Length: About 190 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Ferries: Call 802-864-9804 for information on Lake Champlain ferries.
Nearby attractions: City of Montreal, Quebec. University of Vermont Dairy Farm, South Burlington, VT. Vermont Wildflower Farm, Charlotte, VT. Kingsland Bay State Park, Ferrisburg, VT.
Not to be missed: Ferry ride across Lake Champlain to New York, departing from Charlotte, Burlington, or Grand Isle.
Further information: Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, 60 Main St., Suite 100, Burlington, VT 05401; tel. 802-863-3489, www.vermont.org.
Though it lies not far from some of the East Coast’s largest cities, Lake Champlain remains truly unspoiled—one of America’s lovelier repositories of natural beauty. Doubly blessed, this long, island-dotted jewel is set in the expansive valley between New York’s Adirondacks to the west and the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east. Drivers on this loop tour may feel as though transported to faraway places: the peaks that loom above Champlain bring Switzerland to mind, and the juniper-topped bluffs along its shores recall the rugged seascapes of coastal Maine. For those who live beside it, however, this always enchanting, ever-changing blend of water, wind, and light is reason to stay right at home.
Lake Champlain is 120 miles long and flows from Whitehall, New York, to its outlet at the Richelieu River in the Province of Quebec, Canada. The lake’s unusual shape is drastically tapered at its southern tip, where it shrinks to the width of a weedy stream, and at Ticonderoga, the site of one of the lake’s three ferry crossings, it seems as if anyone with a strong arm and a tailwind could hurl a baseball right across its quarter-mile-wide span. Just a few miles north, though, the lake broadens to truly impressive dimensions, reaching a maximum width of 12 miles near the Vermont town of Burlington.
From Ticonderoga, follow Rte. 9N/22 north along the western shore through Crown Point, Port Henry (not far from the Champlain Bridge, which will be crossed later in the drive when you return to New York from Vermont), and the lakeside town of Westport. The main street, perched above Westport’s busy marina, offers sweeping panoramic views of the lake in all of its moods.
If you’re especially patient—who knows?—you might manage to catch a glimpse of Champ, Lake Champlain’s own version of the Loch Ness Monster. Samuel de Champlain, exploring these waters in 1609, was the first to note something of the sort, writing of a 20-foot-long serpentlike creature with a horse’s head. Since then, Champ sightings have become a regular feature of life along Champlain, though somewhat ironically, this elusive creature has a knack for appearing only at those moments when no camera is available.
Among the prettier villages on the New York side, tiny Essex is a slice of rural Americana that can becalm the most jangled city nerves. The town’s tidy main street, which parallels the lakeshore, is lined with stately shade trees and Federal-style houses. Two small marinas occupy the snug natural harbor, which also serves as the landing for the Essex–Charlotte ferry. For a relaxing hour-long break from driving, take the round-trip cruise across the lake (you can take your car to explore the other side, or leave it in the Essex ferry lot). Spend a restful evening at one of the harbor’s charming cafés, where you can watch the gilded glow of the Green Mountains as they catch the last rays of the setting sun. In the hour before darkness, the lake grows still as granite, and if the nearby commotion permits, the tiniest of sounds—the soft ping of a halyard, the cry of a gull—travels for miles across the surface.
3. Willsboro Point
For much of the journey north to Plattsburgh, the drive skirts the eastern slopes of the Adirondack Mountains, a region that embraces one of the East Coast’s grandest tracts of wilderness. Taller and more rugged than their cousins across the lake, the Adirondacks amass in a great, brooding jumble near the lake’s western shore. The mountains are so immense and densely forested that it’s not always easy to get a clear view of them when one is in their midst. Be assured that they are all around you, and hold your breath for a better look at these stony giants when you reach the Vermont side of the lake.
Beyond Essex the highway follows the lakeshore for a stretch before veering inland to Willsboro, where New York State’s first fish ladder affords migrating salmon the chance to overleap Willsboro Dam en route to their fall spawning grounds upstream—and enables visitors to witness this ageless, often repeated struggle.
Farther on, take the turnoff to Willsboro Point, a fingerlike peninsula that shelters one of Champlain’s largest and perhaps most scenic inlets. Reminiscent of a Nordic fjord, four-mile-long Willsboro Bay is walled on the west by sheer cliffs that tumble to the water’s edge. To sample accommodations as they existed here some 200 years ago, visit the Adsit Cabin, a modest log structure built in the 1790s.
4. Ausable Chasm
This deep, tortuous gorge was one of America’s first tourist attractions, and its grandeur has hardly paled over the years. Come early in the day to avoid the crowds, and take a leisurely stroll along the path below the chasm’s beautifully textured, sheer sandstone walls—sculpted over millennia through Cambrian rock formed over 500 million years ago by the Ausable River on its way into Lake Champlain. In places these magnificent walls—between 100 and 200 feet high—stand as close together as 20 feet. On bright autumn days flaming foliage ignites the chasm’s clifftops as well as patches along its walls, making for an especially breathtaking spectacle.
The largest town on the New York side, Plattsburgh was the site of the lake’s last major naval battle during the War of 1812—not only a victory for the American fleet, but a tribute to the imagination of its commander, Commodore Thomas Macdonough. Using a cat’s cradle of anchors and winches, Macdonough was able to swing his ships around and deliver double broadsides to the British fleet, which soon withered under his hammering assault. A limestone obelisk across from city hall commemorates the scene and the battle.
From Plattsburgh the drive continues north on Rte. 9 through Ingraham and Chazy (home to what locals say is the largest McIntosh apple orchard in the world), and follows Rte. 9B to Rouses Point (near the Canadian border) before veering east to Vermont on Rte. 2. From the Korean Veterans Memorial Bridge (still known by many as the Rouses Point Bridge), look northward to catch a glimpse of the stone ruins of Fort Montgomery. Aptly nicknamed Fort Blunder, it was inadvertently constructed north of the 45th parallel, on unquestionably Canadian soil.
Here Vermont’s Alburg Peninsula and Champlain’s islands segment the lake into a patchwork of bays. Remote and lovely, this area contains some of the Champlain Valley’s richest farmland. On lingering summer days no lakeside tour would be complete without stopping to sample the fresh produce that is abundant in the many roadside stands.
6. Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge
A short detour on Rte. 78 brings you to this pristine wetland preserve on the broad Missisquoi River delta. The refuge’s 6,642 acres are evenly divided between brush, timber, and marsh, making this a perfect spot to observe wildlife of every stripe, from the migratory waterfowl and raptors that stop here each spring and fall to the white-tailed deer and other animals that inhabit the refuge’s wooded uplands and wildflower meadows. Two well-marked nature trails—about 11⁄2 miles in total length—guide visitors into this fragile mix of habitats. In the summer bring along a bucket and waterproof boots—and insect repellent—for blueberry picking in the bog off Tabor Road.
7. Isle La Motte
Northernmost of Champlain’s islands, tiny Isle La Motte is sparsely touristed, as sequestered in spirit as it is in fact. Fittingly, the one spot that attracts visitors year after year is a place of quiet contemplation: it is St. Anne’s Shrine, site of the first white settlement and the first Roman Catholic Mass to be held in Vermont, in 1666. Despite prayers to St. Anne (mother of the Virgin Mary), the settlers were driven off the island by inclement weather and hostile natives; the area was later reclaimed as a holy place by the Bishop of Burlington in 1892.
Take the serene water’s-edge drive to Isle La Motte’s southern tip, where lake breezes stir the trees and an occasional snowy egret haunts the rocky shores of an old, water-filled marble quarry.
8. North Hero Island
Island-hopping to the east, the drive crosses another bridge and alights on narrow North Hero. Here, just off Rte. 2, sits woodsy North Hero State Park, a mecca for campers on a handsome stretch of land overlooking Maquam Bay. Motoring south across the slender isthmus that connects the north and south sections of the island, and continuing beyond the town of North Hero, the drive arrives at Knight Point State Park. Poised on the island’s very tip, this charming oasis is blessed with a sheltered, warm bay just right for swimming, and a view of the drawbridge connecting North Hero and Grand Isle. More spectacular still are the park’s views of the Green Mountains to the southeast and the Adirondacks to the southwest. Beginning at the sandy beach, a grassy nature trail loops around the oftentimes breezy point to pass through groves of birches, oaks, and maples.
9. Grand Isle
Golden hayfields, fragrant orchards, and lush green pastures bordered by a choppy, wind-tossed lake is the largest of Champlain’s islands. Like its neighbors to the north, Grand Isle has managed to avoid unchecked development—it’s too cold in the winter, too far in the summer—but visitors who manage to pass through these parts are left with fond memories. To best sample this island’s unique charms, take the East Shore Road south along the coastline to Grand Isle State Park, then follow Town Line Road to rejoin Rte. 2 near Keeler Bay, a sheltered cove ideal for boating and fishing. A number of primitive camps—and the occasional upscale summer home—are huddled along the water’s edge.
10. Sand Bar State Park
A narrow mile-long causeway crosses the waterway separating the southern tip of Grand Isle from the mainland. Deservedly, the protected beach at Sand Bar State Park draws hefty crowds on summer weekends, but autumn’s first gasp of chilly air restores this stretch of sand and trees to an uncrowded tranquillity. Spread a blanket on the ground for a breezy picnic beside the whitecaps, or prowl the edge of the adjacent wildlife refuge, which offers some of the best bird-watching south of the Missisquoi delta.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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