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Travel: Keys to the Kingdom

Vermont spins a fairy tale of perfect snow and sleds
Northeast Kingdom Vermont power line snowmobile trail
Several main routes in the Northeast Kingdom follow power line or pipeline rights of way, with ample variety in terrain.
Dan Guendert photo
Close your eyes and imagine a magical kingdom, where corduroy-smooth, well-marked trails crisscross the scenic countryside. In every direction, deep snow blankets forested mountains, farms and quaint small towns … a snowmobiler’s paradise.

Now open your eyes and look at a map of Vermont, focusing on the northeast corner of the state and the three large counties there: Essex, Orleans and Caledonia. You’ve just discovered the fabled Northeast Kingdom. It’s magical, and it really does exist!

The Best Place to Play
The pie-shaped Kingdom encompasses approximately one-fifth of the state’s area, and it’s bordered by Canada to the north, the Connecticut River (and New Hampshire) to the east and the Green Mountains to the west. Seasonal snowfalls are significant across the top of the state, making this a prime locale for winter recreation. The region features a massive web of trails – and they’re good ones!

Last winter’s bountiful snow in New England made Vermont a “go-to” location for those of us who were short on miles in the largely snowless Midwest.

I had the pleasure of making a mid-March visit to the Northeast Kingdom along with Dan Guendert, an avid rider, blogger and photographer.
Northeast Kingdom Vermont travel Wildflower Inn snowmobile trail access restaurant Lyndonville
The Wildflower Inn, located just outside Lyndonville, has easy trail access and a restaurant on site.
Dan Guendert photo
Our headquarters for the trip was the Wildflower Inn, a former farm near Lyndonville that is now an idyllic country estate, with lodging available in deluxe rooms and suites, as well as a quaint cottage that served as a one-room schoolhouse long ago. With a fine restaurant on site, living the country life couldn’t be more pleasant. Best of all, a short spur connects the property to the nearby trail network, making the location easily accessible.

Dan and I rode aboard a pair of Polaris 550 rental sleds, provided by NEK Adventures of nearby Saint Johnsbury and delivered to our door. In addition to snowmobile rentals, NEK offers seasonal ATV and snowmobile tours, making it a prime recreational resource.

Our traveling companions for the first day of riding were several representatives of VAST, the state organization also known as the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers: Cindy Locke (Executive Director), Kenny Gammell (Caledonia County Director), Jeff Fay (then Chittenden County Director) and Thomasina Magoon (VAST Editor). Rounding out the group was Jack Savasta of NEK Adventures.

With decades of experience marking and grooming trails in this area, Kenny took the lead. Heading westward, we enjoyed smooth riding through the woods, under a power line and along several roadsides before passing beneath Interstate 91 near Sheffield. Shortly after, we encountered a flock of turkeys, who took flight as we approached. We climbed a succession of hills and each time descended into a rural valley, often crossing a running creek on a road bridge.
Northeast Kingdom Vermont Cole's Pond Sledders Cook Shack snowmobile George Peak Colleen Willette
George Peak and Colleen Willette run The Cook Shack, a popular trail stop which raises more than $5,000 each year for local charities.
Dan Guendert photo
The high point of the morning was a climb to Standard Mountain lookout. The panoramic vista included a vast area of forests and fields, with a distant mountain range on the horizon. Not long after descending, we pulled up in front of the Cook Shack outside the town of Walden, where a gaggle of sleds were already parked – a promising sign. Volunteers from the Coles Pond Sledders club serve visitors there all winter long.

No sooner had we dismounted than we were personally welcomed by George Peak, who operates the establishment with Colleen Willette, who was inside cooking up a tasty lunch for hungry sledders. Well known throughout the region for their hospitality, the two were honored by VAST as Snowmobiling Family of the Year in 2013. Upon hearing that Dan and I were from far-off Wisconsin, George inquired about our assessment of the Vermont trails (two thumbs up!) and gave us some history.

According to George, more than $5,000 in profits is donated each year to local charities. As for his own role in the operation, George quipped, “I wanted to be a greeter at Walmart, but this is way more fun!”

Fat-Tire Folly
Our afternoon ride featured a section of the former Lamoille Valley Railroad, a nearly 100-mile route that is now being developed into a multi-use recreational trail under the leadership of VAST. When completed, it will be the longest rail trail in New England as well as a superb snowmobile trail. Our segment took us by Joes Brook Dam, through a rock cut and past the former Danville depot, now functioning as the town’s recycling center. It began to drizzle as we stopped to refuel at Marty’s 1st Stop in Danville, necessitating the occasional wipe of our face shields.
Northeast Kingdom Vermont snowmobile trail covered bridge Ski-Doo
In every direction, deep snow blankets mountains, farms and quaint small towns ... a snowmobiler's paradise.
Dan Guendert photo
A humorous highlight of our return trip occurred while I was in the lead and mistook an unfamiliar trail marker as a place to turn, undoubtedly due to the drizzle obscuring my vision – or at least that was my excuse. This wrong turn took me onto a fat-tire bike trail, which I admit looked a bit odd. My companions recognized my mistake and stopped just long enough to see a surprised bike rider descend a hill and buzz past me, no doubt annoyed to see an oncoming sled on the bikes-only trail. Recognizing the error of my ways, I turned back to the main trail and let Kenny take the lead again to avoid further embarrassment.

Along our homeward route, we encountered a maple syrup operation alongside the trail, with plastic tubing strung between trees to collect and transport the liquid. However, the sap run had not yet begun, so we continued on our way, returning to the Wildflower Inn. The evening’s highlight was our dinner at Everybuddy’s Casual Dining restaurant in Lyndon, where Kenny recalled some adventures and misadventures, on and off the trails.

A Good Drag

What a difference a day makes! When we awoke the next morning, snow was in the air and four inches had already fallen by the time we finished breakfast, coating our sleds with enough fresh powder to set our hearts pumping in anticipation. It was the perfect prelude to a full day of snowy conditions and excellent riding. Joining Kenny, Cindy, Dan and I for the day was Carmin Lemery, the VAST Director from Lamoille County.

After fueling the sleds at a station in nearby East Burke, Kenny took us on a succession of single-track, deep-woods trails, with snow-laden branches arching overhead. The way was narrow, but it was fun riding the old-fashioned way.

“These are the original trails put in by local riders in the 1970s,” Kenny explained, “and they’re still using snowmobiles pulling small drags to groom them, including several that I built decades ago, myself.”

Sure enough, after a few more miles, we encountered a snowmobile with a fully functional drag made by Kenny.
Northeast Kingdom Vermont snowmobile off trail play area
This is what we need lots more of, everywhere ­– designated play areas!
Dan Guendert photo
Back on the main route and heading north, we enjoyed smooth cruising on a succession of unplowed but groomed roads, with many broad, sweeping turns and changes of elevation. After a few miles on the Yellow Bucket and West Branch Trails, we stopped at “The Roost,” a hunting cabin left open for passing snowmobilers and featuring a notebook to leave signatures and comments. Inside the shack, we chatted with local sledders delighted to discover a couple of Midwesterners in their midst, and they asked us about riding in the Badger State.

Before long, we arrived at Island Pond, with two options to reach town – across a lake or over a mountain. We chose the opportunity to do a climb and descent before finding a combination convenience store and café for lunch.

After our midday repast, we refueled our machines and started homeward. On our way out of town, the trail took us through a huge lumberyard, where high stacks of packaged timber towered over passing sleds. Outside of town, we discovered a large, open area marked prominently as a Snowmobile Play Area – so we took advantage of the opportunity, carving powder and romping in the deep stuff. Great fun!

The final legs of our return trip included a southward trek beneath huge power lines, with giant boulders strewn alongside the trail, as well as a westward trip over a pipeline right-of-way. Before long, we arrived at the town of East Burke, then made the short hop back to the Wildflower Inn. With new snow coating the landscape like frosting on a cake, we enjoyed another delicious day of riding in the Northeast Kingdom.  

If you want some of the best riding that New England has to offer, put this place on your list!
THE FACTS
Vermont is renowned for excellent snowmobiling, largely due to its superb state organization, the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST). The statewide trail system – encompassing 4,700 miles of funded routes – is marked and maintained by VAST’s 128 clubs statewide. They play a key role in trail access and work with the state in the sale and distribution of Trail Maintenance Assessment (TMA) passes. The TMA costs $55 for a 3-day pass, and it’s sold in combination with a club membership, the cost of which varies from club to club. Unlike most other states, this ensures that all users contribute fully to maintain the trail network. Just one possible model for a sustainable trail future!
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