This article was written by Nigel Bates. It previously appeared in the Winter 2020 Long Trail News under the title “Side-to-Side in Less Than a Week.”
In July I set the fastest known time for hiking the 88 trails on the Green Mountain Club’s list of Long Trail side trails in six days, 10 hours, 47 minutes and 43 seconds. It was a mighty endurance challenge, a daunting logistical puzzle, and a scenic tour of some lesser-hiked corners of the Green Mountains.
While the side-to-side trails total 166.1 miles, hiking all of them requires more than 200 miles, including round trips and sections of the Long Trail that connect side trails. My route totaled 226.66 miles—plus 56,947 feet of elevation gain, almost double the height of Mt. Everest above sea level.
Route planning and coordinating my support crew were perhaps as much fun as the hike itself, and I likely spent more time at it than hiking. It was an incredible amount of work, but I enjoyed the logistical puzzle. I had already done about 75 percent of the side trails, most of them while working on the GMC field staff. In a way, I had been scouting the trip for years! My crew and I made sure our plans and backup plans were solid, because trailheads often don’t have cell service.
How I planned my route:
First and foremost, I determined the optimal route. Some choices were obvious—going out and back on the Journey’s End Trail was the only move, for example—while others presented interesting tradeoffs among mileage, elevation and terrain. I had started sketching a path through the Mount Mansfield network of 27 intertwined looping side trails in the fall of 2019 when I was a backcountry caretaker there. This proved invaluable, both for planning my route and for negotiating the more technical trails in the rain. Route planning continued this spring and summer.
Then I lined up a support crew. I enlisted fellow GMC staff members Lorne Currier, John Plummer and McV LaPointe, who planned to meet me for breaks, carry my food and water, and, most importantly, keep my spirits up. We pulled of at least 30 meet-ups without an error. They shuttled the car (and sometimes me) between trailheads working in shifts, with only one person helping me at a time.
I carried only water, snacks, a phone to record progress, and a small first aid kit. A typical outing was between 12 to 18 miles. For longer sections (the longest was 24 miles), I added water purification tablets, an extra clothing layer and a headlamp. In the support car were more substantial food, big water and Gatorade coolers, caffeine, changes of clothing, a foam muscle roller, and lots and lots of tape to fight the battle against chafing.
Staying motivated wasn’t always easy:
I am very grateful to my crew for taking care of other needs as they popped up. John made a hotel reservation when I decided I really needed a shower. McV got me onion rings when I craved them more than anything. And Lorne set up my favorite moment of the whole trip: at the end of a long fourth day, I was dreading the last hike of the day up the New Boston Trail. He saved the day by joining me with an imaginative scheme: casting me as the “ATV” (all-terrain vehicle) and himself as the “trailer” being pulled by the ATV. Together we pretended we were hauling lumber up to the David Logan privy for the impending replacement project. I could go as fast as I wanted because I was an ATV, even if only in my mind. Lorne’s imagination and experience motivating people outdoors helped me get through a section of trail that proved mentally challenging.
As with most long-distance challenges, my trek was full of highs and lows, even on a single day. The morning of day two was a miserable slog completing all of the side trails on Mount Mansfield in pouring rain, but that afternoon the clouds parted to reveal a phenomenal view of Camel’s Hump from the Duck Brook Trail. In the Lye Brook Wilderness I suffered through a day of 90-degree heat and intense blisters, but was rewarded later with a gorgeous sunset over Stratton Pond. I enjoyed the hike more than I anticipated, and the despair of each nadir made the next zenith even sweeter.
Though my job as field assistant takes me all over the Long Trail System, I still visit regularly only a handful of sites that see the most visitation. The side-to-side was a good reminder there are wilder pieces of the Green Mountains, often requiring no more effort to reach than places like Camel’s Hump or Sterling Pond.
A few of my favorite side trails:
- Amherst Trail: This parallels the Long Trail for 0.4 miles along the Mansfield ridgeline. It’s a great option for a loop hike from the Mansfield Visitor Center; you can escape crowds and see Vermont’s highest mountain from a different perspective.
- Skylight Pond Trail: The trail reaches the top of the Breadloaf Wilderness ridgeline without any particularly rugged climbing (a rarity in Vermont). It switchbacks gradually for 2.5 miles to the Long Trail, and then descends another 0.1 mile to Skyline Lodge on the shore of Skylight Pond.
- Shrewsbury Peak Trail: Though less than 20 minutes from the Killington ski slopes, it feels worlds away. A rugged climb through wild boreal forest leads 1.9 miles to a fine view at the summit of Shrewsbury Peak. Looping back on the Black Swamp Trail and the lightly travelled CCC road provides a gentler descent.
- Homer Stone Brook Trail: This trail follows old woods roads along a lovely stream to Little Rock Pond. The moderate 2.3-mile climb showcases a forest gradually reclaiming an area once dominated by logging and farming.
Overall, my side-to-side adventure showcased a beautiful and unique cross-section of Vermont. I hope it inspires others to explore these often underappreciated trails, whether in a week or in a lifetime.
Nigel used his hike of the Long Trail side trails to raise funds for Outdoor Afro, a national not-for-profit organization that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature. With nearly 90 leaders in 30 states, it connects thousands of people to outdoor experiences, and they are changing the face of conservation.