Vermont: Lake Champlain Islands to St. Johnsbury

Check out all five New England road trip routes in our 2012 Fall Travel Guide.

new england road trip fall travel guide

Route: A jaunt across islands and through backcountry Vermont, with stops in Burlington and St. Johnsbury; a hunt for a covered bridge in Cabot; and the state’s best hidden beach. Distance: 124 miles. Car: BMW 640i Gran Coupe.

Dusk falls over the causeway from the mainland to South Hero. 

new england road trip fall travel guide

Photo by Dominic Casserly

This trip has me setting off in a turbocharged BMW 640i Gran Coupe from the top of the Lake Champlain Islands, then free-falling into Burlington, and finally making an eastward trek to St. Johnsbury. Navigating this stretch of roads through back-country Vermont can rekindle a man’s faith. I stopped attending Sunday mass years ago, yet whenever I’m in this state, two thoughts pervade: God, this is beautiful. And God help me if I need an ambulance. I’d be dead on some desolate dirt road—but what a view.

Starting out on the islands, farms and lakeside properties obscure the shoreline, and unless you’re in love with fish hatcheries and tool museums—yes, the island of South Hero has both—the inland area isn’t exactly stimulating. Yet being this far north and this remote is a thrill unto itself, especially when Route 2 compresses into a thin sandbar. (The best 360-degree coastal views are here, just over the bridge to the mainland.) I head down the road to Niquette Bay State Park, Vermont’s “most hidden beach,” according to a ranger on Grand Isle. She’s right—Niquette is pure solitude, with only the occasional Canadian coming ashore in a 40-foot sailboat.

From there, it’s a fast ride through Winooski, a well-kept old factory town that sits along a river, and into Burlington. Church Street, closed to traffic for four blocks, is a required detour for hearty food and a cold one or two. Between sips on an outdoor patio, I watch as hippies, families, and dogs wander past. The maple–butter pecan ice cream from Lake Champlain Chocolates gets me almost as high as the “Flower Power” cyclist, a soft-spoken fiftysomething in an afro wig who pedals around the marketplace, his handlebars and wheels decked out in fluorescent paper.

I pick up Route 15 back in Winooski, and the next 70 miles are rich in classic barns and Texas-worthy panoramic skies. The big Gran Coupe, unperturbed by the road’s occasional rough patches, hustles through valleys and curves, past cows and pine-topped mountains.

Just before Danville (famous for its giant 10-acre corn maze), I head off 15, on the hunt for a covered bridge in Cabot. I pass the intersection of Deeper Ruts Road and…unmarked dirt. Everything gets dark and thick with brush and tangled trees, but then the woods clear, revealing the sort of immaculate, sun-drenched field found only in a Twilight dream sequence. In front of me, a chained gate blocks my path with a sign that reads, “Hikers and hunters are welcomed.” In other words, tourists in BMWs should get the hell out. I do, but not before I take a long last look at the infinite swath of blue and gilded greens and browns and breathe in the breeze channeling through the trees.

The engine restarts. Thank God.

Then it’s off to St. Johnsbury. The little literary town not far from the New Hampshire border is home to Dog Mountain, which came into being when the late artist Stephen Huneck and his wife, Gwen, purchased 150 acres in 1995 and created a compound complete with ponds, trails, and a chapel for people grieving departed pets. Parties here draw as many as 500 dogs and owners, Gwen says.(The next fete is October 7.)

I get back in the car and cringe at the sight of the red-and-blue I-93 shield. But unlike the soul-crushing slog that South Shore commuters face every weekday afternoon, 93 this far north is incredibly clear—and beautiful.


Check out all five New England road trip routes in our 2012 Fall Travel Guide.