Length: About 220 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round; fall foliage is especially beautiful in early to mid-October—newspapers have color reports.
Words to the wise: Book reservations early for fall foliage tours and accommodations. Mountain roads may be closed in winter. Some attractions are seasonal.
Nearby attractions: The Bennington Museum, Bennington. Village of Newfane. Vermont Historical Society Museum, Montpelier. Maple Grove Maple Museum (featuring exhibits on maple sugaring), St. Johnsbury.
Further information: Vermont Dep’t. of Tourism & Marketing, 6 Baldwin St., Drawer 33, Montpelier, VT 05633-1301; tel. 800-837-6668, www.vermontvacation.com.
Mountain Road (Rte. 108)
Setting out from the charming resort town of Stowe, Mountain Road leads northwest through a string of stunning attractions, beginning with Mt. Mansfield. The toll road or a gondola will take you most of the way up, but you’ll have to hike the final distance to the spectacular summit. From there you can see Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks to the west, Canada to the north, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the east. Farther along, at Smugglers Notch, a dramatic pass flanked by high walls of silver rock, you can hike the Long Trail to lovely Sterling Pond or cool off in the dank recesses of Smugglers Cave. Descending from these high, rocky places, the drive breezes past a series of enticing picnic spots before arriving at Jeffersonville.
Chartered a quarter century before America won its independence, tiny Wilmington once hewed its living from the surrounding forests. Today, this white-steepled village on the banks of the Deerfield River plies instead the Yankee innkeeper’s trade, serving a cluster of nearby ski resorts.
Gen. John Stark passed this way during the Revolutionary War as he led his troops in 1777 to the Battle of Bennington, where he swore that the British would be defeated “or tonight Molly Stark sleeps a widow.” Stark not only survived, he triumphed, and in tribute to him and his wife, Rte. 9 is now called the Molly Stark Trail.
Follow the trail east out of Wilmington for about three miles, and you’ll arrive at Molly Stark State Park, where a path leads to the summit of 2,415-foot Mt. Olga. The most appealing views are off to the east, toward the rolling hills of New Hampshire, but in early autumn the mountain’s own cloak of crimson maples and canary-yellow birches easily surpasses the lure of the distant horizon.
2. Green Mountain National Forest
Ever since it was settled by southern New England colonists hankering for elbow room, Vermont has meant many things to many people—survival on hardscrabble farms, the lonely grandeur of the Green Mountains, the sun’s sparkle on freshly powdered mountain slopes. Rte. 100, wending its way north from Wilmington, visits all of these various Vermonts.
Within its first 10 miles north of the Molly Stark Trail, the drive links two of the state’s many skiing meccas, Haystack and Mt. Snow—the latter named not for its stock-in-trade, but for the Reuben Snow farm that occupied this site until 1954. Farming was once far more widespread in the unforgiving uplands of Vermont. Much of the territory that makes up the nearly 400,000-acre Green Mountain National Forest, which Rte. 100 enters just beyond West Dover, was cleared of trees a century and a half ago. Today two great swaths of the state’s rugged heartland comprises the national forest, established in 1932. A vast resource of timber, it also shelters species as diverse as the peregrine falcon and the eastern coyote (a resourceful predator that has expanded its range in recent years).
3. Townshend State Park
Tucked next to an oxbow bend of the West River, West Townshend lies one mile east of Rte. 100’s convergence with Rte. 30 at East Jamaica. Two miles to the south at Townshend, you’ll find the entrance to Townshend State Park. Nearby, the river is spanned by two very different structures—the Townshend Dam, built in 1961, and the Scott Covered Bridge. Dating to 1870, this bridge is one of the longest and handsomest of the state’s 100-plus surviving wooden spans. Contrary to legend, these shedlike structures were enclosed to protect timbers and roadbeds from the elements, not to prevent horses from balking at river crossings. Today, these quaint bridges are as much a symbol of Vermont as dairy cows and cheese.
Townshend State Park serves as the trailhead for a path that leads to the summit of Bald Mountain. The trail meanders past an alder swamp, across a murmuring brook, and through a hemlock wood; it then ascends nearly 1,100 feet in less than two miles. The reward at the top is a splendid panorama of farms and forests along the West River valley.
4. Jamaica State Park
Returning to East Jamaica and Rte. 100, head north three miles to Jamaica State Park. Here, where the West River loops eastward around the great granite bulk of Ball Mountain, you can cool off at an old-fashioned swimming hole, watch as white-water canoeists and kayakers negotiate the river rapids, or hike to Cobb Brook’s 125-foot plunge over the smooth chutes and jagged precipices of Hamilton Falls.
Though no sign of its untamed past lingers, this idyllic woodland was once at New England’s western frontier. One day in 1748, as a party of Colonial scouts was returning to a fort on the Connecticut River from Lake Champlain, they were ambushed by Abnaki Indians at the foot of Ball Mountain, and six of their number were killed.
5. Scenic Mountain Loop
Once you reach the hamlet of Rawsonville, you can proceed in one of two ways: north on Rte. 100 or west on Rte. 30. Rte. 100 passes through meadows and valleys punctuated by the streamside village of South Londonderry.
Rte. 30 opens a scenic highland circuit that passes through Green Mountain National Forest and the heart of southern Vermont’s ski country. Just to the west of Rawsonville is the access road to Stratton Mountain, a giant alpine resort that features a gondola ride to the windy summit, where visitors are treated to views of four states. Past Stratton, turn right onto Rte. 11 and continue past the ski trails of Bromley Mountain, which presides over a 10-mile valley vista.
Before you get back to Rte. 100, you’ll pass a turnoff leading to the toylike village of Peru—a handful of houses, a white church, and the venerable, squeaky-floored J. J. Hapgood Store, established in 1827 and still offering everything from penny candy to fishing line.
Lying in the shadows of Markham and Terrible mountains, Weston was one of the first of the classic Vermont hill villages to turn its face to the outside world. Here, beside the village green with its handsome little bandstand, tourists take photos and townsfolk pick up their mail at the tiny post office. On summer evenings local theater thrives at the Weston Playhouse.
Just up the street the Vermont Country Store—selling souvenirs, calico by the yard, and mail-order goods to the far corners of the globe—keeps a fire in its potbellied stove during the cold months. At a riverside bowl mill, craftspeople transform trees into woodenware, while innkeepers pamper travelers with candlelit dinners and canopy beds. North of town, near the fork of Rtes. 100 and 155, Benedictine monks at the Weston Priory hold to a tradition far older than the hill towns of Vermont, soothing daily visitors with inspirational songs of their own composition.
Rte. 100 leaves Weston the way so many roads depart Vermont towns—by climbing over a mountain. Terrible Mountain isn’t really terrible, at least not by modern standards. But some 200 years ago, when Weston was a new settlement set against the mountain wilderness, the descriptive name probably made sense.
On the other side of the mountain, the road dips into Ludlow, an old factory town whose principal mill has been renovated and now contains eateries that cater to skiers taking a break from the slopes at nearby Okemo Mountain. In summer or fall follow a paved road to Okemo’s 3,343-foot summit, where views extend across the Connecticut Valley.
When the warm, sunny days of March alternate with subfreezing nights, the sap begins to rise in sugar maple trees.
Soon clouds of steam rise from hundreds of sugarhouses, where sugarers boil tapped-off liquid sap until it has thickened into the incomparably delectable companion to pancakes, waffles, baked beans, and vanilla ice cream we all know and love.
Sugaring time is as old as the region’s Native Americans and a link to all the generations of Vermonters. Surely, for example, it would have been a fact of life for the country’s 30th president, Calvin Coolidge, when he was a boy in Plymouth. The entire village, 14 miles north of Ludlow via Rtes. 100 and 100A, has been designated the Plymouth Notch Historic District, and it encapsulates Coolidge’s life and character. Here are the buildings where he was raised, the store his family kept, and the kerosene-lit room where his father, a notary public, administered the oath of office when the vacationing vice president learned of President Warren G. Harding’s death. It’s open seasonally from mid-May until mid-October, as is the Plymouth cheese factory nearby, run for decades by the president’s son, John Coolidge. Stop in and pick up some old-fashioned curd cheese, a local favorite.
A Coloradan native might not call them mountains at all. Gouged and scoured smooth by ice-age glaciers, the Green Mountains reveal their age with every mellowed fold, for their once-showy pinnacles have all but vanished with age.
But 4,235-foot Killington Peak is a formidable presence nonetheless, shouldering its way above the valleys of the Black and Ottauquechee rivers near the intersection of Rtes. 100 and 4. A century ago, central Vermonters liked to boast that Killington was the state’s highest peak—until more accurate surveys gave the title to Mt. Mansfield, farther to the north. Nowadays, Killington still has its own claims to fame: it is one of the most popular ski areas in the Northeast, and the 5,998-foot double chairlift ride from Rte. 4 to the summit—a fine way to enjoy the fall foliage along with a rest from driving—reaches the highest lift-served elevation in New England.
10. Gifford Woods State Park
Beyond Killington Rte. 100 strikes north from Rte. 4, arrowing directly into deep forests of hardwoods and evergreens. In this rolling, mountain-shadowed terrain, signs of civilization trail off so rapidly that the big ski resort might well have been a mirage. Just beyond the intersection, the lordly maples and hemlocks of Gifford Woods State Park stand as a living link with the Vermont of ages past, for this is climax forest, a woodland never touched by axe or plow.
11. White River Valley
North of Stockbridge, Rte. 100 parallels the White River, which traces the eastern boundary of Green Mountain National Forest. To the west lie Mt. Carmel, Bloodroot Mountain, Round Mountain, and other peaks—hulking barricades that separate the lush Champlain Valley from Rte. 100. But there are clefts in this wall of mountains. Just north of tiny Talcville, Rte. 73 lurches west and ascends to 2,183-foot Brandon Gap, one of the major Green Mountain passes. At the gap the road crosses the Long Trail, Vermont’s 270-mile “footpath in the wilderness” that follows the crest of the mountains from Massachusetts to Canada. For a vigorous break from driving, set out on the trail for a while. To the south a wayside shelter awaits hikers less than a mile away; to the north a steep hike leads to the cliff-girded summit of Mt. Horrid.
12. Middlebury Gap
Farther north along Rte. 100, a turn west on Rte. 125 at Hancock leads to Middlebury Gap, named for the cozy college town that lies across the mountains. After climbing for three miles, the road’s path reaches a short side route to the picnic area at Texas Falls, where the Hancock Branch of the White River roars over a granite escarpment to create one of Vermont’s loveliest wilderness cascades.
Farther west, beyond the gap’s highest point, a wayside honors poet Robert Frost, who lived for more than 20 years in the nearby village of Ripton. Frost once declared that along with New Hampshire, Vermont was “one of the two best states in the Union.” Plaques along a footpath are inscribed with quotes taken from the poet’s works.
13. Lincoln Gap
North of Hancock, the forests of the Green Mountain foothills take on a somber, almost melancholy cast. The heart of this cool, shadowy realm is the six-mile stretch called Granville Gulf, north of the little town of Granville. Wooded slopes close ever more tightly about the roadway, until the trees give way to sheer rock walls, dripping with the cold waters of cascading mountain streams.
The road up to the wildest and loftiest of the Green Mountain gaps begins at Warren, 10 miles north of Granville. As the Lincoln Gap road climbs westward away from Rte. 100, it is sheltered by tall ancient maples that in summer shroud the highway and, in winter, lies underneath an impassable blanket of snow.
When drivers reach the road’s 2,424-foot crest, they discover that the venerable Long Trail has gotten there first and offers the challenge of a 21⁄2-mile trek to the top of Mt. Abraham, a 4,006-foot perch commanding views of the Champlain Valley, Lake Champlain, and New York’s towering Adirondacks.
14. Mad River Valley
Loosed from the tight grip of Granville Gulf, Rte. 100 makes the six-mile northward run from Warren to Waitsfield along the fertile fields of the Mad River valley. The stream runs to madness only when it’s gorged with snowmelt in spring; during the rest of the year, it flows gently through a bucolic region of ski resorts and well-maintained family farms.
The ski areas—sprawling Sugarbush and smaller, tradition-minded Mad River Glen—both lie west of Rte. 100 between Warren and Waitsfield. The farms, like most in Vermont, are dairies, and their daily chores have hardly changed over the decades. The milking machines may be electric, but the farmer must still be in the barn before first light; capricious summer weather still spells out the fate of the vital corn crop used for the cattle’s feed; and “Make hay while the sun shines” is more than a mere figure of speech.
Vermont milk and Vermont apples undergo a transformation into two kinds of ambrosia here in Waterbury. In 1977 a pair of free spirits named Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield took a correspondence course in ice-cream making and set up shop in 1978 in a converted Burlington gas station—and the dessert world hasn’t been the same since. In 1985, when the unlikely moguls needed a new factory, they came to Waterbury, a quiet old red-brick town located where Rte. 100 crosses the Winooski River. The factory, now Ben & Jerry’s headquarters, welcomes visitors to its assembly lines with free samples, a cheerful soda fountain, and more than a dollop of the zaniness that put the old gas station on the map. Just up the road, a more traditional Vermont treat is produced at the Cold Hollow Cider Mill. You can watch the big press squeeze the rich bronze juice from tart locally grown apples, and you can shop for treats that range from apple pies to apple butter.
Head a mile and a half west from Rte. 100 on Rte. 2 to discover Waterbury’s main outdoor attraction, Little River State Park. Its densely wooded grounds border the blue waters of meandering Waterbury Reservoir. Calm-water canoeing, swimming from sandy beaches, and fishing for trout, perch, and bass all help work up an appetite for, well, fresh-squeezed cider and refreshing ice cream.
Introduced by English colonists in the 1700s, cheddar cheese has been a staple in Vermont ever since. Today the cheesemaking tradition continues at factories scattered throughout the state, including several not far from Rte. 100. For a look at the process, stop at the following: the Grafton Village Cheese Company in Grafton, Crowley Cheese in Healdville, Sugarbush Farm near Woodstock, or the Cabot Farmers Cooperative Creamery in Cabot. Others are listed at the Vermont Cheese Council website, www.vtcheese.com.
Like a snow-white lance aimed skyward, the lofty and narrow spire of Stowe’s Community Church identifies this most famous of Rte. 100’s long skein of country villages. Stowe—the town, the resort, and the mystique—seems to gather strength throughout the 10-mile drive north from Waterbury. Inns and ski shops tell the story, but none more strikingly than the great looming profile of Mt. Mansfield. At 4,393 feet, it is Vermont’s highest peak.
For generations of skiers, the sport has been synonymous with the 241-year-old town. Vermont skiing didn’t get its start here, but once Mansfield’s first trails were cut in the early 1930s, the legend was irrevocably launched. Stowe’s alpine cachet was helped immensely by the arrival, more than half a century ago, of an Austrian family named Von Trapp—the real-life inspiration behind the popular musical and stage play, The Sound of Music. Just outside the village, off Rte. 108, the Trapp Family Lodge commands a view of meadows and mountains that might have been imported from the Tyrol, along with the familiar strains of the Trapp family’s music.
17. Elmore State Park
Beginning with a flicker of yellow in the high country, the blaze fully ignites in the cold valley pockets before raging through the temperate lowlands. The trees explode with color during fall foliage season, but strangely their beauty results from nature’s closing up shop. Chlorophyll makes summer leaves green, and its supply diminishes as the days grow shorter, unmasking a kaleidoscope of pigments in the few precious weeks before the first gusts of late October winds strip the branches bare.
For a front-row seat at this annual spectacle, hike the trail that leads up Mt. Elmore, in Elmore State Park just east of Morrisville. From the abandoned fire tower at the summit, the colors of autumn —saffron, gold, scarlet, apricot, rust—radiate to the horizon and reflect in the clear waters of Lake Elmore far below.
18. Jay Peak
As the drive draws to a close, it skims the edges of Vermont’s least-populated corner, whose nickname, the Northeast Kingdom, evokes a fairyland of fabled treasures. Rich it is, too—in solitude, timberlands, and wildlife. Travelers rarely meet another car on the scenic gravel roads that snake through the backcountry hills, but they might see a moose trudging within or alongside a beaver-dammed pond as it seeks water sedges to feed on.
Standing alone and apart near the end of Rte. 100, Jay Peak is the northern bastion of the long chain of Green Mountains. But for all the nearby wilderness, Jay is still part of the skier’s Vermont. The beaklike shape you see at the top of the mountain is the summit station of an aerial tramway, its roomy cabs suspended by steel cables above a yawning forest gulf. You don’t have to ski down—the tramway runs in summer and fall—and Jay’s grand isolation will ensure views that reach as far distant as glittering Lake Champlain, Mt. Washington in far-off New Hampshire, and Canada to the north. Quebec Province is so close, in fact, that you are likely to hear French spoken on the mountain, though peculiarly accented with the Vermont twang.
Rte. 100 ends just south of the Canadian border at a junction with Rte. 105, next to a farmer’s field. Travelers heading north from Massachusetts may lament that Vermont’s Main Street, having led them to so many exciting places, ends here so anonymously. But for motorists driving in the opposite direction, that farmer’s field marks the gateway to adventure.
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