Hiking (Not Skiing) Vermont: Pico Peak via the Long Trail and Sherburne Pass Trail

Looking up into the trees near the top of Pico Peak.
It's no secret that this year's winter here on the east coast hasn't felt much like winter until recently. Christmas in my normally frigid hometown of Ithaca, New York, brought temperatures in the mid-60's (so sad). East coast ski resorts like Killington saw temperatures in the mid-50's on the same day. Ugh.

Friends and I wanted to ring in 2016 on the slopes in Vermont, as we'd done in 2015. Planning started in October. A house was rented. Lift tickets were bought in advance. But on the eve of our trip, conditions allowed for the opening of less than a fifth of Killington's trails.

We made the best of it, skiing as much as we could and wanted to. My partner in crime and I had two days of lift tickets to use and when all was said and done, we racked up about five total hours of skiing. 

The holiday crowd, which would normally spread across all 155 of Killington's trails, was confined to less than 40. It was busy, and I spent the majority of my time avoiding giant ice patches and other skiers. It did snow, but not enough to open much more of the resort.

Less than ideal skiing was to be expected and conditions were absolutely not in Killington's control, but we looked for alternative activities before we'd even arrived in Vermont. Some of the group went snowshoeing, beer tasting, even cheese tasting in lieu of hitting the slopes. My partner in crime and I paid a visit to EMS in nearby Rutland to get day hike recommendations and maps, and the result was a wonderful, peaceful, challenging day of hiking.

Hiking the Long Trail to Pico Peak

The folks at EMS recommended a handful of short hikes close to our house in Chittenden, and we settled on an approximately 8 mile loop with 2,200 feet in elevation gain covering part of the Long Trail, the oldest long distance hiking trail in America. The section of the Long Trail (LT) we chose also happened to be part of the Appalachian Trail (AT), and hiking a new section of the AT was exciting.

This bridge near the trailhead is also part of the Catamount Trail, which is only maintained in winter.

We started around 11am on January 2nd after sleeping in and chowing down on eggs and bacon. The parking lot on the south side of U.S. Rte. 4 in Mendon (43.666172, -72.849079) was half full when we arrived; I was excited to see so many others hitting the trails in the cold weather. Curiously, none of the other cars in our parking lot had Vermont plates. Temperatures hovered in the mid-20's, a welcomed change. An easily noticeable wooden sign with the word "Trail" on it pointed us toward the start of the hike, and shortly after, a message board gave us a chance to read up on last minute details.

The first half of the hike covered four or so miles on the LT/AT, and it started out gradually. The trail is blazed white, and though keeping track of the blazes was challenging in the snow, the beginning section was well-traveled. We ran into a pair of backpackers who'd spent a chilly overnight at the Churchill Scott Shelter, which we reached after 1.9 miles.

The Churchill Scott Shelter is maintained by the Green Mountain Club. I was more impressed by the outhouse than anything else!

We kept walking south along the AT/LT, still climbing gradually. The higher up we got, the more we saw trees covered in hard packed snow and ice, and the less worn the trail looked. It was more like the winter wonderland I was expecting to find in Vermont in January, and it was absolutely stunning. Branches crackled in the wind and I could hear Pico Mountain Resort's snow guns in the distance.

At just around the four mile mark, we came to a well-marked intersection with the Sherburne Pass Trail. Hikers can continue along the LT/AT south from there, or take a left on the Sherburne Pass Trail, which is what we opted for.

At the junction of the LT/AT and Sherburne Pass Trail. Four miles felt longer than I expected it to, so this was a welcomed sight!

I was glad to be in the trees at this point, absolutely noticing how quickly I got chilled when we stopped moving, even when we stopped climbing.  Less than half a mile later, we found ourselves at Pico Camp, which is one of the most incredible trail shelters I've ever seen.

The shelter at Pico Camp is more like a cabin, sans heat and electricity, with bunks and a table in the center. It was unsurprisingly deserted and we sat down at the table to enjoy our lunch. The shelter didn't offer much in the way of warmth, but it kept us out of the wind and gave us a beautiful view of Little Pico in the distance.

Pretty swank, no? I can't imagine sharing Pico Camp with a dozen thru-hikers in warmer months, but man was it ideal for us that day.

After lunch, I traded my Columbia Millennium Flash jacket for the Outdoor Research Diode down jacket (review coming soon!) and we headed up Pico Link, a side trail to the top of Pico Peak. We followed one faint set of footprints up the steep, slippery route, which climbs 500 vertical feet in 0.4 miles. We crossed two runs that are part of Pico Mountain, the first of which was completely ice-covered. (That day, January 2nd, was the first day the resort opened, but all lifts and runs remained closed as of this posting.)

When Pico Link dumped us out of the woods just shy of the top of Pico Peak, the snow guns were so loud I couldn't hear my hiking partner unless he was standing next to me, and little ice pellets stung my face. I hid in the woods while he walked up to the top of the Summit Express Quad to explore. Though we didn't get the "extensive views in all directions" our trail map promised, it was pretty cool hiking around a completely deserted ski hill in the middle of winter.

One of Pico Mountain's ski trails covered in ice, sans snow. Pretty sure it's Forty Niner, a blue square run.

We backtracked down Pico Link, part of which involved my sliding on my butt down the steepest sections of the trail. At one point, my partner in crime, lamenting about how he punched through the snow layers and I didn't, jumped on the hard snow next to me, causing it to collapse. I got a taste of what he'd been dealing with most of the day!

We followed the Sherburne Pass Trail back down to U.S. Rte. 4, crossing another Pico Mountain ski run and switchbacking down through the trees. Our plan was to cross the highway and continue up Deer Leap Mountain, which would add another two miles to our hike, but it was close to 4pm and without knowing the terrain or how long those two miles would take, we skipped the extension of the loop and walked a mile down U.S. Rte. 4 back to the parking lot. (The shoulder was almost non-existent and piles of snow covered what was left of it, so if you're planning do to the hike we did, exercise caution on that part!)

Ahh snow. Beautiful wonderful snow! On the way down the Sherburne Pass Trail.

All in all, this little hike was my favorite outdoor activity on our trip. The skiing wasn't ideal, but we still managed to get outside for some winter fun. I'd love to go back and visit Deer Leap, given our hiking consultant at EMS recommended it. Take a look at our entire route here.

How did you spend the first days of 2016? Did you get any skiing, hiking, or other outdoor activities in? Other east coast skiers, how are you dealing with the lack of snow this year? We'd love to commiserate!