Wind Through the White River Valley in Vermont
Route Details Length: About 120 miles, plus side trips. When to go: Year-round, but winters are cold and springtimes often
Length: About 120 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Year-round, but winters are cold and springtimes often muddy due to snowmelt.
Nearby attractions: Montpelier, Vermont’s state capital, with museums and lodgings. Woodstock, one of the state’s earliest and prettiest towns, Rte. 4, west of White River Junction.
Further information: Vermont Dep’t. of Tourism & Marketing, 6 Baldwin St., Drawer 33, Montpelier, VT 05633-1301; tel. 800-837-6668, www.vermontvacation.com.
Even by Vermont standards, much of the northeastern corner of the state is an out-of-the-way place, wild and unpopulated. The narrow roads are weatherworn, dairy farmers live much as their 19th-century ancestors did, and the forests form a mantle of green brocade across the hills. For a rural rhapsody sampling such country charms, follow this drive through the Green Mountain State.
1. White River Valley
Two rivers and two interstate highways converge in the village of White River Junction, long a rest stop for weary travelers. Shady blocks of stately brick buildings comprise the downtown area, where the Hotel Coolidge, with its fine murals and antiques, has been offering accommodations ever since the railroad came through town in the late 1800s.
Before you head northward from White River Junction, consider a six-mile sidetrip westward on Rte. 4 to Quechee Gorge, Vermont’s Little Grand Canyon. A bridge, perched 165 feet above the gorge’s floor, offers dizzying views of the stone-strewn chasm, carved into the foothills by the Ottauquechee River. Several additional overlooks are positioned on both sides of the gorge’s rim. Or to sample the area on foot, you can follow one of several hiking trails—some lead all the way down to the river.
The bends and straightaways of the White River guide Rte. 14 north to Sharon. While lovely hilltop churches are signature sights in New England, a religious landmark of a different sort lies just a few miles north of town: the boyhood home of Joseph Smith, who was born in 1805 and, later founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A steep, tree-lined turnoff leads to his family’s farm, which today has been designated a Mormon shrine complete with a museum and a granite memorial dedicated to Smith. The site’s fields and forests, about 360 acres in all, are a walker’s delight.
The drive switches onto Rte. 132, veering northeastward through a pocket of Vermont that has largely escaped the modern world. A patchwork of rustic villages, dairy farms, clapboard dwellings, and meadows grazed by Morgan horses fills the valleys between the hills. The West Branch of the Ompompanoosuc River, a gentle waterway, runs beside the road. Scan the horizon where the views open up at higher elevations: the White Mountains crest in the east; the more rounded Green Mountains rumble to the west.
Well-kept white houses grace the peaceful small town of Strafford. One standout here is the impressive pink mansion that was the residence of Justin Smith Morrill, a three-term U.S. congressman and longtime senator. Though fond of his estate, he represented Vermont in national politics for so long—more than 40 years—that much of his time was spent in Washington, D.C. One of his proudest achievements was the 1862 Morrill Act, which granted the states federal lands in order to finance the establishment of colleges.
Winters are cold here, as the high-stacked piles of firewood testify. Many farmers, seeking ways to milk their cows without having to brave the brisk outdoors, have connected their homes to their barns with rambling additions or enclosed walkways, simple but sure examples of Yankee ingenuity.
Covered bridges are another common sight in Vermont, and five of them can be found in Tunbridge alone. (The town, though, was named for an 18th-century nobleman, not a bridge.) The most prominent wooden span is the Howe Bridge, south of town. Dating from 1879, it is almost as old as Tunbridge’s self-proclaimed World’s Fair—a festival that has been held each autumn since the 1860s. The celebration features such pastoral pleasures as floral displays and fiddling contests.
At South Royalton, across the river from the white buildings of the Vermont Law School, take Rte. 14 north to Royalton, a town that was burned to the ground in 1780 by raiding British soldiers and Indians. Next you’ll pass through three separate Randolphs: South, East, and North. (There’s also a Randolph Center and Randolph Village—a small indication of how Vermonters can make the most out of anything, even a name.)
In Brookfield stop at Sunset Lake, site of the annual Ice Harvest Festival. If you’re here the last weekend in January, you’ll witness some of the area’s hardiest residents using ice saws and tongs as they demonstrate the old-time skill of carving out block ice.
Still waters run deep at Sunset Lake—so deep that it has been impractical to connect the two sides of the lake with a conventional anchored bridge. The solution: a “floating bridge” buoyed by almost 400 barrels. Its simplicity is a perfect match for the understated beauty of Brookfield itself.
Forested mountains hem in Rte. 14 as it snakes northward through a chasm called the Williamstown Gulf. Farther on, after emerging from the deep valley, the drive enters the town of Barre, where the New England work ethic is clearly in evidence.
More than 1,500 residents are employed by local granite quarries and stonecutters, which produce one-third of the nation’s memorial stones. The biggest pit of them all—the largest, deepest granite quarry in the world—lies to the southeast of Barre in aptly named Graniteville, where the Rock of Ages company has been mining stones from the earth since 1885. Guided tours are available in summer, and visitors can watch as skilled stonecutters reshape blocks weighing as much as 200 tons.
Spreading across the hillsides north of Barre, Hope Cemetery, like an outdoor sculpture garden, is replete with the finished products of the granite-carving artisans. The stones have been fashioned with consummate skill to resemble everything from racing cars, airplanes, and soccer balls to the detailed likenesses of people.
7. Craftsbury Common
Christened the Northeast Kingdom, this backcountry corner of Vermont has a subdued rural grace that combines lakes, woodlands, and meadows. As Rte. 14 rolls through the region, it passes towns with names reflecting the area’s French-Canadian and Yankee heritages: East Montpelier and Calais, Woodbury and Hardwick.
Farther along, just past the serene expanse of Eligo Pond, detour onto Craftsbury Road for a visit to a string of hamlets that—probably not a surprise by now—also share a common name: East Craftsbury, Craftsbury, and Craftsbury Common. Elegant farmhouses and rolling ridges bedecked with apple orchards and evergreens are bountiful here. On the approach to Craftsbury Common, though, the trees part to reveal a splendid hilltop village green—a large and well-tended lawn surrounded by immaculate clapboard homes, steepled churches, and a grand country inn.
If you have the time and are inclined to continue still farther north on Rte. 14—perhaps all the way to Canada—you’ll travel beside the Black River through a land much like the boreal forest that lies in the far north, just south of the Arctic Circle. Lakes and bogs speckle the countryside, and woodlands of spruce trees and other evergreens extend for miles. In the towns that populate this northern province, it is said, you are more likely to meet a moose than another person.
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