Morning arrives cold and crisp on this gray winter day in northern Vermont. I'm a mile deep into the state's Kingdom Trails network, snowshoes under foot and a trail map in hand. The trees are heavy with snow, the river banks lined with two-foot drifts, and I'm following fox tracks through the otherwise untouched wilderness. As winter trails go, this one's a keeper. The trail map, on the other hand, could use some improvement.
"That kind of looks like a trail," my wife suggests, only half serious.
I laugh and nod my head, not because I agree, but because it's still early, there's a peacefulness to these woods, and I can see the snow-covered Darling Hill Ridge—where our day began at the Wildflower Inn—towering over the woods from here. In other words, even when we're lost, we still know where we are. Mostly.
That's how the day goes for us on the Kingdom Trails. In the afternoon, my wife switches to cross-country skis ("best groomed trails ever," she declares) while I stick with the snowshoes and cut through the woods to keep up. It's been hours since we've seen another soul, probably because we're here on a Sunday while the usual weekend crowd is packing up from the area inns and heading home.
Sundays aren't just peaceful. They're cheaper, too, especially compared to what you'd pay for the same rooms during peak foliage season. And that works out just great, really, because winter is when Vermont's active side emerges—when its long rolling pastures become sledding hills, when hayrides become sleigh rides, and when leaf peeping and antiques shopping give way to skiing, skating, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling.
In other words, winter is the season for adventure and romance in Vermont. And the state's Northeast Kingdom is the place to find both.
Choose your own adventure
The Kingdom Trails Association was established in 1994 to create a series of connected trails throughout the forests and fields of the Northeast Kingdom. More than a decade later, the Kingdom Trails now make use of abandoned country lanes, old logging roads, and more recent hiking paths to form a network that spans about a hundred miles. It's composed almost entirely of private property, and was made possible because of local residents' and businesses' willingness to allow their property to be used for outdoor pursuits.
One such local business is the Wildflower Inn in Lyndonville, Vermont, where my wife and I stayed in late January while putting the Kingdom Trails to the test. A room at the Wildflower also gets you free access to the trails, which pick up right behind the inn's classic red barn. Rooms at the inn start at $99 a night in the winter months. A trail pass costs $10 a day for non-inn guests, so this alone could save a couple anywhere from $20 to $40 for a weekend's worth of adventure. Through March 30, a three-day, two-night midweek snowshoe package (including rentals, a private horse-drawn sleigh ride for two, and dinner one night) starts at $199 a person.
As you might imagine, the rolling hills of the Northeast Kingdom are also excellent terrain for snowmobilers. The Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) maintains 5,000 miles of snowmobile trails, many of which run through the Northeast Kingdom. The Wildflower Inn also has direct access to the VAST network and offers three-day, two-night snowmobile packages in 2006 starting at $169 a person.
The Vermont Outdoor Guide Association (VOGA) is a good resource if you're looking for a guided adventure. It lists activities ranging from snowshoeing and snowmobiling tours to more unusual pursuits like dog sledding and rocket sledding.
Staying in the Northeast Kingdom
The best access to the Kingdom Trails is in the Burke/Lyndonville area. This is about two hours by car from Burlington, three hours from Boston, and five-and-a-half from New York. JetBlue flies into all three cities and generally keeps the fares low. If you're flying, try to book an airfare-and-car rental package to save on transportation costs; a car is essential for getting around.
There are two inns directly on the Kingdom Trails network: The Wildflower Inn and the Inn at Mountainview Farm. Both are on Darling Hill Road in Lyndonville, about a mile apart, and offer out-the-door access to the Kingdom Trails. I've stayed at both and give the edge to the Wildflower Inn, which has a top-notch restaurant, a gigantic sledding hill, an outdoor ice skating area, and occasional bonfires on Saturday nights in the winter. You can arrange for a horse-drawn sleigh ride, weather permitting, at both inns. They go for about $8 a person for a group ride of up to eight people, or $50 a couple for a romantic one-horse open sleigh.
The Kingdom Trails website lists seven other properties that offer trail-related packages. Consider one of these if you're looking to shave a few dollars off your trip, but be aware that direct access to the trails is a big factor in enjoying a weekend stay, at least in my book.
My favorite places for dinner in the Burke area are The Old Cutter Inn, which offers classic alpine fare like cheese fondue for two; the Tamarack at Burke Mountain for upscale dining in a ski lodge setting; and Juniper's at the Wildflower Inn, with mostly organic and locally grown food and a great view of the Kingdom Trails. The River Garden Cafe and The Pub Outback are good for lunch or casual dining.
Many of the area inns rent snowshoes and cross-country skis. At the Wildflower, for example, you can get a full-day snowshoe rental for $20, a half-day for $10, or a two-day for $25. In town, East Burke Sports rents skis and snowshoes for $15 a day. If you can spare the extra few dollars, it's worth it to rent from the inn simply for the convenience of setting out right after breakfast without heading back into town.
In fact, this kind of simplicity is part of what makes the Northeast Kingdom special. There's an old-fashioned charm to the winters here, something that's uniquely Vermont in the way both locals and visitors embrace the season and its simple charms. It's nice to be a part of that, even for a weekend.