Adam and I loaded our gear into the car on Saturday morning (Yadi had loaded himself about ten minutes earlier), heading out for another round of winter adventuring.
If you’re looking for a one-stop winter playground, Smuggler’s Notch State Park is a great place to visit.
When most people think of Smuggler’s Notch in the winter months, it’s the ski resort that comes to mind, but local outdoor enthusiasts will tell you there’s a lot more to explore in the area.
The Notch Road closes when the snow flies, leaving the road open for use by downhill and cross country skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers, ice climbers, and hikers.
The road is often groomed, providing a relatively even surface for walking, and even younger children can navigate the fairly gentle grade.
We made quick time through the winding, snow-covered road to the area’s crown jewel: Smuggler’s Notch. We paused briefly along the way to view the massive ice formations and waterfalls along the trail.
Once in the Notch, the massive cliffs of Mount Mansfield rose to our right, and the steep trail to Sterling Pond ascended to our left.
Frosty trees glittered in the sunlight on the edges of the cliffs above us, and icicles hung from the rocks like spears of buttercream frosting (it was almost noon; food was on my mind!)
The views in the Notch were enchanting, but we had six miles to go. We headed up the Sterling Pond Trail, our Labrador Yadi happily leading the way through the fluffy snow.
This was one of those hikes that just got better and better the farther we went! Hiking in a leafless forest always provides fantastic views. As we climbed, I kept looking behind me at the imposing, ice-covered walls of the Notch.
The Notch is situated at 2,100 feet above sea level, so it didn’t take us long to reach trees cloaked in white rime ice and glittering in the sunlight as it crested the ridge.
At the junction of the Sterling Pond Trail and the Long Trail, we turned right toward Spruce Peak. A left turn at the T would have brought us directly to Sterling Pond in minutes.
Hiking the Long Trail, we came into full sunlight. The brilliant white of the trees, the bluebird sky, and the brisk air were invigorating. We quickly traversed the ridge and headed up the path to Spruce Peak.
Mount Mansfield looms directly in front of Spruce Peak’s ledges, and it’s massive, snow-covered sides dominate the view.
Mansfield dwarfs the cliffs of the Notch (which seemed so tall down below), and ski trails wind like white ribbons along the lefthand flanks of the mountain.
Spruce Peak’s ledges also provide breathtaking views of Camel’s Hump and the Green Mountains as they stretch down the state’s ‘spine.’
After giving Yadi 20 ounces of water (he’s a very thirsty animal) and food, we retraced our steps and took the Elephant’s Head Trail to Sterling Pond.
It was here the route became less traveled. A single set of tracks wound through the trees, and branches, heavy with powder, let loose mini avalanches of snow over our heads.
We laughed and slid our way through the forest, taking in the views of Sterling Pond as we went.
Yadi is a tireless and enthusiastic hiking companion, but in keeping with his breed, he loves the water, and he hates to be hot! We joke that he’s a three-season hiker: spring, fall, and winter!
He also has a strong sense of self-preservation, and I research every hike we take him on. You will not force a 90-pound lab to do anything he doesn’t willingly decide to do!
Winter hiking keeps Yadi cool, and the snow often covers terrain he doesn’t like--like ladders!
Thankfully, he’s also a very trusting and gentle animal, so when I scrambled down a jumble of steep boulders on the edge of the pond, he cautiously (and none too happily) followed me down. He’s getting a little braver as he gets older!
We rounded the pond in a tunnel of white, arriving at the Sterling Pond Shelter. A wooden bench with a perfect view of the pond and Mansfield’s summit made a great lunch spot.
We ate chicken soup and lemon cookies (which we shared with Yadi, of course) before briefly retracing our steps and hugging the shoreline of the pond to make our way back to the LT and the Sterling Pond Trail.
In the summertime, the beach at the end of the pond is always full; today, I climbed the well-known boulder and had the view to myself.
It was also unusual to spend time in that area without being approached by opportunistic squirrels and chipmunks. Don’t leave your food out in the warmer months; they’ll take it!
I love a loop trail, but the views down to the Notch made this an excellent out-and-back winter hike.
We jogged down the trail, reveled in the beauty of the sun-drenched cliffs in the Notch, and hiked the last mile to our car.
Where will we go next?
Some of that will depend on the weather and some on the time we have, but wherever we go, I know we’ll see things that will leave my mind clear, my body tired, and my heart full!