Cooler evenings, smells from wood burning stoves emanating throughout the air, and the yellows, reds, and oranges sporadically popping up in trees along trails and roadsides are all definite signs autumn has arrived in Vermont. Soon the forests will be awash in color and people from all over will be clamoring up hillsides and mountains to get a better view of the autumn hues for which the Green Mountain State is famous.
Sitting in the midst of the Green Mountains has its perks, including a multitude of trails with breathtaking views all within an hour’s drive of downtown Burlington. If you are a hardcore leaf peeper and enjoy a solid hike, then both Mount Mansfield and Camel’s Hump are your obvious choices. They are the first and third highest peaks in the state—both over 4,000 feet, have multiple trails to choose from, and offer unbeatable views of the Vermont countryside in all directions. You can't go wrong with these two mountains, however, they are very popular in the fall, which can make them a bit crowded especially on the weekends, and they are longer hikes requiring a good amount of time and a decent level of fitness to summit.
In addition to these two great peaks, the area also affords hikers of all levels a variety of accessible trails that still provide you with just as much of a punch of color as the higher peaks do just with a little less work to get there. Here are five lesser known and easily accessed trails that offer a variety of terrain for everyone from the stay-in-the-car leaf peeper to the experienced hiker looking for the payoff at the peak:
1. Sterling Pond Trail, Smugglers Notch
Smugglers Notch, aka Smuggs, is a fall-time, destination location unto itself. Driving the narrow, winding road during peak foliage is an unforgettable experience in which you will find yourself surrounded by a tunnel of color. It’s one of the best drives to experience the spectacular landscape of Vermont in the fall.
To add to the beauty of the drive, park your car in the main lot at the peak of Smuggs, cross the street and hike the 1.2-mile out and back (2.4 miles total) Sterling Pond Trail. While there are a couple of steep spots, the route is relatively easy and climbs up to the highest trout pond in the state, Sterling Pond. The trail is very rooty and rocky, and starts with a steep rock staircase leads up the trail and into the treeline. The view of the pond at the top is amazing and if you hike around the pond trail to the left you will find yourself at the top of the Smuggler’s Notch ski trails, which provide an amazing view of Mount Mansfield and the surrounding area.
2. Stowe Pinnacle, Stowe
One of the most popular trails in the Stowe area, Stowe Pinnacle is a short, but steep 1.4-mile out and back route (2.8 miles total) that offers amazing views once you reach the summit. Begin the hike by walking through a meadow/pasture until you reach the treeline where the trail begins to ascend continuously and steeply. But there is a payoff for your work, especially during the foliage season, and the views of the Green Mountains, including Mount Mansfield, and the countryside across Stowe Valley will not disappoint.
If you are looking for a shorter hike, but crave this view, you can cut off about a half-mile each way by beginning your hike on the Pinnacle Meadows trail, which eventually runs into the Stowe Pinnacle Trail and tops out in the same spot. Parking for this trail is a quick two minute drive from the Stowe Pinnacle trailhead.
3. Mount Hunger, Waterbury Center
The Waterbury Trail to the summit of Mount Hunger is a 2.2-mile out and back hike (4.4 miles total) that is more difficult than the other trails on the list, but the views are well worth the effort. The trail is challenging in that it doesn’t ever really let up, you are constantly ascending. The waterfall on the way up is beautiful and a great place to stop and rejuvenate, and the rock scrambling at the top is very fun, but can definitely be a challenge when rocks or wet or at any time to less experienced hikers. However, once you reach the top you can see many Green Mountain landmarks, including Whiteface, Camel’s Hump, Killington, and Mount Mansfield; the White Mountains in New Hampshire and, on a very clear day, even Mount Washington; the Adirondacks; and other peaks in the Worcester Range. The fall foliage views from this summit are pretty close, if not equal, to anything you will see from the higher peaks of Camel’s Hump or Mount Mansfield.
4. Libby’s Outlook, West Bolton
Libby’s Outlook is a hidden gem just 30 minutes south of downtown Burlington. Nestled along the trails of Preston Pond in West Bolton, Libby’s Outlook offers brilliant panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains. This 1.1-mile out and back (2.2 miles total) is an easy hike through the forest along a wide trail. It’s gradual incline makes it accessible to all levels of hikers. The hike itself is very sheltered so when you come upon the outlook it is often a surprise and quite a treat, especially in the fall. The trail to Libby’s Outlook is also connected with the three-mile Preston Pond loop so if you are looking to extend your hike, it’s very easy to do.
The trailhead is located 3.4 miles up the Notch Road. There is a small pull-out for parking.
5. Mount Philo, Charlotte
Mount Philo is a quick and easy hike with big payoffs just outside of Burlington. The relatively smooth one-mile House Rock Trail brings you through a forest of trees until you reach the summit, which is actually the 168-acre Mount Philo State Park, Vermont’s oldest state park. The views from the top reach across Lake Champlain and into the Adirondacks. It’s an excellent spot to catch the colors of autumn reflecting off the lake and the surrounding peaks, and a great place to enjoy a picnic before you head back down. If you time your hike well, you can enjoy the live music that is oftentimes being played in the park’s summit pavilion.
Mount Philo also has an auto road that you can walk or drive up to the top making this peak extremely easy for everyone to access. There is a day use entrance fee to get into the park.
If you are looking for a hike with similar views but is a bit stouter than Mount Philo, check out Snake Mountain in the Addison area.