Rutland is Vermont's second-largest city, after Burlington. Its most distinctive topographical feature, Mount Killington, is just 154 feet lower than the highest peak in the state. But that's where this region's runner-up status ends. Regardless of the season, its diversity of mountains and valleys, towns and cities, sports and culture, make Rutland one of the most interesting and enjoyable areas in Vermont. You just need to know where to look.
Start with the obvious: Rutland is at the base of a giant mountain, Killington, that functions as a year-round resort. In the winter, Killington's 4242-foot peak is covered with skiers and snowboarders, but they pretty much disappear in April, leaving the mountain a peaceful, lush playground for hikers and mountain bikers. The resort's Kona "Groove Approved" mountain bike park has 45-miles of singletrack and doubletrack trails, ranging in difficulty from ho-hum to Oh-my-God. Adrenaline junkies can ride the gondola to the summit and rip non-stop runs to the bottom; cross-country riders would be wise to explore the well-manicured trails on the lower half of the mountain.
Looking for a rush but don't have a bike? Go down the road to Pico and check out its alpine slide, a luge-like course made of concrete that you navigate on a low-slung cart with brakes. As an alternative, Pico has recently begun offering horseback rides. It's a great way to explore the mountain and get in touch with your inner cowboy.
Hiking abounds in this area, too. Vermont's Long Trail, which runs the length of the state, has a trailhead on Route 4, just to the west of Pico entrance. If you have the energy, the 7-mile round trip to the top of Pico promises one of the best views in the state. If you don't have that much time, go across the street and do an easy 3.1-mile hike to Deer's Leap, a prominent lookout just above a dramatic cliff frequently scaled by rock climbers.
A visit to this part of the Green Mountains wouldn't be complete without a stop at the Inn at Long Trail, which is perched at the top of Sherburne Pass. Since 1938, the inn and its McGrath's Irish Pub have been slaking the thirst of skiers and hikers alike. It was the first place in Vermont to sell draft Guinness, and you won't find a better pour than the one at their wide pine bar. On weekends, get your Irish on; McGrath's serves up stout, soda bread and live, Emerald Isle-inspired music.
The soil is rocky and steep up on Rutland's mountainous east side, but down in the lower Champlain valley to the west of the city, the nutrient-rich loam pumps out some of the state's best produce. A lot of it is on display at the Rutland's Farmers Market, a large bazaar in Depot Park. It's open on Saturdays and Tuesdays from May to October, and offers a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, cheeses, prepared foods and arts and crafts.
The music scene in Rutland is hopping in the summertime, as well. On Wednesday nights from June to August, bands such as the Starline Rhythm Boys, Marble City Swing and Satin and Steel play in the gazebo on the Rutland Green. Bring a blanket or a lawn chair and groove out while the sun sinks behind the mountains. On Sundays, the Rutland City Band holds sway there, from 7-8 p.m.
Rutland's annual al fresco art show should also be on your calendar. For half a century the Chaffee Center for the Arts has hosted "Art in the Park," featuring hundreds of talented artists and craftspeople displaying their wares on the grass. Attendees amble from tent to tent, listen to live music, watch demonstrations and participate in hands-on art projects. This year's dates are August 13-14 and October 8-9.
A short ride from the center of town is Pine Hill Park, an amazing testament to what a community of motivated outdoor enthusiasts can do. The park, which is completely within Rutland City limits, was once a quarry; its only body of water, Rocky Pond, was the city's swimming area in the 1950s. The land surrounding Rocky Pond sat dormant for 40 years, but thanks to hundreds of local volunteers and Vermont Youth Conservation Corps members, now boasts 300 acres webbed with 16 miles of some of the best biking trails in New England. Pine Hill Park is the largest trail system in any Vermont town or city.
If learning about rock is more your speed than bouncing over it on a bicycle, you're in luck: the Vermont Marble Museum is only minutes away, in Proctor. The quarries here - including the oldest commercial marble quarry in the U.S. - once rivaled the ones in Cararra, Italy. Vermont marble was used to make the pillars at United States Supreme Court. The artisan tradition lives on at West Rutland's Carving Studio and Sculpture Center.
Also in Proctor is Vermont's only castle, built in 1867 by a doctor and his wealthy British wife. Known today as Wilson Castle, after its most recent owner, it took 7.5 years, and $1.3 million, to build the 32-room mansion, adorned with stained glass, hand-stenciled trim and cherry paneling. It's a fascinating picture of Victorian extravagance and elegance. Locals have organized an ongoing fundraising campaign to restore and protect it.
Go deeper into history at the Brandon Museum at the Stephen A. Douglas Birthplace. Who's Stephen Douglas? None other than the "Little Giant," the diminutive and voluble orator who famously defeated Abraham Lincoln in a battle for a U.S. senate seat in 1858. Lincoln defeated Douglas in the presidential race two years later, and it's believed that the fiery debates of 1858 fleshed out Lincoln's political philosophy. The Town of Brandon refurbished Douglas' birthplace, which was built in 1802, and it offers a window into Vermont life in the early 19th century.
History buffs will also want to visit the Hubbardton Battle Monument, in nearby Hubbardton. The Revolutionary War battle took place in 1777, and it's the only one that happened entirely on Vermont soil. On a piece of ground now known as Monument Hill, with good views into New York, there's a visitor's center, houses and a museum with exhibits and period artifacts. An annual Revolutionary War encampment - in early July - commemorates the battle.
If you'd rather camp out than watch others do it, a great place to pitch a tent is on the shores of Lake Bomoseen, in Fair Haven. This state park has 3576 acres and its lake is the largest body of water completely within Vermont's borders. Nestled in the slate-rich Taconic Mountains, the area has several defunct slate quarries and a self-guided Slate History Trail to show you around.
There's plenty of wildlife in the Rutland area, but birders should not miss the West Rutland Marsh. Designated an "important bird area" by the Audubon Society, the marsh is a great place to spy kingfishers, flycatchers, turkey vultures and woodpeckers, and it's equipped with boardwalks so you can leave the hip-waders at home.
And if you're more interested in birdies than birds, the Green Mountain National Golf Course in Killington is a gem. Rated the number one public golf course in Vermont by Golf Digest, the GMNGC is carved out of the hills and yet manages to not be severely undulating. Fore!