2. Brighton/Island Pond: The Wild, Wild Northeast
The village of Island Pond was once a bustling railway stop with 16 tracks, the historic midway point between Portland, Me. and Montreal. Now, the hum of engines you might hear in winter is from snowmobiles as the area bills itself as the snowmobiling and hunting capital of Vermont.
With more than 125 miles of groomed VAST trails, it’s a reputation that’s well deserved. The trails, maintained by the Brighton Snowmobile Club, fan across miles of undeveloped land in the most northeastern corner of the state, a place that has few roads and fewer towns.
But there is a lot more going on here in terms of outdoor recreation. Brighton/Island Pond is also the jumping off point for exploring the Nulhegan Basin section of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge—more than 26,600 acres of forest interspersed with wetlands, peatlands and shrub swamps, lined by three of the four tributaries of the Nulhegan River. Hunting is permitted in several sections of the refuge and it’s not uncommon to come across moose, bear, deer, fisher, coyote, grouse and snowshoe hare. The refuge is also an important stopover for migratory birds in the spring and fall.
From the Silvio O. Conte visitor contact station in Brunswick, you can head out on a number of short interpretative trails. This section of the refuge also has 40 miles of gravel roads that are open until mid-December. After that, many become part of the VAST trail network for snow travelers.
In the warmer months, this area has scenic sections of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, connecting from the Clyde to the Connecticut River. In 2017, the Vermont Huts Association built the 14- by 18-foot Nulhegan Confluence Hut on the river, a short walk or ski in from Route 105. The cabin is open year-round, by reservation, and has access to miles of VAST trails for snowmobiling or skiing
Nature lovers should also stop off at the NorthWoods Stewardship Center in East Charleston, just west of Island Pond. A non-profit devoted to conservation and education, the center hosts classes in everything from mountain bike skills to leadership programs to wilderness survival workshops – including one billed as the “Yeti Challenge.”
The Center owns more than 1,500 acres where it does sustainable forestry and habitat management and also hosts a number of “challenges.” The NEK Peak Bagging Challenge is one you can do on your own, scaling the Center’s list of more than 20 peaks in the Kingdom.
And each fall, the Westmore Mountain Challenge sends hikers and runners to the summits of five peaks in a day – including Mt. Hor and Mt. Pisgah – near Lake Willoughby.
If you do all five and finish the route at the NorthWoods center, it’s a full 26.2-mile marathon —and undoubtedly Vermont’s toughest. For something with a little less elevation, the NEK Marathon and Half Marathon are scheduled for May 1, 2021.
From Brighton/Island Pond you can also explore the backcountry ski glades and Nordic trails on Mt. Hor and Bartlett Mountain in Willoughby State Forest. For advanced climbers, Black Mountain, northeast of Brighton/Island Pond has become something of a hot spot and the cliffs on Mt. Hor and Mt. Pisgah have rock and ice climbs with views across Lake Willoughby.
Stay: Locally owned and recently restored, the Essex House and Tavern harkens back to the town’s railway boom with simple, country-chic rooms and a bustling tavern. The recently sold Lakefront Motel (now renamed Island Pond Country Inn) is right off the VAST trail and right on the water. It has efficiency suites and, in summer, dock space. For an adventure, book the Nulhegan Confluence Hut ($80 for the entire hut, via Vermonthuts.org) which has a wood stove.
What the VOREC Grant Will Do: Thanks to a $62,500 grant from VOREC in 2019, and grants from The Northern Forest Center and the NEK Collaborative, Brighton has been improving the Bluff Mountain Trailhead and creating maps to area recreational opportunities and assets, which will be available at the Welcome Center. The town is also installing a public bike repair facility and a dock in Lakeshore Park.
More info: visitislandpond.com
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