Touching Vermont's Ceiling: Mount Mansfield
New England has a grand total of 67 mountains considered "four thousand footers", only five of which rest within the borders of Vermont. New Hampshire boasts 48 while its larger neighbor, Maine, claims the remaining 14 peaks exceeding this elevation. Vermont's highest peak, Mount Mansfield, checks in at just under 4,400 feet (4,393 to be precise) but packs a visual punch along with a rigorous climb en route to a summit offering a breathtaking 360 degree view of the surrounding region, including the nearby ski trails snaking down Stowe Mountain.
Hiking in the winter, especially as far north as Mount Mansfield, requires advance preparation and the plan for this hike was a mid morning start up Sunset Ridge to the summit, followed by a descent down the Halfway House Trail via the Long Trail, a beautiful ridge line trek similar to the Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire's White Mountains. The weather conditions supported this plan as temperatures were relatively mild for late February (high 20s to low 30s), and most importantly, winds were low. Although there are numerous approaches to Mansfield's peak, the visually ideal ascent is up Sunset Ridge, with its gorgeous and unfettered view of the surrounding region once above tree line. On a day with high winds, this approach would prove much riskier and probably would have forced our climb up the less exposed but far less visually rewarding Laura Cowles Trail or Hell Brook/Profanity Trail.
From October through May, the road to the Underhill Campground (base of Mount Mansfield) is not maintained, making it a crap shoot as to what awaits any visitor from out of town. Your best bet is to check ahead with online reviews then simply take a chance and hope for the best. The road does have a modest but very useful parking area approximately a mile and a half before the campground--you are advised to use it as the road is often completely iced over with no guardrails to speak of and a sharp drop off into a brook on one side.
Once at the campground, one can advance another half mile or so up the Civilian Conservation Corps Road to the actual head of the Sunset Ridge Trail. This time of year will require nearly an hour of walking before you actually get to the trail head, a formidable but worthwhile investment for the sights that lay ahead.
The initial hour and a half of the Sunset Ridge Trail is meandering and looping in a way that belies the elevation gains along the way, a decidedly less punishing ascent than many relatively similar mountains but one still requiring a steady pace. There are several interesting rock formations and alcoves on this trail, a very unique terrain compared to most New England mountains of this height and grade, one which keeps you guessing as to what's next as each twist and turn of the trail offers up some new visual landmark. Once we got above tree line, the temperatures dropped significantly but the winds kept steady for the time being. While the trail up to tree line is a steady trek with little view to the surrounding area, the journey above tree line offers a buffet of incredible and satisfying vistas worthy of multiple picture taking stops. At this point, the mountain becomes essentially two experiences; one below tree line and one above it--the difference is significant in both scenery and weather conditions, especially during winter months. As with any winter hike, if you are dressed properly and have solid footwear and related gear, Mount Mansfield is a fantastic single day winter climbing experience unlike anything you will find in New England. Micro-spikes are a must as is a good outer layer of clothing; anything else spells poor footing and unbearable temperatures.
The summit is not directly accessible as a "straight shot" as with many other mountains, but instead broached by looping around the summit base on a trail that takes you past frozen spruce trees covered in horizontally arranged frost from constant winds. It is a amazing sight and one that demonstrates how extreme winter weather is at this elevation, even on a day considered unusually mild thousands of feet below. Be warned--the trail markings are very difficult to find with all the snow; on this climb, two key signs were completely toppled over from their perches while the others were frosted over and nearly illegible even after attempts to clean them off. A lighter version of "dead reckoning" became the navigation method of choice at one point, as we climbed in the general direction of the summit until it became fairly obvious we reached the top. The winds at the summit were very high and cold; it was a struggle to keep one's eyes on the trail and body moving forward and upright during certain portions of the ascent. The view was astounding, however, as full 360 degree visuals of the surrounding area were in full effect (the summit is often called "The Chin" because it helps form the profile of a human face from the ground). From vehicle to summit took approximately three hours, a respectable time considering the stops to take pictures and winter conditions.
From the Mansfield summit it was on to the Long Trail toward our descent, a beautiful but tightly meandering walk along the high ridge which offers views all around the mountain. Again, the markings for this trail are frustratingly scarce, covered over by snow and ice for much of the way, causing our hike to veer off course numerous times during the journey toward the Halfway House Trail, our chosen entry point to our descent down the mountain. Thankfully, there was frozen-over rope lining the "off limits" sections of fauna near the edges of the trail, markings that rose above the snow and ice to show the way more than once. The snow levels this time of year raise the walking surface on the trails significantly higher than during the summer months, causing a deceptive view of the established route. The terrain truly becomes a different world during this time of year in more ways than one.
This is where our hike got most interesting. Already referring to my phone almost constantly (not ideal) for the correct route along the Long Trail, the GPS reading for our meeting up with the Halfway House Trail was inexplicably off course (according to the app we were using), causing us to make multiple attempts to meet up with a trail that didn't exist where the app claimed it was, instead greeting us with a sheer cliff and drop off that would have been folly to attempt in any fashion. We spent several minutes going back and forth in vain trying to find the elusive trail on our screens until finally deciding to keep walking on the Long Trail. We eventually found our desired trail farther down the path, much to our relief. This is where weather conditions and getting off track can spell disaster; we were cold and trying to get down the mountain and our plan was getting challenged by our available technology and changing conditions. Thankfully, we had some big advantages--we had plenty of time and were not "racing the light" in any way whatsoever and we had plenty of water and calories in our packs. Perhaps most significantly, we weren't by ourselves. But even though we were properly dressed and had additional backup gear, it was getting colder and the winds were picking up, causing our otherwise simple route challenge to become more stressful than it would be normally. But we persevered and descended down the Halfway House Trail to meet up with the CCC Road and our original starting point.
And despite our short term success at finding our trail, we weren't done yet. The trail down was incredibly iced over and significantly elevated from its normal height, giving the path a much higher, icier slope which posed a serious challenge to traverse in more than one spot along the way. There were times where we were holding onto tree branches to prevent us from falling down the trail into the trees below. Other parts of the trail were covered with ice or blocked by tree branches which would have been safely above our heads during warmer months. Never before have I been as grateful for colored blaze markings on the trees to guide our way as I was on this day, as they were often the only thing which told us we were on the right path. More than once we simply sat and slid down the snowed over trail like we were sledding on some hill in the rural countryside. A couple of times I had to grab a branch or large exposed root while passing by to stop myself from completely sliding into the trees below. It was a sometimes stressful but largely exhilarating experience, probably the most unique and challenging descent I have ever experienced in all my hiking trips. Eventually we met up with the CCC Road and made our way on a much more tranquil and stress free journey back to our car down the roadway.
All told, the entire climb took us five hours (see precise recording below) with an elevation gain of just over 3,200 feet. Most significantly, the loop was a very unique mix of breathtaking visuals and physically and mentally challenging exercises in trail management, something not always experienced when heading up and down a mountain. Mount Mansfield offers much more than a simple "checking off" of another New England four thousand footer, and instead serves as a visually stunning and wholly worthwhile outdoor destination set in Vermont's far northwest corner, one that more than holds its own with its noteworthy and comparable neighbors in New Hampshire and Maine.