8 Reasons You Need to Go to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom

8 Reasons You Need to Go to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom

If you could chisel an outdoor adventure mecca from granite, you might end up with a sculpture of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom (NEK).

NEK, a 2,000-square-foot region bordered by Canada to the north and New Hampshire to the east, is a tapas restaurant of all-season alfresco options. Visitors will find an endless array of skiing and hiking, plus truly special “only in Vermont” experiences and a population with an infectious passion to share it all.

Get NEK deep in nature’s playground with our favorite Northeast Kingdom attractions.

Reason 1: It’s All Downhill from Here

Do: From atop Burke Mountain, breathe in views of Willoughby Gap, a U-shaped geological fixture flanked by imposing granite cliffs. Then exhale and let gravity and 200+ inches of annual snowfall do its work as you zig down groomed trails or zag through Vermont’s enchanted forest routes. Not a ski bunny? Burke’s Snow Sports School, run by the on-mountain resort, will have you playing in powder like you’re some kind of donut junky.

Downhill’s less speed-seeking cousin, Nordic (cross-country) skiing, is likewise available in abundance, with kilometer after kilometer of groomed trails catering to all levels. Get lost in the scenery — fields, forests, historic inns, and farmhouses — on one of Burke’s Kingdom Trails, a volunteer-driven non-profit that works in partnership with private landowners to maintain the state’s most revered networks. (Reasonably priced day passes required; free for 70+ crowd.) Or visit the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, Vermont’s x-country skiing OG, with 100+ kilometers of well-maintained trails, along with classes, snowshoeing, skating, and naturalist opportunities.

Stay: Upscale without being pretentious, the Rabbit Hill Inn features 19 uniquely designed suites. Themes run from art deco to country rustic, and many suites boast whirlpool baths and fireplaces. An onsite restaurant features seasonal menus with locally sourced ingredients, and an Irish-style pub serves up cocktails and Vermont’s famous craft brews.

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Reason 2: To Grandmother’s House We Bike?

“Fatbiking,” where a sturdier frame and beefy tires replace the svelter standard, is a relative newcomer to the winter sports scene. But the childlike glee that comes with two-wheeling over packed snow means it’s catching on quickly, with East Burke even hosting an annual WinterBike FatBike Festival. First-timers shouldn’t be intimidated — there are group rides and fantastic easy trails for getting your tires spinning over snow. The aforementioned Kingdom Trails is a great place to start. (Those same trails are used for outstanding all-season mountain biking, too.)

A pair of revered local bike/outdoor sports institutions, East Burke Sports and Village Sports Shop, will steer you in the right direction with tips, bicycle rentals, and the requisite safety gear.

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Reason 3: Get Sappy

Do: They call it “Mud Season,” or better known to most as Spring. As winter slowly fades, a brief natural homeostasis balanced by thawing spring-like days and sub-freezing wintry nights happens. It’s at this March–April confluence that Vermont’s maple trees release rivers of what will become liquid ambrosia, producing more than 40% of the country’s maple syrup. With the air redolent of boiling sap and wood smoke, sugarers make haste around the clock, knowing it takes 40 gallons to produce one gallon of syrup. You might see plumes of white wood smoke billowing overhead — sign of a nearby sugaring outfit. Sampling, of course, is a cornerstone of the experience, and visitors will find no shortage of tasting opportunities from local purveyors like Deep Mountain Maple, D&D Sugardwoods Farm and Colburn’s Village View Maples & Beef.

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Reason 4: A Doggone Special Place

Stock image - Woman and pet dog sitting on a mountain - pets holiday - Photo by Bekka Mongeau from Pexels

Do: If you’ve ever wanted to reward your dog for being the best widdle boy in the whole world, take him to Dog Mountain in Saint Johnsbury. The vision of artist and author Stephen Huneck, the mountaintop dogtopia features 150 acres of hiking trails, ponds for paddling, dog art, and more tongue wagging than a pack of socialites after three martinis. A Dog Chapel lovingly built by Huneck showcases a sea of floor-to-ceiling notes eulogizing well-loved — and lost — family pooches. It’s not uncommon to see visitors moved to tears.

Stay: Those touring NEK with their pooch would do well to consider the Phineas Swann Bed & Breakfast Inn, an upscale establishment featuring: antique four-poster beds alongside the smaller, softer doggy version; pet-sitting, grooming and dog-walking services; and special packages that keep your best friend buttered up so you can hit the slopes, guilt-free, at nearby Jay Peak.

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Reason 5: In-Glaciate Yourself With Willoughby

Do: In a region known for its postcard-perfect natural settings, Lake Willoughby stands out. Crystalline water fills a Fjord-like trench, carved down over millennia to 300 feet in spots. A pair of granite monoliths, Mount Pisgah and Mount Hor, tower over two sides of the lake like the posts of a massive gate. It’s an all-season destination, with bracingly cold swimming during the summer and stellar ice climbing and fishing during the long winter. If you’re up for a real challenge, grab a guide/instructor, like an expert from Kingdom Adventures Mountain Guides, and tackle an icy rock wall on Mt. Pisgah. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Stay: Located just a snowball’s throw from the lake, the Willoughvale Inn offers 10 en-suite rooms and eight freestanding cottages, most with fetching views of the surrounding landscape. Suites are uniquely designed and named after historic figures, places, and local wildlife — so be sure to ask the hosts for a little backstory.

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Reason 6: Start Your Engines

Do: Few winter activities are more thrilling than feeling the rush of wind and watching the blur of trees as you open the throttle. Vermont’s snowmobiling capital, Island Pond, is located (where else) in the Northeast Kingdom. The Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST), together with local clubs, maintains the state’s extensive trail network. First-timers should take a tour with one of NEK’s well-regarded operators, like NEK Adventures, which offers two-hour rides led by certified guides. You’ll whiz down old logging roads, over farmland, and down untouched landscape that’s the stuff of a Robert Frost poem.

Stay: The Rendezvous Bed & Breakfast, a classic 120-year-old-plus farmhouse, features a wood-burning stove, drool-worthy breakfast, and proximity to a VAST trail, Jay’s Peak and other NEK staples. It’s also on Vermont’s Catamount Trail, an epic 300-mile-long Nordic ski trail that runs the length of the state.

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Reason 7: Sharpen Your Steal

Do: From December to March, skating options – frozen lakes, ponds and other designated areas – materialize across the Northeast Kingdom like thumbtacks on Darwin’s travel map. In Newport, locals and visitors alike descend on Gardner Park to glide atop three first-rate ice surfaces linked by frozen skate paths. If the weather is frigid enough, for long enough, unforgettable natural skating on Lake Memphremagog becomes an option. Farther south, St. Johnsbury boasts two outdoor rinks for public use: the well-groomed Four Seasons Park and the Portland Street Rink, which features night skating.

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Reason 8: Get Your Culture On

In a place with so many phenomenal outdoor options, it’s easy to forget that NEK is also something of a cultural capital of Vermont. Founded in 1891, St. Johnsbury’s Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium showcases a vast collection of natural history items, including thousands of taxidermy birds, mammals and reptiles, as well as Vermont’s only public planetarium. About a 30-minute car ride north in Glover is Bread and Puppet Theater, yet another “Only in Vermont” NEK experience. Founded by anti-war, anti-oppression political radical Peter Schumann, it’s a combination outdoor theater space and museum stuffed to the rafters with statement-making paper mache puppets, masks and posters. As is the tradition, free sourdough rye is doled out to foster a sense of community – whatever your political stripe. Shows occur Fridays and Sundays during the summer and the museum is technically open June 1 – November 1, but special appointments can be made to see the collection.

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