Wednesday, September 17, 2014

2014 Park of the Year Awards

Every year, one park from each region of the state is chosen as “Park of the Year.” The purpose of the award is to recognize parks that exemplify excellent customer service and uphold our environmental mission. These parks go above and beyond to keep the parks running smoothly and enhance the experience of everyone who comes to recreate and enjoy the outdoors.

So without further ado, we would like to announce the 2014 Parks of the Year:

Jamaica State Park

Grand Isle State Park

Half Moon State Park
Smugglers' Notch State Park

Thanks to all of our parks and to YOU for a tremendous season! 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Microhikes and Microbrews: Sterling Pond and Crop Bistro and Brewery

By: Erin & Evan Meenan

Welcome to the final installment of Microhikes and Microbrews. To celebrate the official end of summer, we visited Stowe to hike up to Sterling Pond through Smuggler's Notch State Park. This is among our favorite hikes because it combines one of the most unique (and at times scary) drives in Vermont and certainly one of the best hikes under 3 miles round trip.  

You can reach the trail head from either side of the Notch on Route 108. The signage is clear, there is an information booth, and usually plenty of parking despite this hike's popularity. The is a more strenuous hike than those from our previous posts because it involves some steep stone staircases and, depending on the season, it can be a little slick. That said, the views make it worthwhile. When you first reach the top, you will arrive at a serene, picturesque pond. If you continue your hike on the Long Trail North (marked in blue), you will come to the Top of the Notch ski lift where you will see a beautiful view of the mountains. Then if  you keep hiking past the Sterling Pond shelter you reach several other vista points that look our over the pond, which is surprisingly vast.

After our hike, we drove back towards the center of Stowe and grabbed lunch at Crop Bistro and Brewery.They brew all of their own beer. We sampled three different varieties and loved each. Best part, all the beers are only $5 and there is great outside seating near the bike path. Finally, we would be remiss if we didn't mention their fried pickles. They're the best we've ever had!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Invasive Plants on the Land – A Vermont Challenge

By Colleen Balch

Vermonters’ lives are connected to the land of our small state. We hike and farm. We fish and sugar. We walk and ride and hunt. We care for our yards and gardens. We value our wildlife and lovely green vistas. We spend time outdoors. And, while we might not always recognize it, we are witnessing a change that could impact many of the things we value about our small, green, mountainous state. The quiet spread of invasive plants across our landscape presents a call to action.

An invasive plant isn’t simply a problem because it’s from somewhere else. A plant from somewhere else that stays put is just a polite and welcome visitor wherever it takes root. It can add color to our yards like our favorite daffodils, tea roses, and hydrangeas. It can give us the great taste of a summertime garden with that first warm, ripe tomato fresh from the garden. Or, it can stock our root cellars with home grown potatoes and cabbages. It doesn’t pose a threat. 

A family putting the skills they've learned to good use in an Invasive Plant
 Habitat Restoration program at Emerald Lake State Park
What makes a plant an invasive is that it’s very good at making a living here in Vermont.  So good in fact, that when it goes head-to-head with the plants that belong here, it out-competes and forces the native plants out. When that happens, impacts move through the habitat in a variety of ways. 

Vermont Traditions and Economy
Replace a score of native plants that normally grow together here on the forest floor with one invasive honeysuckle, and an impenetrable thicket results. For folks who manage a sugarbush, sap lines are hard to run. For hunters, sightlines disappear and browse for deer populations drops. Seedlings that naturally sprout to renew economically valuable trees within the forest, never reach maturity. 

Tick Presence
Invasive plants, particularly Barberries, create conditions that promote larger populations of Deer Ticks, the small pest that spreads Lyme Disease. Barberries are thorny and create protected havens for mice which Deer Ticks need during their life-cycle. More and larger mice populations equal more and larger tick populations. Larger tick populations have greater impacts on human health. And, the Barberries also create areas of higher moisture that help out ticks too.

Wildlife and Fish Habitat
Lose a number of plants that normally live on the forest floor to a pure carpet of invasive Garlic Mustard, and that loss impacts the animals that feed on, nest in, hide in, and use the native plants in any way.  Replace shrubs with strong and durable roots that have lined our mountain streams for millennia with Japanese Knotweed, which dies back below ground each fall, and the streambank soil becomes stripped and vulnerable to springtime floods.  As the powerful floodwaters scrub the streambanks, soil erodes and is carried along.   Much of that soil ends up filling the tiny spaces between the rocks in gravel beds that trout use to spawn.  With the spaces filled in, the fish eggs and their teeny hatchlings lose protection from the force of rushing waters and predators.  Fish populations struggle.

These threats are not a forgone conclusion. Vermonters can protect the lands we value in our state, especially when we work together. And getting the know how, information, and practice that can make the difference is a lot easier now than it has been. The Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation is launching an engaging new program across the southwestern portion of our state. They are reaching out to community members, businesses, organizations, and any others from Bennington to Burlington to engage Vermonters in this critical conservation effort that puts both private and public lands at risk. In half-day programs, volunteers join Department specialists to learn how to identify and combat invasive plants and practice removal skills. And while they are learning, the volunteers are spending a day in a great spot and helping combat invasive plants in State Forests and Parks. To learn more about the Invasive Plant Habitat Restoration program, contact Colleen Balch at (802) 377-2615 or Join us and learn to care for your own lands, support our native wildlife, support our Vermont traditions, and our Vermont economy.

Colleen Balch works with the Invasive Plant Habitat Restoration Program of the Vermont Department of Forests Parks and Recreation, teaches field and conservation sciences in the Rutland area, and lives in the Taconic Mountains in southwestern Vermont. 

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