Final Frontiers: Vermont's Northeast Kingdom

IT’S HARD NOT TO FEEL LIKE A MODERN-DAY EXPLORER WHEN traveling to the upper reaches of New England. Make the extra effort of driving an additional hour or two, and you’ll be treated to a rugged wilderness of mountains and lakes, where the wildlife outnumbers the people and history is preserved in the 19th-century architecture and village greens. And, yes, they have plenty of amenities in this northern tier—including one of the finest hotels in the northeast—quaint restaurants, and a slew of outfitters to get you on those lakes and up the mountains. Immersing yourself in the spectacular scenery is the allure, especially for those of us in dire need of Mother Nature’s embrace.

Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom

IN A STATE KNOWN FOR ITS RURAL SETTING (ONLY WYOMING HAS fewer people), the Northeast Kingdom is Vermont putting on its finest pastoral dress. Wave after wave of unspoiled hillside form a vast sea of green, and small villages and farms spread out in the distance under a few soaring summits. Here, inconspicuous inns and dairy cows have replaced the slick resorts and Morgan horses found in the southern part of the state, and the white steeples are chipped, not freshly painted. It’s an authentic Vermont, a region that doesn’t put on any airs about attracting tourists.

In the 1830s, the Fairbanks family of St. Johnsbury, the Kingdom’s largest community, began manufacturing platform scales. They soon became one of New England’s wealthiest families, and fortunately for St. J, began pouring their money into the village. They opened one of the finest libraries in America, the
St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, where leather-bound books share space with a gallery of 19th-century art, including Albert Bierstadt’s The Domes of the Yosemite, a monumental, 10-foot-by-15-foot work. Across the street is the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, a natural
history museum founded by the family. There, you’ll see more than 3,000 preserved animals, including a 1,200-pound moose, an American bison from 1902 and a Bengal tiger.

Not surprisingly, this open and sylvan countryside is the perfect playground for outdoor activity. Bordering Quebec, Jay Peak gets more snow than any other ski area in New England (about 350 inches of powder a year). Burke Mountain, located in East Burke, is relatively unknown to anyone outside the Northeast Kingdom. Lucky locals often get to enjoy the challenging trails without lift lines.
East Burke is also home to more than 110 miles of single-track and dirt roads called Kingdom Trails. With a soft forest passageway dusted with pine needles, and trails through century-old farms, the town has arguably created the best mountain biking system in New England.

Hikers can head north to the shores of Lake Willoughby. Sandwiched between Mount Hor and Mount Pisgah, cliffs plummet more than 1,000 feet to the glacial waters below. The scenery is best appreciated on the three-hour hike to the summit of Mt. Pisgah. Afterward, take a swim in the cool waters of the lake.

Choose The Wildflower Inn and you’ll be treated to their exquisite views of rolling farmland atop Darling Hill. Keep busy with mountain biking and cross-country ski trails that are part of the Kingdom Trails network, a petting barn with sheep and goats, pool, tennis courts, a batting cage, a skating rink, a sleigh hill, and Belgian horse sleigh rides. Nearby, the Stepping Stone Spa and Wellness Center offers massages to work out those knots in your legs after biking and hiking.

For sustenance, Miss Lyndonville Diner, five miles north of St. Johnsbury in Lyndonville, is a local favorite. Expect to spend in the $7-$8 range for a roast turkey dinner or a half-pound baked Vermont ham. More upscale fare can be found at the River Garden Café in East Burke. Start with the artichoke dip or one of the tasty salads, made with local Vermont produce and the cafe’s own salad dressing. Then move on to the pepper-crusted lamb or pan-fried salmon. Cobbler à la mode is the perfect ending to a perfect day.