RIPTON/GOSHEN — Tucked in a 16,000-acre pocket of Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest on the edge of population centers, yet surprisingly remote, are more than 37 miles of designated point-to-point mountain biking trails through the heart of the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area.
Three years ago, Patrick Kell, then executive director of Vermont Mountain Biking Association (VMBA), led a $150,000 effort, fueled by manual labor from the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, to build a 10-mile single-track scenic loop that starts at Silver Lake (1.6 miles up a logging road), climbs the Chandler Ridge overlooking Lake Dunmore, and rides that ridge for 3.5 miles of beautiful, undulating terrain before dropping through rocky hillsides and onto the botanically diverse Leicester Hollow trail, which climbs a gentle 3 miles back to Silver Lake.
Since then, maps of available mountain biking in the region have been helping savvy bikers discover the charms of the region, which are as diverse, if not more so, than any mountain biking region of the state.
This summer, crews are working on a 7.6-mile section of the Oak Ridge Trail, off of Route 125 (which goes over Middlebury Gap) to Mount Moosalamoo, which, when completed this year, will connect a loose system of mountain biking trails that span the Moosalamoo NRA from Route 125 to Route 73 (the road over Brandon Gap). Seven miles in, Blueberry Hill Inn sits in the heart of a lot of riding, hiking, birding and camping — a respite in what is otherwise a fairly uninhabited area.
“It’s kind of like this beautiful, mini-habitat with this great trail system,” says Bruce Acciavatti, current president of the Moosalamoo Association that oversees the Moosalamoo NRA. “You’ve got a lot of great habitats around the state, but you don’t have as extensive a trail system with as many great viewpoints at this elevation level anywhere in Vermont. The views of the Adirondacks from Rattlesnake Cliff are fantastic.”
Tony Clark, long-time owner of Blueberry Hill Inn and a Nordic skier who still runs the Blueberry Hill Touring Center throughout the winter, said the area offers almost everything to everyone of an outdoor bent.
“Every component of outdoor recreation is available to the general public,” Clark said, referring to Moosalamoo region.
And that’s not far off the mark.
The region is named after 2,643-foot Mount Moosalamoo that overlooks Lake Dunmore and sits within the Breadloaf Wilderness Area (the largest wilderness in the state) that spans an additional 25,237 acres aong the spine of the Green Mountains from roughly Route 4 (Killington) to Sugarbush’s Mount Ellen.
Within the Moosalamoo NRA are numerous popular features:
• The Robert Frost Interpretive Trail lies at its north end, off of which there are more trails for skiing and hiking.
• The Catamount Trail runs through Moosalamoo NRA and the Breadloaf Wildernes area.
• Silver Lake and the Sugar Hill Reservoir nestle into the hillsides, as does the Moosalamoo Campground. More camping is just to the west at Branbury State Park on Lake Dunmore.
• VAST maintains snowmobile trails in the area, and hunting, fishing and bird watching are plentiful.
• Clark’s Blueberry Hill Inn offers Nordic and backcountry skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer, and there is access to public blueberry picking in the summer. It’s also one of the few businesses located within the NRA.
Acciavatti, a Bristol resident, said he has come to appreciate Moosalamoo for the diversity of its wildlife and plant life. He said his clients report everything from families of owls to bears, porcupines to beaver, eagles to peregrine falcons, and he has seen plenty on his own, including fisher cats, loons, hooded mergansers and rare flowers.
“Every time you go out you see something different. I was just doing the Moosalamoo Trail the other day and I was coming down and I saw the most incredible purple-fringed orchid, about that high,” he said. “I’d only seen three of them in my life, and there were two of them growing next to each other.”
And then there’s the biking.
Chas Lyons, vice president of the Middlebury Bike Club and someone who, like Clark and Acciavatti, has spent plenty of time working on Moosalamoo trails, said the work on the Chandler Ridge and Leicester Hollow trails has paid off big time for mountain bikers.
“The Moosalamoo improvements were vast. The improvements were largely to the Leicester Hollow Trail, which was literally washed away (in the 2011 flooding), so they had to recreate a lot of that,” Lyons said. “They also brought some of the steeper sections (of the Chandler Ridge Trail) to more current standards… I like the way the old trail rode, but as far as longevity and access for more abilities, the improvements were great, the switchbacks, defining the trail and stuff like that…. It’s still plenty tough.”
On a scale of 10, Lyons and others say, the difficulty is about a 7, with some sections tougher for the moderately skilled biker, while other stretches are a pure joy to ride, like along the ridgeline of Chandler Ridge. The Oak Ridge Trail will also be moderately difficult at about the same skill level, says Lyons, noting that it is pretty much a 7.6-mile uphill climb before descending down trails that lead into the Moosalamoo Campground area and onto a system of trails that take you in a roundabout fashion to the Blueberry Hill Inn trails and on isolated forest service roads or single-track back to Silver Lake.
Not all hiking trails within the Moosalamoo are open to mountain biking (too steep and rocky with multiple stream crossings more suitable for hiking), so visitors are asked to know the trails before setting out. Online maps delineate hiking and mountain biking trails throughout the area and can be found at www.Moosalamoo.org.
HISTORY OF THE NRA
The area remains relatively unknown partly because it hasn’t been a National Recreation Area (one of only two in Vermont) for that long.
Ten years ago the Moosalamoo Association Inc. was named a finalist for a Conservation International/National Geographic Traveler World Legacy Award for its efforts to preserve and promote the Moosalamoo region. It ranked second out of the top ten for its designation, being bested only by the Serengeti wilderness of Tanzania.
Two years later the federal New England Wilderness Act designated the Moosalamoo region as a National Recreation Area, one of only two in Vermont.
The effect of those twin recognitions has been felt since then in the 15,875 acres of Green Mountain National Forest, mostly in southeastern Addison County, which are bordered to the north by Route 125 and the south by Route 73.
In that decade a partnership that includes the Moosalamoo Association; other nonprofits such as the Middlebury Bike Club, the Catamount Trail Association, Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) and the Vermont Mountain Biking Association; business interests; Camp Keewaydin; the Youth Conservation Corps; many local volunteers; and the U.S. Forest Service has continued to work hard to upgrade trails and improve mapping and signs.
The National Recreation Area designation, in particular, for a time helped obtain federal funds to support those efforts, which have paid off in a significant increase in mountain biker visitation after some targeted trail work.
“It’s a recreational jewel that attracts people to the area,” Clark said, adding that while the facilities do attract people to the area, it falls far short of its potential and the area is in danger of not keeping up with trail maintenance and upkeep because of a dearth of funding from the National Forest Service. Since congressional earmarks have been cut out of the congressional equation, funding for remote areas such as this have struggled to establish a constituency to help fund the necessary work.
The public expects the federal government to pay the bills, Clark says, but notes the Forest Service is doing all it can with limited funds as well and adds that “you can’t expect the forest service to finance every need within its scope — it’s too big and their budgets have been cut as well.”
At the same time, Clark has not given up hope on state and federal government funding. He noted Rep. Peter Welch’s recent visit to Middlebury to support the North Country Trail that goes into the Moosalamoo NRA and hooks up with the Long Trail and eventually the Appalachian Trail.
“We need to be much more pro-active with our delegation in Washington, just to get something stirred up a little bit,” he said.
In the meantime, four things stand out to make the Moosalamoo NRA a mountain biking Mecca for those who want to experience mountain biking in a more natural state:
• Its scenery is spectacular and varied;
• Its point-to-point mountain biking trails are among the longest, consistent trails in Vermont (and there are no fees);
• Camping and fishing are plentiful within the NRA (as well as fine dining and lodging at Blueberry Hill Inn and other inns in Ripton, Middlebury and nearby Brandon);
• Compared to fee-areas or other more popular mountain biking areas in the state, there are few people on the trails outside of the immediate campground areas.
That combination makes the Moosalamoo NRA an ideal spot for a long-weekend trip (even better to take a couple days midweek) to load up your bikes and camping gear, head to Silver Lake campgrounds or the Moosalamoo Campground (accessible by car); and spend three or four days exploring this jewel of an area for mountain biking.
As Acciavatti says: “You can go out there and hike all day long and never see a soul. That’s a great experience, but we want more people to learn about the area and discover its beauty and attributes. There’s a lot out there.”