Monday, September 21, 2020

Mount Mansfield from Toll Road

Camels Hump and the Green Mountains from Mount Mansfield
2.8 miles round trip, 600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, minor rock scrambling
Access: Gravel road to trailhead, toll required

The tallest peak in the Green Mountains and the state of Vermont, 4393-foot Mount Mansfield has a distinct profile that with some imagination seems to resemble the face of a person in repose. The easiest way to reach the summit of this Northeast icon is a stunning alpine ridge walk and scramble through boreal forest and tundra from the Mount Mansfield Toll Road. This hike is only accessible in summer and fall and traverses the most extensive area of alpine tundra in Vermont. Although this approach is less than a mile and a half each way with just a moderate amount of elevation gain, the scrambling necessary to reach this summit as well as the stunning views over the rest of Vermont and Lake Champlain and out to New York and New Hampshire means that most hikers will take an hour to reach the summit, or Chin of Mount Mansfield, from the trailhead at the end of the Toll Road near the mountain's Nose.

Mansfield's profile is easily recognizable and its height means that it is visible from many places in Vermont and around Lake Champlain. The peak rises above the Vermont town of Stowe, an all-season resort town known particularly for its ski runs on Mansfield's slopes and for being the Vermont home of the Von Trapps after the musical Austrian family immigrated to the United States. While views of Mansfield are beautiful from many angles, I personally found that my favorite view of the peak was from the AM Foster Covered Bridge near Cabot. 

Mount Mansfield from the AM Foster Covered Bridge
You'll have to shell out a little bit to reach the trailhead, but it's worth it to hike this spectacular ridgeline approach. Anna and I hiked Mansfield during an early September visit to Vermont, when there were just hints of the fall color that would arrive later that month. Stowe is the closest town to Mansfield; Montpelier and Burlington are towns that are short distance away. The trailhead is 2.5 hours from Montreal and 3.5 hours from Boston. The Mount Mansfield Auto Toll Road is managed by the Stowe Mountain Resort; RVs and trailers are not allowed and you can find information about the rates for the road here. From Stowe, we followed Vermont Highway 108 northwest for 6 miles until we came to the sign for the Toll Road on the left side of the road. We turned left here, paid the toll, and followed the gravel Toll Road 4.5 miles uphill, passing by the ski runs of the Stowe Mountain Resort. There were some nice views of Mansfield on the drive up the Toll Road. The road ended at the parking lot outside the Mansfield Visitor Center along the crest of the Green Mountains.

The entire length of the hike follows the Long Trail, a 272-mile long-distance trail along the spine of the Green Mountains traversing Vermont from south to north. The Long Trail is the granddaddy of long-distance trails in the United States: it's the very first such trail established and inspired later efforts to create the Appalachian Trail. The tundra along this stretch of the Long Trail is unique and rare in the Northeast, so white rope along the length of the hike to the top of Mansfield delineates the trail to prevent hikers from damaging this fragile habitat. The trail lies within Mount Mansfield State Forest rather than Green Mountains National Forest, which encompasses most of the rest of the range.

From the visitor center, we took the Long Trail to the right (heading north), which delved into a thick forest of miniature conifers and quickly crossed a gravel road that continued up to the communications towers on top of the Nose of Mount Mansfield. The trail continued through this thick dwarf forest, with wooden planks helping navigate through some marshy ground. After three hundred meters, the trail emerged onto exposed rock on the ridge and for the most of the rest of the length of the hike stayed on outcrops that were mixed into the ridgetop environment of boreal forest and the low shrub of the tundra. As soon as we were out on the rocks, views started opening up: we could see back south to the impressive cliffs of the Nose and the nearby communications towers.

Mount Mansfield Trail winds along the ridge from the Nose
Views along the early stretch of the hike were generally to the west, especially as there were still many clouds floating around the Green Mountains. Only a few more low ridges and a wide, forested plain dotted with occasional farms separated us from Lake Champlain, the massive lake filling the wide valley between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks that drains north to the St. Lawrence River. It is the largest lake in the Northeast outside the Great Lakes and fills the northernmost section of the Great Valley, the extensive Appalachian valley system that includes Shenandoah Valley in the backyard of this blog's home area.

Beyond Lake Champlain, we could see the Adirondacks, the roof of New York State. Despite their proximity to the Appalachians, the Adirondacks are actually a separate mountain chain, forming from an eroded protrusion of the Canadian Shield, which itself is bedrock the core of the North American continent. The Adirondacks peak at Mount Marcy, which at 5344 feet tall is a thousand feet above the height of the Green Mountains.

Lake Champlain
The trail was consistently rocky and went through a series of ups and downs over small bumps on the ridge as we traveled north towards the Chin. There were a number of junctions with other trails, including the Cliff Trail up from the Cliff House at the top of the gondola and ski area, but at each junction we stayed on the Long Trail and continued following the ridge. Along with the white rope that defined the route, white blazes painted on the rock directed us towards the summit.

As we progressed steadily uphill through the rocky terrain, the Chin of Mount Mansfield- the mountain's true summit- rose before us, a rocky knob rising above the stunted conifers of the boreal forest. The final ascent began after passing by the junction with the Cliff Trail in a saddle. From here, the trail maintained a steady uphill grade that steepened at the end as we approached the summit, climbing over 300 feet in 0.3 miles in a rocky scramble to the roof of Vermont.

Summit ridge of Mount Mansfield, looking towards the Chin
From the broad summit area, there were amazing, 360-degree views. The Long Trail continued to the north but we stopped here, finding a nice corner of the outcrop on which to sit down and enjoy the view. Recent rains had deposited puddles into the crevices on the summit outcrop. Summit views were initially clouded over but started to clear up after a while. A volunteer from the Green Mountain Club dispensed information about the summit and helped the hikers at the top avoid trampling the fragile alpine vegetation. 

The view to the south along the ridge of Mount Mansfield and along the spine of the Green Mountains was perhaps the most raw and visually stunning aspect of the view. The great cliffs along the eastern face of the mountains were fully visible here, making clear the incredible vertical relief of this mountain above Stowe and the valley below. The cliffs continued all the way to the Nose of Mansfield- in the distance, we could see our starting point at the visitor center. The Green Mountains continued south past the Nose, most notably rising up to the sharp summit of Camels Hump, the state's third highest peak.

To the east, the ski slopes of Mansfield led down to Stowe in the valley below. Across the valley were the forested, rounded peaks of the Worcester Range, while the many parallel ranges of Vermont stretched east from there. In the far distance I could see the outline of the high White Mountains in New Hampshire: the viewshed stretched to Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast at 6288 feet. To the north, the high crest of the Greens at Mount Mansfield transitioned to the lower, forested slopes of the Sterling Range on the other side of Smugglers Notch. The High Peaks of the Adirondacks rose to the west across island-dotted Lake Champlain.

Mount Mansfield
Worcester Range and Stowe from Mansfield
The Adirondacks rise above Lake Champlain
Northerly view from Mansfield's summit
This was a beautiful hike with nearly constant views to the top of Vermont with some fun rock scrambling along the ridge on the way. While purists may shun the easier approach from the Toll Road in favor of an ascent from the base with more elevation gain, most hikers will find that this open ridgeline approach is friendlier on both the knees and the eyes. A highly recommended hike in New England and the crowning hiking glory of the Stowe area.

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