As I gaze into Canada from my vantage point in northernmost Vermont, the Great White North lives up to its name. Fog and clouds blanket the thickly forested valley beneath my feet, and a few treetops barely peek out. I pause to soak up the scene—briefly, since a light rain makes standing still a chilly proposition—then turn and head for Massachusetts with the perfect plan in mind: Beginning on this, the first day of autumn, I’ll follow fall through Vermont as it colors the Green Mountains in shades of crimson and gold. And in the process, I’ll satisfy my hunger for a long-distance hike as I chase the season along the 270-mile Long Trail (LT).
While most foot travelers assume the Appalachian Trail (AT) was the first long-distance footpath, that honor actually belongs to the LT. Years before the AT was even marked, before the Pacific Crest Trail was a germ of an idea, the Green Mountain Club (GMC) marked, cut, and blazed a route along the length of the Green Mountains. Not only did the LT inspire the creation of the AT, but for 100 miles the two run concurrently.
Between 1910 and 1930, GMC trailblazers plotted the route to run near existing vacation cabins and three-sided hunting shelters so the new trail would be readily accessible to Vermonters. More small lodges and lean-tos sprang up as the trail’s popularity grew and, after just 1 day out, I’m glad they did. The four walls and roof of Jay Camp Shelter seem like the Ritz, and I’m thankful to be out of the rain that’s pummeling northern Vermont.
Warm sun burns through the fog the next morning, and for the next 2 days, I don’t see a soul, unless you count the occasional owl, osprey, or salamander. The Long Trail’s slogan is, after all, “a footpath in the wilderness,” but I knew going into this hike that I would encounter “urban” parts of the trail where I’d cross a few roads. At times, I hear and see signs of civilization in the form of chain saws and distant town lights at night, but those intrusions are minor and don’t discount the slogan’s truthfulness.
My pace slows considerably as I ascend yet another ladder installed by the GMC to help with a grueling climb over another peak. Halfway up, I wonder if I should have hiked a less punishing trail somewhere else. As it turns out, the trail’s jagged design is not an accident. When the path was being plotted, a casual observer had suggested that more switchbacks and a gentler grade might better suit pack animals. “This isn’t the West!” was the angry retort from one GMCer.
A week into the hike, I emerge from hemlock forests onto the open tundra of Mt. Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak and one of the few spots in the Green Mountain state that’s above treeline. Panoramic views in all directions greet me, as do dozens of dayhikers. Folks from all over make the trip to Mansfield, by far the most popular mountain in Vermont with almost 40,000 visitors annually.