Few destinations in New England – or the world, for that matter – boast as many wild trails as Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak. As the author of AMC’s Best Backpacking in New England, I traipsed most of them while doing field research for the book– and let me tell you: If you are looking for one of New England’s densest collections of gnarly trails and spectacular views, Mount Mansfield is the place to go. It’s one of my favorite outdoor destinations in New England.
The long alpine crest of the mountain is said to resemble a human face. He looks upward; the top of his head points south. His features are named promontories – the Forehead, the Nose, the Adam’s Apple—but the Chin juts highest at 4,393 feet. The Long Trail traverses the mountain’s long alpine spine, paralleled by a network of trails that scramble through the weathered furrows of Mansfield’s face.
Underhill State Park nestles at the base of the Mansfield’s western flanks, centered between two prominent ridges – Maple Ridge and Sunset Ridge. My two-day counter-clockwise loop adventure on the mountain began there on a balmy summer morning. After gaining 600 feet of elevation along the easy-cruising CCC Road, I next struck upwards along steeper Maple Ridge. Less than half a mile later, at the relatively low elevation of 3,000 feet, sweeping views opened up of Lake Champlain to the west and the rumpled terrain of the Green Mountains trailing south – the first of countless vistas throughout the hike.
Into the Rock Garden
You can ascend the Maple Ridge Trail directly to the Forehead, where it joins the Long Trail, but I was more interested in visiting nearby Butler Lodge, one of two overnight shelters on the mountain. To reach it, I tackled the Rock Garden Trail, a thrilling, scrambling introduction to the mountain’s many challenging paths. The trail winds by small cliffs, squeezes through a three-foot high cave, and then squashes through a crack barely one-foot wide, so narrow that I was forced to remove my backpack to fit. A remarkable trail – and yet only the first of the mountain’s many body-squeezing adventures.
Butler Lodge awaited on the far side of the trail, a fully enclosed cabin-style shelter (hence the ‘lodge’ moniker) with space to accommodate up to 14 hikers on a first-come, first-served basis. A Green Mountain Club caretaker is on site most of the season and collects an overnight fee (don’t forget to bring some cash).
Through Chasms and Cliffs
From there, I headed north along the Long Trail to quickly begin a thrilling, ladder-aided ascent of the Forehead. It is one of the most challenging sections of the entire Long Trail, and not one for the faint of heart. At one spot in particular, after climbing up a wooden ladder cabled into the rock face, I emerged atop a narrow prow of stone adjacent to a narrow, gaping chasm in the rocks. I stared deeply into its inky depths as I delicately clambered off the ladder for one of those anxious ‘do-not-slip’ moments that burn deep into your hiking memory.
Beyond the Forehead, the Long Trail heads north toward the Nose in the center of the mountain ridge, which is pimpled by a collection of radio and cell phone towers. I traveled quickly past this jarring intrusion of humanity to continue along the Long Trail and reached the four-way junction with the Cliff and Subway trails.
It marked the start of a 2.6-mile side-loop unlike any other in New England. Striking out down steep boulder fields along the Cliff Trail, I soon passed a short spur to the gondola atop the adjacent ski area. From here I followed the trail as it ran below vertical outcrops and soon entered a long dark gash in the mountainside, where an enormous two-story chunk of stone cleaved from the rocky slopes. Into this dark pit of dripping walls I went, only to face – and surmount – a substantial boulder wedged into the bottom (basic climbing skills required).
Beyond this obstacle, the narrow sloping trail traversed the steep slopes just above the ski area. Dried moose droppings littered the path in volume. Ladders provided needed aid in spots. After 1.2 miles I returned to and crossed the Long Trail to follow the Canyon Trail as it dropped over loose rocks and then entered its namesake feature, a narrow cleft between the mountain and an enormous section of cracked stone. I was forced to exercise my amateur spelunking skills en route, squeezing through yet another tiny passageway and then on the route’s final stretch, in a section known as the Canyon North Trail, limbered through a tight cave passage. But wait, there was more. After traversing through a boulder maze, I descended via a final wooden ladder into the deepest chasm yet. On the far side I wound upward past giant boulders to return to the earlier junction with the Long Trail.
The Home Stretch
After the heart-pounding exertions of this adventure, the open (and crowded) summit of the Chin felt positively anti-climactic. It’s beautiful, of course, a naked landscape of rocks and alpine vegetation, with sweeping 360-degree views of northern Vermont. I just felt both taxed and exhilarated from my Cliff and Canyon trails sojourn.
I descended the Profanity Trail to spend the night at capacious Taft Lodge, the largest shelter on the Long Trail. Another enclosed and pleasant cabin, Taft tucks against steep, forested slopes and can accommodate up to 24 hikers. Like Butler Lodge, it’s first-come, first-serve with a caretaker on site to collect the nightly fee.
I’m not a shelter guy in general – too many people, too much snoring – but I stayed the night there. (Other than Butler, there’s nowhere else you can stay on the mountain; backcountry camping is essentially prohibited.) The next morning, I enjoy a leisurely and much-caffeinated daybreak breakfast before returning down the Sunset Ridge Trail. It was a deliberately slow descent – the views from the trail’s open ledges are exceptional – punctuated by a worthwhile visit to Cantilever Rock, a huge finger of stone protruding outwards from an otherwise seamless mass of solid rock.
After retracing my steps on the lower section of the CCC Road, I arrived back at the trailhead in early afternoon, amped to have discovered one of New England’s meccas for trails both great and gnarly. I encourage you to make the pilgrimage yourself.
Distance: 10.6 miles round-trip, plus 2.6 miles of extreme bonus adventure on the Cliff and Canyon trails.
Total elevation gain/loss: 3,800 feet.
You can find the full details and an in-depth description of this hike – along with 36 other great trips throughout the region – in my book, AMC’s Best Backpacking in New England.
About Matt Heid
MATT HEID holds a degree in Earth and Planetary Science from Harvard University and has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, Alaska, and other wilderness destinations. He is the author of multiple hiking guidebooks, contributes the monthly Equipped column for AMC Outdoors, the member magazine of the Appalachian Club, and writes regular posts for the AMC Equipped blog at equipped.outdoors.org.