Trail Tales:

The woods have always offered a reprieve for me. There are very few things quite like spending an afternoon outdoors, surrounded by sun, forest and noises and smells that sound much more comforting than the roaring of autos on black-top and the white noise of people buzzing constantly in your head. Writing, meditating, and hanging out with friends are all things done best when on a hike, and few things make you realize how insignificant every thought you have is when you’re standing on a peak looking at miles of untouched growth.

While some of the places I frequent aren’t graced with nicely marked trails, three of my favorites are: one practically on campus, one less than 15 minutes away, and one a little further. If nothing more, this is simply a short, incomplete guide that will hopefully have you thinking about places to go on the dozens of gorgeous weekends on the way. Man was meant to live with nature and there’s nothing like an all-day hike in the woods to remind us of that.

D&H Rail Trail-Castleton

Beginning on South Street (on the right directly after the Ellis parking lot) and winding down in Poultney, the old rail, at least the first few miles, is already a popular spot for Castleton students. Teams frequently use the well-cleared path for conditioning and professors, students and townsfolk alike can be seen in the nicer seasons biking or walking, enjoying the weather and their thoughts.

This was the first place a few of my friends and I began to frequent when I first came to Castleton and it’s the only spot from my early years that I still go to multiple times a week. It’s the best place around for a good bike ride, and the scenery is varied enough with an abundance of interesting landmarks to keep me coming back.

Once the first few miles have passed, past the opening onto the cross-country trail, past the farm fenced in with horses on the right and cows and bulls on the left, over the bridge crossing Route 30 and onto the next section of trail opens up into a nearly straight shot all the way to Poultney, with the trail picking up again somewhere on the other side of town. I’ve never tried to find the continuation, if only because the rest of the trail whets my appetite just fine.

All of nature’s best features, like cliffs and wetlands, mud-drenched areas frequently flooded out, tranquil brooks and streams, quarries, driveways, farmland and infrequent breaks in the trees just to show off the view, there aren’t many places where all the beauty of Vermont is more compact and viewable.

Along with the main trail, offshoots are everywhere — some minor roads crossing the trail at various places, others harder to find. Exploring every offshoot after you’ve tired of the main path is worthwhile, as each one boasts at least one sight worth seeing, whether it be a well-worn waterfall hidden deep in the trees or a temporary opening into a field, perfect for hiding out and writing down whatever thoughts you might have.

Easy enough to find, the most common way to get on the trail is in front of the Ellis parking lot, at the start of the tree line. Sand Hill Road also parallels a good chunk of the trail, so take a left on almost any offshoot you find. Chances are you’ll get there.

And, if you’re lucky, you just might spot our very own John Gillen cruising through the dirt on his ten-speed.

Mt. Zion-Castleton

Another spot that’s probably familiar to many on campus, the fabled Mt. Zion, is a little farther away, and much more of a climb than any point on the rail trail, and with the much talked about Japanese garden as a sort of happy ending to your hike, it’s a good way to spend an afternoon.

The best way to start your climb is to look for the red dot at the beginning of the tree line, right before the second pipe-bridge (you’ll know ’em when you see ’em). From here, just follow the red squares every few feet and make your way to the top. While all uphill, the beginning of the climb is easy, taking hikers up through the rocks and slightly marshy area to the much steeper second half of the climb, if you go to the right where the path forks, for an almost-vertical last push to the top. Not difficult, unless you don’t like getting your hands dirty, in which case, really, stay in the car.

Also, make your way back through the woods once you get to the top to check out the strange, hermit shelter, made skillfully by someone using only sticks, tree limbs and the side of the mountain.

“Zion is one of the best places to go off campus,” said Patrick Kittell, a Castleton second-year senior. “I go there all the time.”

The way down is much easier, a slightly-steep path winding down gradually to the bottom and the Japanese garden (which is only worthwhile in the summer months). For a more challenging hike, search around for the yellow square trail, a path that takes you straight across the front of the mountain on a “trail” cut through the rock, making for a more difficult jaunt, still enjoyable for casual hikers and much more fun than the red trail once you’ve been a few times.

Oh, and the view at the top? More than worth the short climb, especially off to your left when facing Hubbardton Battlefield.

Easy enough to get to: take the left off of Main St. like you were getting on 89, go straight for a few miles until you get to St. John Rd. on the left. Take that down a bit until you come to a small black and white “Hiking” sign with an arrow. Follow the directions from there.

Merck Forest-Rupert,VT

If day-long bike rides or 20-minute hikes aren’t your thing, take the drive to the Merck Forest and Farmland Center in Rupert, a 40-minute ride from campus.

The entirety of the property is a protected piece of land, and also boasts a number of mountains to climb (much more involved climbing than Zion) and miles of trails to get to those mountains. The land is gorgeous, miles of woods and well kept, clean trails.

Some of the trails toward the mountain tops are harder to traverse, and entire climbs can be exhausting. Inexperienced hikers will still enjoy Merck, but be prepared for a workout.

Not only a hiker’s delight, Merck is also a self-sustaining farm, with all power to all buildings coming from either wind generators or solar panels, and most employees of the farm live on the grounds. Sheep, cows and enormous pigs roam the land at the entrance to the trails. Internships, split up by seasons, are available to students as well and Merck will work with the school to coordinate credits.

The whole park can’t really be explored in a day, so coming back is necessary to really get all this place has to offer and the various trails it holds. If you want to try to see it all, cabins are available for rent on a weekly schedule.

And make sure to try some syrup samples from whoever is working the counter at the visitor’s center. The darker the better.

The best part about conquering a trail or mountain is often finding it on your own, so no amount of exploring the area is too much and there are dozens of other, equally worthy paths, trails and hiding spots hidden around campus and the surrounding area. This is a just a starters kit, a few places to go when the homework isn’t getting done and it’s too nice to sit around inside. Hope you enjoy.

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