Sometimes, to get to where you really want to be, you have to pass through a needle’s eye. There’s a passageway with just that name on Vermont’s Long Trail, south of Mount Mansfield‘s Forehead. It’s a pair of massive rock slabs, leaning against each other to form a portal barely big enough for a hiker with a backpack to get through. On the other side, just a few hundred yards away, a short side trail leads to my favorite overnight stop on the LT, Butler Lodge.
Butler is a little log cabin, tucked beneath Mansfield’s stony ridgeline and facing west toward Lake Champlain’s glorious sunsets. It was built by the Green Mountain Club in 1933 (rehabbed in 2000) and counts–by virtue of having four walls and a door, unlike the LT’s simpler lean-to shelters–as one of the club’s more sumptuous accommodations. My friend Rich Mara and I have called it home during hikes as far back as 1977, and its monastic sleeping platforms, hard benches, and rough wooden table have never failed to do a fair imitation of the Ritz.
The best approach is from the north. The day’s hike has taken in the steep slog up from the depths of Smugglers’ Notch, and then the easy cruise along the crest of Mount Mansfield. That’s a trek above treeline that links each of the peaks that give the mountain its reclining-face profile: the Chin, highest point in Vermont; the Nose; and finally the Forehead. I’ve always thought that last pinnacle was more of a prow than a brow. From its summit, nearly 4,000 feet up, the view in three directions makes it seem as though the mountain were a vast ship sailing south into the heart of Vermont.
After that, the descent. Between the Forehead and the Needle’s Eye, a steeply pitched tumble of bedrock schist can be negotiated, in places, only by way of stout wooden ladders, a catwalk, and a natural chute that requires you to take your pack off first and send it down ahead of you. Then it’s time to thread the Needle, clamber down Butler Lodge Trail, and come out into the little clearing where the doughty old structure stands on its stone foundation perch.
Is it the being there or the getting there? I can’t say. But when our packs are hung and our sleeping bags rolled out, when sausages are sizzling on the single-burner stove, when the flask is open and the sun seems to have melted into the big lake, it hardly matters at all.
Underhill State Park
Mountain Road. 888-409-7579, 802-899-3022; vtstateparks.com/htm/underhill.cfm
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