Hiking Vermont: Climbing Mt. Mansfield via Sunset Ridge

Nearing the summit of Mt. Mansfield.
Regardless of how long I'm on a trip, I'm anxious when I don't have a plan. I'm working on learning to go with the flow, as contrary to my nature as that can be, because it's fun to let the places I visit and people I meet people play more of a role in what happens when I leave home.

This long weekend was a perfect reminder of how awesome going with the flow can be.

My partner in crime and I decided to spend five days exploring Vermont and New Hampshire, but to leave with accommodations booked for only two of the four nights and a single planned hike. Cue mild anxiety. Stopping at the Magic Hat brewery on our drive to Burlington on the drive in helped.

After a decent dinner at Leunig's Bistro, drinks at the Whiskey Room, and wandering around Burlington, we turned in at our reserved room in the Lang House on our first night with plenty of options for the first full day of vacation, but without a plan. The plan - climbing Mt. Mansfield - came together over breakfast the following morning, and it was a really good plan.

Accessing Mt. Mansfield via Underhill State Park

At 4,393', Mt. Mansfield is Vermont's highest peak. It's also one of two places in the state where true alpine tundra can be found. The state closes the trails on the mountain from mid-April through Memorial Day because the mountain sees thousands of visitors each year. Closures help prevent significant trail erosion and protect the fragile vegetation. Hikers can access the top of the mountain from a number of different trails, but we chose the most popular route via Underhill State Park.

Wandering around the ridge at the top of Mt. Mansfield on the Long Trail.

Underhill State Park, open Memorial Day through Mid-October, is an easy 40 minute drive from Burlington. We opted not to stay overnight there, but walk-in tent and lean-to camping is available. After a chat with the park ranger about which trails were best, ("they're all steep"), we picked up a trail map, paid the day use fee, and started up.

Climbing Mount Mansfield via the Sunset Ridge Trail

Mt. Mansfield and its ridges look like a long face; the Adams Apple sits at 4,060', the chin is the high point, the nose (4,062') is home to a handful of transmitter towers, and following the Long Trail across the ridge for about two miles brings hikers to the forehead (3,940'). Our plan was to head for the chin, then walk along the ridge to visit as many other points as we could in the time we had.

Giant cairns show hikers the way once you're above treeline and blazes aren't a reliable option.

Our route followed the Sunset Ridge trail up, the Long Trail across the ridge, and the Halfway House trail down for 6.6 miles of hiking and 2,500' of elevation gain. Take a look at the entire route here. We followed CCC road, out of the Underhill State Park parking lot, opting to bypass most of the mile-long forest road via the Eagle Cut trail. Though we gained almost 500 vertical feet prior between the CCC road and Eagle Cut trail, the Sunset Ridge trail is where the real climb started.

The Sunset Ridge trail climbs relatively gently at first, but after the first 1/4 mile, the hiking got HARD. The path is steep, climbing up rocky ground, smooth dirt, gravel, roots, and finally, toward the summit, bare rock. Around 1.6 miles into our hike, we took a detour to Cantilever Rock to see what was billed as a a 30-foot long "natural stone obelisk" sticking horizontally out into space approximately 60 feet overhead.

Taking a break on the way up to see where we'd come from. Such a cool view! (D. Herscovitch)

After backtracking from Cantilever Rock to the Sunset Ridge trail, we continued up, eventually popping out of the trees. Climbing above treeline isn't something I get to do often, and certainly not in Pennsylvania. It's always a bit of a shock, in the best way possible, to emerge from the trees and see miles around you,. Shortly after, we reached the end of the Sunset Ridge trail and took a left, following the Long Trail to the summit. We made it after hiking three miles in two hours, including breaks, and gaining nearly 2,500' of elevation.

We took a quick break at the summit and shared one of Vermont's many delicious beers while swatting at black flies and other mountain "wildlife." Then, we backtracked along the Long Trail, passing the Sunset Ridge trail junction, and hiked along the ridge. A detour along a blue blazed trail labeled "Subway" takes hikers to a small underground tunnel, but I was much more in favor of ridge walking and exploring what's left of the tundra.

Exploring the top of Mt. Mansfield, taking particular care not to step on all of the fragile vegetation.

Just under 1.5 miles later, we'd reached the transmitter towers we'd seen all day in addition to a parking lot for Stowe's gondola. It was about 4pm, and though we had a few hours left before sunset, we opted to take the Halfway House trail back down rather than continue walking along the ridge to the forehead.

The Halfway House trail, like the Sunset Ridge trail, is steep, and my knees were grateful for a break when we made it down to the CCC road and Eagle Cut trail an hour later. In total, we were on the trail for four hours. Overall, it was an incredible day with some tough climbing and gorgeous views. It's perfect if you're in town for an overnight, like we were, or if you're looking for a tough climb that won't take the entire day.

Things to Know Before You Go

Cantilever Rock. Don't skip it if you do this hike!
Looking to do this hike? Keep a few things in mind:
  • It's one of the most popular hikes within an hour of Burlington. You won't likely find solitude on Mt. Mansfield, but it's absolutely worth the trip regardless. 
  • The parking lot fills up quickly on weekends. Arrive early. 
  • The trail is steep; plan your departure and turnaround times accordingly. We didn't leave the parking lot until 1pm, but knew we'd make it down before dark. We took headlamps and extra layers anyway. 
  • Take enough food and water for a strenuous day. We dealt with temperatures in the 80-85ºF range, making having enough to drink super important. There's potable water available near the Underhill State Park parking lot.
  • The trails on Mt. Mansfield are closed from mid-April through Memorial Day; don't plan your hike during this time.
  • Remember how fragile the vegetation is when you're above treeline, and stay on marked trails. It's tough for plants to grow up there, and the last thing we need to do is to make it tough for them to survive!
  • Keep an eye on the weather forecast. The entire ridge is completely exposed, and it's the last place you want to be in a storm. And remember, weather changes quickly in the mountains. Be aware of incoming storms before you're stuck in them!
Have you done this hike? I'd love to hear when, how it was, and anything cool you saw! Sounds off in the comments!