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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.