Stowe VT and Emerald Lake State Park

Stowe VT and Emerald Lake State Park

Driving the RV, as opposed to either of our former small to average-sized cars, has been a bit of an adjustment but not as drastic a change as I originally anticipated. As soon as you get used to the physical size and increased stopping distance, you’re pretty much good to go – paying constant attention, of course, to other drivers and pedestrians. We’ve only encountered one overpass (so far) on a back country road that was too short for the RV to fit under, which required a small amount of backtracking to get around. So as we approached the mountain pass known as Smugglers’ Notch in Vermont, I was mildly hesitant to attempt the drive with Cecil.

As drivers approach the Notch, multiple warning signs forbid tour buses and tractor trailers from traveling the pass (due to length, not overhead clearance). The average tractor trailer including the cab is between 70 and 80 feet long, and a coach bus is around 45 feet in length, so with our RV measuring around 25 feet I was reasonably sure we’d be fine. (Spoiler alert – we made it through the pass without incident, I don’t want to cause any undue concern at this point in the story.)

So we entered Smugglers’ Notch, the mountains rising steeply on both sides as the road ascended and narrowed the deeper into the pass we traveled. The road wasn’t overly congested at this point in the day (before lunch on a Tuesday), which helped us navigate the tight rocky turns without much trouble. Other drivers were also largely aware of each other, moving to the side of the road as necessary to give some extra space, if possible. After a couple of cheek-clenching turns, we emerged from the Notch unscathed (and more importantly without damaging any other vehicle) just north of the town of Stowe. So I guess this is just a cautionary tale for other RVers – don’t attempt driving through Smugglers’ Notch unless you want your home on wheels wedged between boulders on opposite sides of the road as you navigate a turn. In fact, the Smugglers’ Notch Resort website indicates the mountain pass is “closed year around to motorcoaches, motorhomes and commercial vehicles,” yet no signs indicated that as we approached (with the exception of tour buses and tractor trailers). Suffice it to say we won’t be taking Cecil through the Notch next time we’re in Vermont, just to play it safe.

Navigating the Notch

We entered the ski resort town of Stowe with the intent to park in one of the public lots with access to the Stowe Recreational Path. The entrance to the one lot, unfortunately, was blocked by a delivery truck as we drove through town so we backtracked a bit and found a shopping area with plenty of parking space. In fact, other people were using the same lot to park cars for the day and unload bikes – and no signs indicated that this wasn’t allowed – so we followed suit, backed into one parking space, and unloaded our bikes for a bit of exploring. After grabbing a couple of bagels and coffees from one of the shops, we hopped on our bikes and rode the path along the outskirts of town.

Stowe is very much a tourist town, known mostly as a destination for winter activities. The town also hosts a number of events and festivals throughout the year, and boasts numerous art galleries, craft workshops, boutique stores, and restaurants. And as any craft beer enthusiast knows, Stowe is home to the second location of The Alchemist brewery, famous for the New England-style IPA (and the main reason I wanted to stop in Stowe).

The Recreation Path is just over five miles long and winds from one end of town to the other, following close enough to the main street that you can practically hop off the path at any point to visit shops and restaurants along the way. The path is paved and heavily traveled, open to walkers, joggers, bikers, skaters, snowshoers, cross-country skiers – basically any mode of travel not involving an engine. It’s an incredibly convenient way to get around town, and we pedaled back and forth on the path multiple times during our short visit.

The Alchemist first opened in 2003 as a brew pub in Waterbury VT, with the flagship beer Heady Topper earning wild success and acclaim. In August 2011, the owners opened a production brewery just as Hurricane Irene destroyed the original brewpub that very month. The Stowe brewery and visitor center opened in August 2016 and routinely experiences a packed parking lot and long lines. The brewery is so popular that they limit the number of four packs (cans only, no growlers) a customer can purchase of each beer. We arrived on a Tuesday around 11AM (when the brewery opens) and the parking lot was already packed and the line snaked around the corner as people anxiously waited to get inside.

What you can’t see is the line of people waiting outside to get in, or the line of people to the left waiting to buy four packs.

I’ve never seen anything like it – the brewery offers free samples, cold four packs, and merchandise only (t-shirts, hats, glasses, etc.) – no food, no pints for sale while you wait, no large tables. But you are encouraged to sample whatever you would like, watch the canning line in action, play disc golf outside (had I known, we would’ve packed our discs on the bikes), and of course, buy cold four packs to go. Their beers are unpasteurized, so they should be kept cold at all times, and many people came prepared with coolers ready to be filled. We only had a short bike ride back to the RV, so we saved our beer-buying until we were ready to go, loaded up the bikes, and rode straight to the RV to load the beer into the mostly empty refrigerator.

The canning line, hard at work
“Sometimes I just want to crawl into the can…”

If you’re planning a trip to Stowe and have any interest at all in craft beer, visit The Alchemist. Just understand that you will probably have to wait in line after searching for a parking space (or ride your bike, the bike rack was totally open during our visit) and don’t expect a brewpub with food and flights. This is very much a production brewery (a very nice, clean, maybe even artistic brewery) offering samples and sales. Check their website before you visit so you know what’s available that day – they do brew more than just IPAs, but that is where The Alchemist earned its reputation. We purchased a porter, a blonde ale, and two IPAs – so you can find a nice variety on any given day. Anyway, I guess that’s enough about The Alchemist! If you enjoy beer, visit some day (not Monday – they are closed) and you won’t be disappointed.

After stashing the beer and picking up a few other Vermont treats (some local cave-aged cheese, excellent bread baked in a traditional wood-fired oven, local maple syrup) we departed Stowe and continued our drive south to our next stop, Cold Hollow Cider Mill.

Cold Hollow makes fresh cider, hard cider, baked goods, sandwiches and soups in the cafe, and carries a huge variety of Vermont treats in the general store area. We mostly just wanted to sample the ciders and buy some fresh cider donuts, but we ended up splitting a sandwich while we were there. The general store is definitely catered toward tourists – we looked around but didn’t buy anything. We did watch the working cider press in action (sorry, no photos of this – they didn’t turn out that well), sampled some cider, and ate donuts outside with the local wildlife.

Antique cider presses
We did not share our donuts.

If Cold Hollow happens to be on or close to your route, it’s worth a stop to check out the local flavor – especially the apple cider and fresh, hot cider donuts. The mill is also less than a mile away from a natural food store, so we took a walk down the road to burn off some of the donuts and restocked Ashley’s stash of herbs for various teas from the wide selection at Sunflower Natural Foods.

We managed to squeeze in one last stop before arriving at our next state park. No visit to Vermont is complete without a tour of the Ben and Jerry’s factory just north of Waterbury. The guided tour is $5 per person and includes an informative video on the history of the company, an overview of the production process and facility, and concludes with a sample of ice cream (I think it was Triple Caramel Chunk during our visit).

The Ben and Jerry’s Factory

After the tour, we apparently didn’t have our fill of sugar for the day so we bought a couple of ice creams from the stand outside and browsed the Flavor Graveyard and other interesting stops outside the factory. Ben and Jerry’s is a socially-minded and ethically-responsible company, and the tour and displays explain what that means during your visit. With a focus on environmental responsibility and social justice, Ben and Jerry’s is more than just an ice cream company and these values really stand out and serve as an example in our current corporate climate. Check out the tour, and if you don’t like it, you at least get a sample of ice cream at the end!

Not quite road-ready at the moment
The view heading south through Vermont

Emerald Lake State Park is located in southern Vermont, nestled in the valley between the Green and Taconic Mountains. The park features 64 non-electric campsites, 37 lean-to shelters, a large swimming area, boat rentals, and a small network of hiking trails. The campsites are basically located along a ridge, so after driving up the steep hill to the camping area, visitors navigate the long road back into the sites. As was the case at our previous Vermont state park, the sites are fairly small although we did see one or two larger RVs during our stay. The park was peaceful, but largely unremarkable – the lake is large and offers plenty of boating, swimming, and fishing opportunities, but the temperature was dropping rapidly during our visit and it appeared that only “true” Vermonters were braving the water to swim.

View of Emerald Lake
The beach area at Emerald Lake
Fishing on Emerald Lake

The park is located in the Dorset area, which was known for marble quarries in the early 19th century. Isaac Underhill opened the first commercial marble quarry in the region, and most likely the country, in 1785 ushering in the quarry age in Dorset which lasted for 130 years. Marble harvested from the mountains were placed on an inclined rail system and sent a mile down the mountain to finishing mills. This marble eventually ended up in various public buildings across the country, like banks and the New York City library. Many buildings and sidewalks in the Dorset area are made from local stone. As the 20th century rolled around, the marble quarries in Dorset began to close as easier to mine quarries producing higher quality stone opened further north. Eventually the old quarry land was acquired by the state, after being held privately through the first half of the 1900s, and Emerald Lake State Park opened in 1960.

We hiked part of the Vista Trail one morning, which is designed as a loop but most of the trail is currently closed due to timber harvesting. A short section remains open, so you can hike in and out for a glimpse of the lake through the trees. While the lake isn’t as impressive as Green Lake in New York, the water is incredibly clear which produces the emerald effect in certain areas of the lake.

Hiking the Vista Trail
Glimpse of the lake through the trees
Emerald Lake from the Vista Trail

Emerald Lake State Park is also located relatively close to the Long Trail and Appalachian Trail, as well as a number of trails on Dorset Mountain. If you’re passing through Vermont and looking for a place to relax for a few nights, Emerald Lake is a nice stop. The park has flush toilets and coin-operated showers as well as a dump station, and if you need to fill your fresh water tank be sure to get drinking water from the designated faucet at the dump station when you enter the park. The other faucets throughout the campground do not have threaded nozzles, so your water hose will be useless. We spent our days walking the trails, relaxing on the mountainside, and visiting the swimming area. If we already had a kayak, we would’ve enjoyed paddling the lake as well – so come prepared with your own boat (non-motorized only on Emerald Lake), or be ready to shell out some money for an hourly rental. And if you’re like us and maybe over-indulged on sweets before you arrived at the park, the long, steep walk from the campsites down to the lake might help burn off some unwanted calories!

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