Mt Mansfield (4393′) is the highest mountain in Vermont and can be quite challenging to climb in winter conditions. I recently climbed the peak with several friends, including my friend Ken, who is hiking all of the Vermont 4000-footers this winter. I’ve already finished all of the 2023-2024 winter peaks I “need” to climb in New Hampshire and figured Mansfield would be a good change of scene.
I’ve also been thinking about hiking and backpacking next summer in Vermont and figured this interstate foray would help me re-establish the lay of the land. While I did hike Vermont’s Long Trail in 2008 and climbed Mt Mansfield then, I’ve largely forgotten what it’s like to hike in Vermont, the geography, and how to get around its extensive backcountry road network. But the 272-mile Long Trail was my first big backpacking adventure and returning to hike in Vermont is dredging up many good memories.
For this Mansfield ascent, we decided to climb the Sunset Ridge Trail which I’d never hiked before. It reaches treeline at about 3000′ and then climbs to the summit along an open ridge in full exposure. I’ve heard people say it’s the most scenic trail in Vermont and having now hiked it, I can certainly believe that. It’s a classic above-treeline ridge trail with outstanding views, even though they were partially obscured by fog on our hike up the peak.
The access road on the west side of Mansfield is gated closed in winter, so we had to hike up the CCC road and the Eagle Cut Trail on foot to reach the Sunset Ridge Trail, which added another 3 miles or so to our route. While we did encounter postholes (made by others) on this approach route, the snow was solid enough that we could hike without snowshoes.
When planning this hike using a topographic map, it looked like we might potentially need crampons judging by the steepness of the trail. I packed a pair in case I needed them, but I was able to get by with just my Hillsound Trail Crampons, careful footwork, and some butt-sliding on the descent.
The Sunset Ridge Trail winds through pretty forest climbing steadily to treeline and it was easy to follow the trench made in the snow by earlier hikers. When we burst above treeline, we were all quite impressed by the views of the valley below. When I climbed Mansfield back in 2008, the summit had been crowded with tourists who drove up an auto road to the top. I didn’t stick around and boogied off the peak but I can see I missed out on appreciating the mountain in its entirety. When I return this summer, I plan to hike all of the trails that climb to the summit and run along its eastern and western faces to experience the mountain’s full measure.
We continued through a zone of dwarf trees called krummholz before the ridge opened up before us in all its glory. The climb was surprisingly gradual and while there was snow and ice on the ridge, it wasn’t very deep or treacherous.
As we neared the top of the trail, it veered right and passed through another krummholz zone, this one covered by heavy snow, which made the dwarf trees look like silent sentinels. The snow was deeper here and one of my companions stepped in a spruce trap and needed to be hauled back out. Spruce traps occur when a bush is covered in snow but not completely buried, leaving a void around its base. If you step in wrong place, your leg will plunge into the void and become difficult to remove. Spruce traps are a pretty serious hazard if you hike solo in winter because you can freeze to death if you stay stuck without assistance to get out.
We continued along the west flank of Manfield until we came to a junction with the Laura Cowles Trail, which we then followed a short distance to the summit, which was intermittently smothered in fog. We quickly got out of the wind and had a snack break before heading back down the ridge to the valley below.
While Mansfield isn’t as high as the higher summits in the White Mountains, it’s obviously heavily impacted by the westerly winds and precipitation, being the first and highest obstruction the weather meets as it blows in from New York State. We’d had a mild winter day with very little wind, but I can imagine that the Sunset Ridge Trail would be a beast of a climb in tougher weather.
If you’re thinking of climbing Mansfield in any season, I’d recommend heading up the Sunset Ridge Trail if you can get a good weather window. This was a magnificent hike in fine company and one to remember.