Adventure: Northeast Kingdom VT
Sunset on Lyford Pond by Vermonter Judith Lamberti, with gratitude
Vermont is a tiny, feisty state with a rugged heart and a progressive mind. The Northeast Kingdom (NEK) sits regally among the counties of Essex, Orleans, and Caledonia—a jewel in the rough, concentrating all of Vermont's stoic character, resilience, and beauty within a wild and stunning environment. It is 80% forest spread over 2,000 square miles of magnificent landscape and farmland, and hosts 65,000 citizens, about 10% of Vermont’s tiny population. Yes, it suffers from economic depression and tangles with tough issues like the opioid epidemic, crooked fat cat developers, and multiple border patrols, but the region is also rich with pockets of vibrant enterprise, refreshingly authentic people, and lots of elbow room. I count more than seventy-five lakes and ponds available for active recreation—the strong loon population certifies that the waters are pristine and there is easy access to swimming and fishing for everyone. Visitors seeking world-class biking, fishing, boating, golfing, and hiking also enjoy the opportunity to join right in with community suppers, parades, farmer's markets and chats at the local country store. Lazy days on the deck reading and skinny dipping are standard fare as are trips to the local hardware store for creemees.
‘Everything I love the most happens most everyday for me when I am in the Northeast Kingdom.’
Even in a state that is noted for hard living and independent thinking, the spirit of the NEK's rugged individualism paired with a supernatural beauty is unusually spectacular. Embraced by the White Mountains to the east and the Green Mountains to the west, it is further protected from infiltration by notoriously harsh six-month winters that cease abruptly when Mother Nature miraculously spits out fully formed summers each and every June. Perhaps it's the brutal winters that make for the other-worldly summers—the environment literally shimmers in the heat of the everyday sun like a kaleidoscope filled with endless combinations of greens and blues. All manner of bird flies in the fresh air, and it is simply narcotic to breathe—I eat like a pig and I nap like a baby when I am here.
‘We're friendly enough, but we don't plan to be friends with you.’
I've had the pleasure and honor of spending every summer of my sixty-plus years in the NEK—credit to my grandfather, Frank Curran, Postmaster of Newport. In 1956 he had the vision to build, by hand, a darling Irish cottage three miles from the Canadian border on stunning Lake Memphremagog (Abenaki for 'beautiful waters'). In no way could he have known that this generational gem would someday be located thirty-five minutes from the best mountain biking on the eastern seaboard—The Kingdom Trails in East Burke—and that it would enable me, his granddaughter, to blend two of her life passions all summer, every summer. I am eternally grateful for this luck of the draw–thank you, Bampa!
'If you don't like the weather, wait a minute' is a famous and true Vermont aphorism. Mother Nature has a voracious appetite here in the NEK and her tastes change by the moment. Forget about the weather forecast–just go ahead and plan your day, but be sure to pack all manner of gear and be prepared for plan A, B & C on any given outing. You mainly need a raincoat, as it might downpour for twenty minutes, and then the sun will come out for the rest of the day—after a wild windstorm or two, that is. Always be packing suits, towels and bug spray.
'We ain't dialin' 911…'
You can come to ride—you must experience the marvelous joy of mountain biking at the Kingdom Trails, or to hike the newly opened Kingdom Heritage Trail System—but please, only for a visit (we like it the way it is here.) We know immediately if you are from 'away' AKA a flatlander, and that's just fine—you are welcome! But note that there is a starchy protocol to be mindful of, Vermonters don't take kindly to assholes, so mind your manners, be kind, and respect the fact that you are a temporary visitor in a very special place. Friendly is okay, but no gushing–Vermonters are not a bunch of poor, illiterate hicks and they don't abide being patronized. We're friendly enough, but we don't plan to be friends with you. And it’s not a compliment to say ‘You don’t seem like you’re from Vermont.’ That kind of backhanded nonsense makes my sixth-generation blood boil. We rank eighth in the country for school quality, and are always in the top ten of any ranking of healthy and desirable places to live. The University of Vermont, a dynamic and competitive public ivy, has educated scores of Vermonters since 1791—along with the state’s other excellent public and private colleges.
Any disingenuous attitudes or derogatory comments will be dealt with severely: as in nothing of yours will ever get fed, fixed, or finished. Also, never, ever go on someone else's property, or—god-forbid—touch a vehicle, without an expressed invitation. NEKers, in particular, are property proud and righteously vociferous about it. Always honk your horn before exiting your vehicle for a number of reasons: 1. to alert the property owner to your presence. 2. to give the dogs a chance to access your viability 3. to give the groundhogs a chance to run for it.
NEK tradition has it that folks deal with their own stuff in their own time–as in 'we ain't dialin' 911’. This bit of local humor is not true per se, but do be aware that Vermont has the most liberal gun laws in the country and these are crazy times—so mind your business—and don’t even think about being a litterbug. Also, it won’t hurt to have your passport on you, the border patrol is everywhere.
Yup, we really do call our soft serve 'creemees' and yup, we still say 'jeezumcrow' (to avoid offending the Lord.) And yup, so what if we think 25 degrees is T-shirt weather, friggin’ hate GMO's, and worship maple syrup? NEK author Archer Mayor said 'the Kingdom is a choice, a retreat for the eccentric and a home to the independent' and while that sums things up fairly nicely, I would add ‘it’s a haven for passionate, badass nature lovers’.
While this is by no means an extensive list, my suggestions of fun things to do in the NEK is highly personal to me, and guaranteed to be road-tested fun. Everything I love the most happens most everyday for me when I am in the Northeast Kingdom—I hope you love it, too.
1. MTB Kingdom Trails East Burke
This is mecca for mountain bikers May-November, and also a great winter spot for alpine and Nordic skiing. There are 146 trails (100 miles) of superb quality, variety, flow, and challenge. I ride here every week and never get bored. It is pure joy riding with plenty of stomach flippers to keep things interesting. Arrive in town and park at Mike’s Tiki Bar parking lot just past the Burke Country Store. That way you'll be cued up post ride for the addictive Flat Tire pizza and other food truck goodies to complement your beverage of choice. Grab a ticket and map at the KT center across from the lot (everything is walkable). There are showers and bathrooms and it's a hoot of a people-watching hub. There is a first class bike shop, East Burke Sports, across the street for last-minute emergencies, rentals and shopportunitites. Next door is The Orange Rind, a lovely new whole-foods healthy eating spot that I hope makes it; the country store has great breakfast sandwiches and generally good grub; Aunt Dede’s Bakery is an absolute must. If you park 'on top' there is another colony of food trucks, brews and views, the Village Bike Shop, and lots of action: GPS 2099 Darling Hill. A good day's ride is 17-25 miles and you can easily ride multiple combinations here for 4-5 days without getting bored. Favorite trails: Moose Alley, Tap'n Die, Troll Stroll, Kitchel, Sidewinder, Bear Back, Hogback, Burrington Bridge, East Branch, Moose Haven, Ware's Davis?/White School. The Passumpsic River welcomes you right from the trailside for a refreshing post ride dip, then grab a maple creemee before heading back to Mike’s Tiki Bar for more festivities.
An hour west of Kingdom Trails is the Craftsbury Outdoor Center and is well worth the side trip to visit this world-class Nordic and Sculling epi-center. The trails are old-school style: lots of rocks and roots and grind climbs, but it's a ton of fun and super pretty country. Check out the training grounds and chat with the student athletes; there are guest accommodations on site as well. Be sure to have lunch at the General Store, you'll be delighted.
2. Gravel Grinding
Fatten up your tires then check Strava logs and road maps for details about this new adventure style of riding. Lots of former roadies have taken to the Class 2 roads for increased safety and better adventure discovery. I went so far as to have flat handlebars put on a light, fast carbon road frame with 28 mm tires and it feels like a joy ride every time. I can relax, take in the scenery, and the handlebar position reinforces the core muscles I depend on for mountain biking; triple win. There is a bounty of excellent Class one and two roads all over the Kingdom. With gorgeous vistas, farms galore, and very little traffic, this is much more enjoyable than the road riding terrors I have come to dread with the plague of texting drivers.
3. Jay Peak Access Road
This super enjoyable challenge includes 45 miles of cycling, with 14 miles of climbing, round trip from the Jay Country Store; I did it comfortably on my Grinder. Park at this classic country store where you can literally buy anything from A-Z, plus delicious post ride grub. The loop: head north on Cross Road to Route 105 west and climb the North Jay Ridge for 7 miles. You will be treated to one of the most amazing descents in Vermont: 7 miles of no brakes bliss at 7%. Then, on to Richford and Montgomery Center cruising flat valley roads. The rest stop in Montgomery Center is at the Blue Bike Cafe, a magical cafe and bike shop that will make you swoon with delight. On our stop we shared only a coke and Rx Bar in preparation for the impending climb— but I want to come back here to really eat! There is an adorable flower/gift shop next door, too. The Jay Peak climb: it appears fairly relaxed and rolling but is deceiving in its difficulty, especially at the peak. It's a 7 mile grinder with a thrilling descent that returns you to your car (and a proper lunch.)
Fun at Jay Peak Resort : There is something for everyone at Jay Peak: nice Long Trail hikes, a Tram ride, thrilling Waterpark, golf, mountain biking, restaurants, and other recreational activities year round.
4. Lake to Lake Road Ride
This is a fabulous 32-mile round trip filled with rolling farmlands that starts near Lake Memphremagog on the North Derby Road. Park your car at the head of Lindsay Beach Drive, Derby. Get on Darling Hill Road and follow a sleepy climb that nets you a thrilling downhill past a llama farm. Turn right at the stop sign and then take the next left on Elm Street, you'll be climbing into the quaint town of Derby Line. Follow the main road towards Holland, but be sure to stop first at the Haskell Free Library & Opera House right by the Border Patrol. This curious building sits half in the USA and half in Canada. Go in and have a look around—the ‘straddle line’ is a place you can be in two countries at once. It’s also a notorious site for smugglers and border hoppers, so caution in the rest rooms! Next, head towards Holland, your goal is Lake Seymour where you'll be rewarded with an astonishing downhill that feels like you are dropping into the lake. If you packed a suit, have a swim and a snack, then return the same route back to Lake Memphremagog.
5. Hike the Kingdom Heritage Trail System
The news of this new 20-mile network almost blew my head off with happiness. Imagine if a fully formed Nature Disney dropped into your backyard–and it's all free! The Kingdom Heritage Trail has been twenty years in the making, and just opened in June 2019. It was not on my radar until this summer, and I am gobsmacked by the prospect of getting to know and enjoy this gift of a wonderland that is based in Island Pond. According to the Green Mountain Club ‘In 1998 the Champion International Paper company announced it planned to sell 132,000 acres of land in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Through a series of negotiations and complex partnerships, the land was acquired and divided into three parcels. One parcel each went to the State of Vermont and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, becoming the West Mountain Wildlife Management Area and Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge respectively. The third parcel remained in private hands as working forest land; however, a public access easement was put on the land allowing for dispersed public recreational use.’ Use this map link to plan your outing—happy (new!) trails.
6. The Kingdom Games
Run, Bike Swim, Skate—scare the heck out of yourself in the NEK—by checking out the Kingdom Games site. This group is dedicated to bringing the gnarliest, most outrageously fun challenge events to NEK’s playground year ‘round. The Vampire Swim and Fly to Pie Marathon sound especially intriguing, and the Tour De Kingdom every June is already a classic. Their list of 10 things to do in NEK is well worth checking out, too.
7. Townin’ Around
Newport is my main NEK town and I frequent a few places near Main Street that I wouldn't want you to miss. Lake Memphremagog is a stunningly beautiful and quiet lake. The main harbor is on Main Street and you can eat lunch, rent a boat, or buy tickets for the Newport Belle cruise. Swim and camp at nearby Prouty Beach. Head to Newport Naturals for superb whole food meals and to stock up on healthy groceries, plus they make Nespresso almond cappuccinos, gluten-free brownies, and vegan bran muffins to die for. Next door is MAC: Memphremagog Arts a collective shop featuring local artists and a bounty of art treasures, in every medium, for sale. I'm doing all of my Christmas shopping here. Next door is the NEK Tasting Center sharing sips and samples of most of Vermont’s artisanal products. Around the corner is the classic Pick 'n Shovel—the most comprehensive country hardware store you've ever seen. This place is a time capsule selling everything from pins to Patagonia, plus their creemee stand is second to none.
8. The Brown Cow
This is the best diner in NEK, a retro refueling spot and a weekly fixture on our lake ride days. Their cinnamon toast and blueberry pancakes with Vermont maple syrup are worth waiting in line for. Newport is blessed with a beautiful bike path, The Beebee Spur along Lake Memphremagog, that goes all the way to the Canadian border; it's a 10 mile round trip, very flat with amazing views of Jay, Three Bears, and Owl’s Head peaks—and great rubbernecking to boot. It's fun for groups and families, too; jump on from most anywhere in town—especially The Brown Cow.
9. Muddy Waters Clay Studio
Around the corner from the Brown Cow, on Sias Avenue, is the Artist Diana Poulin's Muddy Waters Clay Pottery Studio. Drop by and see her beautiful work—she often has an 'honor sale' going on and you can simply select, pay, and be on your way. I adore Diana’s Asian Rice Bowls, they have a nifty bracket for chopsticks, I use mine daily as a lunch bowl.
10. Louis Garneau Outlet
The Garneau USA Factory Outlet on Route 5 in Derby is a bit of an anomaly sitting alongside the strip of fast food joints—it looks like a beautiful Swiss museum from the outside. Inside, it is stocked with lots of great cycling gear and good-to-great deals. This place is why our Canadian friends from the North always look so sensational cycling in their colorful kits—it’s definitely not NEK-style, but still, it’s a fun place to visit in town.
If you want to swim deeply in the true essence of the Northeast Kingdom, indulge the work of Poets David Budbill, Leland Kinsey, and the Writer Howard Frank Mosher. These gifted artists beautifully capture what it means to live in NEK. Most especially poignant is Mosher's 'Northern Borders' a tale told through the eyes of a young grandson that, in my humble opinion, is an underrated masterpiece. I was lucky enough to meet and study with Mr. Mosher at the Green Mountain Writers Conference a few summers ago. In a spooky NEK-style twist of fate, this trifecta of talented souls all passed within weeks of each other (2016-17) leaving a giant void in the Kingdom's line of literary royalty.
I’d love to hear from you—feel free to send your comments to me!