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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Hiking Mount Mansfield, Vermont

I forgot how beautiful the state of Vermont is.  And I guess I just never fully witnessed how beautiful it is during fall.  I knew Vermont was famous for its covered bridges and foliage, maple syrup and country roads, but I just hadn't witnessed it all as beautifully as I had this weekend.  The leaves were in their prime, and the hues of greens, yellows, reds and oranges were straight from a New England postcard.  While fall in Utah was absolutely beautiful with its shades of yellows and aspens, mountain peaks and alpine lakes, I am convinced the fall in New England just can't be beat.  Oh, those vibrant reds in contrast with all the other hues were just so dreamy.

Driving west from East Burke to Stowe 
Covered bridge on my way to Stowe 
One of the best places to see some awesome fall color is from the "ceiling" of Vermont. From it's highest peak, the "chin" of Mount Mansfield, you can see the amazing gradient of rocky peaks, changing to dense evergreens, before putting on a show of oranges, yellows, and reds before mixing more mixes of autumn foliage and green in the rolling hills of Vermont.

So far, I am half way through summiting the six New England Peaks.  I have hiked the highest peaks in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, with only Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island left.  I had plans to head to Vermont for the weekend to join a bunch of friends mountain biking at Kingdom Trails in East Burke, Vermont (that's an entirely awesome post next on the blog).  When I saw that the Town of Stowe and trailhead to Mount Mansfield was only about 1.5 hours away from where I was staying, I decided to seize the opportunity. I left the mountain biking crew to spend Saturdays on a solo hike with Olive- to the top of Vermont's highest peak and a "New England 4,000 footer" .

View from Sunset Ridge Trail above the treeline 

Mount Mansfield in the Green Mountains is the tallest peak in the state of Vermont at 4,393 feet. While looking at the map, you may be really confused trying to find the peak or something marked as the summit.  It took me a while to figure out "The Chin" was the highest point, and it is meant to represent the chin of the "man in the mountain".  The view along the ridge line of the mountain, especially when viewed from the East, is said to look like a man: the highest peak being the Chin at (4,393') with smaller peaks making up the Nose (4,062'), Forehead (3,940') and the Adam's Apple (4,060'). While hiking along Mansfield, you may notice that the Nose is home to transmitter towers (used for radio and TV stations).  While peering down below from the summit, you can see that the East side of the mountain at is home to Stowe Mountain Resort.

Beautiful hike with amazing views of Vermont.  Like Mt. Washington, a lot of the hike is above the treeline making this a really scenic hike.  Olive had a blast but some of the rocks and steep climbs could be tricky for some dogs.  The foliage was at its peak in early October and this was a great place to see the foliage and hike Vermont.  The trail is very popular and can be quite busy.  About 70% of the people on the trail were French Canadians.  

Entrance to Underhill State Park 
Where the CCC road meets the Sunset Ridge Trail 
Trail map

Trailhead: Underhill State Park on Mountain Road.  
Parking fills up quick so get there early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  Park workers were directing cars to park on Mountain Road.  Depending on how far you have to park, this can at least a mile round trip to your hike.

Fee:  4$ a person- paid at the entrance gate to the park 

Trail:  CCC Road or Eagle Cut Trail to Sunset Ridge Trail to Long Trail (last 0.2 miles along the ridge)

Distance: 3.5 miles (one way)

Elevation (summit): 4,393 feet

Prominence:  3,633 feet

Elevation gain:  2,600'

Time: 3-5 hours (round trip)

Skill: Moderate to Difficult

Kids:  Older kids only, steep sections and large boulders

Dogs: Yes!  Allowed off-leash except for the parking lot/trailhead entrance and the last 0.2 miles where the environment is very sensitive.

Season:  May to October is best. The upper 1.5 miles of the Mountain Road to Underhill State park is not plowed in winter.

Layers:  Be sure to pack layers (hats, gloves, jacket) as the trail takes you above the tree line where the wind will be strong and you will chill fast.

** WINTER HIKERS: Looking to hike Mansfield in the winter? Check out The Bold Nomad's trail report and guide here

Hiking Mansfield with Dogs 
Olive on the CCC Road 
Dogs are allowed on the mountain - they are even allowed off-leash in most areas.  They need to be leashed in parking areas and at campgrounds and again at the summit where the ecosystem is fragile.  But, just because you can bring your dog doesn't mean you should.  While Olive is an expert when it comes to tricky trails, large boulders, and the elements, I know this isn't the case for all dogs.  Part of this trail required some pretty steep inclines and ascents over large boulders.  If your dog can't handle some boulder scrambling and large climbs over rocks, then they will not do well on this trail.  This would be a tough hike for smaller dogs due to the height of some of the rocks I had to get up and around.  This trail is best for larger dogs experienced with longer steeper hikes and making their way over larger rocks and boulders.  Olive must be part mountain goat (and used to some good ole fashioned Utah rock scrambling) and did not have any issues on the trail.  Besides her off-leash selective hearing of course. Also note, there is only a stream or two in the beginning of the hike, make sure you bring enough water for you and your dog. 

View from the Sunset Ridge Trail 

Stairs on the Sunset Ridge Trail
There are a few different options of trails to reach the summit. To name a few, from the west side you can take the Long Trail From the east side you can take Sunset Ridge or Laura Cowles. Then there is the easiest way, straight up the Toll Road to the summit (1.3 miles and 600'). 

My original plan was to go up the Sunset Ridge Trail and down Laura Cowles for a change of scenery. However, talking to a few people, the Laura Cowles trails spends a lot more time below the treeline and was a little shorter and steeper. I wanted the amazing views when I returned down the trail and did not want the extra steepness of the downhill, so I went back down Sunset Ridge. It is also good to note that if the weather isn't ideal, the Laura Cowles trail will be the better option, less exposed from the elements.
Eagles Cut Trail- shortcut option you can take this instead of the CCC Road to the start of the Sunset Ridge Trail 

The trail starts out at Underhill State Park off Mountain Road.  The lot was full so I had to park on the road, adding a little bit of distance to my overall hike.  I walked up to the entrance, paid my $4 fee, grabbed a map and headed to the bathroom before starting my hike.  The trail starts beyond the parking lot where you have two options:  You can follow the dirt road up to the start of Sunset Ridge trail, or you can follow the Eagle Cut Trail to the start.  The Eagle Cut trail is a little shorter and an actual trail but I followed the CCC road up, which will take you about a mile to reach the start of the Sunset Ridge Trail. 

On the Eagles Cut Trail 
I decided to follow the road up, treating the dirt road and gradual climb as a "warm up" for my hike, snapping a few pictures and taking in all the foliage.  About a mile into the hike, I came across the Mt Mansfield State Park sign, with a visitor login kiosk and a trail sign.  Here, the trail splits left, to the trails you want and the summit or right, down the CCC road. 
On the Sunset Ridge Trail
I was taking the Sunset Ridge Trail to the chin which headed to the left and over a bridge and stream. The hike will start to increase in elevation quick and it's about 2.2 to 2.5 miles to the chin from this point.  The trail starts out through the woods along a beautiful woodsy trail with bridges and amazing foliage.  The trail is marked with blue blazes on the rocks and trees along the trails. 

Where the CCC road meets the Sunset Ridge Trail- left will take you on the Sunset Ridge Trail to the Chin (Summit) 

On the Sunset Ridge Trail 

Following the blue blazes to the summit 
Views from the ridgeline 

The trail gets really rocky, with some sections made easier with rock stairs, and other sections requiring a little more "oomph".  About 1.5 miles into the Sunset Ridge trail, the trail gets even rockier and you ae finally out of the woods and above the treeline.  This was the best part of the hike and you get your first view of Vermont below and the foliage.  Oh, and the trail is about  to get steeper.  The best part about this hike is the fact that you spend about half of it above the tree line, with these amazing views.  And I am quite convinced this has to be the best time to do this hike.  We stopped for a quick snack break on the large rocks overlooking Vermont. Be warned, without the tree line you are exposed to the elements and you might want to start putting on those layers- the wind will most likely be strong at this point. 

Overlook above the treeline on the Sunset Ridge Trail 
Olive at the Overlook
Posing on the trail- beautiful Vermont colors below 
Following Cairns on the trail 
View looking back down the Sunset Ridge Trail- cairns and blue pain mark the way down the rock slope
Eventually, the trail is just making your way across a large expanse of sloping rock. Without a defined trail through the woods, you will follow a combination of cairns and blue blazes to make your way towards the summit (chin). After about 2.3 miles, you come to the section of the trail where the Laura Cowles trail meets up with Sunset Ridge for the last little bit before the last stretch along the Long Trail.  If you want to do more of a loop hike, you can head back this way down Laura Cowles instead of Sunset Ridge.  I chose to go back down Sunset Ridge so I could enjoy the beautiful views and the less steep trail heading down. 

Intersection of the Laura Cowles Trail and the Sunset Ridge Trail 
After a little bit, you reach the ridge line where you will follow the Long Trail over to the Chin.  This is also the point you need to have your dog on-leash due to the sensitive ecosystem up at the summit.  Mount Mansfield along with Camel's Hump and Mount Abraham are the only 3 mountains in Vermont where alpine tundra survived the ice age. Mount Mansfield has 200 acres of alpine tundra.  The trail is also marked off with white string so make sure to stay directly on the marked trail to protect the sensitive ecosystem up here. 

Intersection of the Sunset Ridge Trail and the Long Trail across the ridge 

Long Trail North to the Chin (Summit) 
The trail gets busy here as you meet up with hikers coming across the ridge line, making their way to the Chin as well.  Stay on the boards and/or rocks and stay between the lines marking the edges of the trail. 

Following the Long Trail to the summit
The summit of Vermont - highest peak 
And finally, you have reached the summit.  It will be busy and cold with the wind, however, the views are spectacular and you can find a cozy spot away from the crowds to have lunch if you can deal with the cold.  There was a park ranger at the top, reminding everyone to leash their dogs which to me was really sad.  How hard is it for everyone to follow the rules and leash your dog for the last 5 minutes of your hike to protect this environment?  We have to pay someone to remind people to leash their dogs for this TINY section because they refuse to acknowledge the sign?   None the less, Olive was on her leash and he was quite nice and reminded anyone with their dog off-leash that leashes were required in this area.  

View from the summit down towards Stowe 

Summit photo with Olive 

Olive at the Summit 

Hiking back down the CCC Road 

For any hike, I always pack a few basics and a few extras depending on the hike.  
Here is what I brought with me


  1. woww.. that so beautiful.. amazing :-)

    1. It was a GORGEOUS hike! So nice to be above the treeline with such gorgeous views!

  2. Thanks for the info about hiking Mansfield with a dog!


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