Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Stratton Mountain, Green Mountain National Forest | Vermont

Long Trail, I'm coming back for you someday

Once upon a time in Vermont...

...a man hiked to the top of Stratton Mountain in the Green Mountains, took a look around, and figured there should be a trail connecting Massachusetts and Canada.

And so the Long Trail was constructed by the Green Mountain Club, and still today, it stretches the length of Vermont, connecting Massachusetts and Canada. And still today, the Green Mountain Club is the steward of the Long Trail.

A few years later as the Long Trail was still under construction, another main hiked to the top of Stratton Mountain, looked around, and figured there should be a trail connecting Georgia to Canada along the full length of the Appalachian Mountains.

And so the Appalachian Trail was born, and still today it connects Georgia and Canada, and merges with the Long Trail in southern Vermont.

A few weeks ago, I went with some friends to hike up Stratton Mountain for a weekend trip. This was my first time backpacking, and my first time camping in the autumn. After a lifetime of day hikes, state and national parks and forests and monuments, I figured there was no better time to level up as a self-described "outdoorsy" person than the present.

I'll put the metrics at the end, but the short of it was: ~3 miles to summit, ~3 miles to descend and reach shelter, spend the night in the woods, and ~4 miles back to the parking lot, bookened by ~3 hours in between Stratton Mountain, Vermont and Boston. This was in early November and temperatures ranged from high 20s (early morning) to 45F.

I don't have the photos to show for it, but the drive west and then north to Vermont was a blaze of autumn colors unlike any I had ever seen before. It looked as if Massachusetts were on fire and I was frantically looking everywhere so as not to miss anything. The road near Walden Pond State Reservation was especially beautiful and really tugged at my (...Transcendentalist?) heartstrings. 

By the way, I have read Henry Thoreau's Walden and found it very pretentious and overwrought in spite of many pearls about sucking the marrow out of life and romanticizing the Great Outdoors and whatnot. I said out loud, "I feel you, Henry!" but I still roll my eyes at most of Walden.

We stopped for gas and some s'mores materials in Vermont, where homes on large plots of wooded land, stone wells and walls, and dramatically cloud-shrouded hillsides made me yearn for...some mythic American Dream out in Bernieland.

The first mile was just me getting used to the weight of the pack. I left my backpacking backpack at home and made do with my school backpack, to which I secured my sleeping bag with my belt and some string. For most of the ascent I took the lead because I have a deep fear of falling behind in hikes and a strong desire to take photos at my leisure.

The first mile, too, was a slow, steady gain in altitude, which really isn't saying much. Slowly, the beeches, birches, and maples gave way to spruces, firs, and pines. We faced a few steep climbs in the first two miles, including some switchbacks that forced us to stop and rest and enjoy the trees (and let me know that my pace was unsustainable).

The mist never let up, and cast the whole place in an eerie gloom. Forget Thoreau -- the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King were inspired by the forests of New England.

The other obvious fan of New England's forests was Robert Frost, of course. These woods, indeed, were lovely, dark, and deep.

The last stretch of the ascent was quite strenuous, consisting almost entirely of steep switchbacks and muddy, icy puddles. There were few deciduous trees, plenty of conifers, and so much mist that we were certain not to have a view at the top.

With all that said, I hope the photos show that we were so completely surrounded by beautiful woods that none of that really mattered.

By the way, I clearly wore the wrong shoes for this trip. I just ordered hiking boots yesterday, but out of the three shoes I could have worn for this trip (Bean boots, Dr. Martens boots, running shoes), I picked the worst. Not even thick wool socks could have prevented my poor toes from freezing. There were too many slushy, icy, muddy puddles on the trail for me to have kept dry.

Just when it seemed as if we were on an endless rocky green staircase up the mountain, we reached the summit at 3940 ft, having gained 1758 ft in a bit over 3 miles (if you're thinking of hiking this, keep in mind that most of the elevation is gained in the latter half). The cold caught up to us at the top and we promptly put on the layers we had shed while climbing.

Always a fire tower at the top. This one is 55 ft

One of our party estimated it was just around freezing at the summit, and indeed, the puddles were all frozen over. Whatever it actually was, the temperature differential from the bottom to the top of the fire tower felt at least ten degrees. I climbed up the tower, which was treacherously slippery, icy, and windy, determined to get a view. Of course, I could hardly see the trees below, much less the Mt. Snow or Killington.

I estimated the elapsed time using the timestamps of these photos, from the first to this one of the tower. The 3.4 mile, 1758 ft ascent took just under 2 hours.

A frigid, heart-pounding view

We rested for lunch and got the hell going. It was cold just standing around.

The next 3 miles were to get to the Stratton Mountain shelter where we would spend the night.

Some adventure!

I thought that descending would be easy going, but I was mistaken. It was muddy and icy and slippery and it took all my concentration not to step in a puddle or lose my footing, hence the lack of pictures. I assure you it was much of the same haunted conifer woods, with a progression back to broadleafs as we went down. I also promise I saw little patches of snow, but never took pictures of them.

At this point, we were tired, but in high spirits. Many of us declared over and over again how happy we were to be out in Vermont and not studying, that to seek the outdoors and tramp around the woods shivering and with numb fingers and cold toes was so restorative.

Once, a friend said that he was so tired he could just sleep in a pile of leaves. Because we had been talking about Robert Frost since lunch, I replied: "We have 3 miles to go before we sleep...and 3 miles to go before we sleep."

Stratton Pond

After about 3 miles and two river crossings, we reached Stratton Pond and took a look around. The pond is less than 1/4 mile away from the shelter, which is essentially a wooden house for hikers. Shelters of varying degrees of comfort line the AT and LT, and this one was pretty nice, with several wooden bunks and a huge loft which I could comfortably stand up in. We didn't exactly "rough it," but that's fine by me.

After dropping my stuff off at the loft in the shelter, I headed off on my own side quest to take photos of the bridge, the river, and the pond.

I came back in time to help with the fire and eat dinner. We were joined by three other hikers, some middle-aged ladies who were clearly better outdoorsmen than any of us, and well-acquainted with the Green Mountains. Earlier in the afternoon, a whole gaggle of kids took a tour of the shelter (they were part of a ski school, apparently).

It was pitch black at around 6 PM and I was too ready for sleep to study by flashlight as I had planned to. There was plenty of room for everyone in the shelter, especially in the loft. I slept poorly that night because it was so cold and the sleeping bag I rented from school just didn't cut it, and because of the wind and rain. In spite of that, I got up early and roamed around again.

The leaves look like they are levitating
The shelter

The shelters, like the rest of the trail, are maintained by the Green Mountain Club. A fee of $5 cash per hiker is required when there is a caretaker there. There was no caretaker when we had arrived, but a few hunters scoping out the area in preparation for deer season the following week.


The night's rain killed our hopes for a morning fire so we just packed up quickly and headed out. It snowed for about half an hour and the Californians (including me) got very excited and forgot about being cold for a minute. Our new friends pointed out that because of last night's rains, our original route back to the parking lot would likely be very muddy, and recommended an alternative path that they were going to take after their breakfast.

The alternate route took us over the bridge, out of the woods, and onto a mountain biking and snowmobile trail. Though it added about a mile onto our journey, it was far better than trudging through icy mud in sneakers. The rest of the way was conversation and just good times.

A very picturesque creek with a potential beaver dam?

We returned to the parking lot and I promptly changed into dry socks as we high-tailed it to a diner. The coffee was strong and the maple syrup was unreal.

I wore a t-shirt, my L.L. Bean flannel, a light fleece, hat and gloves, and leggings while hiking and brought along a sweater and cotton trousers for when we hung around the shelter. Wool socks saved my feet and I should have worn different shoes. Next time, I'll be wiser. The shirt, though, was wonderful and kept me warm.


In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I ought to reflect on how good I have it. My family loves me and supports me, emotionally and financially and in every other way. I am in medical school learning medicine, training to become a doctor, which has been my dream since childhood. I had a wonderful time hiking in a beautiful forest with like-minded people with plans to see more of New England's great outdoors. I had the great privilege of learning gross anatomy by dissecting a cadaver, and am thankful for the donor and the faculty and my classmates for making it all come together.

In general, I am content with my situation in life and the direction it's taking. I am optimistic about the future and I am thankful for all that and more.

White = first day, red = second day

  • Location: Stratton Mountain, in Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, part of the Long Trail and the Appalachain Trail
  • Distance/duration: 3.8 miles to the summit, 3.7 miles to the shelter, ~4.5 miles via IP road to return; 6-7 hours of hiking over two days, though the whole thing could be done in a day
  • Elevation gain: 1758 ft
  • Difficulty: moderately strenuous thanks to rocky, muddy switchbacks up the mountain, quite steep ascent in the final mile or so
  • Points of interest: Stratton Mountain summit and fire tower, views on clear days that are apparently quite stunning, Stratton Pond, Stratton Pond shelter
  • Overall: this was the perfect beginner's backpacking trip, I thought. I was among friends, we had a good, tough little hike that I felt proud for powering through, and the forest was beautiful. I really enjoy steep steep switchbacks and would love to do this hike again.
P.S. Some other thoughts on Vermont: at the diner, I thumbed through some real estate magazines and found the best deal to be 81 acres of forest (house and creek and well included) for under $1 million. On our way back, I took in my fill of the Vermont countryside dreaming that one day I may own some of it. 80% of the state of Vermont is forest, which has had net growth since the end of WWII.


  1. Wow, the fog and the almost bare trees definitely make this scenery eerie! Strangely I've never heard of the concept of those shelters before. They make total sense but I'm not sure they're common here, everyone seems to just use tents.

    Hope you have a good Thanksgiving!

    1. I've never seen a shelter before either! I think that their existence is the result of being on a well-trafficked through hike (LT and AT all have shelters, many of which are apparently just raised wooden platforms for tents) and having active caretakers (Green Mountain Club).

      Such a thing would not be feasible along the Sierra Nevada or the Rocky Mountains, I think!

  2. Haha those are excellent reasons to take the lead! There have definitely been times when I've been out and about with my friends, and I'll randomly sprint ahead a few metres so that I can snap some shots before they catch up with me :P -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey's

  3. Only the lead sled dog gets the good view, is the saying I've heard.

    Although hiking with friends is fun, the feeling of solitude when in the woods is very nice. However, hiking at a common pace is usually a good idea.

  4. Lovely photos! The fog makes it all seem a bit gray and eerie.

    1. Indeed it does. The day's weather really does affect the mood of a place.

  5. It looks really lovely! I'm impressed you went now, it is getting awfully cold but the AT huts really are a gift. It is good to hear optimistic notes right now, thanks.

    1. This trip was a few weeks ago. I don't dare camp outside in Vermont now! A few friends and I had plans to backpack/camp in Acadia Nat. Park this weekend, but after looking at the nighttime temps, we quickly decided against it.