Keep it Local…snowshoeing near home, in northern Vermont

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Sheila, Day Hiking Ambassador

Deciding where to go snowshoeing, hmm, maybe I better check my guidebooks! We do plan a few snowshoe vacations each winter which involve traveling, but for my daily snowshoe treks, I tend to keep it local. Luckily, we live in an area that has many varied options, depending on the distance or intensity I am seeking. Snow conditions also are a factor in the decision, especially on a season such as this current one, in which we have had few snowstorms worth mentioning. I do have a list of 15-20 “regular” locations where we can hit the trails, all within an hour or less from our home, and which provide a very nice day hiking experience.

snowshoe guidebooks

In Vermont, we have many roads through mountainous passes, which are closed to vehicular traffic in late fall, once the highway department can no longer safely plow or maintain them. These make for great shared use trails in the winter, especially since they tend to get, and hold, snow well into spring. One of my favorites is VT 108 in Stowe, through Smugglers’ Notch. I can leave home, and be on my snowshoes and headed up the trail in less than 30 minutes. It is definitely a dog friendly trail, too! It is not a long excursion, but it is very scenic, often has some pretty wild weather conditions, and provides a nice workout of 2-3 hours, depending on how far beyond the Notch summit we go. In fact, I snowshoe up through the notch at least 3-4 times a month, right up until that last fragments of snow remain in the spring.

The notch road is closed to traffic a few hundred yards beyond the entrance to the Stowe Mountain Resort. I almost always start , northbound, from this Stowe side. From here, it is approximately 1.8 miles up to the top of the notch, where there is a small (closed) visitor center building, and a flat, open area which provides a great view of the cliffs. You then have the option to proceed down another mile to the “road closed” barricade near the Smugglers’ Notch Ski Area on the Jeffersonville end.

This is a shared trail, so you may see ice climbers hauling their gear up to the frozen waterfalls, or rocket sledders, carrying their high performance sleds up the road, for an exciting slide down through the s-turns. Cross-country skiers also use the trail, as do backcountry skiers coming down the steep woods from the ski areas, onto the road to head back to the base of the resort. Since it is a road used by vehicles from May through November, it is fairly wide ( except for a few narrow spots where trucks often get stuck), so there is room for everyone. I do usually be sure to put a bright vest on my dog, and I use a bright orange pack, to increase my visibility to the other users…during storms, with the wind and snow blowing, it can be hard to see! It can also be an area of very variable conditions…it may be bright and sunny at the start of the hike, then it may become blizzard-like. I have never had a boring hike up into the notch!

The initial mile or so of the trail is pretty flat, with only a gradual uphill climb. You can observe the 1000 foot cliffs on either side of the notch as you hike closer, and cross the town line from Stowe into Cambridge. Then you hit the famous s-turns. Here, the climb becomes a bit more steady, and the wind is often blowing, making amazing sounds as it works its way through the cliffs. You can notice rock formations such as the “Hunter and his Dog” and “Elephant’s Head” on the right side as you climb. Great colorful ice formations can be seen on the cliffs. Turn around here, and you can view Stowe and the surrounding areas below you. Keep an eye out for wildlife too…I have seen weasels, owls, hawks, porcupines, and signs of bears ( but no actual bears yet !)

notch jan 18

The West Branch River and many side brooks flow down alongside the notch road, providing some very scenic and snowy cascade views. There are fascinating rock formations and huge boulders that have fallen from the cliffs scattered around the edges of the notch road as you climb. Once you reach the flat area at the top of the notch, you will see many caves and outcroppings. Smugglers’ Notch has a long history that befits its name…in the early 1800’s , cattle and other goods were smuggled to Canada. Smugglers’ Notch also was a route used for the Underground Railroad. In the early 20th century, the road was improved from a narrow path, to more functional road…just in time for the liquor smugglers of the Prohibition times. It is fun to explore the caves and rocky areas, imagining the history that took place in them!

I love hiking the notch on a bluebird sky day (yes, we do occasionally get such weather), and making a trail lunch on the flat rocks at the top. Sitting under those immense cliffs, socializing with other snowshoers and skiers, and enjoying the amazing fresh Vermont air…just doesn’t get much better than that.

If you proceed down the Jeffersonville side, you can see frozen waterfalls right beside the trail, which in the spring, are a fabulous shade of blue. On this side of the notch, you look down though trees into a deep valley on one side, or up towards the “back bowls” woods of the Smugglers’ Notch ski area on the other side. The grade is much more gradual on the Jeffersonville side.

In case you want more adventure or challenge, there are numerous side trails you can access from the notch road…these include the Smugglers Pond trail and the Long Trail. Information about these trails, and others in the area, can be obtained from the Green Mountain Club http://www.greenmountainclub.org/

The hike up Smugglers’ Notch is a great place to view amazing scenery, wildlife, and get in some great snowshoeing. It is certainly suitable for families and beginners, but even experiences snowshoers can have a great time!

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