Trailhead: Take I-91 to Barton, Take Route 5 South to Sutton, Left on Wheeler Mountain Road, 1.5 miles parking lot on the right
The Wheeler Mountain trial is well-known to Northeast Kingdom hikers. Just this past year, the trail layout underwent a massive overhaul. The old red and white trails offered hikers two options for reaching the summit. There was a shorter, steeper route that required scaling large sections of exposed ledge. The other route, was longer with a lesser grade. Both the old trails were heavily used and relied on access across private land. Parking was also an issue, with most cars spilling out to the roadway.
The new trail, built by the Northwoods Stewardship Center, bypasses private property and approaches the summit from a different direction. The trail is now longer, almost four miles round trip according to my Strava app, and climbs 840 feet to a max elevation of 2,170 feet.
With funding through the Vermont Recreation Trails Program, according to a press release, NorthWoods was able to complete four weeks of trail work. The crew, consisting of eight local youth, cut over 1-mile of new trail—clearing sapling growth to establish the trail corridor and preparing the tread by installing sidehilling, steps, and drainages. New blazes and signs are going up this week.
“The benefits of the new trail”, according to Luke O’Brien, the NorthWoods Trails Director, “is that it is now located, in part, on Willoughby State Forest lands and the landowner has agreed to an easement that ensures long-term public access to the upper trail and mountain. It provides much greater security for the trail when, in fact, it could have been closed entirely.”
The good: the view from the ledges at the top is the same as its always been. One location provides a nice spot to sit, have lunch and enjoy the beautifully southerly views of the Green Mountains, minus those annoying wind towers on the ridgeline. Just a little further and there is another lookout offering one of the best views of Lake Willoughby.
The bad: one of the best things about the old red and white trails is that kids enjoyed it. My daughter hiked it when she was five and chose to climb the steeper difficult trail and come back on the longer trail. Her favorite part was climbing the big rocks and ledges. Those features are bypassed on the new trail. The new trail is a longer, more difficult hike and my now 8-year-old was not a fan.
Full disclosure, we saw plenty of hikers and kids on the trail. Many seemed happy, so it seems not everyone shares my daughter’s opinion. Maybe they are more seasoned hikers, or at least, more interested. My wife and I consider it a victory when we can get our daughter to put down the iPad and enjoy the outdoors.
I must say that I share her opinion of the new trail on the whole. The view at the summit is a must-see, but I certainly preferred the old route to the new one. That being said, I completely understand the landowner’s point of view. The vehicles and foot traffic across their property must have worn thin over the years.
Conclusion: This hike is still recommended for anyone looking for a way to spend a couple of hours and see the beauty of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. While the climb is more difficult now, it’s still moderate enough for kids. Plus, if this is your first time visiting, you won’t have to worry about comparing it to the old trail!