead adjust your plans as we did.

Weather interfered with our plans to run up Mt Mansfield from Underhill State Park this week. Watch for that adventure in a future blog, meanwhile we decided to head for a fun network of trails on C. C. Putnam State Forest in Waterbury, minutes away from Little River State Park. This section of C. C. Putnam is known as Perry Hill as there are several parcels of C. C. Putnam State Forest in the area.

These trails are in a forested area with stands of older white pines and sections of mixed hardwoods so they offer some protection from rain, and the rich clay soil provides nice stable footing even when wet. This area is very popular for mountain biking, but there are usually no bikes on the trails during the rain, so it is a peaceful and reasonably dry place to go for a trail running adventure when the rocks on Mt Mansfield are wet and slippery.

If you are camping in the rain as Steve was when we did this run, you could leave your non-running friends and family members at Little River State Park for a couple hours while you make a few loops on this hilly, single track network as we did. There are many nature programs, waterfront activities and beautiful places to walk and bike to keep your companions busy making memories while you have a new adventure of your own. 

We ran for about two hours and made about three different loops, always enjoying new scenery throughout the entire run. Single track is fun because you really feel that you are zipping along, popping up over hills and rocks and zooming through twisting down hills. It was cloudy, foggy, misty and beautiful while we were racing around in the forest. We arrived back at our cars on River Road feeling pleasantly tired and reflected on our adventure over cans of a popular fine pilsner provided by Matt. You know you are having a great time when you stand out in the rain to drink a beer and laugh with friends. 

View Perry Hill Trail Run Page 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Trail Runners Chapter 2: Camel's Hump

Clear skies, low humidity, bright sun—the perfect day to run up Camel’s Hump.  Jay, Steve, Matt and I headed out after work from our various locations last Thursday and convened at the bridge on Winooski Street in Waterbury to car pool up to the Monroe Trailhead a few miles away. We hit the trail at about 6:00pm.

As you can tell from my attendance list in the previous paragraph, Matt is now officially part of our state park trail running group.  At first he tagged along incognito, taking photos and running in the back as a training method for his big 100 mile trail race next month.  However, Matt quickly became hooked on the adventure of exploring new places and trails in state parks with the rest of us. Plus how could anyone say no to running up Camels Hump? I mean, just look at the photos accompanying this blog. It was amazing up there.

Camels Hump State Park is one of the few undeveloped state parks in Vermont; there is no developed camping area typical of most state park facilities. We passed one tenting area—the Hump Brook Tenting Area where you can set up your tent and sleep at the base of one of Vermont’s highest peaks.

We ran up the Dean Trail to the Long Trail and passed close to the Montclair Glen Lodge in Wind Gap, which would also be a very nice place to spend the night if you wanted to do a two day running adventure instead of an evening climb as we did.

We planned a nice loop taking the Dean Trail to the Long Trail and then back down via the Monroe Trail. It worked out really well because the Dean Trail is a more gradual approach, and you get to enjoy some beautiful views of the rocky summit from a beaver meadow part way up. 

The woods were beautiful with bunchberries and Canada mayflowers blooming. Hermit Thrushes were singing all around us and it was nice and cool under the canopy of leaves.  All the trails we ran on this trip were immaculately maintained and in really fantastic shape. Since this is a mountain, you end up power walking some of the steep sections, but it is all easy to navigate, even the rocky portions.

We stopped for a snack at the Long Trail intersection. Jay shared his sugar snap peas and Matt had his classic English muffin with Nutella. We admired the steep slope in front of us and then started back out.  The Long Trail section of this climb was the steepest part; there is something so special about being on the Long Trail. You feel connected to every peak and valley the entire length of Vermont, and connected to all the people who have walked on Vermont’s “footpath in the wilderness.” It feels like it carries more meaning than a hike on a side trail.

Hiking through the fragrant spruce/fir forest reminds you of the elevation where you stand. The soil in this section is soft and bouncy, composed of very slowly decomposing tree needles. This soft soil is interspersed with rocks, with rocks becoming more and more frequent until you arrive at a wall of rock and you know you are just below the summit.  It is pretty incredible to be running through the trees and suddenly pop up and gain a clear view of the ridge line of the Green Mountains all the way south and all the way north of where you stand.  We had fun running up the rocks with our grippy shoes, taking photos of each other in the beautiful late day sun.

There were a handful of college-aged folks loitering on the summit, where it was really windy and quite cool. I packed a long sleeve shirt which I was really grateful to have at that point.  We all ate a snack and enlisted some folks to take photos and videos of us on the summit.

It was beautiful up there, looking out at shining Lake Champlain and rows of blue Adirondack Mountains on the Western horizon, and the distinctive shadow of Camel’s Hump darkening the green forest below to the East. Everywhere around us, the Green Mountains spread out in every green color you can imagine. It would have been a beautiful night to stay and watch the sunset, but we did not have time to do that, and it turns out it’s a good thing we did not.

We crossed over the summit and followed the Monroe Trail over rock and down into the tree line. We briefly stopped at an intersection to determine whether we wanted to adjust our route and go a little farther. We decided that we did not have time to go the extra distance this time, so we started the descent over rock, roots and solid ground on the well maintained trail.

Twenty minutes bounding down the rocky trail, we came upon Mike, a hiker on his cell phone, calling for help and feeling afraid about spending a night in the woods. I don’t think anyone has ever been more grateful to see four trail runners hopping down a mountain before. Steve and Jay jumped into action, giving Mike food and water and slowly helping him make his way down the trail.  Help was on the way, but we helped Mike get to the emergency first responders by encouraging him to make his way down the technical trail. Our last two miles were slower than expected, and we ended up hiking down in the dark. Getting to know Mike, walking slowly through the dark, and sharing stories about other nighttime adventures in the woods filled the forest with our laughter.

Later we caught up with the emergency first responders, so we ran the last bit with shared headlights, and then waited in the parking lot drinking beer, sharing a calzone and waiting for Mike to make his way down to us. We watched fireflies in the treetops and talked about the incredible run we just shared. Mike made it down safely and we all rolled out of there around 11:00pm, perfectly content and ready for some sleep.

View Camel's Hump Trail Run Page 

Monday, July 28, 2014

New Trail Running Blog Series! Introducing the Vermont State Parks Trail Runners Chapter 1: Little River State Park

Three friends who love trail running together were given the gift of the ultimate project by the Vermont State Parks Director—to trail run in as many beautiful state parks as we can, write interesting blog entries about our experiences and take photos of our sparkling smiles while we do it. Yes, life really does get better all the time.

After several intense meetings in the middle of our cubicle maze work space, we decided to start with Little River State Park in Waterbury. 

Little River is a popular park with two camping loops and two beaches on clear, refreshing, sandy bottomed Waterbury Reservoir.  Thousands of people spend time in their sleeping bags, in front of campfires, and paddling around the reservoir during the summer and fall.  Less people dig into the miles and miles of trails full of history and natural beauty on the other side of the park. 

Running trails in Little River is a journey through time. The miles of stone walls, cemeteries, cellar holes and orchards give evidence of life one hundred years ago. The pioneers cleared the fields and roads of rocks and stumps without the aid of machinery. The younger generations were not as prone to such laborious work and abandoned their farms, leaving them for the forest to reclaim. This seemed like the perfect spot to explore on our first state park trail running adventure together.

Jay, Steve and I invited our friend Matt, who is training for the Vermont 100 trail race later this summer—Matt is preparing by running twice a day and running at every hour of the day.  Yes, we have really fun and interesting friends.  The four of us took off after work and parked at the Dalley Loop trailhead parking lot on the way to campground loop B in Little River. 

You can access the whole network of trails from this starting point; we decided to make a loop starting with a section of the Hedgehog Loop Trail.  We set out at about 6:00pm, the skies were getting dark with the threat of raindrops, but none fell on us.  The sky was constantly changing during our two hour adventure, with bright spots of sunlight surprising us by sporadically illuminating the fresh green leaves, and dark purple clouds folding over each other in viewpoints along the way.   

Of course we had wonderful company in each other, there was lots of great jokes and storytelling, but there is so much to entertain you out there if you go on a solo adventure or if your company is not as lively as ours.  There is so much history in the Little River and Cottonwood Brook basin, there are interpretive panels along many of the trails so you can stop for a snack and read about the people who used to live there (we did that) and you can enjoy Vermont natural history at its best.  Some of the things we saw and heard included a pink lady slipper flower, Barred Owls making territorial calls, Ruffed Grouse drumming (and we spooked one off its roost), foam flowers, Canada mayflowers and Veeries singing songs like waterfalls during the last few downhill miles.

You might notice something left out of that list, biting insects.  I think we maybe saw one mosquito during the whole run.  We even loitered in the parking lot afterwards and there were no blackflies.  We don’t know how long these conditions will last, but right now it’s definitely a good time to go trail running at Little River if you don’t like bug bites!

From Hedgehog Hill Trail we turned on Cotton Brook Loop Trail.  This was a nice climb out of the Stephenson Brook drainage into the Cotton Brook area.  The trail has the feel of an old tote road combined with single-track because there is a narrow path through the bushy mass of several years of growth.  It gives you the feeling of being in an area not heavily visited, like a secret stash of running trails. 

We were trying to make a loop by turning left at the Bragg homestead to cut over to the Dalley Loop Trail, but we never saw that intersection.  We overshot that and ran to a nice solid bridge over Cotton Brook.  We admired that rippling stream and then turned around and ran to the Kelty Trail, which also connects to Dalley Loop. 

One of the great things about trail running is the adventure, you usually do not know exactly how things will turn out but you always end up having fun and you always end up somewhere really cool.  Steve packed a map to make sure we did not get completely turned around, which I recommend.  You can pick up a map at the park office.

The Kelty stretch was wetter and not heavily traveled; still it was easy footing (all the trails we ran had easy footing).  Ferns were everywhere around us, everything vibrant, bright green even in the low light. Lots of ghost stories come out of this area because the hillside is dotted with house foundations from people who all moved out with the advent of Waterbury Reservoir.  Being way out in the quiet woods surrounded by signs of people who used to live there, with the skies darkening, I can understand how easy it is to get your imagination going.  I am not going to lie to you, I ran very, very close to Steve during the Kelty crossover!  It was so quiet and felt very spooky in there, it was very thrilling.

Once we hit the Dalley Loop, we turned right and ran the rest of the loop counter-clockwise. Our run ended with a nice smooth downhill back to the trailhead.  After nine miles and two hours, we toasted with cans of Baxter Brewing Company IPA courtesy of Steve. That was a fitting conclusion to a really fun trail run with good friends.

View Little River Trail Run Page 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Microhikes and Microbrews: Fort Dummer & Whetstone Station

By: Erin & Evan Meenan
For this month's edition of Microhikes and Microbrews, we decided to take advantage of the recent collaboration between the Vermont State Parks and Whetstone Station. This summer, Whetstone, located in downtown Brattleboro, is brewing two beers inspired by two of Vermont's state parks. The beer currently featured at Whetstone is Fort Dummer Summer inspired by, of course, Fort Dummer State Park.

Fort Dummer State Park is located in Guilford, VT. The park contains several camp sites, including some with lean-tos. It also offers a recreation field and three hiking trails: Sunrise Trail, Sunset Trail, and Broad Brook Trail. Combined, the trails are approximately 2 miles long and are all really well maintained and marked. The Sunrise and Sunset Trails both have vista points. On the Sunrise Trail, you can see the location of the original fort and from the Sunset Trail you can see one of the oldest churches in Vermont. These two trails are relatively flat and wide, which make them perfect for a group hike. The Broad Brook Trail is definitely the most strenuous of the three trails, but it is still really well maintained and marked.  Most importantly, it contains a popular swimming hole to cool off in at the half way point.

Another way to cool off after the hikes is to have some lunch and a beer at Whetstone Station located about 5 minutes away from the park right on the Connecticut River.  It has a full menu of great food and beers. If you go this month, you can try Fort Dummer Summer. If you go next month you can try Molly Stark Dark, named after Molly Stark State Park. Or, you could go twice and enjoy both! 

Friday, July 11, 2014

The 4th of July at Brighton State Park

By Eric Bouchard

The 4th of July at Brighton State Park was full of excitement and entertainment for the entire family. Kicking off our weekend, Friday July 4th 2014 was a “Come and Go” event, where participants moved through 4 stages:
  • Paint the American Flag: A sheet was drawn up to map out the Red, White and Blue portions of the flag. Each participant had their hand painted with the color of their choice and placed their print in the appropriate area.
  • Color Uncle Sam: Each child was given a half a sheet of paper with Uncle Sam printed on it. The pictures were colored and hung in our Nature Center for all to see.
  • Decorate a Cookie:  Cookies were put out and those involved were able to decorate the cookie with frosting, sprinkles and candy.
  • Make a Betsy Ross Star: Individuals were given a sheet of paper and instructed how to cut out a Betsy Ross Star. They were given a brief history about the flag and how it was formed originally through the friendship of George Washington and Betsy Ross.
That night we offered a free movie Balto in our Nature Center and handed out ice pops to the movie goers.

Saturday, we had a sand Castle contest at our Camper’s Beach with seven teams of three-to five participants. Each sand creation was unique in their own way and some very intricate. It was a fierce competition that lasted only 30 minutes and the builders could only use sand and water. In addition, the winner received a s’mores pack for the family to share. There were also consolation prizes, including goodie bags and glow sticks.

Saturday afternoon, we drove around the park handing out freeze pops to the kids and reminded everyone about the town fireworks. The Day Use Beach was packed with cars and spectators to view the town and private fireworks displays. It was a both a fun-filled weekend and a reminder of the steps we took to gain our independence all those years ago.