6 Reasons to Hike the Long Trail
The Long Trail (LT) is the granddaddy long distance trail of them all, the first of its kind blazed in North America. Spanning 273 miles, the LT traverses the spine of the Green Mountains in Vermont, from the border of Massachusetts to Canada. With just over 100 miles that run contiguous with the Appalachian Trail (AT), you’ll get a sense of today’s AT experience, as well as the opportunity to hike the much quieter northern section of the LT. The latter provides a glimpse of what hiking the AT might have been like pre-A Walk in the Woods. Just in case you’re not yet convinced, here are 6 reasons to hike the Long Trail.
1. It set the bar for long distance hiking trails in the U.S.
Today, the United States boasts dozens of long distance hiking trails, but back in the early 20th century, the Long Trail stood alone. On its 21st birthday, in 1930, the Long Trail was officially completed. In 1942, the Green Mountain Club formally honored thirty two “End-to-Enders” with certificates, thus beginning the longstanding tradition of recognizing those brazen enough to take on the challenge of section hiking or thru-hiking a long distance trail in its entirety.
Perhaps even more compelling is the idea of, “If you build it, they will come.” Yes, James Earl Jones was referring to a baseball field in Iowa when he uttered this infamous line, but when James P. Taylor stood on top of Stratton Mountain and first envisioned the Long Trail, he had no way of knowing that the same spot on the Long Trail would one day inspire Benton MacKaye to write a proposal for what would become the Appalachian Trail.
2. There’s beauty to found in the Green Tunnel
The green tunnel doesn’t offer the instant gratification of epic views, but it does possess its own subtle magic. With the horizon limited to the turn in the trail ahead and the one behind, the world shrinks, offering a sense of solitude. One can walk without crossing paths with another hiker for hours, even if only separated by a quarter of a mile.
The green tunnel is most breathtaking on a bluebird day when the brightness of the sky seems to elevate the brilliance of the leaves. On rainy days, the dense overhead canopy can also provide welcome relief from wind and the worst of the deluge. And after the rain, there is no place that smells finer: the pungent punch of rich humus colliding with pine as you ascend. A discerning eye and keen ear will appreciate the variety of bird species, including warblers and thrushes, as well as the cacophonous nighttime lullabies of the green frog and spring peeper resident to the ponds of the LT.
3. Alpine zones! Open vistas!
110 acres of fragile alpine habitat exist above tree line in Vermont, providing a unique peek at what the landscape would have looked like as the glaciers of the last ice age retreated 10,000 years ago. Only certain plant species can survive in the alpine zone and eight of them are considered endangered. Despite being able to withstand unimaginably harsh weather conditions, a simple step on these plants causes damage that can take years to regrow. Bear this in mind (and be sure to rock hop) as you cross all three alpine zones, including Mt. Mansfield, Camel’s Hump, and Mt. Abraham. The stunted wonders are certainly not all the alpine zone has to offer, as the views above tree line are outstanding.
From some peaks, you’ll spot Vermont’s famed ski slopes, while others reveal small hamlets, and still more offer nothing but greenery in every direction. A perfectly clear day from Camel’s Hump will show off Lake Champlain and the impressive Adirondacks to the west, and the distinct outline of Mt. Washington and the Presidential Range to the east. The views are not limited solely to summits – there are plenty of knobs and bluffs, either along the trail, or on short blue-blazed spurs, worthy of a detour and snack break. Be sure to slow down and take in the open views as you pass each chairlift along the ridgeline. And if, by chance, there’s one for you to crawl into, enjoy the impromptu rocking chair.
4. Did someone say lodges?
Here the LT deviates from the AT in its frequent choice of a fully enclosed (!!) lodge to the AT’s more common 3-sided shelter or lean-to. Nothing says home (particularly when it’s rainy and even more so when it’s chilly) than finding a rustic cabin in the woods after a long day of hiking. Lodges are more spacious and often have built in bunk bed frames that are likely to conjure up nostalgic memories of summer camp.
Along the most heavily travelled portions of the LT, Green Mountain Club caretakers take up seasonal residence and charge a nominal $5 fee for spending the night. LT and AT thru-hikers often balk at this cost, as the rest of the trail is free of charge. Take heart, the fee is worth it: the caretakers take immense pride in keeping the lodges and shelters clean, the mice at bay, the privies freshly rotated, and (if you’re really lucky) one might warm up some hot chocolate for you on a luxurious Coleman propane stove. Not to mention caretakers are also the workhorses of the trail, keeping water bars working, overgrowth at bay, and they know every prime swimming hole and waterfall you shouldn’t miss.
5. The fire towers
I know adding steps to the top of a mountain sounds like unnecessary torture, but with a clear sky, the ensuing panoramic view is always worthwhile. Especially at sunset or sunrise.
The rolling green mountains have a wonderful cascading effect, with peaks and valleys creating waves that rise and fall upon the horizon as far as the eye can see. In summer, the dense and lush combination of deciduous and coniferous trees allow for every imaginable hue of green, followed by a stunning array of reds, yellows, and oranges when autumn arrives.
6. To get a taste of the Appalachian Trail
Having thru-hiked the AT in 2013, it was fresh in my mind as I stepped onto the LT again in 2014, ready to see what lay beyond the Maine Junction outside of Killington. Although the LT certainly can be appreciated for a trail quite distinct from the AT, I could never quite shake the recurring sense of déjà vu I experienced along the way.
The southern third of the LT is characterized by long ups, downs, and switchbacks, all of which are rewarded at regular intervals with stunning views, reminiscent of North Carolina and Tennessee. As this section of the trail coincides with the AT, it also provides the authentic cultural experience of the AT thru-hiking community, including the prolific use of trail names, more crowded shelters, trail magic, and much more entertaining registers. After over 1600 miles of hiking in and around the same group of people, most northbound AT thru-hikers will be more than happy to welcome a fresh face into the mix and swap stories.
The central third of the LT is marked by long stretches in the green tunnel and many dreaded P.U.D.s (pointless ups and downs) that are likely to bring your mind right back back to Virginia. But the northern third? In a word: stunning. The terrain is rugged and rocky, with tree roots squirming along the ground like enormous land bound octopi arms bent on destroying knees and ankles. If the Whites and the Mahoosucs had a baby, I’m certain its name would be Northern Vermont. If this sounds daunting, let me cast it in a different light: if you had fun as a kid in obstacle courses, then consider northern Vermont a life-size playground (iron rungs and ladders included!). Even the Devil’s Gulch, tucked into a .6 mile stretch between Spruce Ledge Shelter and VT Rt. 118, provides a comparable experience to the notorious Mahoosuc Notch. In every sense, the Long Trail is the Appalachian Trail’s miniature doppelgänger.
Whether you’re dabbling as a section hiker, an aspiring End-to-Ender, or looking to the Long Trail to test the waters of your AT thru-hiking dreams, this trail packs a punch. Old, yes. Decrepit, no. The Long Trail is the sassy, badass grandparent that makes 86 look good.
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