May 2003: Smugglers Notch


Vermont Green Mountains

In 1807 Thomas Jefferson signed an embrago act fordbidding trade with Great Britain and its North American colony, Canada. Not about to be cut off from their most lucrative market of Montreal, northern Vemonters began driving their cattle north through a sliver of trail between the thousand-foot cliffs of Spruce Peak and Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak at 4,395 feet. Thus was born Smuggler's Notch. Later, fugitive slaves used the notch as an escape route and in the 1920s illegal liquor flowed from Canada down through the mountain gap. Today, Smuggler's Notch is part of Mount Mansfield State Forest, Vermont's largest forest with 37,242 acres.

Underhill State Park is a gateway with several trails to ascend busy Mount Mansfield, inlcuding a paved road. Laura Cowles Trail (2.7 miles), Sunset Ridge (3.0 miles), and Halfway House (2.5 miles) are all moderate length climbs to the summit. From the "Chin" on Mount Mansfield are extensive 360-degree views. You'll know if it is a clear day if you can see Mount Royal and the skyscrapers of Montreal.
Across Smuggler's Notch is a rollicking hike on the Elephant's Head Trail to a small clearing at the top of a 1,000-foot cliff. The trail climbs stone steps from the roadway to Sterling Pond, the highest life-sustaining alpine pond in New England (trout are stocked by helicopter). The trail drops to the shoreline where canine hikers will meet a single impassable rock climb for most dogs. A bushwhacking detour through thick spruce will probably be in order. From this point the path is seldom level with plenty of hopping from root to rock. Keep an eye out for many species of plants found nowhere else in Vermont that reside happily among these moist, cold cliffs. The views from Elephant's Head sweep up and down the rugged notch and directly across to hulking Mount Mansfield, scarred by a 1983 landslide. The return trip can be over the same route or continue down the hillside switchbacking across rocks and roots. This loop is completed only by walking the dog along the narrow, winding Route 108 through the notch. This trail is closed from February to mid-July to protect peregrine falcons.

Your bonus will be a clear day at the top that will give you those 360-degree views into neighboring states and into Canada.

Stowe Recreation Path (Stowe Center). Stowe Recreation Path from Stowe Center, along a mountain stream towards Mount Mansfield, is a five-mile greenway notable as the first such path whose land was donated by individual owners rather than purchased by the government. This is an easy canine hike though farmfields, meadows and woodlands.

Smugglers Notch is on SR 108 between SR 15 (head east) and SR 100 (head west). Parking is available in the notch at the trailheads.