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Friday, July 15, 2011

Epic Weekend in Vermont, Part 1: Lake Willoughby

Last summer, in a google chat, Dustin sent me the following picture, saying how badly he wanted to go here:

I agreed, obviously. What a beautiful spot. I instantly got sad though, assuming it was in Costa Rica or something, and my lack of funds or motivation meant I would never stand in those waters, looking at that view. Last Saturday, I went there. How? It's in freaking Vermont, 3 and a half hours away. It's called Lake Willoughby. Go. Now. Seriously. This is a very long post with like 30 pictures. Just stop reading and start driving. 

Well anyway, for those who want to read:

Shaun arranged a little mountain bike/camp/hangout weekend long ago to hit up the Kingdom Trails in East Burke, VT. I decided to go long ago... and then forgot to get in shape and actually mountain bike more than 3 times before going. But nevertheless, I was in for a weekend of epic proportions, hopefully doing a bunch of sweet activities that end in -ing (camping, biking, hiking, swimming, grilling, (not) sleeping, etc).

I drove up and met Kevin (he's been blogging about biking for 4 years and is a blog hero of mine) and Shaun (he has a bike blog too). Jake and Joe showed up shortly after, and Dustin and Amanda even later.
Camp was set up

Jake attempted to play Ukelele while Master P listened

And we all turned in.

he claimed it was for mosquitoes, but I think he's just crazy

These are people who lead semi regular lives and go to bed at midnight, so I was left alone at midnight, in front of the campfire, wondering if I could fall asleep, or would I have to find something to do for 4 hours? Of course, after finally putting down a book and FINALLY falling asleep, we were awoken at 3:30 by rain. This is always the last thing you want while sleeping in a tent. Finally settling back in, 7 or 8 or whatever ungodly hour these lunatics got up came just as fast, and after a short breakfast, they all set out to ride. Not me though. I had decided a week before that I would ride Sunday or maybe Saturday afternoon, but no- Saturday morning was reserved for Willoughby. 

This was the view from the top of the mountain road we were staying at. I set out to hike the unfortunately named Mount Pigsah, the right mountain. The opposite mountain is just as poorly named- Mount HOR. Sad. 

I drove there (11 miles), stretched, gathered the necessities, and started the hike with the gloomy gray skies threatening above. Right away, the trail did this, so I knew I was in for a nice hike:

(this was of course taken on the way down, after the sun came out)

The trail went up and down for awhile, then hit a small chunk of some switchbacks with rock stairs for awhile- some serious elevation gain very fast, which hurt. A couple of teenagers walked by, and one was using a walking stick- something I've seen lots of older people do but have never done myself. I knew one helped Rich when he conquered Chororua, so I figured, why not? I grabbed the first one I could find, made it the right size, and set off. 

The trail then flattened out a lot. It had a slight incline to it, but for the most part, it was suddenly just a nice little path through the woods, all along an insanely steep ridge of course, but still. It was nice.

I'd never seen a hiking trail be so... welcoming. It did this for awhile, then after a few sneak peeks of the lake, got steep again. This is definitely in the category of intermediate, but as always, it killed me. I found myself exhausted and panting, and just focusing on each false horizon: "Just get up to that tree, then take a break." This went on for a looong time. I finally got to an exposed rock face which provided a nice view, but the trail went farther in the wrong direction afterwards. As this was the first mountain I had ever hiked without a summit, and I knew from trail maps that the trail went somewhat behind the mountain, I had no idea when the trail would actually end. 

Eventually, things started to flatten out a little bit, and I figured I had to be near something. I saw some people and got what I needed to hear- that the trail kept going, but to make sure and go to "Lookout point" or "North lookout," I can't remember. I got there, and instantly, a year of wanting to be here, weeks of looking at pictures, the days I had decided to not just go to the beach, but climb a mountain to get the best view, and all the work of the day was instantly worth every second of wondering, excitement, and pain. I have never seen a view quite like this.

I stood up there just marveling and smiling for quite awhile. Some random dude came up and left, and then the people I saw in the parking lot when I got there finally caught up. One worked in Lowell. Small chat and me acting like I knew what the best route back was commenced, and I headed out and let them have their moment.

If I kept following the loop, I had seen already that it took me straight down to the road, which meant I'd have to walk 3 miles back to my car on the road. PPBBBTTTT. What I read online made the most sense- turn around and walk back the way I came. I, of course confused a few different websites I had read and told people I did a 7 mile hike because of this. Turns out it was probably only 4. But whatever. Sadly, when I looked into this more, I learned that there were actually other lookout points I could have seen. SO, I'm not sure where I was, but definitely one of these two points:

(probably the one to the right)

On the way back down, I got to view the first point (which I had missed because it's tiny and those teenagers I had seen earlier were smoking on it). And it was incredible. 

I stood here:

and looked out on one of the most terrifying ledges ever

(in the other spot, if I fell, I'd have tree branches to catch on to- this was a ledge hundreds of feet ABOVE the tree line with NOTHING to save me EEK!)

and got this view:

Doesn't look real does it? I can't stop posting pictures. And these are like 1/5th of what I took.

I talked to the hippies that were eating lunch on the tiny ledge ("yea dude! Willoughby's siiiiiick" (whatever, they were eating Tomoto and Basil Lay's- at least they had good taste)) then went back down the rest of the trail, my feet hurting more and more with every step. 

Then I did something tough. I left my walking stick behind. 

honestly, so sad.

I think I am now going to be a guy who hikes with a stick. I felt it definitely helped just enough on some of the tough inclines- just having that extra little bit of balance was nice, as well as being able to put some of my weight on something other than my feet. When I didn't fully need it, it was nice just to have something to focus on other than pain. The stick was good to me, and I honestly am so crazy that it was sad to let it go, but I decided it was best to leave it for someone else who may need it (rather than putting it in my trunk). Thank you walking stick. You were a good friend.

I then got in my car, and proceeded to drive around the lake taking more pictures. I could not have been more of a tourist. But come on! Look at this place!

view from south beach

view from waaay up the road, which I think perfectly illustrates Costa Rica + Vermont

Not only did I get a perfect day and a several phenomenal views, but I had a good hike too. This was honestly the best hike I think I've done. If you are ever in this area or go up here specifically to see/swim in this lake, I urge you strongly to hike Mount Pigsah. Do the South trail (parking lot on the right side of the road just before the big hill taking you to the lake), and do what I did- hike to the views, then turn around. It's a 2,750 foot high mountain with a solid 1,520 feet of elevation change, and about a 4-4.5 mile loop of some of the best trails I've hiked- no part was too hard to hike, there were no enormous boulders to tire me out, and there was only 1 section of exposed rock, so there was very little chance of slipping anywhere. There were rock stairs wherever they were needed, and there was weird stuff I've never seen on a hike, like long stretches of perfectly smooth, barely root-y and mountain bike-able sections at high elevation, large sections of grass near the top, and again, no summit, which kind of made it an interesting hike, as I never truly knew when I would be done. It's a solid hike that has a payoff better than most mountains. AND, you can swim after. 

I drove back to town right when everyone was done mountain biking, and we all reconvened at the campsite. 

Dustin makes very good faces

I then went up to try and shower, but saw a line of 6 people waiting and turned back. Upon returning, the campsite was abandoned. I saw that somehow, the large and loud group of people 2 sites over had somehow kidnapped everyone while I was gone. Oh great, now I have to socialize. 

Joe and like 12 people I don't know

These guys were pretty awesome though. They were all in at least their late 30's, and this was the 7th year they were spending a weekend camping and riding the Kingdom trails. Mountain biking, like hiking, is one of those weird sports that people seem to do for their entire lives. These guys took their camping seriously, or rather, hated camping to death and had bought every single thing they could to make it seem like they were home, minus their wives. They had 2 grills, a thing that chopped potatoes into french fries, a deep fryer, computers, stereos, huge overhead tents, huge shelving/cooking units that folded into suitcases, a dart board, like 4 bike stands, and more importantly, a boatload of food that they weren't going to eat all of. I said the next day a statement that everyone instantly agreed with- that I didn't want to discredit their friendliness, but I think a large reason they invited us over is because they realized that they had entirely too much food and needed to get rid of it. 

They had buffalo wings, steaks, vegetables galore, burgers, chips and salsa, wicked beaahs guy, and freaking french fries, and were offering up everything. I spent the night listening to the guy that Joe is worriedly staring at talk about music while Dustin annoying egged him on, pretending he loved bands that this guy wouldn't shut up about. He listed the same 4 or 5 awful punk bands so many times that I was threatening to jump in the fire if I heard him do it again: "You know, all those old DC punk bands man, you know, black flag, the dead kennedys, angry samoans, you know, what was that other one?" I'm getting furious even now. 

But clearly this guy loved his music back in the day, and this was just a bunch of older dudes still trying to be young, killing it for a weekend and being incredibly gracious and rad to the strangers next door. So, thanks 12 random dudes who I never got 1 name from- thanks for the food and music. 

Jake then wandered back to our site and drunkenly started an enormous fire. We wandered back and chilled for awhile. 

Then we went to bed


while Joe cooked an enormous Kielbasa with some random dude at 12:45 in the morning on a wooden plank using zero utensils.

I slept in the big A frame shelter that night. My tent night was on not entirely flat ground and I REALLY didn't want to wake up with a thrown out back, so I opted for flat ground and sleeping outside next to people rather than the security of a tent. I fell asleep to a mixture of This Will Destroy You's new album, Joe and some weird guy talking about sausages, and Jake sounding like he was choking to death in his sleep. Needless to say, I woke up a lot. 

Day 1 was in the books: good exercise, good times with friends, funny memories with weirdos, good food, beautiful views. A good day. 

Oh. Remember how I said I couldn't be more of a tourist? Well, it turns out that I can. I videotaped a bunch of Willoughby too, and made a short little video of some of its beauty set to pretty music. Apparently I make tourism videos now. 

Lake Willoughby, VT from Mike Alexander on Vimeo

I must say one more thing though- I put a bunch of pictures on here and a video, so you may feel like you've seen it all. I cannot stress this enough- being there is a completely different experience. No camera can capture just how beautiful, awesome and unique this lake and surrounding mountains are. It's truly an amazing place and the more I think about it, I'm very confused as to how this place isn't more known. This is certainly the prettiest lake I've ever seen. 

currently listening to: This Will Destroy You- Tunnel Blanket (it sucks)


  1. seriously. is it just my computer that wont let me view pics? : ( sounds like a beautiful time, mike!
    <3 jeno

  2. based on this post I spent the entire weekend in my sleeping bag.

  3. remember how much that guy liked The Butthole Surfers?!! lol rule #1 of life mikey...when people are force feeding you gourmet food while you're camping you play nice :)

    btw...when you come live here for d-bone's summer fantasy camp im going to take you somewhere that is almost just as impressive

  4. jen- yea, apparently. delete some pronnnz

    kevin- yea, you raged pretty hard but my best pictures were of you going to bed. so yup, the internet thinks you did NOTHING. oh wait, I linked your shitttt

    dustin- I know, I egged him on too. he was nice, just out of his mind. I was so weirded out when he suddenly worshipped sublime.
    can't wait to go to a place like that

  5. Pisgah means "high place" in Hebrew so I'd say it's a rather apropos. The lake was formed by a glacier during the ice age. You forgot to mention, or were perhaps unaware, that there is a clothing optional beach on the south end. Just as well, we don't need a lot of gawking tourists.

    1. Nice, thanks!

      I did know about the nude beach, and mentioned it in part 2 of this post, when I actually swam in the lake.

      But yea, what a spot! Clearest, most perfect-temperature lake I think I've ever swam in. Can't wait to visit again this summer!

  6. I grew up in nearby Lowell and swam this lake as a child. didnt appreciate its beauty until all these years later traveling the entire eastern part of the USA it is barnone the most beautiful lake east of the mississippi river. the lakes on colorado and of course lake tahoe (the lake in forrest Gump when he is jogging) offer a different kind of beauty. I will propose to my best friend on August 10, 2012. She is also from vermont but has never been to this part of the state. Thank you for sharing your time and memories and to the vermonter who mentioned they didnt want a bunch of tourists at lake willoughby, they must not realize tourism is vermonts number one income and really the only reason the state survives.

    1. I forgot to mention that I moved from Vermont to North Carolina 16 years ago and i met my best friend and future wife HERE in NC 6 years ago. We are traveling all the way to vermont for what she thinks is to look at a lakefront property. Vermont will always be home. Norht Carolina offers some pretty beautiful lakes in its own right including the famed Lake LURE where the movie dirty dancing was filmed. it is located in the blue ridge mtns of NC, the tallest (6600 ft) on the east coast. You should check it out if your ever in the area. plenty of hiking trails and camping spots. I found your Blog because i was searching for the best location on the lake to propose. thanks to you i have found it. again take care.

    2. Wow, so much awesome in this post. thanks for sharing! where are you going to propose? at the top or right on the beach? I love this lake, and will be back there that very weekend. How ironic! Can't wait to swim in it again.

      Also, I very much want to explore the blue ridge at some point. I have a friend that lives there.

      Good luck with the proposal, I'm sure it will be amazing!

  7. We went yesterday. I went there as a kid... the colour of the water is always amazing at that end, and the clarity. It's unreal how clean it is.
    There are Trilliums too, nearly extinct in most areas. White with pink, not the usual burgundy ones. :)

  8. I live in Vermont now, and was looking around for a final weekend getaway this summer... when I found your blog spot. I've made my decision. Thanks. You rock.

  9. Stumbled upon your blog while looking for info on the lake! Great writing, thanks for sharing the stories and pics!!!

  10. My uncle used to own this campground. it was called whitecaps campground. used to go their every summer as a kid. hiked the mountains many times, and yes even seen some of the people on the nudie beach!

  11. I grew up on Willoughby Lake. My family owns one of the six log cabins on the north beach (there used to be 13 cabins, years ago. All but six were removed and now that area is a parking lot). I made many, many cherished friends over the years - many of whom still live there - and my parents are buried in the cemetery just above the north beach. I'm in my mid-fifties and live in FL now, but I visit when I can. Willoughby will always be home to me. ❤

  12. And for the record, neither Mt. Pisgah nor Mt. Hor is "unfortunate" or "poorly named." Both come from the Old Testament of the Bible. The summit of Mt. Pisgah (also known as Mt. Nebo) is the place from which God allowed Moses to view (but not enter into) the Promised Land.