This summer, there’s a whole new trail system to explore in the Northeast Kingdom for hikers, runners and birders.
As of June 22, the Kingdom Heritage Trail System, a 20-mile network of foot trails through the 132,000-acre former Champion International Paper company timberlands near Island Pond, is open to the public.
The trails connect existing paths on Bluff Island in Island Pond, Gore Mountain in Avery’s Gore and the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge in Brunswick via a backcountry route that passes through remote and rugged forestland in northern Essex County. The footpaths take hikers to some of the most stunning parts of the Nulhegan Basin, through working timberlands, pristine forests and natural bogs.
It’s not every day that the Green Mountain Club establishes a new trail system. This project is the result of 20 years of visioning and volunteer work on the part of locals and trail organizations.
In many ways, the trail’s story starts in 1998, when the Champion International Paper company announced plans to sell 132,000 acres of land in the Northeast Kingdom. Through much negotiation and some complex partnerships, that land was divided into three parcels. One went to the State of Vermont and became the 22,971-acre West Mountain Wildlife Management Area, which today extends into the towns of Brunswick, Ferdinand and Maidstone. Another, at more than 36,000 acres, was acquired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and became the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge. The third remained in private hands and is still managed today as a working forest where public recreational use is permitted through a public access easement. Collectively, they are known as the former Champion timberlands.
Then, in 2001, the Green Mountain Club submitted a Hiking Trail Corridor Management Plan for the former Champion timberlands that envisioned a network of foot trails connecting existing infrastructure. Trail work on the project began in July, 2011 and was finally completed in May, 2019. The final product offers an unprecedented opportunity to explore the wilds of the Nulhegan Basin in a part of the state with few roads—or cars.
The Green Mountain Club, NorthWoods Stewardship Center and Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation led the effort, in collaboration with Weyerhaeuser Timber, Sweet Tree LLC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Town of Brighton, Vermont Land Trust, LandVest and a lot of local volunteers.
More than 120 Northeast Kingdom students participated in trail construction through the Northwoods Stewardship Center and dozens of local volunteers from the Northeast Kingdom Section of the Green Mountain Club contributed time and expertise. In particular, past Green Mountain Club president Jean Haigh and G.M.C. Northeast Kingdom Section member and past NorthWoods Stewardship Center director Luke O’Brien were visionaries who saw the project from start to finish over the last 20 years. For more information about recommended trips and maps, visit greenmountainclub.org.