If you’re looking to savor the last bit of summer, get off the beaten track and head to one of these Remote lakefront campsites. Photos by Brian Mohr
It’s September. Kids are back in school. The black flies and mosquitoes have grown lethargic. Even on cooler mornings, the fresh water of the lake feels soft and warm on bare skin as you slide a toe in to test it. The only thing disrupting the glassy silence of the lake before you is the call of migrating geese as they come in for a splashdown.
While the rest of the world is coming to Vermont to blaze a trail up Mt. Mansfield or Stratton Mountain, we like to hide. Well, not exactly hide. But it’s the time of year we try to get off the roads, avoid the most popular trails and escape to the quieter corners of the state to set up camp.
We polled our staff, as well as experts such as Green Mountain National Forest Recreation Manager Holly Knox and Rochelle Skinner of Vermont State Parks to find their favorite sites around the state.
What we came up with is a list of truly quiet waterfront campsites—places where no RV will hook up next to you. These are sites where at night the only sounds will be the long mournful call of loons and the brightest light in the night sky is the sparkle of the Milky Way.
Many of these sites are easily accessed by canoe, or for the confident, SUP. Most also have trails with enough variety, challenge and terrain to burn off the s’mores you roasted the night before. Best of all, these are all prime spots for foliage, many with outcroppings or cliffs you can hike to.
Pitch a tent, start a fire, kick up your feet, watch for moose and count shooting stars. It’s your chance to savor the last warm days of the season.
And if you are a planner, keep in mind that you can reserve a Vermont State Park site 11 months ahead. So if you really want that primo waterfront site for next August, reserve now.
Grout Pond, Green Mountain National Forest (south)
One of Vermont’s wildest areas lies in the 200,000-acre section of Green Mountain National Forest between Bennington and Stratton. The mountains rise up and then flatten to what feels almost like an alpine plateau. Here you’ll find Vermont’s largest wild lake (meaning, a lake that doesn’t cross state borders and has no development along its shores), Somerset Reservoir.
The five-mile long reservoir is both a paddler’s and a hiker’s dream, with more than 12 islands to explore, 16 miles of shoreline and miles of trails spiderwebbing out from it. There’s a 10 mph speed limit on the water so boat traffic is limited. The one downside: camping is not permitted here. But just a short hike away, it is at Grout Pond Recreation Area.
Don’t let the name fool you: at 86 acres, Grout Pond feels more like a small lake, and there’s no sign of grout anywhere. It isn’t the most secret spot in southern Vermont, but as the air turns crisp, the summer crowds disperse and come sunset, the day hikers head home. If you time it right, you can snag one of the hike-to (or paddle-to) shoreside campsites and settle in for the night.
“We sort of found it by accident looking at a map one day,” says Caleb Kenna, a professional photographer from Brandon who has canoed many of Vermont’s waterways, including the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. “It’s this little gem that not too many people seem to know about and it was easy to paddle to a secluded campsite.”
Near the host cabin there are 6 drive-up campsites, a day-use area and toilets as well as drinking water. But don’t stop there. If you follow the relatively flat Pond Loop trail (or have a canoe or SUP), you’ll find 11 more campsites on the northeastern shore of the pond with fire rings and picnic tables and views toward Stratton Mountain.
Grout is not a deep pond—30 feet is the maximum depth—and one end of the pond is shallow and marshy (and it can be buggy in the spring and summer) but the park entrance end has an area that’s good for swimming. fs.usda.gov/main/gmfl/home
Day Hikes & Bikes: From the Grout Pond campsites, hike the West Trail (2.8 miles) over to Somerset Reservoir or take the East Trail (3.8 miles), which passes another smaller pond to the northeast. The terrain is mostly flat here and many of the trails can be biked. The sites are open year-round, are first-come, first serve and there’s a donation box at the entrance. Visit: fs.usda.gov and search for “Grout Pond.”
Chittenden Reservoir, Green Mountain National Forest
Holly Knox spends a lot of time in the woods—that’s part of her job as Recreation Program Manager for the Rochester and Middlebury Ranger Districts in the Green Mountain National Forest. But when the weekend comes along, she’s still ready to head off camping with her family. When we asked for her favorite campsites she hesitated. “Really? Give up my secrets?” she asked with a laugh. But she gave in.
Chittenden Reservoir is where she and her husband Ryan and two daughters head for a quiet on-the-water campsite. The 702-acre body of water is tucked high in the mountains and other than the Mountain Top Inn, which sits up on the hillside looking down on the reservoir, there’s no development or sign of civilization. At dawn, it’s not uncommon to see moose wandering down to drink at the lake and at night loons call across the water.
While the waters get busy with paddlers and fishermen during the day, by evening you can glide off to one of the more remote campsites that are tucked just back (200 feet, by regulation) from the lake and feel like you have the place to yourself. “The campsites are unimproved (meaning no one technically maintains them) but campers have carved out spots around the lake and in some places, created some really cool stonework with firepits and even stone couches and tables,” says Knox. “The lake has so many nooks and crannies, you rarely see another campsite from yours.”
The camping is all primitive and Knox asks that you bury all human waste and consider “adopting” a site to help maintain it. There are no reservations (get there early to improve your chances of a site) and no fees. fs.usda.gov/main/gmfl/home.
Day Hikes & Bikes: From the trailhead at Lefferts Pond, the 4.9 mile Round Robin trail is an easy, low-elevation trail around the Reservoir that joins mountain bike trails and heads up to the Mountain Top Inn for a 10-mile loop. Halfway around the east side of the reservoir, you leave Round Robin on the North Pond Cutoff for a short hike up to the Long Trail and views west of the reservoir and mountains. If you want to extend the hike, head south on the Long Trail which traverses the western ridge.
Silver Lake, Moosalamoo National Recreation Area
Another of Holly Knox’s favorite sites is Silver Lake. It’s hard to say what’s prettier, the hike there or the quiet lake itself, which sits tucked into the western flanks of the Greens in the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area, just above Lake Dunmore. There are two accesses. From Forest Lake Rd. you can take Silver Lake Rd. to a parking area that’s just a short (0.6 mile) downhill hike on the Goshen Trail to the lake. But for a waterfall hike, park just south of Branbury State Park on Route 53 and hike about a mile and a half up the forest road past the plunging 100-foot-tall Falls of Lana. Either way, the reward is a pristine lake with more than a dozen dispersed campsites on the eastern shores. Set up camp on a rocky outcropping beneath the pines and you’ll get the last rays of western light. The lake is stocked with trout and you might catch an eagle diving or one of the resident peregrine falcons circling overhead.
Silver Lake has a seasonal campground manager and enclosed vault toilets but no drinking water, trash or other facilities, so come prepared. On weekends, get ready for foot traffic along the trail, but the sites themselves are rarely all taken, are free and it’s first-come, first serve. moosalamoo.org
Day Hikes & Bikes: The Chandler Ridge trail runs along the western ridge above Silver Lake and has spectacular views west to Lake Dunmore and across to the Adirondacks. It’s maintained as a challenging mountain bike trail and connects to the Leicester Hollow Trail for a 10.8-mile loop. For one of the best foliage hikes in the state, head north of the campground to the Rattlesnake Cliffs trail. From the cliffs themselves you can look south and west at Lake Dunmore and will have views to the Adirondacks.
Ketttle & Osmore Ponds, Groton State Forest
There are plenty of lakes and plenty of campsites in Groton State Forest, which is home to seven state parks. But if you want to get away from the crowds and RVs, skip Lake Groton and Ricker Pond and head to one of the ponds with remote campsites. You can drive up to Kettle Pond’s eastern end, where there’s a boat launch (for campers only) and 26 lean-to sites set in groups of five with toilets nearby. While these are nice, the money spots—if you can score reservations, which you should try for now at vtstateparks.com—are the six remote campsites with lean-tos and stone fireplaces and the one, #10, that’s a simple campsite with picnic tables and a fire ring. And if you’re really lucky, get the lean-to at site #12 and you’ll have the whole south shore to yourself.
You pay one fee to use any of the seven parks in Groton State forest and from Kettle it’s a five mile hike (or an easy bike along an old Wells to Montpelier rail trail or the access road) to the south end of Groton Pond and Ricker Pond.
Just east of Kettle, Osmore Pond (accessible via Discovery State Park) is just 48 acres. Motorized boats are banned on the pond and the four lean-tos and three tent sites are only accessible by hiking or paddling. You can event rent a canoe at Little Discovery State Park as part of a $60 Boat to Remote package that includes the $25 lean to fee and the $35 canoe rental. “If you pick a weeknight—or even a non-holiday weekend, there’s a good chance you’ll have the pond to yourself. It’s one of the quietest of all the state parks,” says Rochelle Skinner, Vermont Sark’s sales and service manager. Both sites require reservations by phone. vtstateparks.com or call 1-888-409-7579.
Day Hikes & Bikes: It would be easy to spend a week in Groton State Forest exploring its trails, but if you have just one fall weekend, don’t miss the easy, 3.2-mile trek up to Owl’s Head from Osmore Pond (or a longer loop from Kettle). The views from the lookout at the top of the knoll in foliage season are the type that make calendars: rolling hills, a pond set among flaming leaves and farmland off in the distance. The Cross-Vermont Trail runs through Groton State Forest here as well, and you can bike for miles on the old Montpelier Rail Trail, all the way to Marshfield.
Molly’s Falls Pond State Park, Marshfield
Just 14 miles northwest of Barre, at the northern end of the Groton State Forest, sits Molly’s Falls Pond State Park. It’s a park you probably never heard of. That may be because it’s new. On Oct. 30, 2015, the Vermont Land Trust sold 1,029 acres to the state of Vermont and at the center of those is a gem of a reservoir, Molly’s Falls Pond. The park is bordered by Route 2 and dammed on one end, but most of it (more than 35,000 feet) is undeveloped shoreline.
It’s a great pond for fishing and swimming with a boat launch near the dam end and plenty of drive-to campsites along old Route 2. But the sweet spots on the lake are remote campsites 4, 5, 6, and 7 which let you hunker down on rocky fingers at the far end of the lake. Campsite 5 even sits on a small island. The remote campsites are free and first-come, first serve. vtstateparks.com
Waterbury Reservoir, Little River State Park
At the south end of Waterbury Reservoir, Little River State Park has become a virtual playground for just about any sport you can imagine. Just off the park, there’s a waterski course. Nearby, Umiak Outfitters in Stowe rents canoes, SUPS and other craft. There’s even an occasional (and rather fascinating) guided tour of the dam that was put in place in the 1930s. The reservoir, 860 acres and 100 feet deep in places, has great fishing and there’s a growing network of mountain bike trails, including a new 4.5 mile “flow” trail built by Sinuosity in late 2016.
You can, of course, stay at one of the 81 tent and RV sites right at the park, or go luxe and rent one of five timber-frame cabins. There are even coin-operated hot showers.
But if you want to get away from it all, paddle north to one of the 27 remote campsites that dot the reservoirs’ finger-like points and wooded shores. It’s first-come, first-serve, carry-in/carry-out and there are no facilities. But the water is clear and often deep and the Green Mountains rise steeply above. The sites themselves are fairly dispersed so you will have a feeling you are on your own. Midway north, the no-wake zone starts and if you can score campsite 11 or 17, you’ll have privacy and broad views across the water.
The reservoir winds through the mountains, filling a valley that was once home to farms and a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Old stone foundations, chimneys and ancient apple trees still mark the presence of an earlier time, but the hillsides that slope steeply down to the water are completely undeveloped, giving a sense of wilderness.
Little River State Park is open May 19-Oct. 22; remote campsites are free and first-come, first served. vtstateparks.com
Day Hikes & Bikes: The remote campsites are all paddle-to, but with some bushwhacking you can rejoin a trail on the western shore. Otherwise, head for Little River State Park where you can connect to a network of trails. Feeling adventurous, you can take the Dalley Loop trail to Ricker Farm Trail and connect to the Cottonbrook Trail (an old logging road) which spills out in Stowe. It’s not a difficult hike but about 8 miles one way and largely in the woods.
Green River Reservoir State Park, Morrisville
With 27 remote campsites that are only accessible to paddlers, a no-motors policy, island campsites and 19 miles of undeveloped shoreline, Green River Reservoir was long the best-kept secret campsite in the state. Word got out and now it’s tough to get a campsite reservation on the Vermont State Parks site—and it is definitely reservation-only as the long access road has limited parking and a ranger on-site keeps close tabs.
However, t is possible to get reservations if there is a last-minute cancellation, and you can also apply for a post-season permit. Score a site and you’ll be rewarded with one of the more serene camping experiences in Vermont
Green River doesn’t feature the mountain views you might get from Kettle Pond or Silver Lake, but it’s squiggly, rocky coastline is dotted with a variety of hardwoods that put on a crazy-quilt show of color come fall. Beaver may wake you with their slapping tails and loons and geese are often your only neighbors. You will need to bring your own boat or SUP and with no real hiking trails, limited parking and a no-day-use policy, Green River isn’t your typical state park. But that’s why we love it.
Green River Reservoir is open May 19-Columbus Day, but after Nov. 1 you can camp with a permit. vtstateparks.com or call 1.888.409.7579. Fees are $5 per person.
Featured photo by Brooks Curran