The Perfect Weekend Guide for Outdoor Adventure in Burlington

Enjoying the view of Camel's Hump
Enjoying the view of Camel's Hump Suzanne Loring
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Nestled between the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains, with Lake Champlain lapping at its shores, Burlington is without a doubt a mecca for the outdoor adventurer. Vermont’s largest city offers world-class climbing, paddling, hiking, and camping all within minutes of town, and of course, it also houses a plethora of pubs and restaurants to grab good eats and a locally-made craft brew (Heady Topper, anyone?).

And if you're looking for something to keep the party going after dinner, you can check out one of the many bars along Church Street, or watch impressive street performers juggling fire and balancing on stacked chairs, or maybe even enjoy the vibrant music scene, where artists like Phish and Grace Potter originally got their start. Basically, Burlington is constantly delivering the goods, and we've got your guide to experiencing the best of it. 

Here are a few suggestions to get you out on the nearby trails, water, and rock, and back to the city in time for some good old raucous fun. 

Where to Get Caffeinated

No morning routine would be complete without that first cup of coffee to get you going, and luckily, Burlington has a large scattering of coffee shops right downtown to ensure no adventure will ever go under-caffeinated. 

Located in Burlington’s South End just up the road from the waterfront, the urban-chic Maglianero Café is considered by many to have the best coffee in the city. It also has food and pastries that are locally sourced, and local artwork hangs along the walls of the high, loft-style space. And, to top it off, Maglianero offers bike parking both inside and out.

If something a little closer to the pedestrian-only Church Street Marketplace suits your fancy, head no further than Uncommon Grounds. The folks here are serious about their coffee—to make an understatement. This family-owned café has been serving up coffee, espressos, tea, and locally-made treats for the past 20 years. All of their coffees are roasted right on the premises in the roaster at the front of the shop and then brewed by-the-cup. And, if coffee isn't your style, Uncommon Grounds also offers 35 different teas to satisfy your palate.

Speaking of teas, you might as well check out Dobra Tea just a block away on Church Street. Offering a variety of white, yellow, green, oolong, black, red, puer, herbal, bubble, and chilled teas, Dobra is a great place to grab a cup to go, or plop down on a comfy floor cushion in one of their tea rooms and leisurely sip away.

Where to Hit the Trail

On the way up Camel's Hump
On the way up Camel's Hump Suzanne Loring

Located in the Champlain Valley on the western slopes of the Green Mountains, Burlington is a quick car ride away from the iconic peaks of Mount Mansfield and Camel’s Hump, as well as the legendary Long Trail of Vermont—the original long distance hiking trail, which stretches from Massachusetts to Canada. Not to mention, there are countless other memorable trails with varying lengths and degrees of difficulty in the surrounding area.

One of the most popular of these is the Monroe Trail, which is a moderate to difficult 3.1 mile ascent of Camel’s Hump—Vermont’s third highest peak. The trail winds its way through hardwood forests of spruce and birch and offers steep sections and stunning views. The trail eventually intersects the Long Trail at a Hut Clearing and then follows the rocky Long Trail another .3 miles to the summit. If you are looking for something more technical follow the Dean Trail when it intersects Monroe. You will find an amazing view of Camel’s Hump, a beaver pond, and a steep, exposed rocky top section that requires some scrambling.

Further afield, but not to be missed is Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak. There are many trails that lead to the summit, but the Sunset Ridge Trail is the most popular and it’s easily accessible. At 3.3 miles, this hike offers amazing views of Mansfield the whole way up, specifically of "The Chin", the Adirondacks, and Camel’s Hump. This moderate to difficult hike offers a nice mix of forested trail and rocky, exposed hiking, and the views cannot be beat.

For something a little less taxing, but still chart-topping in terms of scenic views, Mt. Philo is a great option. Just minutes outside Burlington, this mountain has a 168-acre state park at its summit and offers amazing views of the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain Valley. Take the easy, one-mile House Rock Trail up to the summit and enjoy a picnic, camp for the night, and hike back down. Note of interest: the auto road makes an awesome sled run in the winter time.

Where to Go Climbing

Getting ready to climb at Lower West
Getting ready to climb at Lower West Suzanne Loring

Bolton, VT is a tiny New England town with all of 900 residents that sits about 25 minutes south of Burlington. What it may lack in size, it makes up for with an incredible climbing scene that features eight of the best crags in the area. Further afield, Smugglers Notch offers decent bouldering, and Marshfield Ledge has some of the hardest sport climbs in the Northeast. But, if you are looking for variety and a mix of sport and trad close to Burlington, Bolton is the spot.

Start at Lower West, Bolton’s most popular and easily-accessible climbing spot. There is a super-short, super easy approach to the cliff, which offers a nice range of moderate climbs in the 5.6-5.10 range. This area is great for trad, and many of the climbs have bolted anchors with an easy walk around making it prime for top roping. It can get crowded at times, but generally, it's easy to hop on something. Be sure to try out what may be the area’s most popular climb, Harvest Moon.

Not too far down the road from Lower West climbers will find 82 Crag. Named for the spray-painted 82 on the cliff’s face that is visible from the area’s only highway, 82 Crag offers 24 climbs ranging from 5.6 to 5.13. Many of the climbs have bolts on them, but some gear is still necessary on most. There are some great 5.9 and 5.10 face climbs and some more difficult (5.12), as well as some of the best sport climbs in the area. 

Finally, the Bog Wall, while not technically in Bolton, is right across the Winooski River in Duxbury. Located in Camel’s Hump State Forest, this is a very small crag, but a lot of fun. It offers seven 45-foot climbs in the 5.7 and 5.8 range with a nice mix of sport and trad.

Check out Vermont’s Tough Schist: Rock Climbing in Northern Vermont for more info on crags and climbs.

Where to Paddle

Kayaking in Lake Champlain
Kayaking in Lake Champlain Rob Friesel

Burlington is a flat water enthusiast's dream come true. Backing up to the banks of the picturesque Lake Champlain, it doesn't get much easier than grabbing a board or boat and putting in directly from Waterfront Park. From here, it's easy to set off into the harbor and beyond, sharing the waters with sailboats and other vessels, and taking in the incredible mountain lake scenery all around. Whether traveling north up to Colchester and Mallet's Bay or south to Burlington's Oakledge Park, Red Rocks, and Shelburne Farms, Lake Champlain is a can't-miss flat water experience. For a special treat, head out on the water during a warm, summer evening to experience a sunset paddle; as locals will tell you, there's nothing quite like a Lake Champlain sunset.

Getting the boat ready for a paddle at Waterbury Reservoir
Getting the boat ready for a paddle at Waterbury Reservoir Suzanne Loring

Just south of Burlington is another prime spot for paddling, the Waterbury Reservoir. Its 850 acres is surrounded by Little River and Waterbury Center state parks, evergreen forests, and private lands. There is a wealth of wildlife that frequents the reservoir, including loons, eagles, hawks, herons, beaver, and moose, and the paddling here is unforgettable. Whether it's the priceless views of the surrounding mountains, the rocky beaches on which to enjoy a picnic or rest, or the handful of accessible-by-boat-only campsites, there's something for every paddler to enjoy at Waterbury.  

Where to Unwind

Relaxing with some local Vermont brew
Relaxing with some local Vermont brew Suzanne Loring

Burlington offers the perfect balance between big city culture and small town character. With an eclectic mix of craft beer, live music, and sustainable local food, yet in a small, easy-to-get-around setting, Burlington is a wonderful place to spend a weekend (or a lifetime). You can find everything from specialty pizzas and melt-in-your-mouth burgers, to authentic Thai and Himalayan cuisine, to inventive spins on the traditional French crêpe, to burritos, gourmet sandwiches, and more. And with more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the United States, there is always good beer to be found.

For those in the mood for the classic pizza and beer combo, American Flatbread, home to Zero Gravity Craft Brewery, is just the spot. Situated right across from the Burlington common downtown, the menu offers a variety of artisanal pizzas cooked in a wood-fired hearth. While it can get pretty crowded, it’s generally easy to grab one of their craft brews and chat with friends in the bar area while waiting. Outdoor seating is available during the warmer months, which is always an added boon.

If it’s burgers you crave, try the Farmhouse. This refurbished McDonald’s is a farm-to-table restaurant with award-winning burgers and a great variety of craft beers on tap. (Quite the upgrade on the traditional Big Mac, if you ask us.) Another great option is The Daily Planet—a slightly off the beaten path, fresh, local spin on global cuisine. They also have live music and creative cocktails.

The funky and fun exterior of The Daily Planet
The funky and fun exterior of The Daily Planet Mike Gifford

Finish up the evening at Nectar’s, home of Phish, and the best place to see live music downtown. It’s a renowned late night venue that offers live music from all different genres every night of the week. If this isn’t enough to grab your attention, maybe their gravy fries will. They are legendary.

Finally, just outside of Burlington in Winooski, is Misery Loves Company, a food truck turned restaurant, serving uniquely delicious meals that will keep foodies coming back for more time and time again. Definitely worth checking out!

Where to Get a Good Night’s Rest

Hanging around in the community room at Burlington Hostel
Hanging around in the community room at Burlington Hostel Burlington Hostel

Burlington offers a huge variety of bed and breakfasts, quaint inns, and luxurious hotels for lodging while you are in town. But, if you are looking for something wallet-friendly or a bit off-the-beaten-path, there are options here are well.

Located downtown, just three blocks from Church Street and right up from the waterfront, the Burlington Hostel provides a safe place to bunk for $40 per person per night. The hostel offers men-only, women-only, and mixed bunk rooms with eight beds each. The friendly staff and comfortable atmosphere make this a great spot to stay. Be sure to hang out in the community room and take advantage of the guest kitchen, musical instruments, reading chairs, and wi-fi to make yourself feel right at home. 

While a weekend trip in its own right, Burton Island, one of the Champlain Islands, is worth mentioning. The island is accessible by boat only, so paddle out or take the ferry from Kill Kare State Park in St. Albans, and then camp in one of 17 tent sites or 26 lean-tos. Restrooms have running water and hot showers, and there are hiking trails, food service, swimming, and boat rentals right on the island. Make it as luxurious or rustic as you want. Luggage service and tent set-up are available for an extra fee or you can vie for yourself. Please note that this is a bit outside of Burlington, so if you are hoping to hang out in the city during the evening, you may want to find something more accessible to town.

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