Trail of the Month: May 2018
“It’s just phenomenal how the trail has changed our community... We’re just going to keep embracing this trail any way we can."
—Tricia Follert, Morristown’s community development coordinator
During the pleasant summer months of northern Vermont, the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail offers an extraordinary experience as it journeys through a verdant river valley tucked among the forested slopes of the Green Mountains. Travelers can revel in this quiet escape while still having big city culture just a couple hours away by car—Montreal to the north and Boston to the south.
“Scenic is an understatement for the trail,” said Allen Van Anda, a co-owner of Lost Nation Brewing, a popular stop that is almost guaranteed to be mentioned by any local you talk to about the trail.
Connecting a half-dozen towns that are small in size, but big on charm, the finely crushed stone pathway will one day stretch 93 miles, becoming the state’s longest rail-trail. Two good-sized sections are already completed and ready to ride: just over 16 miles between St. Johnsbury and West Danville, and nearly 17 miles between Morrisville and Cambridge.
A milelong stretch also runs across Swanton at the northwestern tip of the route. This summer, construction will get underway to extend the trail another 12 miles between Swanton and Sheldon, including a beautiful bridge over the Missisquoi River.
Going to Town on the Trail
The soul of the trail is its towns, each home to fewer than 10,000 people and offering something unique to their character that keeps travelers pedaling to experience it all. Colorfully decorated Adirondack chairs are sprinkled like rainbow candies throughout downtown Morristown each summer to the surprise and delight of visitors. The chairs, painted by local volunteers, are sold at the cleverly named Chair-Art-Able Auction to raise money for town beautification projects. The town also provides a free bikeshare using donated bikes so that anyone can get out and enjoy the trail.
“It’s just phenomenal how the trail has changed our community,” said Tricia Follert, Morristown’s community development coordinator. “It provides a huge outdoor recreation benefit that runs right through our downtown. We’re just going to keep embracing this trail any way we can.”
In rural Cambridge, a connecting spur delivers an unexpected 36-foot-tall artwork: a pair of silos painted with murals depicting the town’s history and future. And, in Johnson, the trail is literally reshaping the center of economic development. The rail-trail’s position, about a half-mile from the downtown core, is spurring a re-envisioning of the industrial space around the trail—once claimed by an old talc mine and talc processing facility—into a prime location for trailside businesses to flourish.
“Seeing how each community is working with the same trail but bringing their own flavor to it—that diversity will make it a real draw in the future,” said Seth Jensen, a planner with the Lamoille County Planning Commission, which works with these communities to develop trailheads and other amenities.
Lea Kilvádyová, who also works for the Lamoille County Planning Commission, lives near the trail and uses it frequently since the section through Johnson opened in 2016. Her two young children are even featured on the cover of the rail-trail’s brochure—all smiles. She recalls that when they were learning to ride their bikes, it was difficult to find a place in town where they could practice; she had to drive to the local college campus to find a safe place for them to ride.
“A few years ago, Johnson went through a streetscape overhaul, adding new sidewalks, trees and bike racks to make it look more attractive,” said Kilvádyová of the project, which took place before the trail’s arrival. “At first, those bike racks were pretty empty, and people were scratching their heads about why we put them in. Now they’re full.”
A Green Mountain Greenway
Rolling out of the towns, travelers are immersed in picture-perfect surroundings, where the quiet and observant might see deer, fox, black bears, eagles and other wildlife. The eastern section, which was the first to open in 2015, begins in St. Johnsbury and continues to Joe’s Pond, a vivid blue lake ringed by trees and popular for swimming and boating. Portions of the trail are enfolded by deep rock cuts; come here in the winter and be dazzled by the threads of crystalline waterfalls that form as water freezes during its cascade over the stone.
The trail’s wayward companion is the Lamoille River, which traces a serpentine route all the way to Lake Champlain. As the rail-trail is stick straight, sometimes the river is close at hand and other times more distant. When the river proves irresistible after a ride, tubing, kayaking and canoeing are welcomed pursuits.
After a gap of about 30 miles, the next section of the trail begins in Morrisville. Mount Mansfield, the state’s largest mountain, rises in the distance, and the trail winds through a more pastoral backdrop, where corn stalks—sometimes as tall as 12 feet—surround the trail.
Using ingredients sourced from local farms, Morrisville’s Lost Nation Brewing aims to offer a welcoming, community-centered atmosphere. If you somehow miss the bright red building that overlooks the trail, you can’t miss its aromas. In the summer, the brewery offers a German-style beer garden and the savory smoke from the barbeque billows down to the trail.
“We want everyone to feel comfortable, whether they’re in work pants and sweaty, or in a custom-tailored suit,” said owner Allen Van Anda.
Seventeen miles farther on, this section ends in Cambridge, where volunteers built a train-themed climbing structure for children, a nod to the corridor’s past as the Lamoille Valley Railroad, which first serviced the area in 1877. From here, it’s about a 35-mile drive to Burlington, where a worthwhile side excursion awaits: the Island Line Rail Trail, a member of the national Rail-Trail Hall of Fame, which offers stunning views of Lake Champlain.
The Inside Track on Outside Recreation
On the cusp of summer, it’s hard to imagine snow, but in a place where the snowy season spans nearly half the year—generally December to April—the finished rail-trail will be an important route for snowmobilers, connecting to another 1,000 miles of snowmobiling trails that crisscross the state. And the value of snowmobiling in Vermont can’t be understated; the sport has an annual economic impact of $500 million annually.
The Lamoille Valley Rail Trail in fact has its roots in the snowmobile culture. The organization that constructs and maintains the trail is the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST), which first proposed that the former rail corridor be turned into a four-season recreational trail in 1997. Famed Vermonter Bernie Sanders, back then a U.S. Representative, secured $5.2 million in federal money for its conversation from rail to trail in 2005. Today, VAST partners with the Vermont Agency of Transportation and also receives volunteer support from the Friends of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail.
“Tourism is a big economic driver, and the trail’s impact has been tremendous,” said Jim Rose, a board member with the Friends of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail. “You can connect to breweries and stop and get food on a car-free rail-trail with that quaint Vermont experience.”
As the trail continues to be developed for bicycling, walking and horseback riding, its year-round impact will only increase. Already, use of the trail in the warmer months is skyrocketing, surpassing its original winter usage.
“Each year, we’re seeing more people on the trail,” said Van Anda, who’s lived in the area for more than 20 years. “The demographic is anything from kids to 80-year-olds. To watch it go from nothing to what it is now has been exciting.”