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Tough Travels: A Green Mountain Epic

Tough Trails: A Green Mountain Bikepacking Epic

Often, we go on outdoor excursions with a set purpose: a peak to summit, a line to ski, a trail to ride, a goal in mind. More often than not, we accomplish these goals—but it’s the times that we don’t that can truly ingrain themselves in our minds, and hold the lofty title of adventure. Some may even cross into the territory of an epic—which entail a requisite amount of pain and distinct unenjoyment.

Recently, myself and two others went on one of these epic adventures, while exploring a new bikepacking route through the central Green Mountains.

Our epic started off as most do, with one person concocting a daring plan, then enlisting a few other hardy souls to join in on the journey. Greg, local hero and longtime friend of OGE, came up with this one—and with permission from his wife for a weekend off from the kiddos—recruited a friend and I to come along.

We planned out the trip dates several weeks in advance. Greg works for a local trail non-profit and had linked together our route beforehand: Around 107 miles of gravel and class 4 roads, with a few short stints on pavement to connect things together, and roughly 10,000 feet of climbing. All to be done in a sub-48 hour weekend.

None of us really gave the route a second thought after Greg proposed it, and with all of us being fairly experienced bikers, the daily mileage and climbing didn’t seem like too much—until you remember to factor in loaded touring bikes and the conditions of Vermont class 4 roads after a very, very wet winter and spring—like we didn’t.


Update 6/28: The route in all its glory. Find a detailed breakdown and cuesheet of the route here.

The route started with a short train ride down to Randolph from Essex Junction. In cavalier door-to-door fashion, we all rode the ~11 miles to the station for our 9:45AM departure. After hustling our loaded bikes up the tight passenger car stairs (a feat sometimes requiring all three of us) we enjoyed the relatively short hour-and-a-half-long ride, with hot coffee and pleasant conversation flowing loosely the whole time.

The start of our journey at the Essex Junction train depot

Once we started out from the depot in Randolph we were cruising, riding south through the valley along a broad and meandering river, enjoying the sun-dappled gravel roadway and the relatively cool temperatures. We took our first break somewhere around mile 14, at the base of Sand Hill Road. This was probably the first hint of the lesson we were going to be taught on this trip: Roads with the word “hill” in the name? They’re typically all uphill.

A picture of what going uphill does NOT look like

Still being fresh, we managed to pedal 75% of the climb, only pushing our bikes during the more blown-out stints of the class 4 at the top and the sections that had a grade over 13%. Once we got over the peak, we were rewarded with our first (of many) fast, winding descents, leading to a brief section of pavement; a most welcome flat cruise after the long climb.

Up next was Liberty Hill Road (there’s that “hill” word again). This time, we weren’t as freewheeling about pedaling up—all of us were starting to feel the toll a loaded bike and long climbs will take on a person’s legs. Here was also where we unexpectedly made our first tough decision—opting to continue up Liberty Hill Road, rather than take the XVT (Trans-Vermont Trail) like we had originally planned to. We were already pushing the 3PM mark, and had only ridden 25 of the day’s planned 60 miles—something had to give.

The top of Liberty Hill turns into a classic class 4 road: long stretches of deep, tacky mud, slick, mossy ledge, and baby head-sized rocks strewn throughout. After descending down the other side, we stopped for a water refill, a snack break, and to look ahead at our route.

What goes uphill must come downhill

At this point, if we continued on our original route, we would be traversing another stretch of class 4 road. Though only two miles and ~400’ of climbing, it would still feel like a significant distance given our current rate of travel (we were averaging around 8 mph). We decided to continue down a stretch of gravel road and peek in on the class 4, then to reroute down into Rochester, around the peak.

Another pleasingly winding descent down to the entrance of our road lifted our spirits once more, and the entrance looked pleasant enough too; a fairly buff section of grassy double track. We dove into the hub-high grass with childlike abandon, splashing through deep puddles and enjoying the quiet seclusion awarded to those who follow these seldom-traveled tracks.

The reward for the trudge uphill

But without fail, Vermont threw us a curveball, our pleasant double track quickly turning into a safari-like trudge through completely overgrown—and rather sodden—VAST trails. Our pace dropped to the hike-a-bike speed of 4 mph, slow enough to require us to don our head nets and an excess of bug dope to avoid being carried off by the hundreds of mosquitoes and black flies breeding in the stagnant waters surrounding the trail.

Head net: On. Misery: Engaged.

On the other side of this slog, however, was one of the longer, more technical descents of the trip, an utterly blown out jeep track rife with small boulders, stretches of running water, fallen trees, and off-camber ledge. Riding it with a loaded bike was a challenge and a pleasure, a complete change of pace from the consistent uphill that this route seemed to be.

Rolling out onto the road at the bottom, we were greeted by a family enjoying the spring weather in their front yard, one of whom remarked, “That’s a hell of a road on a four-wheeler, let alone a bike!” We couldn’t have agreed more as we coasted away, munching on snacks and chugging water.

Cresting the top of Brandon Gap

A ride in Vermont isn’t complete without soldiering through one of the state’s many “gaps.” Ours was Brandon Gap, a six-mile long, 1200’ climb, the trip’s first and only real climb on pavement. Never exceeding 9% grade, it’s one of those climbs that seemingly never ends—dragging on and on and on and on. We quickly spread out, our individual bikes and cadences leaving us barely within sight of each other. At the peak and down the other side, the road is under construction, so we were again surprised by a loose and thrilling descent on chunky gravel.

Accidentally cruising past our turn in Goshen, we stopped at a little corner market in Forest Dale, where we limped our way inside for sugary snacks and electrolyte-filled beverages. We were, at this point, really feeling the ride, having done 30-ish miles and climbed 4000’. And, with our late start due to the train, we were also beginning to feel nightfall’s fast approach.

Sweet sustenance from one of Vermont's many country stores

With our missed turn, we had another decision to make. We could ride back up the 900’ we accidentally descended to get back on-route, which would still leave us 24+ miles from—and 2600’ below—our planned campsite at the Emily Proctor Trailhead. Or, we could continue north on Routes 53 and 116, ending our day at a small private campground just south of Bristol, a mere 17 miles and 700’ away.

We opted for the reroute, taking into account our pace for the day and our current state of exhaustion, but it was with a heavy heart. We had all gone in on this adventure planning to ride and help develop another bikepacking route through these wonderful hills we call home. Rerouting, especially around what we all knew would be some of the finest sections of gravel on the ride, was tough for us all to accept.

Fueling up the morning after

We chewed up the relatively flat pavement miles and rolled into the campsite with just enough daylight to set up camp and start on dinner. After a deep night’s sleep, we continued into Bristol the next morning, picking up our route again and enjoying the rolling hills of Champlain Valley. The soft grades and consistent rollers felt small, but still carried a twinge of pain from the previous day’s mountain passes. We rolled through the first 20 miles in under two hours, enjoying long views of the Adirondack Park to the west and the Green Mountain spine we had just traversed to the east.

Parting ways in Monkton, Greg and our friend continued their second half of day two into Burlington—another 20+ miles—while I headed back into the mountains and through Huntington, climbing my way back up to the lofty perch where my cabin resides. Stopping only to eat an entire rotisserie chicken and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s at the Richmond Market, I packed it in to end what was truly an epic weekend of riding with friends.

Counting our rides into the train station, day one had been a bruiser: 70+ miles with over 5000’ of climbing (on our reroute, 7600’ if we had continued on route). Day two was a little kinder, with only 40 miles of riding and 3000’ of climbing. We had all decided around the bottom of Brandon Gap that this was a route that needed 3 days to complete, or, barring that, a marathon bikepacking setup and a strong penchant for masochism (an earlier start than our 11AM train arrival would help, too). My buddy and I both have plans for redemption later this year—in either style. It beat us, so we’ll be damned if we don’t beat it.

My preferred bikepacking rig

My trusty steed.

To be honest, this was my first full-blown bikepacking adventure. I’ve been around the block as an ultralight long-distance backpacker, and ridden my fair share of bikes too, but I’d never had the chance to merge the two. This trip fully seated in my desire to do many, many more like it. There’s something about experiencing the pinnacle of efficient, human-powered travel, combined with the slower pace of a few days’ out camping—all the while being surrounded by this beauteous, blooming, wild world we live in—that’s almost transcendent. Maybe I—or all of us—just spend too much time cooped up in our concrete jungles for it to feel familiar. Though, it still is.

So, whether you’re an intrepid adventurer from NYC, a mountainside local, or a newcomer to this world of wonder and excitement, I present you with this challenge:

Pack what little things you need for a few days of camping onto your bike (a bike, any bike), bring plenty of sugary snacks and water—and just get out there. See where you and your friends’ wanderings can take you, and live a few days a little simpler—and maybe a little harder. It doesn’t matter where your wheels take you, or what miles and climbs you conquer; all that matters is soaking it in, and then settling in, amongst all the wild things and wild places that this world provides.

You’ll feel better for doing it, trust me.

Get outside. Enjoy.

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Published:June 25, 2019

Trip Reports

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