- Courtesy Of Amy Potter/green Mountain Club
- A foliage hike at White Rock Mountain
Most avid hikers in Vermont have experienced that sinking feeling after arriving at a trailhead only to discover the parking lot is overflowing. Come autumn, many of those vehicles sport the out-of-state license plates of leaf-peeping tourists.
Of course, Vermont has more than enough scenic terrain for everyone to enjoy, assuming you have a plan B. And if you don't, just ask Amy Potter.
For the last five years, Potter, 35, has managed the Green Mountain Club Visitor Center in Waterbury Center. She answers phone calls and emails, talks to drop-in visitors, and offers hiking and trip-planning advice to backcountry newbies and veteran Long Trail through-hikers alike.
Potter has been busy since the start of the pandemic. In 2020, more than 500 people applied to the Green Mountain Club for certificates showing that they had hiked the length of the Long Trail; in a normal year, she said, the club receives 200 to 300 applications.
A dramatic uptick in trail usage doesn't just detract from hikers' enjoyment; it causes more environmental damage, such as erosion and trampled vegetation, especially on alpine summits.
"When you get on these busy trails, it's almost like a conga line," Potter said. "You're very close together, and it's really crowded."
Because the Green Mountain Club's mission includes preserving and maintaining the Long Trail system, Potter compiled a list of less-traveled alternatives to some of Vermont's most popular hikes.
Before you head out, though, consider a few recommendations she offered specific to autumn hiking. As the weather gets colder and wetter, fallen leaves can make the trails slicker and more difficult to navigate. Downed foliage can also hide hazards such as roots and rocks, so be extra vigilant about your foot placement, and follow trail markers so you don't get lost.
Come late September and October, the temperature may still feel warm down in the valley. However, trails can get icy near the summits, so remember to bring along foot-traction devices. The same goes for headlamps — even for day hikes, Potter said. Shorter days and bad weather can make navigation more difficult.
And to avoid the midday rush of other hikers, Potter suggested arriving at trailheads early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
"Sunrise and sunset can be a great time to view foliage. The lighting is wonderful, and the crowds are smaller," she said. "I'm more of the sunrise [type] because I have a toddler, so we get up at the crack of dawn."
Finally, don't forget to sign in and out of trailhead logbooks. These sheets not only help the Green Mountain Club and other trail managers document trail usage, but they also provide valuable information if hikers go missing.
Potter provided the following information about five great hikes.
Camel's Hump alternative
Wheeler Mountain, Sutton
4.4-mile round trip, approximately 700-foot elevation gain
Vermont trails get busy during fall foliage season, especially on the summit of Vermont's most iconic peak: Camel's Hump. Often you can find more peace and quiet in the Northeast Kingdom. Wheeler Mountain in Barton provides a lovely, moderate hike to view the colorful autumn scenery. This trail climbs gradually through the woods and follows the contours of the ridgeline, then leads to an easy hike past open ledges with expansive views. From there, the trail enters the woods and follows open bedrock to the top of the Wheeler Mountain cliffs, which provide views of Jay Peak and Mount Mansfield. The trail continues through the woods past the summit to Eagle Cliff, with views of Lake Willoughby and Mount Pisgah.
Mount Mansfield alternative
Butler Loop, Underhill
4.5-mile round trip, approximately 1,700-foot elevation gain
Butler Lodge on the south end of Mansfield Ridge is one of the highlights of a scenic, moderately difficult 4.5-mile loop. Follow the Butler Lodge Trail to the Wampahoofus Trail for 0.1 miles before turning left onto the Rock Garden for 0.6 miles. At the next junction, turn left onto Maple Ridge for 0.4 miles, then left onto the Frost Trail to return to the trailhead. This loop has excellent views, exciting rock scrambles and caves, birch forests, and Butler Lodge, one of the overnight sites along the Long Trail.
Mount Abraham alternative
White Rock Mountain, Middlesex
5.2-mile round trip, approximately 1,610-foot elevation gain
For epic views without the crowds on Mount Abraham, try White Rock via the Middlesex Trail to the Bob Kemp Trail. This route starts at a moderate grade, then quickly ascends steeply at the Bob Kemp Trail. Fun rock scrambles present themselves as you approach the summit, as well as flat, rocky areas for viewing the fall foliage.
Mount Ellen alternative
Stark's Nest, Fayston
5-mile round trip, approximately 2,036-foot elevation gain
Looking for a full-day hike akin to Mount Ellen without the traffic at the popular 4,000-footer? Instead, hike the Stark Mountain Trail to the Stark's Nest warming hut. This trail follows a service road from the Mad River Glen single-chair loading station. When you reach the Long Trail, head north for a short distance to reach the warming hut, which has some amazing views.
Killington Peak alternative
Shrewsbury Peak, Shrewsbury
3.8-mile round trip, approximately 1,359-foot elevation gain
If you're in the Rutland or Killington areas but want an alternative to Killington and Pico, head just 20 minutes south to Shrewsbury Peak via the Shrewsbury Peak Trail. It climbs past the Russell Hill shelter, then ascends — gradually at first, before getting steep near the summit — 1.8 miles from the trailhead. At the summit, several rocky outcroppings provide views to the south and east. More ambitious hikers can continue along the ridge before connecting to the Long Trail.