Exploring Montpelier’s North Branch Trails

Getting Lost, and Found, on Montpelier’s North Branch Trails

By Chelsea Edgar
Story originally published in Seven Days on 12|29|2020.

Sometimes I’m in the mood for the exact midpoint between hiking and walking, which is rambling. A ramble is a hike without a destination, or a more arduous form of walking. An ideal ramble involves no route planning whatsoever and a moderate probability of getting a little lost.

By this definition, Montpelier’s North Branch Trails are prime rambling territory. The 8.4-mile network, completed in the fall after three years of construction, traverses 195 acres of fields and forests.

I am a worst-case-scenario mongerer at heart; whenever I engage in an outdoor excursion, I like to calculate how far I’d have to run screaming in any direction before I encountered another human being. Given its proximity to downtown Montpelier, the North Branch Trail system scores favorably on the screaming index. So, on a Sunday in early December, a friend and I set out from Burlington to Montpelier with the intention of traipsing aimlessly through the woods.

Rambling requires nutritional fortification, and it just so happens that I am incapable of driving past Exit 9 on Interstate 89 without stopping at Red Hen Baking in Middlesex for a chocolate almond croissant. I was blissfully incapacitated by the croissant I had on this visit; the sandwich I ordered — turkey, pickled zucchini and pimento cheese on chewy, holey bread — also did not disappoint.

Normally, I like to eat at the picnic tables at Camp Meade, the whimsically appointed green space behind Red Hen where one can behold, among other things, a sculpture of a giant pencil. But the windchill factor discouraged al fresco lunching, so I hopped back on I-89 toward Montpelier and the Sparrow Farm Trail, where I hoped to start my North Branch ramble.

I had discovered the Sparrow Farm Trail over the summer, when I interviewed outdoor advocate and Montpelier resident Mirna Valerio. We’d met at an unmarked spot near an open field on North Street, which begins a few blocks from the center of downtown and quickly turns to dirt as it rises toward East Montpelier, with sweet views of Camel’s Hump and the Worcester Range to the west.

I thought I knew exactly where I was going, so I drove and drove, until I reached the verifiable end of where this unmarked trailhead could possibly be and concluded that it had existed only in my imagination. Feeling defeated, I signaled my friend in the car behind me that we should turn around and choose a less Narnia-like spot to begin our journey. This is how we ended up at the Montpelier Recreation Field, where we could access the North Branch River Path and a cat’s cradle of spur trails.

We brought along our snowshoes, which we definitely did not need, since there was barely a dusting on the ground. (PSA: Nearby Onion River Outdoors offers free snowshoe day rentals if you use them to tromp around the North Branch network.) To my modest relief, a sign at the entrance proclaimed that the park was closed to cyclists for the season; colliding with a mountain biker would not be among my anxieties that day.

We set out on the North Branch River Path in the direction of our hearts, which was left. (The key to rambling is that you don’t think too hard about which fork you take.) The trail follows the Winooski River for a little more than half a mile, intersecting along the way with side trails that all seemed to be named after birds — the Swallowtail Trail, Hermit Thrush Hill, Grouse Grind and, of course, the elusive Sparrow Farm Trail, which I was still determined to reach. But to try to find it would have undermined the concept of rambling; we had to happen upon the trail accidentally, or it wouldn’t count.

Eventually, we turned right and started up a long, steepish slope. Not all of the trails were marked by name; the one we took, labeled 12, turned out to be Grouse Grind. As we got deeper into the woods, a storybook-feeling forest of tall hemlocks and paper birch, a light snow began to fall, which precipitated a light bout of panic: What if the snow suddenly got heavy and covered our tracks? What if we never found our way back to the car? What if the cold drained our phone batteries and — God forbid — we had to ask another human being for directions?

Amazingly, none of these things came to pass. Instead, we crossed several picturesque streams, passed one extremely committed jogger with cross-country ski poles and, simply by putting one foot in front of the other, found ourselves on the Sparrow Farm Trail. The trail runs along the perimeter of a field, where a herd of kind, lazy-looking cows huddled together for warmth, unbothered by human drama. We paid our respects, then intuited our way back.

In total, we walked almost six miles, an exertion that merited a snack stop in Montpelier before heading back to Burlington. But first, we ducked into Buch Spieler Records, on Langdon Street, for a dose of vinyl and the excellent Gothic lettering of its logo. Then we meandered next door to the Getup Vintage, where I waxed slightly existential at the sight of so many cool pants. If I wear cool pants and nobody sees them, are they still cool? Is anyone even wearing pants these days? Have pants been divested of all meaning?

I contemplated these bleak possibilities as we walked over to Rabble-Rouser Chocolate & Craft Co. on Main Street. But then I glimpsed a dachshund resplendently arrayed in a bright-red sweater and red leather booties. This creature gave me hope.

If the dachshunds of Montpelier haven’t given up on the world, I reasoned, then neither should I.

In the area:

North Branch Nature Center
713 Elm St., Montpelier

The Getup Vintage Clothing
27 Langdon St., Montpelier


About the Seven Days Staytripper Series

Created by Seven Days, the “Staytripper: The Road Map for Rediscovering Vermont” series presents curated excursions statewide. The series was originally published from 2020-2022 and highlights Vermont restaurants, retailers, attractions, and outdoor adventures to spotlight new corners of the state.