(Editor’s Note: When most EasternSlopes.com readers hear “Stratton” they probably think of the outstanding skiing and riding at Stratton Mountain Resort. But there’s another, wilder side of Stratton to explore, too, as correspondent Deborah Lee Luskin tells us.)
Stratton is Vermont’s eighth highest peak, and the highest point in Windham County in the southeast part of the state. It’s also the reputed birthplace of both The Long Trail, which runs from Massachusetts to Canada, and, later, the Appalachian Trail, the footpath that extends from Georgia to Maine. Regardless of its stats and history, it’s a great mountain for a quick hike on snowshoes as winter wanes in the valleys.
In winter, you access the Kelly Stand trailhead from the east on the Stratton-Arlington Road, off Vermont Route 100 in Wardsboro. As the road climbs, the season recedes from early spring to deep winter. There was plenty of snow at the parking area, which is at about 2,000 feet elevation, and piles of snow at the summit, which is just shy of 4,000 feet.
The Kelly Stand Parking area is also a staging area for snowmobile trails, and you sometimes hear machines in the distance, but the hiking trail plunges right into the silence of the woods, crossing the fire road used by the snowmobiles only once, about a mile in.
This first section of the trail cuts through open hardwoods, passes a beaver pond, and rolls along with only a modest gain in elevation. After crossing the fire road which is used by snow machines, the trail starts to climb steadily, traversing the steep terrain in long switchbacks, finally rising into thick hemlock, where the trail is steeper, and the occasional view spectacular.
White blazes mark the trail, but they can be hard to see with new snow sticking to the tree trunks. (Last year, with the record snowfall, some of the blazes were buried.) The trail is well worn, however, and easy to follow even if you’re lucky enough to be the first ones out after a snowfall, as we were on this early Saturday morning.
The snow became deeper and the winter landscape more magical as we climbed, with snow clinging to the evergreens arching over the trail, creating a tunnel effect beneath. Alongside the trail, we saw a variety of tracks of small animals making hurried forays across the snow. None of the birds so prevalent in the summer had returned to their mountain habitat yet; it’s still winter here.
In summer, I often climb Stratton in an hour and a half. On snowshoes and stopping to snap photos, the 3.5 mile hike took just over two hours from Kelly Stand to the top, and an hour and half back down.
At 3,940 feet, the summit of Stratton Mountain is below tree line, but there’s a fire tower, built in 1934 and used until 1980, when Vermont switched to airplane surveillance on the days the fire index is high. The tower is now on the historic register, along with the snug caretaker’s cabin (closed for the winter). The caretakers are in residence from May through October, maintaining trails and greeting the many, many hikers that cross this summit, some on their way to Canada (The Long Trail), some on their way to Maine (The AT), and some just out for the day. One of the truly remarkable things about Stratton is that the summer caretakers used to be the fire wardens; that’s a LONG time to work in the same cabin on top of a mountain! I’ll come back to pay them a visit soon after they return in May.
Even though we broke trail all the way up, a back country skier beat us to the actual summit, approaching from the ski resort, on the north side of the mountain. There’s a quarter mile trail from the top of one of the lifts to the top of the mountain, and while we were eating our peanut butter and jelly lunch, a man on snow shoes arrived via that route, having climbed up from the resort side along the ski trails.
Undoubtedly, the snow will stay on the ground longer at the resort than on the south-facing trail. But even without man-made snow, Stratton is high enough to stay cold, and will probably offer a few more weeks of snowshoeing before the trail turns to mud. Despite Stratton’s easy accessibility, we were the only ones on the trail, enjoying a last bit of winter before stowing away the skis and snow shoes and dusting off the paddles and oars.
So, if you’re looking for a way to get just a little more winter, grab your snowshoes, head for Stratton, and enjoy a quick and easy mountain adventure!