- Hike statistics:
- ~18.0 miles, 3,000′ gain
- Difficulty rating: 5/10
- Relatively forgiving terrain, without any sustained, steep climbing
- Moderate ascent up the northern slopes of Stratton Mountain
- Route finding and mud avoidance can be tedious in the Lye Brook Wilderness
- Scenery rating: 8/10
- 360-degree views from the Stratton Mountain fire tower
- Several ponds along the route with picturesque shorelines
- [Mostly] pleasant walking through evergreens and along marshlands
- Logistical considerations:
- Ample parking at the Long Trail crossing on Stratton-Arlington Rd., though the last mile of this road is dirt, meaning the parking lot may be inaccessible during winter and mud season
- Winhall River crossing on the Lye Brook Trail (slightly west of Stratton Pond) can be difficult or impossible, and is unfortunately located near the midpoint of the route
- No potable water sources (or indoor shelter) during the hike, but there are plenty of places to filter
Stratton Mountain, in the southwest corner of Vermont and a few miles up the road from Mount Snow, is probably best known for its skiing. However, there is also a good network of hiking trails on the other side of the mountain, with several options for moderate-distance to long-distance loops. About 10.5 miles of the route is part of the Long Trail / Appalachian Trail, along their shared 104-mile corridor before diverging north of Killington. The gradients here are not nearly as steep, and the terrain is generally much more forgiving, compared to most trails to peaks in the White Mountains. However, there are a few wild cards- including navigation, mud/water, and snow conditions. The problems with mud and snow conditions are not necessarily exclusive- you’re likely to encounter both in the fall and spring shoulder seasons. The Lye Brook Wilderness is a notoriously muddy area, and depending on the conditions of the dirt access roads, you might have difficulty even making it to/from the trailheads. The Green Mountain Club posts advisories as to which trails should be avoided (or are officially closed) during mud season. Heeding these advisories is an excellent idea, both for trail preservation and avoidance of a miserable hiking experience. Needless to say, the routes near Stratton Mountain and Stratton Pond are best for travel in the late summer, early-to-mid fall, and mid-winter (when there is ample snow cover, and the ponds should be solidly frozen). As for the navigational aspect, staying on the white-blazed Long Trail sections is extremely straightforward. The Branch Pond Trail, though unblazed north of the Lye Brook Wilderness boundary, was also easy to follow. The Lye Brook Trail between Bourn Pond and Stratton Pond was tricky in spots, despite a good number of blue blazes. In fairness, I hiked it with about 2 inches of fresh snow cover, so perhaps the footway would be more apparent during warmer months. Regardless, there were narrow, brushy sections with unexpected turns. Then there was the Winhall River crossing, which could pose a major problem if water conditions are high, and could turn you around near the midpoint of the hike. This will be described in more detail below.
Starting from the large parking area directly off Stratton Arlington Rd., walk west on the road for about 100 yards. At this point, follow the Long Trail South as it turns left into the woods. The trail meanders with modest elevation change, and temporarily joins a 4WD road. Shortly thereafter, it crosses Black Brook on a wooden footbridge at 0.9 miles. The trail makes a winding, steady climb of about 200 feet, then levels off and skirts a wetland with nice views to the left. Climbing slightly from the wetland, the next landmark is a forest service road crossing at 1.9 miles. From here, the trail ascends 500 feet- never steeply, but almost continuously uphill- to a high point as it contours across a slope near 3,000′ elevation. The trail soon drops down somewhat steeply from this traverse, taking you over a couple sections of boulders, and ultimately to the doorstep of the Story Spring Shelter at 3.6 miles. Enjoy the limited facilities at this shelter, before turning around and beginning back up the hill you just descended. Fortunately, you won’t need to reclimb the “entire” 200 feet to the trail’s high point. Look for an unsigned but apparent trail corridor branching to the left, about 0.1 mile from the shelter. I believe this may have been a southern extension of the Branch Pond Trail, but is no longer an official trail. Regardless, it’s a very convenient cut-through to the official southern end of the Branch Pond Trail on Stratton Arlington Rd. This connector runs about 0.6 miles- nearly level at first, then dropping down 100′ to the road crossing. Despite the absence of blazing (I might have seen one very faded blue blaze from years past), the corridor through the woods was readily apparent.
Directly across the dirt road from where the connector emerges from the woods, there is a prominent sign for the Branch Pond Trail. This heads gradually uphill to a height of land just below the 3,000′ contour, then trends gently downward toward the junction of the Branch Pond access road. Continue on the main trail- you’re looking for the spur path less than 1/2 mile later, which heads left toward the shore of Branch Pond. The spur is only a tenth of a mile, and worth the minimal effort for a scenic pond view- particularly since you’ve mainly been looking at an assortment of trees to this point in the hike. Return to the Branch Pond Trail, and proceed north, soon passing a boundary sign for the Lye Brook Wilderness. This includes a requisite warning about lower standards for marking and trail maintenance. Aside from the blue blazes disappearing, the wilderness designation didn’t mean much- the trail remained in good condition and easy to follow. There are a few directional changes and minor stream crossings, with small rises between the crossings. One notable section is an elevated ridge surrounded by wetlands on both sides. The distance passes quickly, and the trail reaches a T intersection at the Lye Brook Trail (8.6 miles, including the spur path to/from Branch Pond).
Turn right on the Lye Brook Trail, heading east toward Stratton Pond and Stratton Mountain. You are very close to Bourn Pond, and a side path on the left just after starting on the Lye Brook Trail will take you down to the picturesque shoreline. Meanwhile, the Lye Brook Trail undulates before gradually descending toward the Winhall River. The footway is rather muddy in places, and while there are plenty of blue blazes, you need to keep your eyes open to follow the trail around turns and blowdowns. The river crossing is certainly not subtle. The Lye Brook Trail comes out of the forest, and appears to abruptly end in a pond just beyond a wilderness boundary sign. It feels like you should be entering the Lye Brook Wilderness here, not exiting it! After surveying the area, I spotted two blue blazes on trees, that looked like they were headed directly across the pond and swamp. When I arrived at this location in late November, the pond was partially frozen, but the crossing looked sketchy at best. Despite being a wilderness area, I hoped for bog bridges, stepping stones, or really any makeshift assistance to aid passage to the other side. No dice. There were large logjams (likely beaver dams) on each side, which could theoretically be traversed to get across part of the pond, but these areas looked to have considerable potential for plunging into open water. After careful consideration, I placed a microspiked foot on the ice. When it held, I kept moving forward in the direction of the nearest blue blaze- with the ice sheet cracking but still in place. Bear in mind, making it to dry land also required awkwardly hopping between partially submerged branches, rocks, or anything else protruding from the water line. Needless to say, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this adventure during high water, or if there is any doubt as to the strength of the ice in winter.
Beyond the river crossing, the Lye Brook Trail is often muddy, or directly in a watercourse, but otherwise straightforward to follow. It rises steadily, alongside a brook at first, toward the outlet of Stratton Pond, which is about 150 feet higher than the Winhall River. The trail conditions make the otherwise benign ascent a bit of a slog, which mercifully ends near the shore of Stratton Pond. This is a beautiful spot, and the route turns right for a photogenic trip across the edge of the pond on bog bridges. The trail then parallels the pond for a couple tenths of a mile, with plenty more rewarding views. A 2020 reroute diverts the trail away from the shore, and it winds uphill to a junction with the Stratton Pond Trail. From here, follow signs to the LT/AT junction- which is reached at just over 11 miles. You will probably be very happy to see white blazes again- and in the winter, trail which is likely much more consolidated!
Make sure to head south on the Long Trail- toward Stratton Mountain. Somewhat counterintuitively, this descends slightly to a bridged stream crossing, before beginning an insidious climb toward the summit. The trail really takes its time with the elevation gain, meandering gradually uphill for quite a while after the crossing. Only in the last mile or so does the ascent become more strenuous, and the deciduous trees are largely replaced by evergreens. Even here, the pitch is steady and pleasant rather than obnoxiously steep, and there are numerous switchbacks to avoid tackling the slope directly. The summit of Stratton Mountain (3,936′) remains in the trees, but a fire tower takes you a few flights up, where panoramic views quickly appear. There is also a 0.7-mile ridgeline trail connecting the peak to the top of the Stratton ski area, but the beginning of this trail was unmarked, and I had already had my fill of walking in unbroken snow for the day. The descent from Stratton Mountain back to Stratton Arlington Rd. is relatively fast and uncomplicated. It takes place in stepwise fashion, losing about 1,650′ over 3.8 miles, with the last third being relatively flat. There are a few bands of rocks that require attentive footwork, but otherwise no real obstacles to hinder your eager progress toward the parking lot.