Fog shrouds the road, rolling in from Lake Champlain and smelling like farm. At 7 a.m. on a cool, late-summer morning, as we roll east through the cornfields on Vermont 17, I can barely see our destination rising through a pearl-gray sky. Even the sun looks tired.
I am not a morning person. Coffee helps dispel some of the fog. My husband, who’s far more awake — awake enough to have made the coffee — is driving.
Why, oh why, did I get up this early on the weekend?
Because Snake Mountain is a happenin’ spot. In about two hours it will be throbbing with sound: aluminum water bottles clinking, the crunch of determined feet, whirring mountain bikes and amiably chattering hikers. I hope to spot some its shyer wildlife first.
We cross the low dip in the road that marks sluggish Dead Creek, through the last chilly wisp of fog, and see that the ridgetop is flooded with glorious sun.
The 1287-foot-high Snake Mountain, straddling Addison and Weybridge, is part of the Taconic Mountains, yet it’s oddly disconnected from that chain of peaks, and from the Greens. It stands alone as a landmark visible from Bristol to Chimney Point, with a mysterious solitude and accessibility that make it one of the best beginner’s hiking sites in Vermont.
Accommodating everyone from spry senior citizens strolling at the base to Middlebury College students snapping their iPhones at the summit, Snake Mountain is fabulously democratic. The broad, easy trail and impressive lake views from the peak make it a favorite picnic spot for locals. It’s been that way for more than a century — though the days of dances and croquet games on the mountaintop have long vanished. But few Vermonters outside Addison County seem to know about it.
The Wilmarth Woods trail, Cranberry Bog — a 10-acre, 9500-year-old kettle lake alive with dragonflies — and Snake Mountain Wildlife Management Area are not listed in the Hiking Vermont Falcon Guide. But the Green Mountain Club’s Day Hiker’s Guide to Vermont includes maps, tips and background on the mountain’s history.
On the mountain, you can spot vestiges of that history, such as ruins of the aptly named Grand View Hotel, abandoned in 1925. At the heights of the trail’s end, the remains of steel posts stand in a broad concrete pad that once held up a 74-foot lookout tower. According to documents in the Sheldon Museum’s archives, the panoramic view from the tower extended from Massachusetts to Québec. Crumbling rock foundations and scraps of rusted metal lie scattered across the summit of Snake Mountain, too, including the bent remains of what looks like a tap bucket.
When we reach the parking lot on Mountain Road, a woodchuck rushes across our path and scurries into a nearby field. Judging from the cars already parked, at least three hikers have beat us here. In good weather and at a moderate pace, the hike takes only around two hours up and back, which should give us plenty of room for sightseeing before the trail is mobbed.
Before we head up, we take inventory: water bottle, check. A snack for the summit, check. Bug spray, check. Doors locked, check.
Bug spray? Yes. Don’t hike Snake Mountain without it. All the bogs, rivulets and other water-filled nooks and crannies up here assure the presence of mosquitoes. The plentiful spring rains have made them especially hellish this year.
In dry weather, the gravel road to the trail is dusty and shadowed, with little curbside room to walk, overgrown in late summer with leggy stalks of blue chicory and Queen Anne’s lace, and the last remaining buttercups of the season. Our crunching steps mix with the high, buzzing song of cicadas and whistling trill of a songbird, punctuated by a woodpecker’s drumming. Otherwise, it’s blissfully quiet.
The trail’s conditions are just about perfect, as a recent light rain has softened the path and tamped down some of the pollen. A prior dry spell kept it free of mud. Hiking this trail in springtime requires high boots, and it’s advisable to wait at least a day or two after a rain if you don’t want to ford a river. The network of short side loops hugging the lower parts of the trail testifies to how muddy it can get.
Wild grapes, wandering thistles and goldenrod fringe the path. These soon give way to a ferny hardwood forest sprinkled with stands of orange jewelweed, yellow daisies and the occasional, evil-looking spotted red berries of false Solomon’s seal dangling close to the ground.
The first third of the hike ascends at a steady angle of about 30 degrees along a broad path. It gets rockier, narrower and snakier as you get higher, and the air begins to smell of evergreen instead of leafy loam. Frequent “break rocks” enable hikers to pause and stretch, not to mention listen for wildlife — such as the slow-moving, fat black ball of a porcupine I spot in the crook of a beech tree about a hundred feet away, right above the trail. It moves farther away, paw over paw, before hunkering down on a branch. If you want to see falcons, bring binoculars during migration season. But stay away from the cliffs while they breed in the spring.
There’s human mystery on this mountain, too. On my last visit in late June, the derelict building at the base of the trail appeared most recently to have been used as a work and storage shed, filled with mason jars, broken lanterns and rusted tools. But it’s been boarded up since then. A little farther along the trail and off to the right, we pass the skeletal ruins of machinery I can’t identify. Is this an ancient, stripped chassis of some piece of farm equipment, or an engine that once ran the Grand View’s steam-powered sawmill?
While the expansive view from the summit of Snake Mountain may be a visitor’s goal, the hike itself offers rewards and surprises that shift with the seasons, from white trillium, delicate foam flower and hepatica in early spring, to the flamboyantly red-orange efts and epic fairy rings of dripping ink-cap mushrooms in June. The color and size of the butterflies that follow you up the trail change as spring moves into summer. The lush hardwood forest of birch, red oak, maple, beech, ash and understory trees offers glorious fall colors.
No glimpses off the mountainside indicate that you’re reaching its summit. The trail forks left, going sharply uphill, and ends abruptly in a patch of grass. Keep walking uphill, following the break in the trees to an outcropping of bare rocks and a concrete-covered clearing with plenty of room to sit and take in the view.
From the summit, you can see past the cornfields and occasional silos striping the valley, clear across Lake Champlain and into the Adirondacks.
On the way back down the mountain, we pass more and more hikers coming up — couples, families, solo dog walkers (furry friends are cool here if on a leash, according to the trail rules). Everyone is friendly, and most people are fairly quiet.
Tire ruts cut along the trail, and the number of bikers we encounter suggests it’s an ideal spot for them, despite the official ban on mountain biking. I chat with one biker, a guy with a goatee and a vivid orange shirt, who cheerfully declines to be identified. He says he comes up here every weekend.
“We’ve been trying to get the trail officially opened for biking, but it’s a wildlife-management area,” he tells me with a shrug. “It’s supposed to be for logging and hunting.”
“I’ve heard people come up and hang glide off the cliffs,” I venture, chasing a rumor previously shared with me by an adventurous, twentysomething neighbor.
The biker laughs and shakes his head. “Yeah, but … not a good place for it,” he says. “A couple of guys went up there, and one jumped off and — whoosh! — went straight down into a nosedive! Luckily, he recovered just in time to land safely.
“But his buddy, he took one look at that and packed up his gear and hiked back down the mountain,” Biker Dude adds. “I guess the thermals weren’t right.”
Ouch, I think as we continue on down the trail. I’ll leave the short, dramatic flights to the hawks. There’s still plenty to see on the way down before we finish, from bogs and ponds to unmarked side trails begging to be explored.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Mystery Trail"