Best Damn Weekend Ever: Vermont's Bourn Pond-Stratton Pond Loop

Hike this burly wonder to find out what inspired the Appalachian and Long Trail's founders.
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Hike this burly wonder to find out what inspired the Appalachian and Long Trail's founders.

To call this 23-mile loop through the Lye Brook Wilderness inspirational barely gets at the truth. Sure, you can find taller peaks and less-traveled trails, but the stunning view from the high point–a fire tower atop 3,940-foot Mt. Stratton–is the spark that caused the creators of both the Appalachian Trail and the Long Trail to get to work. The Bourn Pond-Stratton Pond loop takes you through the heart of this 17,841-acre wilderness in Green Mountain National Forest near Manchester, Vermont. Most dayhikers turn back at Prospect Rock, a popular perch you'll pass en route to grander rewards. Plan to stay at shelters, and you can travel light, leaving your tent at home.

Begin on Friday afternoon by climbing steep and gravelly Old Rootville Road, also called Prospect Rock Trail, a mile east of Manchester. You'll immediately ascend an unrelenting 1,000 feet in 1.8 miles. Prospect Rock Trail ends at the spur to its namesake rock and the junction with the Appalachian Trail and Long Trail (which overlap for a 95-mile stretch). After enjoying the view of the verdant Otter Creek Valley and 3,816-foot Mt. Equinox (the tallest peak in the Taconic Range), continue south on the AT/LT.

You'll cross a tributary of sleepy Bourn Brook at 2.7 miles, then come to the junction with the Branch Pond Trail at the boundary of the Lye Brook Wilderness (you'll close the loop here on the way out). The change as you enter the designated wilderness area is immediate. First, you'll cross several bog bridges (called "puncheons" by Long Trailers) as you pass through a lush hardwood cathedral. Colorful jewelweed blooms crowd against the foot-worn boards.

At 3.2 miles, you'll reach Douglas Shelter, a classic eight-person lean-to nestled in a small clearing. Plan to spend your first night here.

From Douglas Shelter to Bourn Pond, it's a rolling three miles through head-high goldenrod and prime moose habitat. With 5,000 of these large ungulates now roaming through Vermont's woodlands, it's hard to miss their scat and hand-size hoof prints. After a half-dozen stream crossings, you'll come alongside Bourn Pond. Drop your pack and go for a swim in the cool water, and then let the resident loons provide lunchtime background music.

Air dry, then continue east for 1.8 miles on Lye Brook Trail. Look for wild raspberries among the jumble of tree trunks as you pass through the remnants of a 2003 microburst. Stratton Pond lies over the next rise, just outside of the wilderness boundary. It's the largest body of water on the Long Trail, more like a small lake than a pond. The hulk of 3,936-foot Stratton Mountain looms large across the water. Head to the south side of the pond and drop your pack at the three-bunk-high Stratton Pond Shelter.

From the pond, it's a mellow 3.1-mile ascent on smooth trail through dense sugar maples to the top of Stratton Mountain. The fire tower on its summit is a national historic landmark, and is credited with inspiring two of the country's landmark paths: Vermont's Long Trail was conceived here in 1910 by James P. Taylor; and Benton MacKaye's AT vision followed in 1921. From 55 feet above the ground, the tower-top vista extends well into Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. Return to Stratton Pond for another swim or to cast a fly. State officials stock Stratton Pond with brook trout, which get little pressure due to the trek to get there.

On Sunday morning, take the AT/LT south, back into the Lye Brook Wilderness. From here, it's a leisurely eight-mile finish as you meander through hardwoods and cross a footbridge over the Winhall River. Then close the loop near Prospect Rock and head downhill to the trailhead.

Plan it

The Way
From Manchester Depot, go 0.6 miles toward Manchester on VT 11/30. Turn south on East Manchester Road, then bear left on Old Rootville Road (dirt). Drive 0.5 miles and park by the gate.

Season
The shelters are quiet in June and post-Labor Day. The Green Mountain Club discourages hiking here during mud season (from snowmelt through Memorial Day).

Map
Vermont's Long Trail ($9; The Wilderness Map Company; wildernessmaps.com)

Contact Green Mountain National Forest-Manchester District, (802) 362-2307, fs.fed.us/gmfl