Camping the Champlain Islands in Vermont
Team Captain Kelly toured Vermont's Lake Champlain Islands, a well-known destination for Canadian cyclists with rolling hills, incredible views - and a 13% grade climb or two.
Once October hits, a few crisp 50-degree days always remind me of the impending winter weather. Itching to fit in one last trip, I searched for must-ride bike trails in the New England area and stumbled across this:
Just a few hours from Brooklyn was the Island Line Rail Trail, stringing from Burlington, Vermont over Lake Champlain to a network of pastoral islands. Located halfway between Montreal and Burlington, the mostly flat trail promised a relaxing trip after a tough season of racing. I quickly recruited a friend to join me and my dog for a weekend of easy riding after sending her that photo and booked one of the last remaining campsites open in mid-October.
We stopped in the bustling college town and stocked up on cider and s'mores supplies at a local grocery store with more spots for bike parking than cars. Passing a lone cyclist tackling a long incline up U.S. Route 2, we pulled into our campsite at Grand Isle State Park around 3pm - a lean-to perched atop a hill looking directly out onto the lake.
We quickly collected the firewood we'd need to keep warm through the chilly night, set up camp, and geared up for a short ride before sunset to East Shore Vineyard's tasting room a few miles away.
We tackled a couple short hills, me with an extra 15 pounds in tow since my bike was outfitted with a Blackburn rack and carrier to tow my eight-pound Chihuahua on her first ride outside a messenger bag or front basket. The Champlain region, surprisingly, hosts an international wine trail ranging from New York to Quebec, the lake’s deep waters producing a microclimate perfect for growing grapes and apples.
Camping lights came in handy for our ride back on dark country roads on our ride back. We seemed doomed to freeze after a few failed attempts to light the fire, but we ventured over to the campsite next to ours (which seemed well-prepared with tiki torches and a standing tic-tac-toe game). They taught us a new log stacking method (lattice stack instead of a triangle) and loaned us a firestarter. We warmed up by heating cider and whiskey in camp mugs over the campfire, watching lost marshmallows at the bottom of the pit swell and char under the flames.
We woke up chilled the next morning, with temperatures dipping just below my sleeping bag’s 35° rating, but the sun provided a bit of extra warmth to offset the lakeside winds. On a cold, early morning at the campsite, there’s no sadder sight then a broken French press shattered in transit. We headed off to find coffee and breakfast at Wally’s Place Bagel & Deli on South Hero Island. Being New Yorkers, we were skeptical of how these bagels would hold up to our standards, but the breakfast sandwich and hummus bagels delivered.
Bean hopped into her carrier, ready to roll, as we packed up the campsite. Originally I wanted to ride right up to the Canadian border (and possibly pop over it), but an old injury flared up that limited my ability to tackle hills and tough terrain. We planned an easier route around historic Isle La Motte in search of a cidery, bypassing the busy traffic along Route 2 for a quieter ride, stopping at a an honor system farmstand on North Hero Island called Savage Gardens.
We set off along the Western shore of the island, with miles of red and orange trees along the New York coast in full view. Small cottages reminiscent of seaside towns lined the left side of the road, with private steps leading down to small waterfront porches. A few of these small decks even had benches beckoning for us to rest, with engraved messages and signs encouraging us to take a seat and seemingly designed with cyclists in mind.
We stopped at Fisk Quarry Preserve which hosts the world’s coral reef, the 480-million year Chazy Fossil Reef.
Next we hunted down Hall Home Place, known for their ice cider (which is made by leaving apples on the tree until they freeze). You wouldn’t think you could get lost on a tiny, ten-street island, but we managed to pass unmarked cidery, which was sadly closed. We sprinted down the flat expanse of “Main Street” for fun, passing a snake sunbathing and a group of Canadian cyclists in hi-viz gear.
Day 2 Afternoon
After circling the island we embarked on the last leg of our trip, the part that brought us to Vermont in the first place: a short jaunt along the Island Line Rail Trail.
Sharp winds hit us as we cleared the trees and emerged onto the jetty, drowning out the sound of anything besides the wind whipping over the water and narrowing my senses to the pre-dusk colors all around me. We watched the sun set over the Appalachians in New York, darkening the sky over the Vermont shore to the east into deep purples and pinks.
We circled the jetty a couple of times until the sun dropped fully below the horizon, then headed into downtown Burlington for hard-earned burritos after a windy day of riding. I’m eager to revisit the islands again when I’m fully recovered and explore beyond them to the rest of the Champlain Bikeway – and maybe steal a QOM from a Canadian.
Want to plan your own Champlain bike trip? Start here!