Published on July 1st, 2012 | by Andy Howard
Set in Stone | Into the Backcountry July 2012
Millstone Hill, near Barre, at the geographic heart of the Green Mountains, is the embodiment of Vermont’s stern and ingenious spirit, and it is among Vermont’s premier mountain biking destinations. While there’s a lot of rock to be found, you probably won’t need your climbing harness. However, you will need to bring a heaping helping of true grit.
Raised in the Northeast Kingdom, I grew up with a reality of Vermont much different than the brochure image captured in places like Stowe and Woodstock. For those who watched the sitcom Newhart, I grew up identifying more closely with Larry, Darryl, and Darryl than with the Loudons. That is to say, my shirts were flannel, not merino wool.
There’s no town that better embodies the hardscrabble, flannel-wearing side of Vermont than Barre. And while I think that Vermont offers a mutually beneficial coexistence for this tribe and the sweater-wearing elites, it isn’t always a lovefest. It especially wasn’t in high school.
I went to St. Johnsbury Academy, a quasi-private high school, with a good number of students from well-to-do families around the world. Growing up, our hardest fought games were always against Spaulding High in Barre. Always. We were the tie-and-sweater-wearing, prep-school elitists, and they gave us hell for it. In turn, we felt we had something to prove. Most of us grew up in the Northeast Kingdom and felt the need to show the folks from Barre that we were also Vermont tough.
These themes continue to resonate for me as I compare the two areas’ mountain biking trails. Kingdom Trails, not far from St. Johnsbury, consists of mostly smooth cross-country single-track. The tame, bucolic pastures, sugar glens, and picturesque bed-and-breakfasts are magazine-caliber Vermont. Although it is a world-class destination, it is missing a wilder, less manicured side of Vermont—the grit.
Carved out of the granite hillsides, Millstone is a more raw experience. It incorporates abundant stone to create drops, jumps, and other technical challenges. There are no-fall lines mixed in with difficult bedrock spines and bridges. As a result, the trails are less of the buttery smooth single-track common in the Kingdom, and more like what the name “Millstone” implies: roughly hewn and coarse. An afternoon of riding will churn, grate, and wear at you. However, much like the stone from the surrounding quarries, all of this milling will ultimately transform you into a tougher, more polished rider.
While trails like Z Screaming Demon and Roller Coaster will keep smiles on the freeriders’ faces, the vast majority of trails are designed for cross-country bikers. Indeed, even the novice biker has plenty to explore.
Perhaps even more than the variety of the trails available, my favorite thing about Millstone is the impossible genius of its existence. The locals have pulled off an amazing magic trick of Yankee ingenuity: they’ve turned what was an industrial wasteland into a scenic park where you can go to experience nature and enjoy the outdoors. In true Vermont fashion, Millstone takes the discarded remnants and empty husks of the granite industry, and gives them new life. And while you can’t quite put it on a postcard, this resourcefulness is just as much Vermont’s hallmark as a covered bridge or a brilliantly colored hillside.