A little introduction about the Long Trail, the world’s first wilderness backpacking hike!
Vermont- America’s 14th state. Not part of the original 13 colonies because it did not trust the state of New York and had previously fought for its own identity.
Independent from the beginning, even the Native Americans who lived here had their own unique culture. The Abenaki people were living in Vermont when the first European settlers came to the new world. For as long as we know, people who called Vermont home have always been self-reliant and able to thrive in the cold climate.
It was the French who first staked their claim in this small, Northeast territory. The name Vermont, translated from French means “ver”- green “mont” – mountain. The state motto is “The Green Mountain State”. Vermont literally means “Green Mountain, the Green Mountain State”. As you can tell, the mountains are integral to the identity of all the people that call this region home.
Political identities, theorized as being passed down from the original inhabitants, have always been decentralized and locally based. Individual freedom and the ability to make a living in the mountains is where Vermont stands apart from all other states. Even today, the politics of the state are untarnished, separate from the rest of the country. The most recent political phenomenon to be exported is Bernie Sanders. Because of the strong local pride found in Vermont, a political campaign without corporate money has the ability to thrive and even win.
Even today, the people who live in Vermont are proud of having a strong work ethic. Traditions such as maple syrup production are vibrant throughout the state. Fishing, hunting, and especially skiing, are all integral to the Vermont lifestyle. The mountains shape the people as well as the landscape.
What Makes the Green Mountains Special
The mountains that make up the spine of the state are aptly named, The Green Mountains, locals call them “The Greens”. Stretching south to north, the entire chain is contained within the borders of Vermont.
The tallest mountain is named Mt. Mansfield, and it reaches 4,393 feet. The majority of summits are between 3,000 and 4,000 feet, compared to other mountain ranges, the Greens almost seem small. But do not judge this mountain range on elevation alone, and do not under estimate them.
Older Than Most of the Planet
Formed some 450 million years ago, during the formation of Pangea, the Green Mountains are some of the oldest in existence. It is theorized that at one time, they were taller than the Rocky Mountains. After millions of years, erosion and ice ages has shaved away most of the former mountains. What’s left is the hardest rock, formed by the initial pressure of creation. This translates into extreme topography, and makes hiking the range a feat of strength. It also requires a mental fortitude bordering on masochistic as times.
A Winter Ecosystem
Latitudinally, Vermont is equivalent to southern France but its climate is nearly the opposite. Significantly inland, there is no warm ocean current to keep the Green Mountains mild. Vermont is also colder than other North American states along the same latitude line. The Green Mountains, with their elevation profile, means Vermont has the same type of forests and animals that northern Ontario does. Many of the mountains are topped with Boreal Forest and the snowfall is significant. Its relatively southern latitude, yet winter climate, is a haven for migratory bird species. In recent years, the Canadian Lynx has made its way back to the mountains.
Vermont’s Love of Mountains
100 years ago, Vermont looked radically different. Instead of being covered in forests, most of the state was pasture, used for grazing sheep and agriculture. The beauty of the state was compared to Scotland or Ireland. Large White Pine forests were cleared and the timber produced helped to fuel the young United States and turn the country into what it is today.
As the country grew further west, more productive agricultural land and larger forests opened up. People stopped migrating to Vermont and much of the land was abandoned. Entire farms were left vacant as Americans fulfilled the Manifest Destiny ideal.
By the 1930’s, much of the forest had regrown. To this day, stone walls, marking forgotten property lines, can be found in the woods. Forest makes up over 73% of Vermont’s land cover in 2017, making it one of the only places in the world that has more trees now than it did 200 years ago. A true conservation victory, it makes sense that Vermont was the birthplace for the modern backpacking movement.
History of the Long Trail
In 1910, James P. Taylor had the idea of creating a long distance hiking trail. When standing on a viewpoint, the Green Mountains give the impression of looking over an infinite row of peaks. The inspiration to walk them all is still as much alive today as it was then.
It must also be remembered that hiking and backpacking was still a relatively recent phenomenon and nothing like a wilderness trail existed. This was a revolutionary idea and it was because of the love for the Green Mountains that backpacking now exists as a popular activity.
Stretching 270 miles, from the southern border to Canada, the Long Trail was the first long-distance hiking trail in the world. It helped to connect an entire mountain range and it has acted as the heart and soul of Vermont’s conservation legacy. Even the federal government recognizes the importance of keeping the mountains wild and the Breadloaf Wilderness is among the largest wilderness areas east of the Mississippi River.
The idea of creating a long distance backpacking trail spread quickly. The Long Trail was inspiration for the Appalachian Trail.
The founders of the AT thought to themselves, why stop at just Vermont? The backpacking community quickly took the idea and connected the entire Appalachian Mountain range, from Georgia to Maine. The Appalachian Trail is perhaps the most famous long distance hike and we have the Long Trail to thank for that.
Today, backpacking has spawned countless companies, social movements, and has connected modern culture to nature. It can all be traced back to Vermont and the small state’s love for the Green Mountains.
Hiking the Long Trail
Attempting a thru-hike of the Long Trail is a dream most hikers have. The relatively short mileage of the trail makes it accessible for day hikers and section hikes. Discovering and experiencing the trail is up to you. The following descriptions begin at the southern terminus and continue northward. Take a step back in time and experience the trail that started it all.
Fall in love with the Green Mountains and their gentle curves. The dense forests and pristine waters found on the slopes will make you never want to leave Vermont. The Long Trail is an adventure for all people. It is where America first codified her love for the wilderness.
1st Section: Southern Terminus – 14.3 miles
The southern terminus is located at the border of Massachusetts and Vermont. The Appalachian Trail shares the same route for the southern half of the hike.
Vermont marks this section with a large wooden sign, exclaiming pride in the Long Trail. The Green Mountain Club is a prolific organization and they ensure trail maintenance. White blazes, painted onto trees, direct the hiker in the correct direction.
Vermont, nicknamed “Vermud” by many Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, will be a dirty experience. This section of the hike will feature wet conditions. The primary section will take hikers from the border and into Bennington. The first town on the trail, it is a small community, proudly distinct from neighboring Massachusetts.
2nd Section: Manchester Center – 40.1 miles
The Green Mountains become larger as the trail stretches further north. Steep cliffs precipitously mark the western border. Enjoy pastoral scenes and views of Vermont’s rural landscape. There are fire towers along the trail and climbing them allows for views over the trees.
This section of the trail does not have any mountains over 4,000 feet and the hiking stays relatively mild. It does offer the first views of the Green Mountains and it becomes obvious why Vermont is easy to fall in love with.
Catching the first glimpse of the Green Mountains is breathtaking. Stretching farther than the eye can see, I still remember my first viewing. The tops of the mountains are blanketed in fir trees and the deeply colored greens still stand out vividly in my memory.
The next major town on the hike is Manchester Center. A ski town, there are outlet stores and plenty of upscale restaurants. The town is ever friendly to hikers, enjoy a good meal and some of Vermont’s own Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
3rd Section: Killington – 49.8 miles
This section is my personal favorite of the hike. The mountains out of Manchester are gorgeous and the dense woodlands begin to overtake the senses. The trail gradually lessens in both elevation and steepness.
Eventually, the trail crosses one of the largest valleys in the Green Mountains. In the center of this relatively flat stretch of land is Shrewsbury. This rural area is known for friendly people and easy hiking. Enjoy views of the Rutland Airport, directly from the trail.
The landscape has allowed for a trillion gallon aquifer to form and the ponds and rivers here are as clear as the air. If you’re lucky enough, you will land some trout.
Crossing some remote streams, the trail begins to climb up the south face of Mt. Killington. The 2nd tallest mountain in Vermont, I would consider it the most extreme peak to climb. At 4,236 feet, this is the Appalachian Trail’s first 4,000 foot summit after leaving the Smoky Mountains.
The north facing slope is home to a world famous ski resort, feel free to take the ski lift down the for a bite to eat – it runs 12 months out of the year.
4th Section: Appalachian Gap
Crossing over Route 4, just north of Killington, Rutland, Vermont’s 2nd largest city, is only a hitch away. This is also the section where the Appalachian Trail takes an eastward bend, splitting from the Long Trail.
Continue northward, up into the Greens. Hiking at over 3,000 feet, the boreal forest fills the senses. The musty smell of spruce gives the hike a distinct smell and one that you will yearn for years later.
The trail stays along a ridgeline for the majority of this portion. You will experience both the Joseph Battell and Breadloaf Wilderness, some of the largest roadless areas east of the Mississippi.
Enjoy shelters, built by the Green Mountain Club and find respite from any bad weather. This section of the trail is also the most likely for spotting moose. Be careful not to step in their poop!
5th Section: Smugglers Notch
The main draw of this section is the iconic Camel’s Hump mountain. Named because of its hump appearance, it provides some stunning views of the Champlain Valley. The hiking here is rocky and slow going at times. Like the rest of Vermont, the mud can be deep.
Walk past Waterbury, famous for being the hometown of the Keurig coffee machine. Vermont is always proud of its local businesses. They include Ben and Jerry’s, Darn tough, and Green Mountain Coffee.
Many hikers wait to hike the Long Trail until Autumn. The highest density of sugar maples, perhaps in the world, grow in these mountains. Their nearly neon red leaves contrast brilliantly with the yellows and browns of oaks and maples.
6th Section: Final Stretch
In this section, the trail begins to skirt the suburbs of Burlington. Slowly gain in elevation and watch the shimmering waters of Lake Champlain reflect the sunlight. This section of the trail sees the most visitors but people in Vermont are friendly, and clean.
Stand on top of Mt. Mansfield, 4,393 feet above sea level. To the west, the adirondacks rise up, imposing and beautiful. To the east, the White Mountains of New Hampshire tower into the sky. Mt. Washington can easily be spotted on a clear day.
Continue hiking northward, toward the border of Canada. The trail stays among rugged peaks as the mountain chain slowly begins to drop in elevation. If you are lucky enough to hike during a Canadian holiday, many of the hikers will be speaking French. The trail ends at the Canadian border, 273 miles of extreme terrain, dense forests, and some of the most beautiful mountains in the world.
How Many Days Does it Take to Hike the Long Trail?
At 273 miles long, the length of the hike depends on how many miles a day you can walk. The mountains feature steep valleys and plenty of vertical climbing (assisted with ladders, of course) and this will slow down most hikers. However, the white blazes easily mark the trail and getting lost is nearly impossible. Many experienced hikers even forego a map.
If you were to average 15 miles a day, the hike would take a total of 18 days to complete. There are plenty of people who have finished it in two weeks or less… but hey man…hike your own hike. The trail is gorgeous and a thru-hike of any duration is well worth it.
Section Hiking the Long Trail
While conducting a thru-hike is the dream, the reality of having that much free time is impossible for most. Luckily, Vermont has a great system of roads and there are enough trailheads to make any section easy to get to. With ample parking, it is entirely feasible to hit a different section every weekend.
During the winter months, cross country skiing and snowshoeing sections of the trail is a possibility. In Vermont, there is never a season where a person cannot enjoy the mountains.
Resupply on the Long Trail
Every 3-5 days, depending on your walking speed, will be an opportunity for resupply. With gas station and ski resorts close enough to the trail, hitch hiking is not necessary for many of the stopping points. But people in Vermont are friendly and enjoy hikers, if you do need a ride into town, finding one will not be an issue.
Resupply towns from South to North:
- Bennington, VT Mile 14.3
- Manchester Center, VT Mile 54.5
- Danby/Mad River Tom Notch Mile 72
- Wallingford, VT Mile 80.5
- Shrewsbury, VT Mile 86.8
- Rutland, VT Mile 104.2 (This town requires a hitch, but there is a Walmart and a post office)
- Brandon, VT Mile 86.8
- Hancock, VT Mile 134
- Lincoln Gap, VT Mile 151
- Waitsfield, VT Mile 162.9
- Waterbury, VT Mile 181.6
- Stowe, VT Mile 208.2
- Morrisville, VT Mile 221.7
- Eden,VT Mile 235
- Montgomery Center, VT Mile 242
Get out There and Hike!
Go enjoy a piece of backpacking history and experience Vermont’s Long Trail. The trail is just as rewarding for experienced hikers as it is beginners. Ancient mountains, good people, and some amazing scenery awaits.