Travel

The Most Beautiful Places in Vermont

From crystal lakes to sky-high peaks, the Green Mountain State is a stunner.

Note: We know COVID-19 is impacting travel plans right now. For a little inspiration, we’ll continue to share stories from our favorite places around the world so you can keep daydreaming about your next adventure.

An abundant 4.5 million acres of forest carpet the Green Mountain State—about 76% of the total landscape. Sixty-seven mountains and peaks enclose thousands of miles of hiking routes. Rural byways wind over and alongside almost 100 covered bridges that nod to the century past. The natural world of Vermont sometimes incites the feeling of being locked in time, and as the first state to ban billboards, there is little to interrupt that feeling. To wit: there are 300 still-operating general stores for 251 named towns across the state. 

Vermont’s modern flourishes—including the wealth of revolutionary craft breweries and a commitment to sustainability and energy conservation—only add to the allure. Simply put: There are few places rooted in a landscape this beautiful, with communities this tightly knit, and where each season holds a different playground of the elements. Vermont is an unforgettable state. When it’s safe to explore it yourself, here are just a few of the sights that await.

Dorset Marble Quarry 

The first marble quarry in the country is also an arrestingly beautiful swimming hole, with smooth rock terraces rising up to ten feet above the clear water. When the weather creeps past 80 degrees, locals from this tiny town in southern Vermont plunge into a natural swimming pool stretching 360 feet long and 90 feet across. The quarry opened in 1785, and supplied marble for the New York Public Library. The Dorset Union Store, the oldest continuously operating general store in Vermont, is a good post-swim pit-stop for homemade baked goods, a bottle of wine, or lunch to-go—it has been Dorset’s communal heartbeat for over 200 years.

The Sunset Ridge Trail at Mount Mansfield

Towering 4,393 feet above sea level, Mount Mansfield is the highest peak in the state. Viewed from a distance, some say you can view the elongated profile of a human face, with a forehead, nose, lips, and chin cresting up from the mountain. 

The most special journey up to the 360-degree view at its summit is the Sunset Ridge Trail, a 6-mile loop punctuated by lush woodland, rock scrambles, and a rambling waterfall. The last couple of miles feature this beast of a mountain at its best—the steep rock face unfolds on all sides into sweeping views of Vermont below open sky, like you’re journeying up the mountain’s spine. If you’re not hoofing it, there are two other ways to get to the summit: drive slowly up the winding Auto Toll Road, or take a newly refurbished, retro-red gondola from the base of the mountain in Stowe.

Mount Abraham

Mount Abe in central Vermont is not the state’s highest peak, yet the vertigo-inducing wrap-around view from the summit is one of the most breathtaking. Take the 5-mile out-and-back path via a chunk of the Long Trail, the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the country. After hiking a steady, steep incline through cool forest—lined densely with birch trees, carpets of moss and the exposed, tentacled roots of ancient trees—the climb is finaled by some mild yet hardy rock scrambling. 

On a clear day at the 4,000-foot summit ridge, views stretch all the way to the long fuzz of blue that is Lake Champlaine on the horizon. The journey is as awe-inspiring as the reward: resting your feet on a bald rock face under the open sky, with views in every direction.

Bristol Falls Swimming Hole

On a warm day, keep your eyes peeled while driving through Bristol, Vermont in Addison County (especially if you’re heading back towards Route 7 after a jaunt up Mount Abraham). Just beyond Route 116, where it intersects with the New Haven River, you’ll spy a line of cars pulled to the side of the road. Nearby, a dirt and gravel pathway begins to dip toward a gurgling river, which soon opens into one of the deepest and clearest hidden-gem swimming holes in the state. 

There are quieter inlets to find downstream, with large, angled rocks jutting from the water for relaxing post-swim. The most stunning spot, though, is where the river meets the tumbling, 14-foot waterfall—a special thing to watch while floating on your back just beneath it.

Lake Champlain

Burlignton is the largest small city in a relatively tiny state, and it’s known for its excellent breweries, restaurants, and hidden gems. One of the most unique aspects of this city, though, is its location on the wide mouth of Lake Champlain. As day becomes evening, the scenic pathways and parks along the Burlington Waterfront slowly fill with picnickers in the summer and bundled sunset-watchers in the winter. As the sun melts behind the enormous peaks of the Adirondack Mountains across the water, Lake Champlain —dotted with sailboats and daily cruises on the Spirit of Ethan Allen—turns soft shades of orange and red, refracting pink off the landscape around it. Curiously, it can feel like a different country and uniquely Vermont all at once. 

Beyond the Burlington Waterfront, you can catch Lake Champlain’s beauty in beaches and inlets along the state’s New York border, like Kingsland Bay, Red Rocks, Leddy Beach, and Oak Ledge Park—not to mention the island towns Grand Isle, North Hero, South Hero, and Isle La Motte.

The Burlington Greenway to the Colchester Causeway

A paved, 26-mile waterfront bike path, the Burlington Greenway winds past the city’s skate parks and boat-lined marinas; under shady canopies of maple trees; over an old bridge straddling the Winooski river; and alongside hidden sandy beaches. Just after the Burlington Greenway turns into the Colchester Causeway (the two paths are connected), the trek offers something particularly special: biking, quite literally, across Lake Champlain on a skinny dirt pathway, surrounded on both sides by nothing but water. Back on the Burlington side of the bike path post-ride, you can finish your journey with maple-blackberry creemees at Burlington Bay Market, or by grabbing a drink at one of Burlington's many pubs and breweries.

Shelburne Farms

Just south of Burlington, this nonprofit organization rooted in sustainable agriculture is also a 1,400-acre working farm, forest, and National Historic Landmark. Picture eight circuitous miles of walking trails, a nationally acclaimed dairy, a barn that houses a 50-year-old organic bakery, and one of the most striking views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains in the state. 

The remarkably preserved Inn at Shelburne Farms feels like an wealthy 19th century farming family befriended Jay Gatsby. Adirondack chairs dot the expansive lawn beside the waterfront, and cocktails are shaken into frosted glasses at happy hour, which you’re encouraged to enjoy in the formal gardens. The Welcome Center and Farm Store is the best place to park if you’re looking for a quick trip to pick up the farm’s aged cheddar cheeses or maple syrups—or to stroll the regal, tree-lined pathways heading toward the inn in the distance.

Warren Falls

This deep, natural swimming hole wedged into the woods in the Mad River Valley is known for its cliff jumping—and for the series of waterfalls careening into the clear water of its basin. Even on peak days, like mid-summer and foliage season, the falls usually have ample parking onsite in a lot nested a few hundred feet from the water’s edge. (There are no garbage cans or restrooms, and the Leave No Trace principle is well-enforced by locals.) Curiously, the most beautiful time to view the falls isn’t while treading water during a July swim. It’s from the water’s edge in the early days of spring, when the ice begins to crack, the sun splits the clouds for the first time in weeks, and the falls are completely quiet except for the gentle pummel of a waterfall.

Route 7

U.S. Route 7 runs 308 miles from southernmost to the northernmost tip of Vermont, where it touches the Canadian border. Western Vermont holds 176 miles of the two-lane rural highway, which loops past the valleys along Lake Champlain, through covered bridges, along small college towns like Bennington and Middlebury, and near roadside farms selling produce with an honesty box for cash payment. 

The number of half-hidden jewels located on this road is lengthy, though if you twisted this writer’s arm to call out one, it would be Vermont Cookie Love. This clapboard hut between Vergennes and Burlington sells freshly baked cookies all day, and in the warmer months houses one of the state’s best roadside creemee stands, which includes the Vermont maple-coffee twist. A short drive away is Mount Philo State Park, where you can drive to the summit overlooking the Champlain Valley or walk the 2-mile loop to the top.

Route 100 

Tracing the eastern edge of the Green Mountain range, the 216-mile scenic drive known as VT 100 travels almost the entire length of the state. During foliage season, wine-colored leaves erupt into orange and butter-yellow as the whole road lights up with canopies of color. In the summer, the leaves are a thick green awning beside the road. Winter and spring—also known as mud season—lace the birch branches with ice and snow... unless the state has been half-buried in a snowstorm, which is a beautiful thing to see once the concrete is plowed, thawed, and driving conditions are safe. Near Waterbury and Stowe, Route 100 opens up into a few well-known attractions, including Cold Hollow Cider Mill, the Cabot Cheese farm store, and the Ben & Jerry’s factory.

Smugglers Notch pass

This thickly wooded mountain pass slices through Mount Mansfield State Forest, separating Vermont’s highest peak from the northern Sterling Range in one twisting, serpentine road canopied by leaves, birch branches and the arms of enormous trees curving over the concrete. It’s an impressive ride any time of year, but peak foliage brings its beauty to another level.

Rikert Nordic Center

Sandwiched in in the Green Mountain range off of Route 125 sits Rikert Nordic Center: 35 miles of groomed terrain for snowshoeing, fat-tire biking, and cross-country skiing. There’s a lodge onsite for rentals and restrooms, and the trails loop their way through the splendor of winter mountainside: snowy forests, quiet farmland, old stone walls, winding brooks frozen occasionally into spiny waterfalls of ice, and even the summer cabin of Vermont poet laureate Robert Frost. 

The Nordic Center is also fully ADA accessible, and channels investments into a program for adaptive fat-tire trikes and bikes. Despite snow-making and trail grooming, Rikert allows you to be embedded in the mountains on a long pair of skis amidst natural surroundings that look barely touched by time.

The Northeast Kingdom

The Northeast Kingdom—sometimes called “NEK'' or “The Kingdom'' by locals—is the deep, strange, arrestingly beautiful and 80% forested northeast corner of the Green Mountain State. Each season in the Kingdom is a vision of New England weather at its most powerful and lucid: Frozen under slabs of snow in the winter, the woods as quiet as ice. Heady, humid, and vibrantly green in the summer, boats bobbing in Lake Willoughby as hikers climb their way up the looming presence that is nearby Mount Pisgah. Spring means mud—lots of it—and the splintering sound of land thawing. Fall should be a secret; the riot of colors mid-foliage season is heart-stoppingly beatuiful. The entire Kingdom, and the three counties that comprise it, has a population of just under 65,000 people. (And around 2,000 moose.) 

Tourists in the know already flood the Kingdom to visit destinations like globally acclaimed Hill Farmstead Brewery; odd, otherworldly Bread & Puppet Theater; or hidden gems like the general store called Willey’s (which has the largest selection of Jasper Hill Farm cheeses and offsite growlers of Hill Farmstead beer in the state). Here, then, is a tucked-away community that welcomes visitors alongside a request: help tourism thrive while caring for the land and the people that make up this relatively isolated chunk of the country, all wrapped up in natural beauty. 

“I don’t want everyone to come to the Northeast Kingdom because, in fact, that’s our beauty,” said a NEK representative of the Vermont State Senate this year. “But I want it to thrive on a strong economic base.” Which is to say, if you visit, be respectful of this sacred place.

Julia Clancy writes about people and place through the lens of food and drink. She was the restaurant critic at Boston Magazine, and currently writes freelance for publications like the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Food 52 and Craft Beer, among others.  She splits her time between Boston, Los Angeles, and Vermont. Follow her on Instagram.
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