Foliage in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom
We’d have loved to enlist the dogs for a run east from Montgomery to Lowell, along Route 58, the Bayley-Hazen Road. Ascending from Montgomery Center to the narrow defile of Hazen’s Notch (in Westfield, near the Lowell border), it’s a remnant of a military road built during the Revolution for a second invasion of Canada that never came off. Today it serves as a back door leading deep into the Kingdom. It’s a door that slams shut when snow flies, as no plow ventures through the Notch, and it’s best traveled during those early weeks of autumn when it tunnels beneath a canopy of color.
Take Route 58 past Lowell, with its brave little bandstand on a vest-pocket common, across the fields of a lofty plateau, and into Irasburg, where the common is bigger than the village around it. Just across I-91–one of the least-traveled sections of America’s Interstate network–head northeast out of Orleans to reach that observatory-crowned meadow in Brownington. When we scan those vistas, the magnetic draw is always toward those sugarloaf peaks, Pisgah and Hor, to the southeast, flanking the far end of Lake Willoughby in Westmore. Even though you can’t see the lake from Prospect Hill–even if you didn’t know there was a lake between those mountains–you’d somehow know that they had to be guarding a secret special place.
The narrow, five-mile-long lake is just that. Once promoted as “the Lucerne of America,” Willoughby long ago did boast excursion steamers and lakeside hotels, but that stab at Swissness faltered in favor of the old Northeast Kingdom character of this landlocked fjord. There’s a beautiful desolateness about Lake Willoughby on a bright early-fall day–after the summer camps along the eastern shore have closed, after the anglers have mostly finished with their pursuit of the big lake trout and salmon that swim its 300-foot depths–fall, when the water is piercingly blue and nearly boatless. Yet it’s still early enough in the year to take out one of the WilloughVale Inn’s kayaks and work up an appetite with a mile-long paddle from the northeast shore toward the big bend in the lake, where Pisgah and Hor loom into view. If we want a heftier appetite, we’ll take on Pisgah itself, via either the North or South Trail leading from Route 5A along the lake–although the gentler South Shore Trail to the base of Mount Hor will usually do just fine.
The Kingdom’s most distinctive trails, though, aren’t about hiking. East Burke, 10 miles south of Lake Willoughby, is the mountain-biking capital of New England. It’s the headquarters of Kingdom Trails, a 100-mile-plus network of old cart and logging roads, meandering country byways, and single-track roller-coaster rides for cyclists. A good number of the trails are on and around Burke Mountain, the peak that dominates this corner of Vermont, well removed from the state’s main cordillera, the Green Mountains farther to the west.
The map of this segment–which also incorporates the ski area that has trained many a U.S. Olympian–is littered with ominous black diamonds. As in skiing, black diamonds are the indicators that say, “Stay away if you don’t really know what you’re doing,” and here there’s even a trail marked by a triple black diamond. Since we weren’t going near the thing, we could afford to laugh at a caveat that read, in part, “… cliffs, drops, and obstacles. Full body armor and helmet with face mask required.”
Yes, well, maybe some other time, when our body armor is out of the shop. For now, we were pleased when Tim Tierney, Kingdom Trails’ executive director, told us that a six- or seven-mile network of relatively easy trails would take us from the village to a viewpoint called Heaven’s Bench, and that East Burke Sports, right across the street, rented bikes and helmets. And Heaven’s Bench? There was a bench, and the view was almost a rival to Brownington’s Prospect Hill: mountains and meadows and lavish lacings of color.
There’s a cliché about the Northeast Kingdom that says that it’s rough, rugged, remote–hardscrabble, even. There are places up here where all of those things hold true. But when you take a slow drive down Darling Hill Road from East Burke, as we did one late afternoon, the sense is of trundling through a very mannered shire indeed.
A century ago, much of this countryside was the property of Elmer A. Darling, a New York hotelier whose Vermont cows put butter on his city guests’ tables, and this stretch still seems a squire’s domain. The Inn at Mountain View Farm incorporates Darling’s one-time creamery; farther south, in Lyndonville, the Stepping Stone Spa offers a menu of massages and even something called a “Vermont Maple Sugar Body Polish”–the perfect finish, no doubt, to one of those days when it feels as though life has put you through a waffle iron.
On meadows behind the spa, Belted Galloway cattle graze beneath the shadow of the ethereally beautiful Chapel of the Holy Family. It was privately built yet is open to all, and on an afternoon when we were the only visitors, hidden speakers filled this small yet soaring space with Gregorian chant. It was as if we’d taken a back road into the Middle Ages, into a kingdom that lay not to the northeast but to a point entirely off the compass.
If our most recent autumn exploration of the Kingdom began with dog-traveled dirt roads in the hills above Montgomery, it ended in a rutted track sloping down to the Connecticut River in the hamlet of Lower Waterford. Overhead, light filtered through the dappled leaves as if through stained glass.