Even with sunglasses, I had to squint as I skied out of the woods into the blinding whiteness of what seemed like tundra. Stunted Black Spruce trees poked up from the snow and in between, I could see tufts of shrubs nearly buried. Otherwise, the surface was flat across to where real trees grew again on the other side. It was so flat that if the little gnarled trees and shrubs weren’t poking up all over the place I would have assumed I was on a lake. I struck out for the other side, aiming my skis toward the tip of what appeared to be a peninsula of bigger trees sticking out into the flatness.
I wasn’t skiing on tundra. I was only five miles from my house. I was exploring Peacham Bog, one of the wonders of Groton State Forest. And like many of the Forest’s features, I had it to myself. Winter is the time to explore the extent of the bog, consisting of about 300 acres including the main bog and a network of smaller fragments dotting the basin to the north. This is the second-largest open peatland in Vermont. The peat is as much as 13 feet thick. In summer one can only approach the edges of the bog and the hiking trail traverses a small corner of this large ecosystem. The trail becomes a narrow boardwalk through the sphagnum moss, cotton grass, pitcher plants, huckleberries, leatherleaf, Labrador tea, and other bog plants you don’t commonly see. Jutting into the bog is a wooden platform with a bench and an interpretive sign. The bog is commonly approached via a four-mile loop trail from the Nature Center at Lake Groton. From the Peacham side, an informal route from the Devils Hill trailhead via the snowmobile trail and a new connector that leads down a beaver flowage that forms the headwaters of Red Brook. It’s two miles to the bog and this trail is currently being improved and marked.
This year I’ve been amazed at the number of people I’ve encountered in the backcountry everywhere I’ve been. I may grumble a bit about seeing other people out there, but I’m happy about it. One of the silver linings of the year of Covid-19 is the increased exposure to the outdoors that so many people have enjoyed.
My response was to hike close to home, particularly in Groton State Forest, which I can see from our upper field. Peacham Bog is just one of many great features to get out and explore in this huge Forest in our backyard. On more than 26,000 acres, there are about 30 miles of trails (one mile per 867 acres). By contrast, the White Mountain National Forest contains over 1200 miles of trails on 800,000 acres (one mile per 667 acres). And Acadia National Park, which I consider a day hiker’s paradise, has 150 miles of hiking trails on 47,000 acres (one mile per 313 acres).
Last month I covered some background on the forest and its history. Land acquisition began in 1919 and has continued sporadically ever since. Along with the basins containing Peacham Bog and the various lakes, Groton State Forest occupies the ridges and mountains separating the Connecticut and Winooski drainages, from Peacham Pond not far from Route 2 in the north to Burnt and Butterfield mountains looming over the heights of Route 302 in the south. To a hawk flying south, it’s only about 12 miles and a few minutes flying time, but to a person exploring on foot, this assemblage of peaks, ponds, bogs, ledges, and all sorts of forest ecotypes could occupy a lifetime.
Looking up from any of the ponds and bogs, the eye is drawn to a series of ledgy, spruce-topped lumps in the landscape. With gradual ridges on the north side and cliffs on the south side, these are “sheepbacks,” or more properly “roches moutonnée.” They are the remnants of hard granite, resistant to erosion but sculpted by the enormous force of the continental glacier that pushed over them, scraping the north sides and plucking rock off the south side, leaving behind piles of boulders and the cliffs from which they came. Big Deer, Little Deer, and Owl’s Head are prime examples of this landform and along with Devils Hill and Silver Ledge, they offer open ledges with great views out over the ponds and forest to distant mountains.
The tallest of the sheepbacks is Big Deer at close to 2,300 feet. For a diminutive mountain, Big Deer offers stupendous views. The approach is about a mile from Osmore Pond or a mile and a half from New Discovery campground. Like all the trails in Groton State Forest, these are gradual and great for kids. The trail grows steep only for the brief ascent to the summit. Like all these little mountains, the summit is wooded, but keep going. After passing one of the giant boulders dropped by the glacier you emerge onto an open ledge with Groton Pond at your feet and Signal and Spruce Mountains beyond. Turning around and passing the boulder once again, a little path leads to another ledge on the east side where you look out over a wild basin to Devils Hill and Peacham Bog; the Presidentials loom in the distance.
Within Groton State Forest are seven state parks, land set aside for campgrounds, picnic areas, and other concentrated recreation. After a late start, all four campgrounds were busy this summer, full almost every weekend. There are some primo lakeside sites at Stillwater and Ricker Pond, one of which was where I proposed to Betsy 43 years ago. There are lean-tos in campgrounds and the backcountry, mini cabins, and even some larger cottages to rent. Groups are accommodated at several sites, and the Groton Nature Center hosts lots of educational activity from school groups to family outings. Horse people are drawn to a network of equestrian trails and New Discovery Campground offers sites around a small clearing where horses are welcome.
As the website promises, Seyon Lodge State Park is one of Vermont’s best-kept secrets. This gem is set away from the core of the forest and the busy recreation sites along Route 232. Driving up a dirt road off Route 302 in West Groton, you find yourself slowing down as you leave the last house behind and the forest closes in around you. The lodge is an old farmhouse sitting with its outbuildings above Noyes Pond, a lovely little lake set in a hidden basin between Spruce Mountain to the west, Tabletop Mountain to the north, and Signal Mountain to the south. The pond is strictly regulated to maintain a truly native brook trout population and is a mecca for serious fly fishermen. There is a small network of cross country ski trails, a hiking trail around the pond, and an ambitious new hiking trail that leads four miles west to connect to the Spruce Mountain trail. The lodge itself has several bedrooms, serves family-style meals, and hosts reunions, weddings, and small conferences.
As we welcome the white blanket that will soon cover our landscape, I hope you’ll grab your snowshoes or skis and begin your explorations of Groton State Forest. Or if you’re a summer-only recreationist, sit down at the computer, pull up Google Maps, and plan how you’re going to get out and enjoy our local parks.