A walk on the mild side: local hiking opportunities abound


Christina Ashley

From the pedestrian bridge below Prospect Rock

Fall is debatably Vermont’s most beautiful season, with vivid foliage and striking views, which is why it’s so important to spend as much time outdoors as possible before winter arrives. One great way to be active and get outside is to hike.

Hiking has many benefits in addition to being surrounded by nature and the beautiful views. Exercise is crucial to keeping our bodies healthy, and hiking is certainly one of the best ways to get exercise because it is a whole body workout. Spending time outside can boost your mood and improve your mental health by reducing stress as well.

Northern Vermont University Johnson has some beautiful trails that are readily accessible both on and off campus.

The cross-country trails are a great option for those who wish to get outside but also to still stay on campus. They are primarily used for cross country runners to train, but they are open to the public, students and cross-country skiers as well. You can get a map of all the trails at the SHAPE Fitness Center.

The Water Tower Trail is a great hike for anyone who just needs to spend a little time in nature. It is definitely one of the easier trails, and it does not take much time to complete. Once you get a little deeper into the trail, it feels as if you are no longer even on campus but completely surrounded by nature and the woods.

Approximately half way through the trail, you can spot the water tower and as you are starting to come back you can spot the outdoors ropes course. The Vast trail connects to the Water Tower trail and will bring you up directly across from the Governor’s parking lot.

There are two points of entry into the Water Tower Trail. You can access it by going past the entry point to the Governors Parking lot and cutting through the grass which will put you on the VAST trail that eventually connects to the water tower trail, or there is an access point a little before you reach the physical plant shed on the same side.

If you are looking for less of a trail but simply a nice walk with some scenic views, Lower Pond is the perfect place. It is down the hill that dips off of the main parking lot by Bentley and the Willey Library and Learning Center building. If you walk down the steep hill, the lower pond will appear behind the trees and there is a nice little bench perched on another small hill.

Northern Vermont University also owns the 1,000-acre Babcock Nature Preserve, which is located off-campus in Eden. The preserve serves as an outdoor laboratory for biology and environmental science courses. It’s a tranquil nature spot that is also open to the public and is only about 30 minutes from campus. You can find directions to the preserve on Google maps or on the campus website.

If you are looking for a more intensive hike than just nature trails, Prospect Rock is a perfect option as well. It is off campus but is located in Johnson and is very close by. It is an ideal hike for anyone who is new to hiking, because climbing Prospect Rock is less strenuous than some of the other trails in Lamoille County.

During peak foliage, the top of the mountain is truly mesmerizing and provides a wide-open view of the landscape below. It is a nice place to relax and recharge for the trek back down.

This hike is approximately 1.8 miles long depending on where you begin the trail, because there are a couple of different points of accessing the trail which can help you either shorten or lengthen your hike. If you wish to extend your hike a bit, you can access Prospect Rock through the Long Trail, where you will cross a suspension bridge over the Lamoille River.

Something to keep in mind when planning to hike Prospect Rock is that Peregrine falcons nest on the cliffs of Prospect Rock and along parts of the Long Trail as well. These birds are highly sensitive during nesting, and the presence of people could disturb them, which may cause them to abandon their nest and young. These falcons begin their breeding season in late winter and are usually incubating eggs by late March or late April, so this causes parts of the trails to be closed during nesting season.

If perhaps you are looking for more of a challenge, Sterling Pond is a moderately difficult hike that is 2.3 miles long and has some spectacular views. Sterling is one of the most popular hikes through Smugglers Notch, and you can access it through Jeffersonville or Stowe.

At the peak of the mountain is the pond along with a small lodge for hikers to take refuge if needed. The ski lift is also at the top of the trail, and it provides a truly stunning view of the mountain.

The hike itself is fairly steep and is slightly more challenging than Prospect Rock. It can be a bit more difficult to climb depending on the weather conditions, so be sure to monitor the weather and to always come prepared with the appropriate clothing and footwear. 

Vermont is a gorgeous and unique state that has lots of opportunities to explore nature. So hit the trails before the season shifts to winter and the foliage departs from the trees. Your mental health and body will certainly thank you for it, and you may find a new lifelong hobby.