Tales from the Vermont Long Trail Part One: Trip, Trail, and Hike Overview

Our blog post this month is a guest post from Elliott Diamond, a former store associate and one of our first employees at 3 Rivers Outdoor Company. Elliott and his partner, Morgan, decided to hike the Vermont Long Trail at the end of September before embarking on a cross-country adventure to Oregon. After 273 miles in 23 days, Elliott and Morgan completed their Long Trail hike, and he was generous enough to write about his experience. This first part of his two-part series is an overview of the trip, trail, and hike.

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This fall, my partner and I hiked the entirety of the Vermont Long Trail in a transitional period between jobs and moving. This was her first and my second long-distance hike. We were both really excited to take on this adventure and even more excited when we crossed the finish line!

Trip Overview

Trail: Vermont Long Trail
Miles: 273
Start: Wednesday, September 27
Finish: Thursday, October 18
Days: 23
Zero Days (0 miles hiked): 2
Nero Days (Under 7 miles hiked): 2
Average Miles Per Day: 11.9
Bottles of Maple Syrup Consumed:
1

Trail Overview

The Vermont Long Trail runs 273 miles from the Massachusetts border to the Canadian border. It passes through a multitude of National Forests, designated wilderness areas, ski resorts, and a few tracts of private land. It is the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the United States and has been managed by the Green Mountain Club (GMC) since its inception in 1910. It features a system of 70+ backcountry shelters for hikers to sleep in, all of which are maintained by trail volunteers.

The Long Trail and the Appalachian Trail (AT) overlap for 105 miles from the Massachusetts border to the Maine Junction near Killington, where the AT turns east towards New Hampshire.

Hike Overview: The Good

Because we got such a late start in the year, we escaped the masses of day hikers and thru-hikers that come with summer and early fall. We were lucky enough to be around an awesome, small bunch of southbound (SOBO) hikers for the first week. With lower temperatures, there were also no bugs. In my opinion, the fall is the best time to attempt a thru-hike of this trail. Smaller crowds, no bugs, beautiful foliage, and cooler hiking temps made this an great experience.

Something else we noticed was how clean the trail was. We only found a few pieces of micro-trash (small pieces of candy bar wrappers, pieces of gear, cigarette butts) the entire way. This is a testament to the hikers and volunteers in the region that take pride in their trail and are conscious of their impact.

Hike Overview: The Not So Good

The Vermont Long Trail is the hardest trail I have hiked to date, both physically and mentally. The trail was a constant stream of water, mud, and rocks—usually a combination of all three. I was always damp. My socks were soaking wet for 23 straight days. My partner and I fell a lot. Like, a lot. Because of our late start, we had nights dip down into the teens, which was definitely on the low end of what we were prepared for.

If I were to do this hike again, I would prefer to start a few weeks earlier to escape the bitter-cold temperatures of approaching winter. We avoided measurable snow, but it wasn’t far behind us. Initially we had planned to hike north, but reasoned that would put us in the higher elevations of northern Vermont in late October with less favorable hiking conditions.

On the way to the trail from Pittsburgh, we made the decision to hike southbound and derail all of our resupply planning. It was well worth it in terms of the people we met, the weather, and getting the hard stuff out of the way first. There is something to be said about enduring the most physically and mentally demanding sections first and then enjoying the last half on auto-pilot.

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The Sections of the Long Trail

Northern Section

As mentioned, the Long Trail is a difficult trail to hike, and most of the challenge lies in the northern half of the trail. This section is extremely rugged, rocky, and all around rough. On several days where it was raining heavily, the trail itself became a small stream with cascading waterfalls on the inclines. Rain caused the rocky trail to be dangerously slick in some sections where the trail scrambled over boulder fields and rock slides.

The trail crosses Vermont’s highest peaks, including Mt. Mansfield and the Presidential range (Lincoln, Abraham, and Jefferson), and runs through designated Wilderness Areas where trail maintenance is rare. The viewpoints and vistas seemed to never end, but unfortunately for us, clouds surrounded the peaks and valleys for most of the hike and socked in the views. It didn’t seem fair. All that hard work for nothing...

Southern Section

From the Southern Terminus to about the area of Sunrise Shelter (Mile 124 northbound), the terrain was astonishingly less brutal than the northern 150 miles. It’s still difficult, don’t get me wrong, because it has just as much mud and rocky scrambles. But the intensity is slightly less….intense. The southern portion has fewer climbs and descents, easier graded climbs and descents, more resupply options, and more shelters. However, there is less of a “reward factor” in the southern portion compared to the north.

The southern section also crosses over ski resorts, including Killington and Bromley, and skirts by Stratton. Paired with the countless ski areas of the northern half, our trip included lots of chair lifts.

As the southern section overlaps the Appalachian Trail, this portion of the trail seemed to have more wear and tear with associated thru-traffic. Shelters here had noticeably more vandalism, burn spots, damage, and garbage. The trail was wider in muddier sections as crowds of people step around the puddles onto the shoulder of the trail. Overall, the trail was still in immaculate condition given the crowds it sees.

Hike Overview: The Environment Around Us

Flora

I saw a lot of mushrooms, which I think was the result of the dense forest and rainy time of year. The spruce and fir trees smelled good. Everything smelled good. That’s pretty much all I took note of.

Fauna

Unfortunately, wildlife was pretty scarce along the trail. We saw an American Martin (at least we think it was that, from a distance), a few deer, some birds, and some salamanders and newts. I stepped over lots of moose poop, but no sightings!

The great part about all this was that we had zero insect problems on this hike. No ticks, no flies, no mosquitoes.

Weather

We complained a lot about the weather along the hike, because that’s what hikers do. The shoulder season (transitional weather between fall and winter) in Vermont was finicky. It was very damp most of the time. We had rain in some capacity for about half the hike. There were a few days when we hiked in clouds all day, so even though it didn’t rain, the air was beautifully misty and all exposed surfaces were wet. It was a very strange experience to have water dripping off me when there was no rain falling from the sky. It made the forest extra still.

The intense dampness and cold temperatures made it impossible for things to dry. Clothes that were wet at bedtime were still wet—and sometimes frozen—in the morning. Shoes began to freeze solid towards the end of the hike, something we mitigated by sleeping with them in between us. We were prepared for moisture, though, and were able to keep our base layers and sleeping bags dry at all times, which came in clutch for warmth and safety.

The backcountry shelters are very drafty. This is mostly due to the fact that the shelters are only three-sided, so we didn’t expected anything different. On windy nights in higher elevation, the clouds would blow into the shelters and swirl around the walls, covering everything in a thin layer of moisture. A few nights in higher elevations were spent in the four-sided, fully enclosed lodges maintained by the Green Mountain Club. Some of these lodges required a $5 fee for the night, but it was worth it to be slightly warmer and a little less wet.

When it was sunny, though, it was breathtaking. We only had a few days of sun but they made the entire effort worth it. The skies were the most royal of blues contrasted against the palette of fall foliage. The sights, the smells, the warm sunshine… it was paradise. I even got to hike in shorts and a t-shirt a few times. It was nice to let the legs and arms breathe every so often.

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Check back in a few weeks to hear more about Elliott’s trek on the Long Trail. In the second part of the series, he covers gear—including what worked and didn’t quite work as planned—and their resupplying process and go-tos. In the meantime, take a look at our other pieces of trail mail!