What: Thru-hike of Vermont’s Long Trail (LT).
Where: across Vermont, from the Canadian border to the Massachusetts border.
When: September 25 – October 15, 2013 (21 days).
Distance: about 275 miles on the LT + a 27 mile extension into Massachusetts.
Highlights: eastern hardwood forest in autumn glory; tough mountain walking.
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The Green Mountain Club publishes three documents:
- Vermont’s Long Trail Map, a plastic 1:100,000 hiking map. The map was useful for understanding the big picture and for planning resupply stops while on the trail. It includes an elevation profile as well as information on side trails accessing the LT. Inexplicably, it does not label contour intervals.
- A pocket sized End-to-Ender’s Guide with helpful information, particularly about resupply options along the trail. We cut out the general-purpose chapters and carried only the 0.8 oz. of content that would be useful to us while on the trail.
- The Long Trail Guide is chock full of every imaginable detail about the LT itself and all the side trails. Much of the information in this book is repeated many times and the turn-by-turn trail description is not necessary for a hiker with any trail sense at all. We left this 7.7 ounce book at home.
This website has crowd-sourced information about autumn leaf viewing conditions and timing.
Why we went
We decided to walk the LT since neither of us had done any backpacking in the eastern US in over 30 years. Although hiking in other places had been extremely satisfying, a trip that featured the glories of an eastern deciduous forest in autumn would be an interesting change. After a bit of research, the LT became the obvious trail for a number of reasons:
- It is a well-designed route with a logical beginning and end.
- The trail can be thru-hiked in two to three weeks, short enough to fit into our schedules, but long enough to be a significant and satisfying walk worth the travel time and costs.
- There is a decent guidebook and map available making planning simple.
- Logistics would not be overly complex.
- The trail had a reputation as being a bit of a physical challenge.
- Traveling southbound at a walking pace would ensure that we would intercept the peak of the autumn color, the timing of which is a bit unpredictable.
My primary goal in taking this hike was to enjoy the splendor of autumnal eastern hardwood forests. I grew up in the Chicago area with those fabulous autumn colors, and maples in October still take my breath away. My favorite classes in college were Woody Plants and Forest Ecology. Back in the day I could identify all native woody plants north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River, and I knew how each species fit into its ecosystem. Since moving west that knowledge has gradually faded, but I still passionately love eastern forests, and I really enjoyed trying to see how much of my old knowledge I could dig out from the depths of my long-term memory.
When we started at the Canadian border on September 25 most of the leaves were still green. During our 20 days on the trail, we watched the entire cycle — from green leafy trees, to yellows, oranges and reds, and finally to the dropping of the leaves so that the bare branches let sunlight through to the forest floor. With each hour, moving between different altitudes and slope aspect we saw subtle or dramatic shifts in the stages of autumnal color change. The understory Viburnum bushes were abundant at many altitudes, and put on a display of color that knocked my socks off every day.
Even though the trail is over 270 miles long, there is very little scenic diversity and very few vista points. The vast majority of hours are spent walking through forest. Unlike James, I didn’t miss the vistas. For me, the intense and rapidly unfolding change of the season provided the diversity that I like on a trip, and I was thrilled to watch the progression. For example, every day the scattered Red Maples were turning bright red, but the dominant Sugar Maples were only orange and red for a couple days; for the majority of the trip the Sugar Maples we walked through were simply turning yellow. I loved the game of trying to find Sugar Maples in colors other than green or yellow. Early in the trip I started to lose interest in the Spruce-Fir forests and I regularly checked the elevation profile to find out when we’d drop back below ~2500 feet and therefore return to the colorful Beech-Maple forests.
The northern ~100 miles of the trail are not easy walking. The GMC volunteers do a thorough job of removing brush and fallen trees, and the trail blazes were almost always very good. However there is little visible tread maintenance, and the steepness and abundant rainfall combine to erode the path. For many miles the walking is slow-going, as every step is an opportunity for a twisted ankle. If the tread had not improved as we walked south to the point where I could just stride along and pay attention to trees, instead of focusing on my footing, I might have gotten frustrated.
I agree with James that the Long Trail had great integrity, and the trail corridor has been very well protected. Kudos to the State of Vermont and USFS for their efforts.
The trip was fabulous, however, I would not choose to hike in eastern forests on a regular basis. Having moved west, I’m now used to big open spaces and five star campsites with dramatic views and sense of space. Would I recommend the trail? As an autumn hike, for somebody who has not spent much time in autumnal eastern hardwood forests, I would say absolutely yes. In summer, no, I wouldn’t bother.
Finally, it’s easy to be happy when it’s 60 degrees and sunny. We had extraordinary weather. In an average year, in those 20 days, we should have gotten a total of 2-3″ of rain. On our trip, we got less than half an inch, all in one single event that lasted just a couple hours while we were happy and dry in a shelter. On most days the visibility was clear, and when we had vistas we could see from New Hampshire’s Presidential range to New York’s Adirondack Mountains, with the endless miles of orange and red maple forests spread out in all directions.
I quite enjoyed this walk. The trail had tremendous integrity and felt surprisingly remote most of the time. It was much tougher than I expected and wasn’t an easy hike. At least from the trail, Vermont seemed to be a very calm and pastoral place. The resupply towns we visited had character and looked like pleasant places to live. The LT had fine character and didn’t compromise itself. Finally, I had done a lot of backpacking in the New Hampshire’s White Mountains during my college years and it was fun to walk in New England again.
I also felt that I wouldn’t want to spend a lot more time on this type of trail; in other words, a thru-hike of the AT wouldn’t interest me at all. While quite beautiful, there wasn’t enough diversity to sustain my interest over a longer period of time. After a while, the forests all started to look and feel the same. I began to feel a bit cheated because I could so rarely see the surrounding countryside. I missed the wide-open spaces of the west. We also traveled during the best time of year. The colors of the changing leaves, the sense of a season passing and a new one starting, and the feel of fall in the air all contributed to making the trip more satisfying. I suspect that if we had done this walk while the forests were still green, I would have enjoyed the trip as much.
One of the best hikes in my life? No. Worth the time commitment and effort? Absolutely. So, if you have a few weeks available some autumn, by all means go do it.
Notes for Potential Hikers
The LT is entirely in the State of Vermont, stretching 273 miles along the spine of the Green Mountains, from the US/Canadian border south to the Massachusetts/Vermont border. The southernmost 104 miles of the LT are concurrent with the Appalachian Trail (AT). The LT is oldest long-distance trail in the US specifically designed as a recreational walking path, with construction work commencing around 1910. Although located within a reasonable distance of major population centers in New York, Massachusetts, and Canada, the LT has a remarkably remote feeling. It passes through no towns, and while it does cross many roads, it stays well away from most visible development. In fact, other than the top ends of a number of ski lifts, the LT hiker will encounter almost no man-made structures other than the Green Mountain Club shelters, a couple of footbridges, and a lot of ladders and duckboards.
The LT is accessed at either end via secondary trails and you cannot drive to the actual trailhead. The nearest town in the south is Williamstown/North Adams and in the north is North Troy. The southern towns are relatively easy to get to via bus or train. North Troy is not served by scheduled public transit. To get to the beginning of our southbound hike we rode a bus from Boston to Montpelier and from there took an RCT shuttle to the North Troy area. RCT provides pre-arranged point-to-point rides in rural Vermont. A friendly driver met us exactly on time in Montpelier and took us directly to the intersection of North Jay Road and Journey’s End Road where we started our walk. We paid about $90 for this service.
After completing the LT, we had a couple of extra days before our flight home, so we followed the AT south to Dalton, MA, about 30 miles south of the VT/MA border. From Dalton we hitched to Pittsfield and then returned to Boston via bus and train.
Resupply along the trail was very easy. The LT crosses numerous passes carrying paved roads that descent to lower elevation towns. These towns range in size from barely perceptible to Burlington, which is a city by Vermont standards. Most of the towns have post offices for those hikers who like to resupply via mail drops. Most of the towns also have at least some source of groceries and hot meals. We chose to resupply using the shops and hitched out of the mountains on four occasions. Hitchhiking proved to be very easy and we even received a ride from a friendly on-duty Vermont Police Officer in his unmarked patrol car. We also received a ride from a trail angel who took us to his house and provided a much needed shower and laundry facilities. We found Vermonters to be friendly, enthusiastic about backpackers, helpful, and polite.
The LT is waymarked with vertical white blazes on a fairly regular basis. The trail is usually signposted near shelters and at intersections with most roads and side trails. The blazes provide enough information to almost complete the trail without carrying a map or GPS. But almost isn’t quite good enough because if you do lose the trail, relocating it could be difficult given the terrain and a uniformly forested environment. We used our GPS a few times to clarify an ambiguous situation.
The trail blazes are maintained by local GMC groups and their quality and quantity vary from mostly good to sometimes absent. The trail was generally easy to follow until it wasn’t. There are occasional places where the trail makes a sudden unexpected and easily missed turn and you can walk off of it without noticing. While we were there, the leaves fell from the trees and obscured the tread, sometimes for long stretches. And there were a few places, most noticeably at road crossings and especially at Appalachian Gap, where further blazing and/or signage would have been helpful.
We believe the best time to hike the LT is in the autumn. A winter thru-hike would require skis or snowshoes and would be very cold and challenging. Early spring through Memorial Day is out because portions of the trail are closed to hikers due to the infamous Vermont “mud season”. The late spring insect hatch makes the place uninhabitable for insect-averse wimps like us until mid July at the earliest. Late fall is hunting season.
Autumn is perfect as the rainfall isn’t any worse than other times of year, the bugs are gone, the daytime temperatures, mostly from the mid 40’s to the 60s, are perfect for hiking, the waves of north bound AT hikers have mostly passed through, and the days are still long enough to get some miles in. Most importantly, if you are there when the leaves are changing color, usually between late September to mid to late October, the forests are glorious.
In September and October it normally rains in Vermont about one day in three, so we expected at least some of our trip to be wet, perhaps very wet. After our particularly soggy spring trip to Scotland, we figured we would make 2013 the year of wet trips. However, the Vermont weather gods were exceptionally kind to us and we had a grand total of about 3 hours of rain, most of it late in the day after we had stopped in a shelter. Additionally, the temperatures were quite mild and we had no frosts. Our good weather streak, with multiple consecutive stunningly beautiful days was truly fortunate, as the Vermont natives we met on the trail pointed out.
The Green Mountain Club maintains over 50 shelters along the LT. These wooden structures come in both four sided and three sided versions and sleep between 8 and 24 people. Most are in surprisingly good condition considering both the age of the structures and that they are used by the public with rarely any official supervision. They are available for use by anyone on a first-come first-served basis and there are usually a few places nearby to pitch a tent if the shelter is full.
The shelters are always near a source of untested water and have separate privy structures over pit or composting toilets. Sometimes you sleep on the floor and sometimes on bunk platforms sleeping one to many. Most shelters are reported to be infested with mice and food should be hung, although we saw neither mice nor mouse scat. Boot-eating porcupines are also reported to be a problem, but we only crossed paths with one of these animals. Only one of the shelters we visited had any views.
The LT crosses the top end of more than a dozen ski lifts. At many of these lifts there were unlocked warming huts that apparently can be used as shelters as well.
During the summer and early fall months, some of the more popular shelters have resident GMC caretakers and a $5 per person fee is charged to use the shelter or camp in the vicinity. This fee helps raise money to maintain the shelter network. Otherwise use of the shelters is free.
We stayed in shelters on a number of occasions and as it was late in the hiking season, we often had them to ourselves. We avoided staying in or near shelters with weekend crowds as the social scene and commotion didn’t appeal to us. It is likely that the shelters will be much more heavily used during the summer, especially on the section of the LT that is contiguous with the AT.
When not using the shelters, we spent the night in our tent. Campsites along the LT can be relatively easy to find in the beech-maple forests, but more difficult in the spruce-fir. Since the terrain is steep in a lot of places, finding a flat and level site can take a bit of time, but by using a topographic map, we were able to predict where likely sites would be found. The ground was relatively dry during our walk, so we never had to deal with a badly soggy site.
To those used to western US trails, conditions on the LT will come as an unexpected surprise. In the west, many of the trails were constructed to allow horses to use them, not just walkers. Many western trails are built to shed as much water as possible. And at least in the National Parks, there are still trail crews out actively maintaining and improving the trails.
The LT is different. Particularly for its northern 100 miles, the trail is steep, eroded, muddy, rocky and/or otherwise not easy walking. It summits every little peak in its path without switchbacks or contouring. You go straight up to the top on one side and straight down on the other side. The trails are watercourses when it rains: a local hiker told us that the longest river in Vermont is the LT. The runoff has eroded the trail, often exposing a tangle of roots, rocks, and muddy holes. The many rock slabs and boulders in the trail were often extremely slippery, as were the exposed roots that frequently crisscross the trail. Our own daily trail mileages were only 75% of normal, even though we had good weather and the trail was relatively dry, which made hiking a lot easier than is typical. It appeared that trail maintenance was limited to waymarking and removing encroaching vegetation, and particularly in the northern 100 miles, there is little maintenance of the actual tread. The 104-mile southern section that is contiguous with the AT was much easier. There the trail contours around many small peaks, has switchbacks in some places, and generally enough maintenance of the trail tread that extensive erosion was not a problem. The section concurrent with the AT does not summit every nearby knoll so the gradient is on average gentler than in the north.
Virtually the entire trail is the classic AT “long green tunnel”. Viewpoints are so infrequent they are actually marked on the map. Only very short sections on a couple of the highest peaks are effectively above tree line. We cherished the occasional chance to see the surrounding landscape of forested mountains extending to the horizons.
The trail elevation ranges from about 400 feet to 4400 feet, with the majority of miles between 2000 and 3000 feet. The habitat above 3000 feet is predominantly Balsam Fir, with associated spruces and Yellow Birch. Below 2500’ is almost uniformly Sugar Maple and American Beech, with associated Red Maple, Yellow Birch and occasional Aspen. Between 2500 feet and 3000 feet is a transition zone, with the tree species composition dependent on geographic aspect or logging history. To the best of our knowledge, everything has been logged at least once, some areas were subsequently grazed, and much of the forest is relatively young. Lakes are few and most of those are beaver ponds. There are frequent small streams and brooks, so finding water was rarely an issue. We treated all surface water, as beavers are a vector for giardia.
We met very few northbound LT thru-hikers and only crossed paths with one other southbound LT thru-hiker. Based on entries in the GMC logs in each shelter, it is clear that we were hiking during the quiet season and that the trail is much busier during the summer. We met at least one other hiker every day, and on weekends we encountered some overnight backpackers and many day hikers. We met a several people section hiking portions of the LT and/or the AT. We met only a few hikers who were acquainted with lightweight backpacking techniques.
One the best encounters with other walkers occurred as we climbed Mt. Mansfield. It was a gorgeous weekend afternoon and we met many day hikers descending the same trail. One was an older gentleman who took one look at Amy with her trekking poles and pack and announced “You must be a professional!”.
We saw 50 species on this walk. Fall migration was mostly over, so diversity and numbers were likely lower than a bit earlier in the year. Given the dense forest cover, raptors were difficult to see. The lack of major habitat diversity also caused diversity to be low. The most frequently observed species were: Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, American Robin, and Yellow-rumped warbler.