Vermont's Island Line

Posted 12/01/10 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in America's Trails

Photo courtesy Richard Due | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Trail of the Month: December 2010

Flanked to the east and west by Lake Champlain; the Green Mountains looming in the distance; a three-mile causeway arcing out across the bay; and you, basking in the open air on a rail-trail that defies expectations. For a trail made for movement, the 14-mile Island Line will literally stop you in your tracks.

Vermont's Island Line consists of the Burlington Bike Path and the Colchester Causeway, running from Burlington through Colchester and the edge of South Hero. The first seven miles are paved and managed by the city of Burlington. Colchester Parks & Recreation oversees the middle 5.5 miles, and the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife the final mile and a half.

Together, linking three towns and two counties, these united pathways are the rail-trail jewel in a robust outdoor recreation scene. Whether you're after transportation of the body or the mind, the Island Line serves up powerful scenery, railroading history, passionate grassroots support, community connections and more—and it has just been named to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. So put a foot onto the path at Mile 0 and experience it for yourself.

The trail starts off quietly south of downtown Burlington, home of the University of Vermont, and heads north along the water, cutting briefly inland at Mile 1 to catch up to the rail corridor. Built in 1899 by the Rutland-Canadian Railroad, the Island Line once leap-frogged its way across lakes and rivers via causeways, trestles and drawbridges, carrying passengers and freight on its route from the New England coast to Lake Ontario. The line saw its last train pass in 1961, and though it was considered for trail use at the time, it wasn't until 20 years later that the concept was embraced in earnest.

Today, the Island Line glides by spacious parks (including those exclusively for dogs and skateboarders), through bogs and woods, along public beaches and harbors, and past businesses like the nonprofit Local Motion near Mile 2. Huge proponents of the Island Line, the advocacy organization has been making Greater Burlington a biking- and walking-friendly region since 1999.

Smiling trail users—many with equally gleeful-looking dogs—pack the sumac- and maple-lined trail throughout the year, even with snow on the ground. Groups like the Silver Spokes, a collection of cycling seniors, ride the trail regularly. Children draw chalk art on the portion of the trail that's paved (Mile 0–8), and trailside neighbors use the Island Line as their front and back yards. And when links in the Island Line's chain are broken or missing, locals rally for reconnection.

In 2004, the weather-dependent ferry service across the Winooski River near Mile 7 was replaced with an infinitely more constant bridge. Additionally, the boggy, flood-prone section of the trail just beyond the bridge underwent serious reconstruction to raise the pathway several drier feet off the ground.

And then, of course, there is the causeway itself: 3.5 miles of unique rail turned incredible trail, buttressed by refrigerator-sized slabs of mottled marble and arcing gently out across the lake. American elms, spared from disease by the relative isolation of the causeway, lean sharply with the typically unrelenting wind that sweeps over the water. This spot is popular for birding warblers and kingfishers, and fishing for lake trout and walleye.

Sunsets from the causeway can be especially arresting. Even lifelong locals will stop on the trail to savor every last drop of color until all that remains is the dusky outline of Mount Mansfield far to the east, and twinkling lighthouses across the waters to the west. Standing on the causeway at the mouth of Malletts Bay, darkness comes at you fast when your eyes are riveted to the pink and purple swaths of light pouring across the waters of Lake Champlain. So be careful not to dally too long in this stunning twilight without leaving time to get home safely.

But depending on the time of year, you don't have to end your trail journey at Malletts Bay. To complete the trip from Burlington to the island of South Hero, you must cross "The Cut"—a stone's throw-gap in the causeway near Mile 12.5. For 2011, Local Motion will once again offer ferry service across "The Cut," on weekends and holidays, from the July Fourth weekend through Labor Day Monday. The big push now is to make ferry service more regular and closer to year-round, running 70 to 80 days a year. In the meantime, check with Local Motion for schedule particulars.

On the other side of "The Cut," the trail heads another 1.5 miles before it concludes in a parking lot. But whether you're turning around in Colchester or taking the ferry over to South Hero, the thought of a return adventure shouldn't trouble you at all. Because this trail is what a destination is all about.


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