Weekend Away: At Play In Burke

Burke is one small town in Vermont’s wild Northeast Kingdom that knows how to play hard. On any given summer or fall day, you’ll see cars packed with mountain bikes, camping gear, and kayaks hustling along the dirt roads, bound for miles of singletrack riding, deep clear lakes, and a new state park. If you’re feeling lost, just follow the bike rack in front of you. Home to the expanding Burke Resort where generations of ski racers including current World Cup slalom champ Mikaela Shiffrin, cut their teeth, Burke Mountain stands out in greeting. Neighboring hillsides yield views to Lake Willoughby and as far north as Jay Peak. While it’s just one corner of the Kingdom, Burke is a great starting point or destination for a weekend of adventure.

Ride the Kingdom

The Kingdom Trails, a system of more than 100 miles of singletrack and dirt trails criss-crossing open meadows, forests and hillsides, has put Burke on the map as a top destination for mountain biking in the United States. Since 1994, a volunteer staff has created and maintained a network of 70 trails, many of which remain open year-round to cross-country skiers, snow-shoers and fat-bikers, thanks to agreements with 50 private land owners. You’ll find everything from gentle, wide trails for beginners to tight and technical singletrack for experts. For the $15 cost of a day pass or a $75 year membership, you get access to all of it. Stop by the Welcome Center behind the Northeast Kingdom Country Store (also a good spot for a sandwich) for passes and parking, then dive into an expansive network of trails that stretches from the Summit of Burke to Darling Hill near Route 5.

“What’s great about the trail network is how family friendly it’s become,” says Kingdom Trails president Tim Tierney. “When you go out on the trails, you’re not just seeing groups of riders, you’re seeing whole families.” Families with younger riders can enjoy grassy fields on the Bemis trail (a novice green circle), while more advanced riders can test their skills on the slingshot-like double black diamond Sidewinder.

If you need to rent a bike, or fix up your old one, swing by local outfitters East Burke Sports, Village Sport Shop in Lyndonville, The Village Bike Shop in Derby, or Littleton Bike & Fitness in Littleton, N.H.

Hike Burke

Home to Burke Resort, the 3,267-foot Burke Mountain dominates the skyline. The resort’s slopes are packed with downhill bikers, but you can reach the summit by way of the Red Trail, linking to the West Peak Trail for a six-mile (round trip) hike with 2,100 feet elevation gain. The summit’s east-facing vista rewards hikers with views of New Hampshire’s Pilot-Piney Range, Franconia-Kinsman Range and the Presidential range. To the north, the pointed summit of Jay Peak is visible and the Adirondacks in New York can be seen to the west. Exploring the base area of Burke, you’ll also be able to see the new 116-room Burke Mountain Hotel and Conference Center, which opened in September 2016.

Explore Lake Willoughby

Just ten miles from the center of Burke, Lake Willoughby with its steep shores and deep, clear-as-glass waters qualifies as one of the most breathtaking bodies of water in New England. Mount Hor and Pisgah rise from the western and eastern shorelines and tower over the fjord-like lake. Western Mount Hor is a roughly three-mile roundtrip hike to a series of lookouts at an elevation of 2,654 feet. Opposite facing Mount Pisgah is 2,785 feet tall, reached by a longer 6.9-mile trail. Both have grand views of Lake Willoughby with open fields in the foreground contrasting with the sheer cliffs of the opposite mountains. These day hikes and can be done together for a longer outing, or connect to other trails that make up the 7,682-acre Willoughby State Forest. You can also check out Vermont’s newest state park, the 356-acre Sentinel State Park. A recent gift to the park from its landowners, Sentinel surrounds a giant, 13,000-year-old boulder (and popular picnic spot) that overlooks Lake Willoughby near the top of Hinton Hill Road in Westmore. When you’re finished hiking, take a dip at the public beaches at the north or south end of the lake. Both have restrooms and excellent fishing, boating, kayaking and canoeing.

Hide out in a cabin

The Northeast Kingdom is full of campsites and cabins perfect for a summer hideout. Brighton State Park, located 25 minutes up route 5A has everything you’ll need to make yourself comfortably camped. Head to www.vtstateparks.com to reserve a cabin, lean-to or campsite with views of Spectacle Pond. For easy access to the trails and the rest of the Burke Area, the rustic Wildflower Inn is just across the road from Kingdom Trails’s Darling Hill Center. It’s family friendly (pets are welcome too) and innkeepers Jim and Mary O’Reilly can give directions to wherever you’re headed next. On Lake Willoughby, Carol Ann’s Rentals offer weekly cottage rentals for two to ten people ($500 to $2,350 per week) while the Willoughvalle Inn and Cottages offers a three-suite and seven-room inn and eight cottages along the lake ($109 – $369). Or if you’d prefer to rough it, hike to a primitive campsite in the Willoughby State Forest.

Eating Out

PHOTO BY HERB SWANSON-Burke is a small town to be sure, but there’s plenty of good eats to be found. For finer dining fare, head to Juniper’s Restaurant at the Wildflower Inn, which features weekly specials made with ingredients produced by local farmers. Pick up lunch from the Northeast Kingdom Country Store or the recently opened Libby’s Meat Market, offering high-quality beef, pork, chicken and seafood. At the mountain, stop by the Tamarack Pub & Grill after a day of downhill biking for a pint and a sandwich. For the party, head to Mike’s Tiki Bar, located in the Burke Village, Vermont’s first outdoor tiki bar complete with faux palm fronds and at least 27 beers on tap including local brewery Covered Bridge from down the road in Lyndonville. Pair the big hop-forward Lumbersexual session IPA or the wood-smoked malts of the La Cabane À Sucre porter with delicious burgers, flatbreads and burritos from the Vermont Food Truck Company. It’s the locals’ favorite spot to end a day of riding or start a Saturday night.

Photo courtesy Herb Swanson

Updated September 2018.

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson is the staff writer for Vermont Sports Magazine. The native Vermonter enjoys steep and deep skiing and wandering all over the state by Subaru. Find him on Twitter at @evanisathome.