Vermonters claim their state has the most gorgeous foliage of all — and the 24,000 residents of Lamoille County will tell you that what they see in their 16 towns and villages can’t be topped. Follow along on these two back-road drives through the heart of the county, and see whether you agree. Depending […]
By William Scheller
Jun 15 2014
Stowe, VermontPhoto Credit : S. Iversen
Vermonters claim their state has the most gorgeous foliage of all — and the 24,000 residents of Lamoille County will tell you that what they see in their 16 towns and villages can’t be topped. Follow along on these two back-road drives through the heart of the county, and see whether you agree.
Depending on when you time your trip, the colors will be either descending toward the greener valley or brightening the lowlands as the summits turn the dun shades of late autumn.
The village of Jeffersonville, in west-central Lamoille County, is the starting point for this 42-mile journey, which includes the steep, snaking road through Smugglers’ Notch. Take Route 108 south (Mountain Road) out of “Jeff,” climbing as you follow the swift little Brewster River. That’s Madonna Peak directly ahead on your way out of town; as you pass an open field on the right about a mile up, though, the dominant view to the south is of Mount Mansfield’s Chin — at 4,395 feet, the loftiest point in Vermont.
Toward the left, the scarlets and oranges of red and sugar maples spread across the foothills of Whiteface (a.k.a. Sterling) Mountain; farther along, near the main entrance to Smugglers’ Notch Resort, yellow birches crowd the road. If you want to enjoy the colors nearer the uppermost portions of the Notch, you’ll have to be content with more subdued hues down below, as the higher reaches of Mountain Road — and, even more, the steep slopes that hem it in — will peak a week or two earlier.
There’s a good deal of birch near the crest, and their yellow turns golden as sunlight filters down between the beetling cliffs. Beyond, as you begin the descent into Stowe, blazes of red maple spread across Mansfield’s southern flanks.
“Red maples do well on poor growing sites,” explains Lamoille County Forester Ray Toolan, “and these trees shut down and change color early.”
For a grand gaze down into the valleys and as far west as Lake Champlain, take the Mount Mansfield Toll Road to the Nose of the mountain’s recumbent profile; the entrance is roughly halfway between the crest of the notch and Stowe. Or continue into the village, forking left onto Route 100 and heading toward Morrisville. Elmore Mountain looms ahead, beyond farm fields bordered with maples.
To skip Morrisville’s bottleneck streets, shunt off left (and then quickly right) onto Cady’s Falls Road (about 1.2 miles north of the Morrisville-Stowe Airport). It skirts Lake Lamoille and its reflected hardwoods and reaches Hyde Park by way of a one-lane bridge just before the village. Bear left onto Main Street in Hyde Park and head through town; keep an eye out for a horse-chestnut tree whose leaves blaze yellow in the fall. Off Main Street is a gravel road paralleling the “Ten Bends” section of the Lamoille River; it joins Route 15, which heads through Johnson to Jeffersonville.
A slightly longer foliage loop (46 miles) also starts in Jeffersonville. Begin by heading north out of town on Route 108; follow it across the Lamoille River Bridge, and then switch to Route 109.
This road roughly follows the river’s North Branch toward Waterville; as the views to the north open up, you’ll see color spreading down the slopes of Laraway Mountain, directly ahead. “Trees on the higher elevations change color first,” explains county forester Toolan. “The soils are poorer up there, and there isn’t as much water.”
About a mile and a half north of Waterville, the Jaynes (a.k.a. “Kissing”) covered bridge, just off 109 on the left, spans a rocky stretch of the North Branch and stands against a bright backdrop of foliage. The road starts to climb here, and when it crests and begins to descend, you’ll be treated to open views of Laraway and, opposite, the Cold Hollow Mountains. Again, depending on when you time your trip, the colors will be either descending toward the greener valley or brightening the lowlands as the summits turn the dun shades of late autumn.
Head through the cluster of homes that make up the village of Belvidere Center; if you feel like lingering awhile, Tallman’s Store here may just be the most authentically un-selfconscious country emporium in the state.
Now you’ll begin a steep climb. Bright-yellow birches light up this portion of the route, but the main event lies just ahead, as the road tops out and drops to reveal a spectacular view of Belvidere Mountain.
Chances are you’ll spot a lot of vivid red maples along the slopes rising to the left. When you reach the end of 109, bear right onto 118. Just past the junction of the two routes, the view is a bit starker, as the gray skeletons of trees drowned by beaver dams mark the southern edge of Long Pond (on your left) and frame the brighter colors beyond. This is moose country, and the roadside warning signs should be taken seriously, especially near dusk.
The pond, with its undeveloped shores, is a lovely reflector of the surrounding forest. For a more active view, pull over at the Long Trail State Forest parking area less than a half mile ahead; from here, trek either north for the 2.8-mile climb to the Belvidere Mountain summit and fire tower, or south for a gentler, 1.7-mile ascent to a lookout over remote Ritterbush Pond. But even if you never leave your car, you can still enjoy a fine display of reddish-orange sugar maples as you pass the trail crossing on your way toward an open plateau and the intersection with Route 100 at Eden.
Bear right at the general store to head south on 100. Follow the avenue of pines — a pleasing contrast to the variegated hardwoods in the middle distance. You’re looking south now, toward conical Elmore Mountain and the peaks of the Worcester Range. Bear left at the Y in North Hyde Park to stay on 100, as you enjoy faraway vistas and, closer at hand, the tidy farms and stands of birch along the way to the village of Hyde Park.
Turn right onto Route 15 at Hyde Park and head northwest toward Johnson, as you follow the valley of the Lamoille River, where colors come a bit later and linger longer. Just the opposite is true on the steep sides of Whiteface Mountain, which dominates the view to the left. Beyond Johnson to the drive’s conclusion at Jeffersonville, the valley panorama continues, with one interesting variation: Along this stretch are a few of the area’s surviving elms. But don’t expect a color extravaganza from these handsome, vase-shaped trees — elm leaves simply turn yellowish-brown.
Try both routes and you’ll make a rough figure 8 through some of Vermont’s best foliage country. For a graduate course in Lamoille leaf-peeping, grab a map and head farther afield — perhaps around Mud City, to the nether reaches of Morristown, or along the back roads south of Route 15 in Wolcott, leading to the hills above Lake Elmore. And come back for an annual refresher, because the colors are different every year.
WHEN YOU GO
Places to stay, shop, and eat in Vermont’s Lamoille County.