Animal tracks under fallen leaves. The solitude of a clear mountain tarn. A jaw-dropping view. If you yearn for the beauty of the backcountry, but are not up for an epic day on the trail, there are many short hikes in Vermont that offer gentle backcountry adventure with a big reward at the apex.
Here are five hikes that offer big rewards for two miles or less of walking one-way.
1. MOUNT OLGA
Molly Stark State Park, Wilmington
Round trip: 1.7 miles
Highest Elevation: 2,145 feet
Elevation gain: 520 feet
Directions: From Wilmington, head east on Route 9 for about 4 miles. The entrance to the state park is on the south side of the road.
Mount Olga is in Molly Stark State Park. The woman for whom the mountain is named is unknown, but Molly Stark was the wife of the legendary John Stark, a brigadier general in the New Hampshire militia (which included Vermonters), who led the Colonial troops at the Battle of Bennington in 1777.
The hike is an easy loop but with a big payoff — a fire tower with a 360-degree view of southern Vermont and northern Massachusetts.
The trail leaves the picnic area from the right side of the ranger cabin on the Mount Olga Trail (blue blazes) and climbs gently. Along the way, you pass a tree that was struck by lightning in 2003 and delaminated, with strips of its trunk arcing over the trail.
At 0.7 mile, the trail comes to a “T.” Bear left, climbing over a stretch of slab and passing three rundown cabins. The fire tower is just ahead next to a lower communications tower.
The current steel tower, registered as a National Historic Lookout, was moved to Mount Olga from nearby Bald Mountain in 1949 and remained in active service until the 1970s.
2. PLEIAD LAKE
Round trip: 0.8 mile
Highest Elevation: 2,150 feet
Elevation gain: 150 feet
Directions: Take Route 125 to the top of Middlebury Gap (just east of the Middlebury Snowbowl). Follow the Long Trail south.
The Pleiad Lake hike is inverted; you hike down first. On a shoulder of Worth Mountain, Pleiad, a pond really, is one of the highest lakes in Vermont. A mere 0.4 mile from Route 125, it is surprisingly little known.
From the trailhead, take the Long Trail south (white blazes) up a short rise, past a sign-in box to one of the Snowbowl ski trails. Bear left up the trail, angling toward the top of the chairlift, where you can get a view of the Adirondacks on a clear day.
From the lift terminal, the trail re-enters the woods. It descends old log steps, then continues through the woods to another ski trail. At about 0.3 mile, the trail comes to a fork. Bear right, leaving the Long Trail on a short spur to Pleiad Lake. After crossing a third ski trail, the trail comes to the edge of the lake. A loosely defined footpath skirts its right side, past a broad rock that makes a perfect picnic spot.
3. MOUNT ELMORE
Elmore State Park, Elmore
Round trip: 2.4 miles (fire tower only), 3.4 miles (fire tower and Balanced Rock).
Highest Elevation: 2,608 feet
Elevation gain: 1,450 feet
Directions: Take Route 12 to Elmore State Park. From the tollbooth, continue straight ahead to the trailhead parking lot. Take the Fire Tower Trail, not the Nature Trail.
Mount Elmore is a favorite among local hikers because of the view from its fire tower. With the Lake Elmore beach at the base, it is a perfect destination on a summer day.
From the parking area, the trail heads uphill on a fire road. At 0.5 mile, at the end of the fire road, it takes a sharp right onto the Mount Elmore Trail (blue blazes). At 1.0 mile, the trail reaches a lookout on the left, the site of the old fire watcher’s cabin. The view to the east over Lake Elmore stretches as far as Mount Washington. If hiking with young children or old dogs, this is good place to have a picnic and turn around.
From here the trail becomes rougher and steeper until you reach a “T.” Turn left to reach the fire tower, which affords phenomenal views.
For an interesting side trip, return to the “T” and head in the other direction toward Balanced Rock, a boulder about 20 feet long and 6 feet high, perched at an angle on a rock outcropping. It's worth the extra half mile to see this giant rock appear to defy gravity.
4. MOUNT INDEPENDENCE
Round trip: 2.9 miles
Highest Elevation: 306 feet
Elevation Gain: 200 feet
Directions: From Orwell, take Route 73 west. Bear left onto Mount Independence Road and follow it up a steep hill to the Visitor’s Center. The trailhead is above the Visitor Center.
Mount Independence is a state historic site, named by the soldiers who were stationed there in 1776 when they received word of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is not a mountain but a rocky bluff at the end of a peninsula on Lake Champlain across from Fort Ticonderoga. To hike through this active archeological site is to step back in time, as you try to imagine what life must have been like for its defenders during the Revolutionary War.
Mount Independence has four hiking trails, designated by color and ranging from 0.6 mile to 2.5 miles. By making a loop from the Blue Trail to the Orange Trail, you can pass most of the landmarks and enjoy views across the lake from several angles.
From the Visitor Center, bear right up the mowed lawn that once traversed a treeless military camp. Today, it is a picnic area surrounded by dense forest and wildflowers. After passing a flagpole that flies a colonial flag, turn left following the Blue Trail into the woods. The trail immediately clears the trees again onto a lawnlike path, the former site of the general hospital, and then re-enters the woods on a dirt road.
The road descends through mixed hardwoods, dropping steadily to a split log bridge. Soon, the trail flattens out, paralleling the shoreline. From here, the trail passes numerous fields, each the former location of a military facility.
At 2.2 miles, the Blue Trail ends at the Orange Trail at the end of the peninsula. Bear left to a rocky perch and the first clear view across the lake. A little farther, a broad rock slab marks the site where a floating bridge once connected Mount Independence with Fort Ticonderoga.
From here, the Orange Trail heads inland and climbs to the old Horseshoe Battery and a panoramic view of the lake to the north. A bit farther, the trail crosses another clearing, the highest point on Mount Independence. Though viewless, it is interesting because it was once shaped like an eight-pointed star. From here, it is an easy stroll down a wide grassy road back to the Visitor Center.
A new trail meeting the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act will open this summer.
5. MOUNT PHILO
Round trip: 2.0 miles
Highest Elevation: 968 feet
Elevation gain: 650 feet
Directions: From the junction of Route 7 and Ferry Road in Charlotte, go south on Route 7 for three miles to State Park Road, which ends at the parking area and ranger booth at the entrance to Mount Philo State Park.
Mount Philo is the centerpiece of Mount Philo State Park, Vermont’s oldest state park. It is a midget of a mountain, but it towers over the middle of the Champlain Valley, offering exceptional views of the lake and the Adirondacks beyond. It’s also known for its wildflowers.
The Mount Philo Trail (blue blazes) enters the woods on the left of the park road to the summit. There are many maples in the hardwood mix, and they make this hike a local favorite during fall foliage season.
The trail climbs steadily to House Rock, a large boulder that is hollowed out underneath. After a short traverse to the northeast, the trail squeezes between a tree and a large rock, then continues its ascent. At 0.5 mile, the trail reaches an intersection where a narrow, rocky spur exits right to Devil’s Chair, an enormous boulder that hangs on the hillside. The intersection is notable for the cleft in the rock that is fun to squeeze inside.
At about 0.8 mile, the pitch eases and the trail passes a perch and the first clear view. From here, the summit ledges and picnic area are a short, steep climb.
Lisa Densmore is the author of Best Hikes with Dogs: New Hampshire and Vermont (The Mountaineers Books). She lives in Hanover, New Hampshire.