Mt. Philo State Park

Mt. Philo State Park

Location: Up a mountain via Mt. Philo Road in Charlotte, Vt.
Type: Overnight camping and day-use area
Camping: 10 tent sites and three lean-tos plus a day-use area at the very top of the mountain.
Things to do: Climb the mountain! Hiking trails lead from the base to the campground and to the summit.
Amenities: Running water, compost toilets (not as scary as that sounds), ice and firewood for sale, 60-person indoor pavilion for rent.

The sun was already setting as we made our way up the winding access road to the top of Mt. Philo. It was late summer on a Friday night and we didn’t know what to expect for our first camping experience on top of a mountain.

One of the other travelers on that road that evening was a solitary hiker, his head hung low, dragging a thick rubber tire by some chains behind him. Who was this guy? Why was he pulling the tire with some Sisyphus-style determination? We hoped this strange sight was not indicative of the Mt. Philo’s mountaintop campground (it turns out this is a popular new exercise fad).

Phayvanh and I at the summit on our final day at camp.

Phayvanh and I at the summit on our final day at camp.

Mt. Philo’s campground is tiny -13 total sites near the peak of a medium-sized Vermont mountain –and feels quiet and remote. A handful of fires flickered around us, as we set up camp in a declining sun under a canopy of trees. The camp was full for the weekend, but there were zero sounds of society. The rest of the world felt hundreds of miles away. This is Vermont’s oldest State Park and it felt like it.

What I brought to the top of the mountain for comfort.

What I brought to the top of the mountain for comfort.

Morning came and that’s when the people showed up – hikers making their winding way up to the summit and families driving their fat cars up the narrow road to the summit parking lot. Mt. Philo is very popular during the day as locals and visitors flock to see the 968-foot mountaintop view of the Adirondacks, the Green Mountains, and a stretch of Lake Champlain. There are several ideal spots for viewing at the summit and several comfortable Adirondack chairs set up movie theater-style for those who get there early.

Yeah, Mt. Philo's view is pretty great.

Yeah, Mt. Philo’s view is pretty great.

Driving the summit parking lot may sound tempting, but I would encourage every able-bodied visitor to climb the mountain. Not only is the effort worth the final view, but the uphill, three-quarters of a mile trail passes through some of the state’s best exposed bedrock, the result of glaciers scratching and soaking the landscape 12,000 years ago.

Don’t miss the Devil’s Chair on the trail by the same name. Located in a shaded enclave down a slope in the trail, the chair certainly looks like a good place for demons and monsters to take breaks and ponder their station in life.

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We were worried that the Devil’s Chair Trail would bring us face-to-face with Tire Man, but instead we met Mrs. Vermont. She was really nice – you can find her at https://www.facebook.com/MrsVermont.

The campground at Mt. Philo is just off of the main trail and is a 15-minute hike from the summit. All the sites are relatively private, very shaded, and just far away from the daytime activities to continue the sense of solitude. Workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the campground, access road, summit picnic area, and ranger quarters back in the 1930s. In many ways, the campground retains the same charm from that era.

Our moon that weekend.

Our moon that weekend.

Our camping trip coincided with the first full moon of August. After dark, once all the day-trippers had gone home and the ranger already made his rounds, we ascended the last part of the mountain to the empty, moonlit summit. We were surprised that none of the other campers made the trip too – the full moon was booming in the sky as large, rain-less clouds, crept across the landscape. Still, there was no competition for those Adirondack chairs.

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Little River State Park

Little River State Park

Location: Little River Road, five miles off of Route 100 in Waterbury

Type: Overnight camping and day-use area

Camping: 81 tent/RV sites, 20 lean-tos, and five cabins. Campground is divided into “A” and “B” sections.

Things to do: There’s no shortage of activities at Little River! Hours of hiking and exploring on the History Hike, swimming at two spots along the Reservoir, kayak and canoe rentals. Waterbury also offers lots of fun – restaurants, award-winning beer, Ben & Jerry’s factory tour, and a quirky flea market.

Amenities: Bathrooms, warm showers, nice swimming areas, ice and firewood for sale. There is a general store about 10 minutes away in Waterbury, that has a liquor aisle inside, but oddly no actual camping supplies.

Our campsite at Little River State Park this year - tent site 27 on the 'A' side.

Our campsite at Little River State Park this year – tent site 27 on the ‘A’ side.

Little River State Park is one of Vermont’s most popular camping sites and it’s no surprise why – this park offers a sense of being far away from civilization and is built around the town’s reservoir, constructed in 1938 after a series of deadly floods.

History seeps into everything at Little River, from the massive hike through the dilapidated homes of the town’s founding families to the Nature Center, displaying an impressive array of animal skulls and bones during our visit in July 2015.

The Park claimed this was a moose skull, but I still think it's evidence that aliens visited Waterbury in the early 1800s.

The Park claimed this was a moose skull, but I still think it’s evidence that aliens visited Waterbury in the early 1800s.

But the draw for most campers is access to the Waterbury Reservoir, a warm and pristine body of water created by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to control floodwaters from the nearby Little River and Winooski River. The reservoir is 850 acres of great swimming and exploring.

During this year’s group camping trip (“Big Trouble in Little River”), I kayaked across to the opposite shore on the reservoir with several friends. It was actually my first time on a solo kayak and I rather liked it; once you find your balance, they are faster and easier to maneuver than tandem kayaks.

The opposite shore is the wild side of Little River. Here we found a series of remote campsites – the “unofficial” sites that were for many years off the books and favorites of locals. Summer squatters and trash problems prompted the state to step in and maintain the sites, despite a report that urged Vermont to shut down the sites for safety reasons.

 

The view from the remote campsite along the Waterbury Reservoir.

The view from the remote campsite along the Waterbury Reservoir.

Waterbury’s 35 remote campsites can only be accessed through a long hike in the woods or paddling across the reservoir. They are bare bones – there was a fire ring and a downed log to sit on. I didn’t see any signs of running water or bathroom facilities. We did find a grilling fork duck-taped to a long stick. I’m sure it’s super-useful for cooking on an open fire while remote camping, but it looked like a crude and ancient murder weapon.

The remote site we found has a better view and access to the water than any of the official sites at Little River. Remote camping along the Waterbury Reservoir is definitely on my to-do list next year.

The Waterbury Reservoir.

The Waterbury Reservoir.

It’s easy to fall under the spell of the Waterbury Reservoir and forget that Little River State Park also offers some of the most interesting hikes in Vermont. The History Hike, a series of trails through the Mount Mansfield State Forest ranging in time from 90 minutes to five hours, is a time machine; it’s not unusual to find old farm foundations, collapsed wells, or rusting 1800s-era tools along the path.

One of the centerpieces of the History Hike is the Ricker Family Cemetery on the popular Dalley Loop trail. This graveyard dates back to the early 1800s and is the final resting place for some of Waterbury’s first families. White cedar, symbolically a tree of life, surrounds the cemetery, guarding it from a forest full of maples and birches.

I’ve visited the Ricker Family Cemetery twice before, but on this camping trip I decided to do something different – I signed up for the park’s advertised “Owl Prowl and Night Ghost Hike.”

Ranger Brian impressed the crowd by showing up with a scythe – a vintage garden tool that is the tool of choice for the Grim Reaper – in the back of his car. For two hours he led us by headlamp up the trails, pointing out interesting plants, fungi, or evidence of animal life.

The Ricker Family Cemetery. Scary, but likely not haunted.

The Ricker Family Cemetery. Scary, but likely not haunted.

It was past sunset by the time we made it to the Ricker cemetery and Ranger Brian entertained with owl hoots and a local ghost story. He placed two historic photographs of Ricker family members next to their graves. I imagined the ghosts of these grizzled old settlers staring down at us with confusion and amusement.

I saw nothing spooky in the cemetery that night, but I did gain a new appreciation for the fortitude of Waterbury’s original settlers, who made a living for themselves in the wooded hills of the town.

Or, tried to, anyway, until the rising river water and rocky terrain drove them away.

 

 

 

 

 

No Pie For You

My most harrowing camp story does not involve bears or bugs or bad weather. Instead, it was a surreal journey in search of dessert that brought me to a small town general store where black is white, up is down, and pies are not for sale.

This was July 2014 and there were 10 of us camping out at Ricker Pond State Park in Groton, Vt. The weather was perfect all week and we had hiked and swam and paddled ourselves sore and happy. The culmination of the trip was a birthday celebration for my good friend Colin Tedford.

All parties need sweets, but we had nothing aside from marshmallows and other typical camp snacks. I volunteered to drive into town and find something appropriate to bring back for a birthday party at a campground.

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That’s Colin in the lower right-hand corner. He likes to draw comics and you can read his work here: http://www.colintedford.com.

I found a general store about 10 miles away. Inside was a single, untouched blueberry pie wrapped in plastic. It was baked that morning and smelled of dough, sugar, and berries.

“How much for that pie?” I asked, taking out my wallet.

The teenager behind the deli counter didn’t know. She called over the manager.

“We can’t sell you the pie,” said the manager.

I thought I misheard him.

“You can’t sell me the pie?” I repeated back to him.

“No. We only sell pies by the slice.”

Was I going crazy? Instantly, I began questioning the entire basis of capitalism and the free market. Isn’t this how it works? They have a product and I buy that product with money. Have I been doing it wrong all these years? What has happening here?

“I’ll buy all the slices,” I suggested. “I’ll just take it as it is.”

“We can’t do that.”

“You can’t sell me all the pie slices?”

“No,” the manager said, calmly, as if this is something he explains to dumb customers everyday. “If I sold you this pie, I would need to make another one.”

“You … would need to make another pie,” I repeated, hoping the words would make sense the second time.

“In case someone else came in and wanted a slice of pie,” he explained.

“You couldn’t tell them you were sold out of pie?” I suggested, knowing it was a fruitless argument.

“No, we can’t do that,” the manager sighed. “And we’re not making more pies until tomorrow.”

I just want to buy that pie, I explained again.

Dead eyes stared back.

The scene of the failed pie purchase.

The scene of the failed pie purchase.

Dazed, I wandered outside. I looked back at the general store: An OPEN flag flapped in the light breeze, a large sign explained that hunting licenses were sold there, there were stacks of firewood for sale.

What world was this, I wondered, where there were pies for sale but you cannot buy them?

The corporate chain supermarket 45 minutes away had a whole aisle of cakes and pies and pastries. I picked out a chocolate cake and a package of birthday candles. We presented the cake at sunset after dinner. The birthday candles flickered in the woods like tiny campfires.

I told my pie story as we handed out slices of cake. Everyone laughed. And then we ate cake and forgot that pie was ever even an option.

Limekiln Lake Campground

Limekiln Lake Campground

Location: Campground Road, off of Route 28 in Inlet, NY

Type: Overnight camping and day-use area

Camping: 271 tent and RV sites. Best sites are the ones that have direct lake access.

Things to do: Hiking trails, swimming at the lake, kayak and canoe rentals, and fishing at the lake. Shopping and restaurants catering mostly to tourists are available in downtown Inlet and nearby Old Forge.

Amenities: Many bathrooms, free showers, nice swimming area with a part-time lifeguard during the height of the season, ice for sale. Firewood is available at several side-of-the-road locations on the way to the campsite. A gas station with coffee, doughnuts, and camping supplies is less than a 10-minute drive away.

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Our view from the campsite.

Limekiln Lake Campground is a gem of place to stay in the Adirondacks and was our first time camping outside of Vermont. The trip was daunting: the lake was more than four hours away from home, in another state, and close to the location where two violent murderers broke out of a high security prison a week earlier and were still on the loose.

The worst part of were aggressive black flies (bug spray and a citronella torch helped). The best part was the serene Limekiln Lake. We stayed at site #163, allowing us to eat dinners while watching sunsets over the lake.

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I made lots of duck friends.

Seeing or hearing wild animals is an essential part of the camping experience for me. Limekiln Lake has nature in spades; we hadn’t even set up our tent yet when two ducks swam off the lake and wandered around our campsite. The baby ducklings – just little fuzz balls no larger than a small hand – joined the welcoming committee. All weekend, they would make the rounds along the shore of the lake, wandering into campsites looking for visitors generous with their dinners. I swear I didn’t feed them bread – sorry, ducks, I’ve seen that meme! We also saw deer, turkeys, lots of birds, chipmunks, and a baby snapping turtle.

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Phayvanh watching the sunset on Limekiln Lake.

At night, the loons called to each other from between lakes, the cries echoing across the water and mountains.

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The food locker and the picnic table.

One animal that we didn’t see is the legendary Adirondack black bear. Bear warnings are everywhere there and we were careful to put our food, our cooking equipment and utensils, and anything that smelled like food in the food locker – a big metal book screwed onto two cement blocks. Each site had one. They only animals interested in our food were ducks.

The view from the top of Bald Mountain.

The view from the top of Bald Mountain.

My father’s family grew up one county over from Limekiln and my uncle recommended that we try Bald Mountain for a hike. The 2,350-foot summit has views of a half dozen area lakes and includes a restored fire tower. Bald Mountain is a steep climb and the path alternates between dirt, bedrock, and tree roots. Still, we saw lots of young kids and older hikers standing proudly at the top. On the way down, one woman remarked that she was getting knee surgery the following week.

Fish and chips & Bang-Bang Shrimp.

Fish and chips & Bang-Bang Shrimp.

The small towns of the Adirondacks have long operated as tourist traps and Old Forge, located about 30 minutes drive outside of Inlet, is no exception. There are restaurants, t-shirt and gift shops, and opportunities to eat ice cream on every corner. Our trip came weeks before the traditional start of the season out there and the town was quiet, quant, and welcoming. We ate at Tony Harpers Pizza and Clam Shack and saw Jurassic World at The Strand, a retro-style movie theater with an impressive collection of vintage cameras and projectors on display.

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Searching for loons during a nighttime canoe trip.

Our camping trip ended with a spontaneous nighttime trip around Limekiln Lake after our camping neighbor, a dad with his two daughters, loaned us his canoe. We tried finding those loons, paddling in the direction of the calls. They sounded farther and farther away, perhaps in another lake.

The canoe floated directionless for a minute. Thousands of ripples darkened the surface of the lake. The sun was gone and we guided ourselves along the lakeshore, watching the campfires enviously in the woods, with starlight and the lake’s reflection of starlight, as our guides.

Lake St. Catherine State Park

Lake St. Catherine State Park

Location: Route 30, Poultney, Vt.

Type: Overnight camping and day-use area

Size: 117 acres

Camping: 50 tent/RV sites and 11 lean-to sites

Things to do: Hiking trails, swimming at the lake, kayak and canoe rentals, fishing, Nature Center.

Amenities: Three bathrooms, sandy beaches, concession stand, children’s playground, firewood for sale. Campground is a 10-minute ride to the Poultney General Store.

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Lake St. Catherine on a warm, windy day.

Lake St. Catherine is known as a cool water lake and the Vermont State Park that surrounds part of the 930-acre body of water lived up to its name on the first night of Memorial Day Weekend camping this year. Temperatures dropped to the low 30s after dark and were accompanied by a howling, biting wind that seemed to cut right through the thin plastic of our tent.

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Morning coffee and morning fire after a first cold night.

Phayvanh and I woke up early Saturday morning chilled to the bone. A morning fire and coffee warmed us and as the sun emerged from behind the clouds, we quickly forgot all about the arctic-like night. As the weekend continued, the weather just got nicer, hitting a high in the low 80s on Sunday.

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One of the abandoned buildings in the woods.

Lake St. Catherine State Park has been in operation for more than 60 years, but much of the land was once farmland, slate-mining quarries, and a boy’s summer camp. Reminders of the park’s past life can be found in the 117-acre campground, including the collapsed ruins of old buildings and vintage tools rusting in the brush.

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Sunset on the park green.

But the campground doesn’t feel like an aging throwback – instead, it’s comfortable and sprawling and perfect for families with young children. The center green at the campground’s main four corners resembles a downtown village square, right down to rows of Maple trees along the dirt road. The center green truly feels like the heart of the campground and kids and families gathered there to play tag, softball, and basketball.

In addition to the campground, there is a day-use area with a semi-sandy beach (if you want to go swimming, I recommend the smaller beach in the campground area – it was more private and the beach and shallow water area had less rocks), a concession stand, and kayak and canoe rentals (we went with a two-person pedal boat). Pets are allowed in the camping area, including that beach, but not in the day-use area.

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Most of the ten sites are shady with great moments of sun.

We stayed three nights at Tent Site #28, located in the middle section of the park and along one of the main roads linking the two clusters of campsites. This spot is private, elevated, and nearly completely surrounded by woods. We could only see two other campgrounds.

Other spots that look good include Tent Site #44, which has a small cabin behind it and a sunny grass knoll; Tent Sites #41-42, which make a great private pair for two families; the lean-to named Pine looked private as well. Avoid Tent Site #37 – it is too close to the very busy boat launch.

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Phayvanh explored the woods, but did not finish the fairy house she started.

The campground’s Nature Trail is a short, handicapped-accessible walk through the woods. It’s not very dynamic, but it does connect with the Loop Trail, which brings you deeper into the old woods surrounding Lake St. Catherine, offers a worth-the-hike view of nearby Birdseye Mountain, and drops you off in a grassy field near a chestnut tree breeding orchard.