The Green Mountains that form the backbone of Vermont are gentle mountains -- perfect for backpacking and an ideal place to introduce children to hiking. But while adults may not mind lugging a 40-pound pack, trying to get a fire going in the rain and shooing hungry porcupines away from camp, backpacking can be daunting for children. So when another father and I decided to take our 9-year-old daughters on a hiking trip last summer, we chose an inn-to-inn itinerary calculated for their enjoyment as well as ours.
The number of country inns in Vermont has risen dramatically in recent years, so it is now possible to walk almost anywhere in the state and find accommodations at the end of the day. We discovered a group of eight inns in the center of the state that has formed a network called Country Inns Along the Trail, allowing hikers to make reservations for successive nights with a single telephone call. The innkeepers provide maps, prepare trail lunches, shuttle hikers to and from their cars or public transportation, and generally look after the special needs of inn-to-inn walkers. For us, they made it possible to enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery at a leisurely pace without worrying about the logistics.
I laid out a route that would allow us to cover about 30 miles in easy stages over four days, starting at the highest elevation so the walking would be mostly downhill. We would hike rocky mountain trails and little-used logging roads, and be greeted at the end of each day with sumptuous meals and cozy beds -- even a hot tub at one of the inns.
We began by riding a chairlift 1 1/4 miles up to the top of Killington Peak, in the middle of the mountain range. At 4,241 feet, Killington is the second highest mountain in Vermont and the center of the largest ski area in the East. From the bare, rocky summit there are good views in all directions: northeast to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, north to Mount Mansfield (Vermont's highest peak) and west to the Vermont city of Rutland and New York's Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. The Appalachian Trail, winding more than 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine, and the Long Trail, which follows the spine of the Green Mountains from Massachusetts to the Canadian border, run together here.
We followed the trail northward five miles to the slopes of Little Pico, and made the descent into Sherburne Pass on a 3,500-foot alpine slide, a fiberglass chute with sleds big enough for one or two riders. This was the best part of the day for the girls, who insisted on going back up on the chairlift three more times to ride the slide.
In Sherburne Pass we spent the night at the Inn at Long Trail, a popular stopping place for through hikers, who use the inn as a mail drop for supplies. Owners Kyran and Rosemary McGrath offer Irish folk music and Guinness stout in their pub, and a hearty breakfast in the dining room, which is built around a huge boulder.
Our second day's walk was our longest -- almost 11 miles -- and also the hardest. The Long Trail is steep north of Sherburne Pass, passing through dense woods of maple, beech and birch. Deep mud puddles, the result of unusually heavy rains earlier in the summer, blocked our way in numerous places, forcing us to detour through rough thickets. The girls grew tired and began complaining, but they kept walking.
We stopped for lunch at the primitive Rolston Rest Shelter, where the girls cooled their feet in a stream, then turned off the Long Trail onto a jeep road. The road wound past South Pond and Chittenden Reservoir, and finally, after seven hours of walking, we reached the comfortable Tulip Tree Inn. The inn's hot tub was a welcome sight, and a brook murmured nearby, lulling us to sleep early.
The next day Ed McDowell, co-owner of the inn with his wife Rosemary,drove us to North Chittenden, where we continued our hike on a little-used woods road. We passed a fish hatchery, where landlocked salmon are raised for release in Lake Champlain. Our route led six miles up the valley of Furnace Brook, with views of Blood Root Mountain, to the tiny town of Goshen. The girls paused often to pick blackberries and to admire flowers and butterflies. We stayed with friends that night, not far from the pretty Churchill House Inn, near Forest Dale, which is the center of the inn-to-inn system.
On our last day of hiking we walked northwest through an area of the Green Mountain National Forest that has recently been opened for recreation. By this time, we all had sore feet and the girls were cranky. "Why don't we do this in a car? Whatever made you think we'd like hiking? It's boring." And, at five-minute intervals, "When are we going to get there?" We told them that when they grew up they would look back on our hike and be glad that they had done it.
The girls cheered up as we approached the finish. We walked around Silver Lake and down to the Falls of Lana, where Sucker Brook tumbles past Rattlesnake Point, with its wonderful views of Lake Dunmore and the Taconic Mountains beyond.
We ended our hike at the beach in Branbury State Park, where a wide, grassy lawn gives way to a bit of sand and the warm waters of Lake Dunmore -- one of the larger lakes in Vermont -- nestled in a ring of high green hills. The elevation here is only 600 feet -- more than 3,600 feet below our starting place at Killington Peak.
Four months after our hike my daughter made a surprising announcement. "You know how you said when I grew up I would look back on our hike and be glad I did it?" she asked. "Well, I already am."
I asked her what it was she remembered fondly. "The alpine slide," she said.
Michael Melford is a Boston attorney.
WAYS & MEANS
WHEN TO GO: Vermont's inns are open most of the year, usually closing only between the end of October and Thanksgiving and for a few weeks in the spring "mud season" (around late April) when the snow melts and back roads can become quagmires.
Hiking in the Green Mountains is at its best from the end of September through the middle of October. Visitors come from all over the country to see the fall colors, and inn reservations must be made early. Summer is also a fine time to hike, though it can be humid. In winter, cross-country skiing is becoming increasingly popular in Vermont, and some of the inns -- most notably Mountain Meadows Lodge, Blueberry Hill and Mountain Top Inn -- offer their own groomed trail systems. Further north, in the Craftsbury and Stowe areas, it is possible to ski from inn to inn.
INFORMATION: The Vermont Travel Division, 134 State St., Montpelier, Vt. 05602, (802) 828-3236, offers information on inn-to-inn hiking and biking, including a list of companies that package guided hiking tours using inns as accommodations.
Country Inns Along the Trail is a network of eight inns in the Green Mountains through which you can make reservations for successive nights on an inn-to-inn hike with a single telephone call. Information is available from the Churchill House Inn, R.D. 3, Brandon, Vt. 05733, (802) 247-3300. The other inns in the network are: Tulip Tree Inn, Chittenden Dam Road, Chittenden, Vt. 05737, (802) 483-6213. Mountain Meadows Lodge, Thundering Brook Road, Killington, Vt. 05751, (802) 775-1010. Blueberry Hill, R.D. 3, Goshen, Vt. 05733, (802) 247-6735. Chipman Inn, Ripton, Vt. 05766, (802) 388-2390. Long Run Inn, R.D. 1, Bristol, Vt. 05443, (802) 453-3233. Tucker Hill Lodge, Waitsfield, Vt. 05673, (802) 496-3983. Camel Hump View Farm, Route 100B, Moretown, Vt. 05660, (802) 496-3614.
The Inn at Long Trail (Route 4, Killington, Vt. 05751, 802-775-7181 or 800-325-2540) is not a member of the network, but is a popular stop: Located directly on the Long Trail, it serves as a mail drop for through hikers.
The Green Mountain Club publishes two books that are useful for planning a hiking trip, the "Guide Book of the Long Trail" ($8.50) and the "Day Hiker's Guide to Vermont" ($7). Both are available locally at Travel Books Unlimited in Bethesda or by mail from the Club, P.O. Box 889, Montpelier, Vt. 05602. (Include $1.75 for shipping and handling for orders under $20.)
"Hiking From Inn to Inn," by David and Kathleen MacInnes, East Woods Press, has a section on Vermont, as well as descriptions of other inn-to-inn walks from Virginia to Maine.
Also useful are the topographic maps published by the U.S. Geological Survey, which can be found at bookstores or some outdoor outfitters, or from the Survey sales offices at 12201 Sunrise Valley, Reston, Va. 22092, 648-6892, and 1028 General Services Building, 19th and F streets NW, Washington, D.C. 20244, 343-8073. These maps should be used with caution, however, as many of them have not been updated.
A book, "End to End," featuring topographic maps in a slim format designed for hikers, was recently published by Northern Cartographic, P.O. Box 133, Burlington, Vt. 05402, (802) 862-0074.
-- Michael Melford