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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.