The first snowfall in the mountains every autumn always takes me by surprise. Even when I lived in Vermont, with the mountains right outside my window, the coating of white that appeared at the end of October didn’t convince me of the early winter up high. Last weekend, I ventured back to Vermont to visit some old friends and mountains, and was once again surprised by the early winter.
Flying Squirrel and Early Bird, both field staff for the Green Mountain Club, are two of the most rugged hikers I know, but I rarely get to hike with them. On Saturday, we decided to try something a little crazy– hiking every trail in the Worcester Range. The Worcester Range is a massive line of mountains that separates Stowe and Waterbury from Montpelier and Worcester, and includes two of the most popular peaks in the area for day hikers (Hunger Mountain and Stowe Pinnacle). Beyond those two straightforward hikes, though, there are several more miles of trails connecting the length of the range to five trailheads.
The day started with coffee and donuts in Waterbury, then a pre-dawn start from the trailhead in Worcester, climbing steeply to the northern peak of the trail system, Worcester Mountain. The trees had lost all their leaves by now, but stick season was far from dull. Within a short distance from the trailhead, the snow was already ankle deep. The ground cover never let up, and we spent the entire day in a cloud, so it was easy to forget it was only October.
We walked through the powder along the ridgeline, feeling very wintery with the fluff-covered trees around us. The snow was just deep enough to hide the ankle-twisting rocks and roots below, but not deep enough to make them go away. Flakes continued to fall out of the sky, becoming just warm enough to stick to our rain shells and overwhelm the waterproofing. In wet fall weather, sometimes the only way to stay warm is either go home or keep walking. We chose the latter approach.
We reached Hunger Mountain, and then continued to the shorter, nearby White Rocks. These two peaks were my home territory when I lived in Vermont, both towering just above my house. I climbed both so often that I could easily walk the trails at night, or maybe even in my sleep. The muddy spots between the two were still the same as I remembered, and the slippery rocks, and the tricky climbs. There were still no views through the clouds, but I felt right at home in my old stomping grounds.
From White Rocks, the real foolishness began. To hike all of the trails in the range, we had to make some strange detours, first dropping 700 feet steeply down from White Rocks on the Bob Kemp Trail, then turning right back around on the Middlesex Trail to climb 1200 feet back to Mount Hunger. Once on Hunger Mountain for the second time, we did have some views down into the valley, where the green pastures were a strange contrast to the winter conditions up top.
Back at my car by late afternoon at the base of Hunger Mountain, we had already hiked thirteen miles along the length of the range, but we still had two more trails to go. The next order of business was driving into Stowe to practically run up and down the Stowe Pinnacle Trail. That was the easy part, but from Stowe Pinnacle to the Skyline Trail (where we’d been earlier in the day) is a steep and arduous climb. By the time we got back to the car, it was just getting dark. We still had one trail to go.
We drove to the Middlesex trailhead in the dark, but luckily the portion of the trail we hadn’t hiked already was relatively flat. We donned headlamps and cruised the last mile and a half in to the start of the Bob Kemp Trail, finishing the day’s 22 miles in the pitch black, much as we had started thirteen hours earlier. Even counting the hour and a half of driving between the start and finish, it’s clear that the summer days of steady, fast hiking on dry trails is over for the year. It’s time to break out the winter gear. Here’s hoping for some deep snow and cold weather in the coming months!