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Friday, November 8, 2019

Mt. Pisgah Loop Hike - Lake Willoughby, Vermont

The temperatures were in the low 30s as I finished off my coffee and traveled across lonely dirt roads in northern Vermont, away from the quaint little village of Island Pond.  You know the dirt roads I'm talking about, narrow paths that cut through the woodsy untouched patches of Vermont.  These dirt roads are often lonely in the best way possible sometimes dotted with a cabin or two, or sweet houses or properties set back in the woods.  As you drive these dirt roads up and down Vermont, you can't help but stop and wonder how people get to their houses when the snow starts to fall.  This time of year, these dirt roads are an oasis, quiet enough to pull over and take in a picture and enjoy the view and you can drive along and feel like you are in a Lifetime romance movie.  It was the last of the leaves in Northern Vermont and it was just Olive and I at the tail end of my Kingdom Trails weekend, on a mission to catch some more golden hues and check out a new hike in the Northeast Kingdom. 

Before I left Connecticut, I did some research on some of the best hikes in Vermont and was happy to see one of these highly-rated hikes was only 20 minutes north of Kingdom Trails.  Mt. Pisgah in Westmore, Vermont makes the "Must Hike List" for its bird's eye views of Lake Willoughby and mountain vistas featuring Vermont, New Hampshire, and Canada.  It's a lovely little hike that is a moderate effort, a day hike that can be done as an "out and back" or as a loop hike if you don't mind a road walk.  Who minds a road walk when you have the mountains on one side and a lake on the other.  I did not. 

Trail Stats 

Mt. Pisgah (2751')     Willoughby State Forest     Westmore, Vermont

Trailhead(s):  South Trail:  Off Route 5A Across from CCC Road 
North Trail:  Off Route 5A, 2.8 miles farther north from the South Trailhead 
Route:  Route 5A, South Trail, North Trail,
Level:  Moderate/Difficult 
Distance:  6.9 miles 
Elevation Gain:  1,520 feet (cumulative) 
Kids:  Older/more experienced who are okay with the elevation and longer distance
Dogs:  Yes! On-leash

If you find yourself in the northeast Kingdom with a plan of tackling Mt. Pisgah, you have options.  The summit can be accessed from the north or the south end trailheads, with Route 5A connecting the two trailheads.  You can do this as an out and back from either end point, or drop a second car at one end.  I was alone and always prefer a loop so I was going to figure out the best way to do this.  I wanted to run the road instead of walk and I didn't want to run with a pack.  I quickly made a plan of "how to do this loop hike the way I wanted to do it" and it all came together.  I was going to drive into Westmore, drop my bag at the south end and follow Route 5A to start from the north end trailhead.  From there, I would start my journey by running the 3 miles down Route 5A, and start hiking the trail from the south end.  After reaching the summit, I would continue on the north trail to the north trailhead where my car was.  I thought it was insanely genius and a perfect way to start a chilly Sunday.  Perfect if you like running and hiking and crisp 35-degree hiking weather in Vermont in October.  Perfect, for me.  

The plan was in action as I drove into Westmore on a quiet Sunday morning where I dropped my bag (left tucked behind a tree at the southern trailhead).  From there, I drove north, following the winding route until right in front of me was this lake.  Not just any lake, but this picturesque body of water sitting between the mountains.  

This lake was bordered by this winding road on one side and flanked with the reds and oranges and rocky cliff faces on the other face.  The lake was quiet early Sunday morning and one little sailboat was moored by the beach.  I stopped a little speechless, in love with this corner of Vermont I had never even heard of until a google search earlier in the week.  You could kind of squint your eyes a bit and picture this spot in the middle of the summer,  blanketed in greenery while bathers sun on this quaint little beach so close to the Canadian border right here in Vermont.  Rumor has it, there's another beach just past the main beach where clothing is optional but for now, I was passing the lake in October with the temps in the low 30's and a plan to run and hike.   

My first fly in the ointment came before I even parked the car.  Route 5A was closed off due to fallen rock on the road, blocking the northern trailhead by a 1/4 mile.  I had to improvise, parking along the road close to the northern trailhead and starting my hike there.  Crisis averted, I locked the car, threw Olive's leash on, and we were off down 5A to pick up the South Trail.  

My legs felt like lead, heavy from the 10 mountain biking miles from the day before.  But I was so happy, running down this road with Olive before we tackled some elevation and were rewarded with some views.  This road was a nice little warmup, following 5A wedged between the lake and the mountains on a quiet Sunday morning.  By the time I reached the trailhead 3 miles later, I was sweaty and thankful for my bag at the trailhead with water, snacks, and warm layers.  Especially warm layers. 

We started following the trail which dipped into the woods, shortly thereafter crossing over a bridge and a marsh, enjoying a flat section of trail before the trail started to climb.  The trail was steep in sections and I stopped (more than I would like to admit) to catch my breath or adjust a layer.  There was something so therapeutic about being on the trail just Olive and I. I got to my first overlook, my first bird's eye view of the lake from a jagged cliff along the trail. 

 The magic really hit a few hundred feet shy of the summit when I hit a ledge, looked back, and saw the famous White Mountains of New Hampshire behind me.  The sun sparkled behind the Whites in the background and the evergreens closed me in in the foreground.  At this point, I had not seen a soul on the trail, just Olive and I, the chill in the air and the autumn leaves around us.  

Soon after my view of the Whites, I passed the wooded in summit (no views) and continued on until I hit the major viewpoint just beyond the summit.  Along these cliffy viewpoints (severe drop-offs, use caution) I stopped just briefly to  take in the view of Lake Willoughby below.  With the wind ripping and a long drive home, I grabbed Olive and we started heading down the south trail.  We stopped at the last of the overlooks, exchanging a few kind words with fellow hikers (mostly Canadians) on the trail north.  I decided to trail run in spots where I trusted my footing, literally laughing and giggling as I chased Olive down the orange trails, making our way down to the northern trailhead where my car was parked off Route 5A.  

Running those trails down the mountain, following Olive's lead in a forest of the brightest hues of orange and yellows, I was just about as happy as a girl could be.  There's something a little magical about Vermont in the fall, and it will never be fully encapsulated in a picture or a blog post, it's just something you have to go experience when the leaves start to change. 

I got back to my car 7 miles later, tired and happy, with plans to return to this beautiful part of Vermont in the summer and hopefully this time with Adam and the terror terrier.  There was something so special about this journey in the woods, combining a beautiful scenic run along the lake with a steep hike to a beautiful view with just my girl and I, my companion on some of my most cherished adventures.  

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