Autumn Thru-Hike of Vermont's Long Trail
During late September and early October 2013, we (Amy and James) thru-hiked the Long Trail (LT) in Vermont. This trip report will hopefully provide information useful to those who would like to hike this route.
We decided to walk the LT since neither of us had done any backpacking in the eastern US in over 30 years. While hiking in our home state of California is extremely satisfying, we thought a trip that highlighted the glories of autumn in an eastern deciduous forest would be gratifying. After a bit of research, the LT became the obvious venue for a number of reasons:
Photos: An illustrated day-by-day account of our trip can be found in our photo gallery on SmugMug. (We're still editing, so the gallery may be a simple placeholder for a while.)
- It is a well-designed route with a logical beginning and end.
- The trail can be thru-hiked in two to three weeks (in our case a bit under eighteen days), 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 relatively simple.
- The trail has a reputation as being a bit of a physical challenge.
- Logistics would not be overly complex.
- We both wanted a chance to see an eastern autumn and the LT provides a terrific place for “leaf peeping” while backpacking
The Map: An interactive map can be viewed over on CalTopo. You can download the trail track from there in gpx, kml, or Garmin format.
The LT is entirely in the State of Vermont, stretching 273 miles along the spine of the Green Mountains, from the Massachusetts/Vermont border north to the US/Canadian 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 that was specifically designed as a recreational walking path, with construction work commencing in 1910. Although located within a reasonable distance of major population centers in New York, Massachusetts, and Canada, the LT is 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 passing the upper ends of a number of ski lifts, and one 3 mile piece of road walking (which will be eliminated in 2014 when a planned footbridge has been installed), 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 endpoints. The nearest towns in the south are Williamstown/North Adams and in the north is North Troy. The southern towns are relatively easy to get to via public transportation (bus or train). North Troy is not served by scheduled public transit. To get to the start of our south-bound hike we took a bus from Boston to Montpelier and from there took a shuttle to the North Troy area, arranged via RCT. RCT arranges point-to-point rides in rural Vermont. A 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 we had to catch our flight home, so we actually finished our walk in Dalton, MA, which is about 30 AT miles south of the VT/MA border. From Dalton we hitched to Pittsfield and then traveled back to Boston via bus and train.
The Green Mountain Club publishes three documents that are useful during trip planning:
Resupply along the trail was very easy. The north/south trail crosses numerous east/west paved roads that drop down to towns located in the lowlands below the Green Mountains. 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 prefer to resupply via mail drops. Most of the towns also have at least some source of groceries and hot meals. We chose to resupply via the shops and hitched out of the mountains on four occasions. Hitchhiking proved to be very easy and we even got a ride with 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 much needed shower and laundry facilities. We found Vermonters in general to be friendly, enthusiastic about backpackers, helpful, and polite.
- A plastic 1:100,000 hiking map. We found the map reasonably accurate and useable, particularly for understanding the big picture and for planning resupply while on route. The map includes a roughly 10:1 elevation profile of the route as well as information on side trails accessing the LT from the east and west. Inexplicably, it does not label contour intervals. We carried the map and were glad to have it along.
- 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 0.8 oz. of content that would be useful while on-trail. These proved to be useful during our walk.
- A thick pocket sized “Long Trail Guide” 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 inch-by-inch trail description is not necessary for a hiker with any trail sense at all. We left this 7.7 oz. monster at home.
The LT is waymarked with vertical white blazes on a fairly regular basis. It 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, refinding it could be difficult or impossible given the terrain and a uniformly forested environment. We used our GPS a few times to clarify an ambiguous situation, so take along additional navigation aids and you should be fine.
The trail blazes are maintained by local GMC sections 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 be very helpful.
We carried an iPhone 5 as our GPS and used Gaia GPS as our primary navigation app. Information about battery conservation is in the iPhone for Backpacking article..
We believe the best time to hike the LT is in the autumn. A winter thru-hike would be a major challenge for most backpackers due to the very short days, deep snow covering the trail, extreme cold and the probable need to take snow and ice climbing tools. Snowshoes would be a must. Early spring through Memorial Day is out because portions of the trail are closed to hikers due to the famous 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 in that the rain isn’t any worse than other times of year, the bugs are gone, the daytime temperatures are perfect for hiking (mostly from the mid 40’s to the 60s) the waves of north bound AT hikers have mostly passed through, and the days are long enough to get some miles in. Most importantly, if you are there when the leaves are changing color the forests are glorious. This website has some crowd-sourced information about current leaf viewing conditions and timing.
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. Our good weather streak, with multiple consecutive stunningly beautiful days was truly fortunate, as the Vermonters we met on the trail pointed out. Others should not count on our remarkable good luck and should be prepared for wet conditions at any time of the year. Temperatures were quite mild and we had no frosts. Again, we were fortunate.
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 there are too many people. We are not familiar with the social dynamics at a fully occupied shelter if newly arriving hikers don’t have tents.
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 in other shelters there are bunk platforms sleeping one to many. Most are reported to be infested with mice and food should be hung (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 on our walk. 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, but not all 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.
We stayed in shelters on a number of occasions. Being late in the hiking season, we often had them to ourselves. We avoided staying in or near shelters with crowds (which we saw only on weekends), as the social scene and commotion didn’t appeal to us. It is likely that the shelters will be much more heavily used than we found them earlier in the season, 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 topo map, we were able to predict where likely sites would be found.
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 pack stock 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 or so, the trail is steep, eroded, muddy, rocky and/or otherwise not easy walking. It directly crosses every little peak in its path, without switchbacks or contouring. You go straight up to the summit 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), and the water erodes the trail, often exposing a tangle of roots, rocks, and mud. The many rock slabs and boulders in the trail can be extremely slippery, and the exposed roots that frequently criss-cross the trail were also slippery. Our own daily trail mileages were only 75% of what we normally do. And with the good weather we had, the trail was relatively dry which made hiking a lot easier than is typical. It appeared that trail maintenance was limited to waymarks and removing encroaching vegetation, and that there is little maintenance of the actual tread (particularly in the northern 100 miles).
The 104-mile southern section that is contiguous with the AT is much easier. The trail contours around many small peaks, has switchbacks in some places, and generally enough maintenance of the trail tread such that extensive erosion was not a problem. And since it doesn’t summit every viewless knoll remotely in its range, the gradient is on average more gentle 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 ~400 feet to ~4400 feet, with the majority of miles between 2000 and 3000 feet. The habitat above ~3000’ 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’ and 3000’ is a transition zone, with the tree species composition often dependent on geographic aspect or history. To the best of our knowledge, everything has been logged at least once, some areas were subsequently grazed, and the forests now are often relatively young. Lakes are few and most of those are beaver ponds. There are frequent small streams and brooks, so finding water is rarely an issue.
We met very few NOBO LT thru-hikers and only crossed paths with one other SOBO 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 saw many overnight backpackers and many day hikers. We met a number of people section hiking portions of the LT and/or the AT. Only a few other walkers we met seemed 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 Asian gentleman who took one look at Amy with her trekking poles and pack and stated with a heavy accent; "You must be a professional!".
Comparison with the JMT
Below is a comparison with the John Muir Trail, which is familiar to many Backpacking Light users. This may help place the LT in a more understandable context.
I enjoyed this walk quite a lot. 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 towns we visited for resupply had character and looked like nice places to live. The LT had a fine character and didn't compromise itself. And it was good to get a chance to experience a different place from where we normally spend our time.
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 satisfying. I suspect that if we had done this walk while the forests were still green, I would not have had as rewarding an experience as I did.
One of the best hikes in my life? No. Worth the time commitment and effort? Yes. So, if you have a few weeks available some autumn, by all means do it.
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 very favorite classes in college, in the 1970s, 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 to California 30+ years ago, 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 they put on a display of color every single day of the trip that knocked my socks off.
For a 273 mile trail, there is very little habitat diversity (by western U.S. standards that is) and very few vista points. The vast majority of hours are spent walking through forest. Unlike Jim, 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 never tired of it. Every day, every hour, I was thrilled to watch the progression. For example, on every single day of our trip the scattered Red Maples were turning bright red, but the dominant Sugar Maple 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 find the Spruce-Fir forests a little dull and regularly checked the elevation profile on the GMC map to find out when we'd drop back below ~2500 feet and therefore return to the colorful Beech-Maple forests.
For me the trip was fabulous. That said, I would not choose to hike in eastern forests on a regular basis, and I would only go back during this magical autumn season. Having moved west, I'm now used to big open spaces and five star campsites with dramatic views and sense of space.
I agree with Jim that the Long Trail had great integrity, and I was very impressed. The trail corridor has been extremely well protected; kudos to the State of Vermont and USFS for their effort.
The northern ~100 miles of the trail are not easy walking. The GMC volunteers do an awesome job of removing brush and fallen trees, and the trail blazes were almost always very good. However, in the northern ~100 miles there is little visible tread maintenance, and the steepness and abundant rainfall combine to erode the tread. 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 focussing on my footing, I think I would have gotten really fed up with it.
Would I recommend the trail? As an autumn hike, for somebody who has ample vacation time, I would say absolutely yes. In summer, no, I wouldn't bother. For somebody who lives near Vermont and who has only 3 weeks a year of vacation time, I would recommend section-hiking it on long weekends, and save the three week chunk to travel to Europe, or to the western US, or to other destinations where a single three week hike offers far more diverse scenery.
Finally, it's easy to be happy when it's 60 degrees and sunny. We had extraordinary, fabulous 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.
My admiration for the changing colors of the leaves is a little OTT (Over The Top). Those who don't share my fascination should go get dinner and skip the rest of the report!