Vermont Road Trip: Lake Champlain Loop

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

11. Burlington
As the drive pushes south along Champlain’s eastern shore, it offers distant views of Malletts Bay—a sheltered harbor bustling with pleasure boats and lined with family cottages. Then, after breezing through the beautifully restored river town of Winooski, the drive coasts into Burlington, the largest city in the state. A blend of rustic innocence and urban sophistication, this city of 40,000 or so is set on a steep, terraced slope beside the lake. The downtown is clean, upscale, and ideal for walking, with an open-air pedestrian mall of restaurants, pushcarts, and specialty shops. Spectacular views of Champlain and the Adirondacks appear around every corner. The slope above the city is crisscrossed with tree-shaded streets that are lined with regal Victorian homes, and crowning the hill are a white cupola and the cluster of stately brick buildings that grace the spacious campus of the University of Vermont, founded by Ira Allen in 1791.

Vermont was one of the last areas of New England to be settled, and in the years following the Revolutionary War, Ira and his brother Ethan (he of Green Mountain Boys fame) did much to promote Burlington’s development from a frontier farming community to the cultural capital of the state. Today the brothers are remembered as something akin to Burlington’s patron saints. To pay your respects and pay a call on history, stop in at the Ethan Allen Homestead, the modest farmhouse at the north end of town where the patriot lived the last two years of his life. Adjacent Ethan Allen Park preserves a portion of the farm once owned by Allen, and nature trails snake through the nearby woods.

12. Shelburne
The greater Burlington area has grown rapidly in recent years, and the commercial strip along Rte. 7 south of town is proof that even in Vermont, scenery sometimes takes a backseat to worldly necessities. Happily, the malls, car dealerships, discount stores, and cineplexes disappear within a few miles, replaced by berry farms, apple orchards, dairy fields, and roadside antique barns crammed to the rafters with eclectic country treasures.

In Shelburne two special treats await—both associated with the Webb family, whose wealth stems from the Vanderbilt railroad fortune. For nearly a hundred years, the Webbs’ walled compound on Shelburne Point—known as Shelburne Farms—was closed to the public, but a younger generation of Webbs has lately opened this magnificent 1,400-acre lakeside tract for a variety of public programs, including the Vermont Mozart Festival and tours of their award-winning farmstead cheese-making operation.

Just a few miles farther south on Rte. 7 lies the world-famous Shelburne Museum, which makes a spectacular virtue of the commonplace. This “village” of 39 buildings (including a lighthouse, a round barn, a country store, a jail, and other buildings carted from elsewhere in the state) houses one of the world’s great collections of 18th-century folk art, furnishings, tools, toys, carriages, and other Americana assembled by Electra Havemeyer Webb beginning in the 1940s. The museum’s largest oddity, a 1906 lake side-wheeler named the Ticonderoga, sits hard aground in the middle of town. Allow yourself at least one full day to tour the museum—a unique tribute to America’s past.

13. Charlotte
A worthy detour west off Rte. 7 brings you to this pretty country town, whose name is pronounced the French-Canadian way: SHAR-lot. If you’ve yet to set out on the lake, Charlotte provides a fine opportunity; the ferry, which runs back and forth to Essex, New York, departs from the dock at the end of Lake Road. The road to nearby Charlotte beach, a mecca for windsurfers, takes you across an old covered bridge with a broad, unobstructed view or two of the Adirondack Mountains.

On the other side of Rte. 7, Mt. Philo State Park beckons visitors to make the corkscrewing drive—it’s not recommended for trailers, though—or to hike to the summit of Mt. Philo for dazzling sunset views across the shimmering Champlain Valley.

14. Vergennes
South of Charlotte, the highway crosses the unofficial boundary separating the greater Burlington area from the rest of the state. This rolling portion of the Champlain Valley, replete with barns, silos, and black-and-white cows, resembles the Midwest with mountains.

At one square mile, Vergennes (pronounced VER-jenz) ranks as the smallest chartered city in Vermont, and it has an unstudied authenticity that recalls an earlier America. Park your car in the center of town for a pleasant warm-weather stroll, and then head west to Button Bay State Park, named for the peculiar, button-shaped pebbles (some with holes) that wash up along this protected cove. Six miles west of Vergennes on Basin Harbor Road, the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum dishes up the region’s most comprehensive display of navigational artifacts, many recovered from sunken Champlain steamboats.

15. Champlain Bridge

Before returning to New York, you’ll pass through Chimney Point. Some allege that Ethan Allen downed an ale in the tavern here before storming Fort Ticonderoga. The story is probably apocryphal, since the attack on Fort Ticonderoga took place at dawn and Chimney Point is more than 12 miles distant from it. Linking two historic sites—Chimney and Crown points—the high, arching Champlain Bridge affords a fine farewell view of the watery expanse to the north.

Become more interesting every week!

Get our Read Up newsletter

Sending Message
how we use your e-mail