Hike: The highest point in Vermont, Mount Mansfield, stands at 4,393 feet, and is part of a ridgeline that resembles an elongated human face–we didn’t get to see the face at all, since it was rainy/cloudy. The link shows the “face” about two minutes into the video.
We chose the Sunset Ridge Trail, beginning at Underhill State Park, for the route up to the “chin” (aka peak), and the Laura Cowles trail to come back down, for a 5 mile round trip hike.
Gear: We car-camped at Underhill State Park, so we didn’t need to carry quite so much stuff. I used my new Osprey 20 liter daypack to hold about 2.5 liters of water, a long sleeved wool shirt, space blanket, snacks, and first aid kit. I wore my Smartwool shirt and socks, REI zip-off pants, new Frogg Toggs raincoat, Altra Lone Peak shoes, and Black Diamond trekking poles.
Weather: Rainy and cloudy, unfortunately! At least it wasn’t too hot (60’s when we started, 70’s when we finished) and the bugs weren’t biting.
Pre-Hike: We drove from the Adirondacks of New York after climbing Mount Marcy the day prior, and arrived at the Underhill State Park campground around 4 PM. I had pre-paid ($49 for 3 people, 1 night in a tent–our brother couldn’t come so it was just the two of us), so we just needed to check in. The rain stopped as we drove up.
At the check-in desk, the friendly park rangers informed us we couldn’t use any wood brought in from anywhere, and had to use theirs. I told them we received an email that said as long as the wood came from Vermont, it was OK (they are trying to prevent insects from being spread into their state I believe). They said if we could burn the firewood we brought before we left, then it was OK to burn it, but if we needed more, we’d have to buy from them (um… ok?) We said sure thing. Our wood came from the gas station just 30 miles or so down the road, and we definitely wanted to make our dinner over the fire.
The campground was very basic: no showers, to our dismay (we were going on 3 days with no shower!), and only one bath-house (2 sides with 2 toilets each, but due to COVID, 1 toilet in each was “out of order” 🙁 Good grief)
We were campsite #10, and we only saw one other campsite occupied, just up the hill from us. We decided to set up camp, cook dinner (breakfast for dinner), and go to bed early so that we could start hiking early. I didn’t want to do a hike that afternoon/evening, as it was supposed to rain, and I thought our chances for a drier hike were better if we went the next morning. Plus, I was tired!
The picnic table provided a much-needed space to get our things sorted, and for me to prepare our breakfast-for-dinner: eggs, sausage, and pancakes, all cooked in a cast iron skillet.
I’ve cooked eggs plenty of times, and sausage is easy, but I had never made pancakes in a cast iron skillet. I had prepped the dry ingredients at my parents’ house, then brought buttermilk separate in the cooler, and mixed them together using the only thing I could find that was big enough, my JetBoil. I was hoping to make a yummy “home-cooked” dinner, to fuel us for the 5 mile hike in the morning. Turns out the skillet doesn’t get quite as hot as you’d think, so we needed extra firewood when it came time for the pancakes.
We ate around 6, trying to hurry since we could see the rain was coming. It started while we ate, but thankfully the trees provided cover so we didn’t feel much. We hurried to clean up, getting all remnants of food into our trash bag and back into the car, so we wouldn’t attract any animals (although the rangers hadn’t mentioned anything about bears, we were still being overly cautious).
I decided to read in my tent (having brought the very appropriate book “On Trails” by Robert Moor). I got a phone call from a dear friend, so I spent awhile talking to her, while the rain came steadily down. I got my clothes and gear organized for the next day, and put fresh batteries in my headlamp, so I could be ready for our 4:30 wake up. We decided we wanted to be on the trail at sunrise (5 AM or so) so we could get the hike in before driving all the way back to Pennsylvania, a 9+ hour drive.
I didn’t even manage to open my book. Exhausted, I think I went to bed at 8, and fell asleep right away…
I awoke with a jolt.
Sh*t! What was that loud noise? It sounded like it was the grill at our firepit, a mere 10-15 feet away. I knew we had cleaned up really well, but I wondered if the smell of food lingered in the air (through the rain)?? I wasn’t thinking clearly, since it was the middle of the night, but the only logical conclusion my brain could make at the time was:
There’s a bear at our campsite.
My heart pounded. What do I do?
I waited. All I heard was rain. Since it was quiet, I eventually started drifting off again, until… *CLANG*! Oh my God, it really must be a bear! Joel told me earlier that day bears were quiet, as in, they walked quietly through the forest. I strained my ears, but couldn’t hear a thing over the pouring rain on my tent, and the rapid beating of my heartbeat in my ears.
What if it comes to my tent?
What if I get mauled by a bear?
What if I don’t see my family again? (Yes, my exhausted brain arrives at the worst case scenario very quickly!)
If you can’t tell, I was freaking out. I checked my watch. It was something like 11-11:15 PM… Well inside the camp’s Quiet Hours of 10 PM – 6 AM, so I ruled out humans as the source of the noise.
I began counting my breaths, just trying to slow my heart rate. I waited, and unfortunately, heard more noises and clanging.
Finally, after awhile of being scared and not sleeping, I texted JL, my friend that I spoke with earlier, as her husband works for the Fish & Game Commission in AZ; plus, she’s quite the outdoorswoman herself.
I asked her to pray for me, then told her what was happening. She asked if I had bear spray. No, but Joel does (why I didn’t just say something to Joel at the beginning of this ordeal, I don’t know…)
All I could think of was Jurassic Park–“Don’t move. He can’t see you if you don’t move” and my exhausted brain turned that into “Don’t talk… the bear won’t know you’re here if you don’t talk.” Since Joel was in his own tent, just a few feet away, I stayed quiet.
She asked if I had food. I looked at the Clif Bar next to me, meant to be my breakfast. Yes… but it’s unopened. Surely a bear can’t smell unopened food… right?!
My friend gave me good advice, and I calmed down.. a bit. I checked my watch again. 45 minutes had passed.
Finally, I whispered, Joel?
Do you think that’s a bear?
I don’t know, but I’m going to go check.
Do you have your bear spray?
[sheepishly] No… I forgot it in the car.
I had been afraid to even look out of my tent, but since brother was going to look, I figured I’d let him clear the way, then I’d get out too. I really had to pee, and I didn’t want to be by myself in the dark and rainy night.
He checked the grill area: No sign of a bear.
I had convinced myself that no other living thing could make that noise. I tentatively stepped out of my tent.
What do you think it was?
I think it was our neighbors up the hill there.
I looked up, and
sure strangely enough, they had started a big fire (in the pouring rain, at midnight). WTH!?!
Both of us felt angry, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. I used the woodline, felt a lot better, and went back to the tent. I could fell water drops hitting the bottom of my sleeping bag, and the slope of the hill was making it hard for me to stay on my sleeping pad without rolling off. Ughhhh… did not need a midnight wake-up, that’s for sure!
After awhile, I fell into a fitful sleep. The rainstorm raged all night. Somehow I awoke just before the alarm, at 4:20. What a night!
The rain had let up. Both our alarms sounded at 4:30, and we decided to use the bath-house (100 yard walk down the hill) to do our teeth, contacts, and bathroom tasks.
We decided to leave our tents to pack up later, since packing up in the dark and rain is not fun. We locked the rest of the gear in Joel’s trunk, I had half a Clif bar, we grabbed our daypacks, and were on our way at 5:10 AM (definitely our earliest start yet).
The Hike: We began on Eagles Cut Trail, which connected the Underhill State Park upper parking lot (and right next to our campsite) to the primary trails to hike up Mount Mansfield.
The Eagles Cut Trail was a slight uphill, not difficult, and intersected the CCC Road (closed to car traffic) several times. Five minutes in, and we both took off our raincoats. Too hot, and not raining–though we got plenty wet from the droplets falling off trees/leaves.
We came to this sign, and wrote our info in the trail register:
The first portion of Sunset Ridge Trail was easy going… a nice warm up for what was to come!
It soon became steeper, and rockier, and we were glad for the mini switchbacks.
I had to take far more breaks than I wanted to, but my legs–and entire body–didn’t get to rest much with the bear scare.
Approximately halfway up, an hour in, we came to an open spot, and the clouds had lifted enough so we could see:
After some rock climbing/scrambling, several more snack and water breaks, we reached the very densely forested zone:
We had flashbacks to Mount Marcy, with the cairns and steepness, but thankfully it wasn’t nearly as steep (or long).
The blue blazes were easy to follow, and the trail volunteers had roped off the hiking “path”–to keep people from stepping on the alpine tundra.
We did a few map checks, but the signs were frequent enough that we knew where we were.
The clouds rolled back in, but this signpost was visible. Almost to the summit!
…and in just a few minutes, it led us to the summit!
Unfortunately, the summit was completed covered by thick clouds. We wandered quite a bit, looking for a plaque or some sign that we were indeed on the summit, and this is what we found:
We used Joel’s map app, but the clouds swirled, the wind howled, and the temperature was much, much colder than what we’d experienced going up.
We took our obligatory summit pic:
No opportunity for a panoramic pic; it would have showed whiteness and a bit of rock. We felt sad to not get the views, but reminded ourselves that we had lucked out with amazing views on nearly all of the other 5 summits we’ve done thus far. Plus, we didn’t want to stick around for the clouds to clear, so we quickly headed back down.
We noticed a trail called Profanity Trail, and while funny, I could completely understand the name!
We stopped at the trail junction and had a snack break. My lack of a proper breakfast had caught up to me–I was quite hungry.
I shed the long-sleeve shirt I donned at the summit… didn’t want to be overly sweaty on the way down.
We chose the Laura Cowles trail for the way back. I had read it was more direct, and as such, it shaved off 0.6 miles of hiking.
We VERY quickly realized why Laura Cowles trail is only recommended for the descent… holy. steep. hiking!
The trail, or rather all the rocks deemed a “trail,” was wet and slippery, steeper than anything we’d gone done before, and took a tremendous amount of mental energy to step just right, for each and every step, so as to preserve our knees, ankles, hips, etc.
On the way down, we debated who Laura Cowles was. Found out later, she was a hiker! Quick aside:
[T]he Laura Cowles Trail on the western side of Mount Mansfield is named for an early Burlington Section president and outdoors woman, Laura (Golden) Cowles (1878–1958). She scaled the six highest peaks in Vermont, and may have been one of the first women to climb Mount Mansfield in winter. Her husband, one of the GMC’s founders, named her “the pioneer in opening the Green Mountains of Vermont for the recreation, good health and pleasure of men as well as women, in winter as well as summer. Source.
Sadly, only snapped one picture of the descent (shown below)… it was exhausting, we had a few close calls, and I felt so much gratitude and relief when we were past the rocky portion. All together, this portion took a bit over an hour, to hike 1.1 miles and descend 1,828 feet.
Update: I just basically took a Trigonometry refresher course in order to calculate the angle of the mountain on Laura Cowles trail. If my math is right (come on, Arc Sine, don’t fail me now!) the angle is a whopping 18 degrees, or a 32% grade. No wonder we struggled!
Whew… Not something I’d want to soon repeat. But, the call of home, seeing my boys, a hot shower, and most imminently, breakfast, spurred me on.
We signed out on the register, after passing the first hikers we’d seen all day.
The Eagles Cut Trail felt so easy after the Laura Cowles Trail… almost done!
We saw the parking lot full of cars, and had such a feeling of accomplishment, knowing we were done before many people had started hiking. A 4 hour hike up Mount Mansfield and back, by 9 AM!
We quickly packed up our tents and sleeping bags, went to the bathhouse to change into clean clothes, and got on the road before 10, which was our goal.
The way home was long, but uneventful. We took a lot of backroads, but eventually made it to I-90, and from there was easy to get back to our parents’ house. We stopped for Dunkin Donuts–that egg + cheese bagel sandwich was perfect after a long hike–then ate lots of snacks and drank lots of electrolytes as we drove through NY. Eventually, I had to stop for the bathroom outside of Erie, PA, and we also stopped for Lil Caesars pizza since it was past suppertime at home. We rolled in around 7 PM, and had a great time recounting our tales (the bear story!) to the family that evening! That night, I went to bed at 9, and Asher came to wake us up at 9 AM!!! (“Mom, it’s time to wake up now!”) I don’t think I’ve slept that long in years, but I needed it.
The rest of the week was very chill, but lots of driving–3 trips to Erie.
Recommend: Yes–this is a beautiful, yet strenuous, hike. While we didn’t get to see the full view from the top, I’d love to go back someday and do this again. There are multiple trails leading to the summit, but I can attest the Summit Ridge Trail is beautiful. I definitely don’t recommend the Laura Cowles trail for going up (and even then.. it’s very slow-going on the way down!) The Stowe Mountain Resort is just on the other side (east side) of the mountain, so that’s a possibility too.
Quick note on COVID-era traveling: We wore masks where/when we stopped–gas stations, rest stops, etc, and of course used hand sanitizer. We barely saw any people, other than hikers, and we did drive-thru at Dunkin Donuts. So I’m confident we didn’t spread any germs to others, nor were exposed to anything. It does help that we both came from very low case-count counties, and have had very limited exposure to any other people. I believe safe traveling can still happen right now, and should, because humans aren’t wired to stay home alone. I can only speak for me and my family–we NEEDED this change of scenery badly!
Maps: Again, Joel’s Garmin data because mine didn’t work (probably user error, haha)
Thank you for reading about our highpointing adventures!