It’s funny how things pan out sometimes. On this particular day we had planned to hike up Gothics Mountain and Indian Head in the Adirondacks, but a relatively late start to the day ended up changing our plans and working in our favour. On the road, somewhere close to Cornwall we had made the decision to keep driving east towards Montreal with the new goal of hiking up Mount Mansfield. Vermont was an option that we had considered previously, but John and I were a bit turned off by the idea of hefty crowds on Mansfield.
Recognizing that it was a much more manageable hike in terms of distance and duration, we decided to go for it, regardless of whatever crowds would await us.
Mount Mansfield itself is the highest peak in Vermont with its summit topping out at 1339m (4395 ft). When viewed from the east or west, Mansfield has the appearance of a human profile (albeit elongated), with distinct forehead, nose, lips, chin, and Adam’s apple. These features are most discernible from the east.
A few hours following our decision (including ridiculous traffic at the border) we found ourselves on Mountain Road, with a beautiful view of Mansfield and its summit ridge veiled in the clouds.
We finally approached Underhill State Park’s entrance and there were so many cars there that we had to park a ten minute walk from the actual parking lot. Despite this, we were just happy to be there and excited for what lay ahead.
The Ascent – CCR Road & Halfway House Trail
We set out at 1:05pm, paid the parking fee, got a map and began our hike. The initial section took us on Eagle Cut Trail which intersects CCC Road (a fire road) on numerous occasions. This section is fairly wide with a very gentle uphill grade, a nice warm up of sorts for what was to come. Thinking that we had traversed much more than we thought, we accidentally made a turn that we thought would take us to the Halfway House Trail, but instead set us back a few hundred metres. Eventually, we ended up at the same junction, made the correct left turn this time and ended up at the actual trail head which branches out to either the Sunset Ridge Trail (left across a footbridge) or the Halfway House Trail (right). We signed ourselves in to the log book, checked our map, and were on our way.
A couple hundred metres on the CCC Road later and we had finally found the Halfway House Trail which looked much more appealing. This section was a ton of fun and much more of what I had expected to encounter. It comprised a narrow, single-track trail, with rocky terrain mixed in with gnarled roots and a bit of scrambling higher up. The initial going was not too steep, however, the incline definitely picked up as we got closer to getting above tree line.
We both quickly worked up heavy sweats and would occasionally take a few breaks to catch our breath, grab a snack or simply take it all in.
The higher we climbed, the more the views began to tease us. We were in the midst of the clouds up there which was a surreal feeling and definitely something that I didn’t expect to see. It made me all the more excited for when we would finally break through the trees and make it up onto the summit ridge.
For context, the Halfway House Trail is about 1.7km with a gain of about 434m over that distance. It certainly felt as quick as the 1.7km would suggest, despite the elevation gain. I was prepared for much more of a grind based on Adirondack hikes, and this was definitely easier in comparison.
The Long Trail to the Chin
Eventually, we reached a junction where the Halfway House and Canyons Trails meet, at which point we veered right and continued on towards the Long Trail at the top.
After a few moments on this section, I rounded a corner and was greeted with a beautiful view! I saw The Nose and the view all around us – clear and blue skies to the east and the wall of clouds that we had hiked through, behind us to the west.
It was at this point where we saw the crowds that we had expected, which truthfully, made the place feel a bit like an amusement park of sorts. It’s definitely not my favourite thing to be around when I’m in places like these but what can you do!?
We took a quick break amongst the crowds as we enjoyed the view and our food.
After snapping a view pictures (or a lot in my case) and speaking to some other hikers, we carried on via the Long Trail and made our way towards the summit (aka the Chin). Within minutes, we came across a junction that would lead us towards the Canyon Trail extension. The sign indicated that the trail was 0.1 miles away and we deliberated whether or not to go down this route. We ended up taking it by accident and seemingly falling into it as other hikes were walking towards us and we needed to get out of the way. It turned out to be the best decision we’d make as we came across a beautiful lookout on this massive boulder overlooking the view eastwards towards Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks.
We’d end up hanging out here for a long while and I can honestly say that it quickly turned into one of my favourite places ever and a spot I won’t ever forget. Our cue to leave was when a spider snuck up on me, forcing me into action as I jumped off the boulder – crisis averted. A few moments afterwards, we’d pack our gear and carry on. From that particular spot to the Chin was about 1km and it was a fairly easy one as we’d basically covered the vast majority of elevation we’d encounter on this hike.
The Chin (Summit)
The final moments leading up to the summit were beautiful – the crowds had largely dispersed and the views all around were exceptional. The air got chillier as the winds picked up, but the late afternoon August sun kept us warm.
The summit top reminded me a lot of certain parts of Kananaskis, although much less rugged, and is almost what I’d expect to see from Scotland’s Munros.
Everything about it seemed dreamy – the light, the clouds swirling and levitating around us, the alpine vegetation that basked in the soft golden light.
The breaks through the clouds that were like windows to the valley bottom. They’re views that I’d dreamt of seeing as a kid.
Moments like these always make me so grateful to know that mountains are only three hours from home and that I’m able to make trips like these, especially with my best friend and good company in general.
We spent a decent amount of time on the summit and while it was beautiful, it was much colder than I thought it’d be. We took our customary pictures, took the views in some more and eventually made our way down as the afternoon was getting late.
The Descent – Sunset Ridge Trail
Based on several recommendations, especially from the ranger at the trailhead, we decided to descend via the Sunset Ridge Trail – another prime decision. The fact that we chose to make this hike a loop was great too, as there were certain sections on the Halfway House Trail (the ascent) that would not have been fun to go down, especially in worsening light.
If we thought that everything we had seen up to this point was dreamy, this next section was absolutely ridiculous. Ethereal would be the most fitting way to describe it. Golden hour was upon us and the clouds were even more active.
The ridge was completely exposed, with a few undulating sections, but was largely downhill. The clouds were all over us, blowing and swirling. The horizon and Lake Champlain would fade in and out of view as we made our way down.
I found that we didn’t have to take as much care as we normally did while descending down the High Peaks in the Adirondacks. Never having hiked in Vermont, I’d find myself noting the similarities and differences between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks. Mount Mansfield as a whole was definitely much more forgiving than peaks like Algonquin or Giant Mountain.
Somewhat regrettably, not quite knowing what to expect from Sunset Ridge and not wanting to hike in the dark, I feel as if we rushed the descent. In hindsight we could have stayed up at the last lookout (approx. 3500 ft) and watched the sunset for much longer instead of rushing back, but again we didn’t know.
A few parties were still up there, well above us taking their time. Eventually when we arrived back at the primary trailhead by the footbridge, we met a lone hiker who asked us a few questions. Upon hearing our answers he began to run, chasing the sunset, presumably making his way to the lookout to catch those last rays of light.
The next time I do this hike, I’d love to take my time on the Sunset Ridge descent and actually watch the sunset as it’s the perfect place for it!
All in all, considering everything, it was an absolutely perfect day – conditions, the decisions we made that led us there, the views, the clouds, our preparation. Everything. It was an exceptionally beautiful hike and experience overall and I’d highly recommend this hike, again, despite the crowds up there (gondolas and parking lots up there will do that).
Special shoutout to John for driving us down there and for the good times. Things came full circle so to speak, as the first time I had ever hiked in the Adirondacks was with John back in a snow storm in early 2017. This was the first time him and I had done any hike in Vermont, and we kicked it off by going up Vermont’s highest peak.
Thanks for reading!
Route: Eagle Cut – CCR Road – Halfway House – Long Trail – Sunset Ridge
Distance: 10.7km RT
Elevation Gain: 800m
* Maple Ridge Trail is the one with the supposedly sketchy sections (steep wall to scramble up and a sizeable chasm) – We didn’t hike up this route.