Scenic Drive: Vermont's Route 100
A more contemplative taste of the season is found up a steep hill on the way out of town at the Weston Priory, a community of Benedictine monks who grace the views with plainsong in the evening, wind and insects joining in for counterpoint.
The foliage takes some time to look at its reflection during the next stretch, as a string of lovely little lakes–Lake Rescue, Echo Lake, and Amherst Lake–run along the road. At the end, a feng shui expert would no doubt approve of the location of the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site, situated atop a hill in Plymouth Notch, surrounded by a bowl of mountains that makes a visitor unconsciously start breathing a little more deeply to see it. The site includes the house (and bed) in which the president was born, the homestead where he grew up, the cheese factory his father founded, and the “summer White House,” a converted grange hall (above the general store) from which Coolidge ran the country in August 1924. More than a historical homage to the man, however, the site is virtually indistinguishable from the early-20th-century village around it, with big barns full of sleighs, carriages, and farming implements bringing alive the hard work and pleasures of the period.
After that expansive view, the commercial clutter where Route 100 briefly joins U.S. Route 4 is a bit of a shock; thankfully it’s just a palate cleanser for the stunning second half of the drive. After teasing for 100 miles, the mountains now finally shake off their shyness and step back from the highway, with fields of corn and pumpkins providing a welcome mat for the set-piece town of Rochester. True to form, the road then abruptly changes course, plunging into the intimate seven miles of dense forest along Granville Gulf State Reservation. A prime spotting ground for moose and home to some of Vermont’s remaining old growth, these woods also offer the irresistible photo op of Moss Glen Falls, a multitiered vertical rivulet visible from a wooden walkway along the highway.
After the Gulf’s cozy rock wall, the route again opens up into Vermont’s Mad River Valley. Tucked between the Greens and the Northfield Range and replete with farmhouses and covered bridges, this area has drawn carpetbaggers from New York and Boston who came to ski and never left. That makes for a cosmopolitan streak among locals, who flock en masse every Saturday to the Waitsfield Farmers’ Market–a weekly music festival, arts-and-crafts fair, community social, and organic vegetable market. Often, they go from there to gourmet pizzeria American Flatbread, to sip wine around the firepit and watch the kids fly Frisbees on the lawn while waiting their turn to sit down for clay-and-stone-oven flatbreads. (The ingredients from local farms are all highlighted with asterisks on the menu.)
Climbing out of the valley and crossing I-89, the traffic glut signals the proximity of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory tour in Waterbury, with attendant cheese and syrup shops circling the tourist chum. The town of Stowe, while just as much of a madhouse this time of year, nevertheless offers a way above the fray if you ride the Stowe Mountain Resort gondola to the top of Mount Mansfield, the state’s highest peak. The ride is most colorful up the middle slopes before the spruces take over, but the last-minute ascent up the steep peak arguably inspires more awe.
After that, the rest of Route 100 is literally a come-down, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The final stretch through the Lamoille Valley meanders through sleepy farmlands graced by Holsteins so healthy they could model for a Ben & Jerry’s pint cup. The two major rivers that cut the valley, the Lamoille and Winooski, offer a great excuse to get out of the car.
Umiak Outdoor Outfitters, for one, leads a two-hour fall foliage canoe trip framed by the foothills of the Greens–which never seem so misnamed as when they’re reflecting their foliage in the water–and a more adventurous “River & Spirits” tour, which includes a stop to sample at the Boyden Valley Winery & Farm in Cambridge.
When the road finally ends, merging into Route 105, and then I-91, some 10 miles short of Canada, the most difficult decision is the one to turn the car around and head home. The only comfort is that you get to see the whole show over again in reverse.
SLIDE SHOW: Vermont’s Route 100