Riding The Southern Champlain Valley
Despite being an avid cyclist for the better part of three decades, most of the time spent at our family cabin on Lake Champlain in Vermont over that time has been dedicated to fishing, time with family and a beer by the evening campfire. Oh sure, my wife Mary and I brought our bikes for our annual summer visit, but typically we only rode the short, 24 mile out and back course to nearby Vergennes. That left a lot of the Champlain Valley still to see — and this year we went to see it. We ended with an epic visit to Burlington.
Joined by our friends, Steve Ruhf, Karen Deer, and Barbara and Gary Butcher, we rolled into camp with carloads of bikes and a mission to take in the scenery that has become a destination for cyclists around the country.
Only five miles from the Crown Point bridge between New York and Vermont, we wanted to venture into the Empire State for a bit of exploration as well as the immediate terrain in Vermont.
Cycling to the Crown Point Ruins
Our first ride took us to the ruins of the forts at Crown Point, which are just over the bridge on the New York side. I say “forts” because there are the remains of the efforts of both the French and the British. The area is strategic because of how narrow the lake is here. Champlain was the site of numerous naval battles during colonial times.
The French built Fort St. Frederic between 1734 and 1737 while the British mounted various expeditions to take control of Crown Point, and captured the fort in 1759. The British built their own fort on the site, calling it,”His Majesty’s Fort of Crown Point.” Enclosing over seven acres, this was one of the largest built by the British in North America.
The Fort site was easily accessible by bike, and there is a walking tour if you want to take it. There is a small fee to enter the museum on site, but we found it most interesting to walk among the ruins and simply read the signs. It was interesting to stand in what was once the officers’ quarters and wonder what it must have been like when cannon balls were cascading over the walls.
From the ramparts we rode on to the town of Crown Point for lunch in a log cabin style restaurant called Debro’s On the Way Cafe. If you go, you have to try the homemade soup.
Rain Delay in Middlebury
With 30 miles in our legs after the long drive from Virginia, we were hoping to do a similar ride to Middlebury, Vt. the next day but the skies opened up and it was a complete wash out. Alas we drove to Middlebury where there is an excellent bike shop and lots of boutiques and restaurants. We enjoyed lunch by Otter Creek at a quirky, hip and earthy place called The Lobby, which we would gladly do again — hopefully arriving next time on two wheels.
Riding to Burlington
The focal point of our week was a 40-mile ride from the cabin to Burlington for a night at the Hotel Vermont, to be followed the following day by a ferry ride to Port Kent, New York. From there we would ride the New York shoreline 55 miles back to the cabin. But first we had to get to Burlington.
We opted not to ride the most direct route along Vermont Route 7 in order to see less traffic and more countryside.
Only six miles into the ride we came upon a woman carrying a canoe along a rural road. She was more than a mile from the nearest body of water, and it certainly caught our attention. I had to stop and take a photo. She explained that she was headed to a nearby creek for a day of paddling. We were already beginning to understand the Keep Vermont Weird stickers we would later see in Burlington.
From Vergennes, we turned east onto Monkton Road, a crescent shaped route that would drop us onto Main Street in Burlington. This was a good decision, despite the often steep terrain which saw some of the hills pitching up to grades of 17 percent. I was off the back considerably because of lingering effects of surgery in January, but the Vermont countryside more than made up for it. The rolling foothills of the Green Mountains presented cornfields and historic homes and barns as well as beautiful gardens. The scenery was pure rural New England and just want we were seeking.
It was a surprise then, when I asked for water at the little store in Monkton. “It’s been a gas station for 100 years. We don’t drink the water here,” a man who seemed to be the owner told me. His answer created a momentary stare off, while I tried to mesh the beautiful rural setting with what he was saying. But, after a few seconds I realized he was speaking in code for, “the groundwater here is contaminated.” The notion of undrinkable water amidst this scenery seemed as likely as a vegan eating at Hardees.
But I heeded his warning, took him up on his recommendation for the 99-cent jumbo bottled water, grabbed a sugary snack and set out for the second half of our ride to the city.
I should mention that four of us were riding with day packs, while Mary and Barbara opted for a rear rack with a “trunk” on it. Since we were spending the night in Burlington, each of us had a change of clothes for the evening, fresh bike wear for the next day’s ride, and essential toiletries. I would say each of us was carrying an extra 5-10 pounds of stuff. All of this made the aforementioned hills just a bit tougher.
There’s also something to be said about riding in unfamiliar territory. Our group takes on 40-mile loops (or more) almost every weekend at home during good weather. But here the sense of the unknown and the fact that we were riding to a destination other than home made this trek seem a bit more adventurous. It felt like we were riding much further.
Once on the outskirts of Burlington, we pulled into Starbucks for iced tea and coffee and to ask Siri how to get to the Hotel Vermont which turned out to be only two miles away.
After a snafu with a dead end, we rolled into the hotel where we were pleasantly surprised to see a bike rack in the lobby. We slid our rides into the empty slots and checked in. Later we would learn that the rack is for the hotel’s loaner bikes… most of which were out at the time. No matter, it worked great for us until we could take our bikes to our rooms for safe keeping.
The Hotel itself is a wonderful stop. The staff was sharp, friendly and helpful. The hotel has a big city feel in terms of sophistication, yet with a personal touch you would expect in a smaller city. Lyle Lovett, in town for a concert was staying There. It was almost like you expected him to be. It felt to me like a perfect extension of Burlington’s personality.
The plan for Burlington was pretty straight forward. Check out a couple of local bike shops, have a beer at a cool place, and spend a few hours on Church Street, the city’s famous pedestrian walk that is lined with shops, restaurants and boutiques that are simply Vermont chic.
Our first stop was a great bike shop called North Star Sports, which featured a good selection of bikes, gear, advice and clothing. They had a sweet Vermont-themed jersey I regret I didn’t buy.
Across the street was the even larger store Skirack. This place had more bikes under one roof than Red Bull has adrenaline junkies. Having cycled to the city we felt the need to soak it in and ogle all the high end bikes as well as the new technology and trends, but in the end I bought a spare tube for the ride home and we headed off for a beer.
We partook our afternoon brew on the patio at the Vermont Pub and Brewery, which was perfect for an afternoon break, before we dove into the people watching and eclectic shops along the famous Church Street. Whether its the North Face, lululemon, The Outdoor Gear Exchange or anything else from flannel to violins, it’s there along the street mingled with a variety of restaurants and cafe’s.
Our shopping done, it was back to the hotel for a nap, before we returned to the evening edition of Church Street and a bit of dinner. Church Street after dark is a vibrant place with lots of foot traffic as people move about seeking the nightlife or a meal in one of the many restaurants — almost all of which offer outdoor seating. We were dressed casually in the clothes we lugged in our backpacks and fit in comfortably with the masses.
The Ferry and Home via New York
The second leg of our trip began the next morning on the Burlington waterfront, which was about five minutes away from the hotel. We had hoped to tour the Echo Center — a Lake Champlain based science museum, but ran out of time. Instead we walked around the harbor where it was impossible not to notice the vibrancy of the city’s bicycle culture. Even early in the morning there was a lot of traffic on the Burlington Bike Path, where runners, walkers and cyclists were enticed by an ice cream stand offering pure Vermont maple “creamees.”
Not far away, the staff at bike rental shop called Local Motion was busy fitting tourists with rides. Some riders no doubt were signing up for a unique attraction called the Bike Ferry, which according to the website, takes “…cyclists and pedestrians across “the Cut”, a 200-foot gap in the beautiful Colchester Causeway. Sit back and relax for the 5 minute journey. The Ferry makes the connection between Colchester and South Hero, on some of the easiest terrain in Vermont, with scenic vistas that are among the best in the world.”
It felt as if Burlington could serve the bike needs of our entire vacation. But we had a ferry ride of our own to take, followed by a 55 mile ride, which for various reasons, none of us will ever forget.
We opted for the 12:10 ferry. In hindsight, the heat of mid-summer suggests we should have crossed the lake a lot earlier. Be that as it may, it was cool to be at the front of the line in our bike kits, boarding the boat ahead of the cars. Lots of people do this, and the ferry crew wasted no time showing us where to stow the bikes. After that it was a matter of taking a seat on the deck, applying sunscreen and enjoying a hot dog from the on-board vendor. It would be about the last time we would be comfortable for the next several hours.
Upon arrival in Port Kent, we mounted up and began climbing away from the ferry port. And then we kept climbing. And climbing and climbing. With no blood in our legs, the ascent felt even harder than I’m sure it was. Also, it was now 1:30 in the afternoon and the heat of the day was upon us. Not great planning.
Here is the data from my Garmin https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/embed/1291702758
Eventually the road leveled out a bit and we began to make our way south toward the towns of Willsboro, Essex, Westport and Port Henry. We were momentarily distracted from the climbing when we crossed the Ausable River at Ausable Chasm, a spectacular natural gorge and waterfall that deserved more than the passing notice we gave it.
My Garmin suggests we climbed almost without relief for the first hour, until a welcome nearly 5-mile downhill landed us in Willsboro, where we gratefully stopped to re-fuel at a country store that sold minnows and night crawlers along with Gatorade and water.
The plan had been to make it to Westport in time for lunch at the marina which I had visited by boat, but the late start and the unexpectedly difficult terrain conspired against us.
As we rolled into the quaint lakeside town of Essex, it was decision time. We could veer inland and then head south on the busy Route 22, or continue along the lake on a road called Lakeshore Road. A local rider saw me looking at a map and suggested that while Route 22 was easier, Lakeshore was more scenic and had much less traffic. We would learn quickly there is a reason the road less traveled is less traveled.
A GPS view of our choice shows the Adirondack foothills creeping right up to the water’s edge. Our task was to climb and descend each of them. My rationalization that roads beside the lake by default had to be flat was just plain poor thinking, and anyone in a boat on the lake could see (as I have been many times) that the mountains come right down to the shore.
In reality it is only five or six miles from Essex to Westport, and even if had been all uphill it should have been fine. It’s not like we don’t do sustained climbs all the time at home in the Virginia mountains. In hindsight, I believe the steepness of the terrain again approaching 20-percent in places, and the length of the climbs — sometimes half to three-quarters of a mile at 10-percent plus — sapped both my energy and enthusiasm.
With nothing else to do we soldiered on and eventually stopped at what looked like a delightful deli in Westport. We rolled our bikes up to the benches in the quaint little downtown and went inside for snacks, water and energy drinks. The two young women working in the store — probably in their late teens or early twenties, could not have been more unhappy to see us. No amount of effort on our part to engage them in conversation was going to result in more than a frown and a one-word answer or both. I guess life along the lake isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
If nothing else it gave us something to talk about as we rode along the next ten hilly miles to Port Henry, where the climb into town even had our strongest riders, Gary and Steve complaining. I believe it was Steve, who questioned why we were suffering so much. “They don’t pay us to do this,” he quipped.
Fortunately after Port Henry, the severity of the highway between us and the bridge back to Vermont lessened considerably, and even though cramps were coming on, I believed I would complete the day’s endurance test.
The last 15 miles went on essentially without consequence, as the rolling terrain of the southern Champlain Valley offered much less resistance than the Adirondack foothills that had challenged us for most of the day. We rode comfortably in a pace line without the nasty climbs to sort us out.
Crossing the bridge back into Vermont felt like a godsend, and five miles later we coasted down the dirt road to the cabin. We had left beer on ice in the Yeti cooler in the back yard. Gary and I unclipped and popped the top on a couple of Blue Moons. I cannot remember a time when a beer tasted so good.
Later that night as we sat in the Adirondack chairs around the campfire, the efforts of the day went in two directions. The pain and suffering of the climbing in the 90-degree heat was behind us. The sense of accomplishment began to set in and the story telling about who did what on such and such a climb began to ooze out. Like a fisherman who embellishes the size of his catch, the steepness and length of the climbs began to take on legendary proportions.
We laughed about how much we had been complaining. We laughed even more as we re-lived our encounter with the crabby girls in the deli in Westport and marveled at the fact that we had survived a day of what for most of us was really difficult cycling.
Philosophically, difficulty is what makes life’s experiences memorable. You don’t remember the rides on the beautiful Saturdays in your home town when everything goes as planned. But the days your chain breaks, or you get caught in a storm — those are the ones you remember.
On this trip we had gone somewhere and seen new things. There was the fun in Burlington. The abundance of scenery on both sides of the lake, the ferry ride and the closeness that comes from facing a common foe. We certainly — from a cycling perspective, overcame enough challenges to make it memorable. I asked the group if anyone would do the same rides again, and there around the fire, separated by only a few hours and a refreshing shower, every one of them said they would.
This is a great trip for anyone who wants to see the southern to middle Lake Champlain Valley. Since the Burlington trip is a loop, you can stay anywhere along the path and still enjoy our adventure. Our visit to the Fort was on a different day but you would roll right past it as you went over the bridge at Crown Point. There are lots of hotels along the route, and of course, Burlington has ample opportunity for lodging. Cyclists who wanted a slighly easier option on the New York Side could ride a few miles south from Burlington and catch the Ferry from Charlotte, Vermont to Essex, NY. I’m pretty sure that’s the route we will take next year.