Exploring the Land of Boulders and Bears (Robbins Mountain, Bolton, VT)

When the wilderness in what is now the towns of Richmond, Jonesville, and Bolton, Vermont were getting settled and divided up, a particular parcel of land was given to a family by the name of Robbins.  Sadly for them, the land wasn’t very…useful.  It’s quite hilly terrain, with very little tillable land, leading folks of the time to call the area, specifically Bolton, “The land of boulders and bears.”

This, my dear friends, is the very area Morgan and I moved to not two months ago.  It’s Morgan’s ancestral homeland; she grew up twenty-five minutes north of our current home, which is itself three minutes north of the Bolton town limit.  It is easily the most remote place I’ve ever lived, and I couldn’t love it more.  The stars at night are a brilliant tapestry; the only sound that filters through the open window as we sleep is cars occasionally zooming past on Route 2 or the interstate.

We live practically in the shadow of Robbins Mountain, named for that ill-fated farmer so long ago.  These days, the land serves three purposes for three very different groups.  Most obvious is the cell tower which sits atop the mountain, which distinguishes it from the other similarly sized and shaped mountains around it.  The second I came across as I was looking at maps, trying to figure out where the trailhead is: the mountain is contained within its own eponymous wildlife management area.  The third I discounted while looking at the maps, but discovered they play a significant part in this when I scouted the area out in person: the Chittenden County Fish and Wildlife Club.

The trailhead is easy to find, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be.  As I mentioned, I live five minutes’ drive away, but as I went to turn off Wes White Hill Road, all I saw were signs announcing the CCFWC and declaring that “facilities are for the use of members only.  I pulled in anyway, as the maps show the trailhead is just on the other side of the Club’s site, and the first thing I saw was a gun range.  Now, I don’t begrudge anyone their guns but have found they are not for me.  Thus, there is a disparity between me and people with guns, so now I’m a little nervous.  Nervous in the way that you would be if someone returned to the couch with a hitherto unmentioned pet tarantula on their shoulder.  You’re probably not in danger, but tell that to the spider’s big ol’ fangs and hundreds of urticating hairs that it could fling at you at any moment.

Regardless, I pressed on, and found the trail that heads uphill and into the woods. Shrugging, I drove home still intending to return and climb the mountain, so that’s just what I did this past Monday.  Not wanting to park on any grass, I parked on the gravel in front of the gun range, dubious as to whether the parking lot was included in the “no use of facilities” decree.  I left my car as out of the way as possible, tightened the laces on my hiking boots, and headed into the woods.

Now, I knew I had set out to climb a mountain, so when the access road sloped steadily upward almost immediately, I was like “Great! Let’s not waste any time getting up to the top.  The view’s what I’m doing this for anyway.  I hope I’ve got a good view of Camel’s Hump from up there…”  Little did I know that in about a mile, I’d wish the trail was a bit longer.

I suppose I shouldn’t be overly coy; this trail pushed me closer to my limit than I expected.  Indeed, I’ve never had my legs give out under me or passed out from exertion, but I wondered very seriously whether this would be the time it finally happened.  It wasn’t overly hot, and pretty much all of the trail is shaded—that’s how intense the climb was for me.  Now, bear in mind that I’m far from being in the best shape of my life. For the last three years, I’ve been in a steady decline in terms of caring for my body (part of why I wanted to move back to Vermont: lots of motivation).  So, if you’re accustomed to exerting yourself and exercise regularly in any capacity, you’re definitely in better shape than I am currently.  However, your adonis-like physique won’t carry you to the top alone on this one; you’ll need some trail experience in order to get yourself to the top.

For starters, I’m not sure there are any blazes or markings indicating where the trail is or which fork to take right at the beginning.  After disappearing into the woods, you’ll follow a gravel roadway for about a thousand feet before coming to a gate, marking the trailhead and your entrance into the Robbins Mountain Wildlife Management Area.  The surface stays the same for another thousand feet or so before forking. I came to that fork and saw one trail heading upward and another curving relatively flatly off to the left.  My gut told me up, so the right fork, but my brain knew better.  I was using an app called AllTrails, which has maps and emergency contact functionality (I highly recommend), and I’m glad I checked it, because left was the correct path to take.  A short distance onward, the gravel ends, becoming good, old-fashioned dirt.

It is at this point that the trail ceases to be a walk and becomes a hike. For the next half mile, I climbed what resembled ten- to fifteen-foot stairs, with about four feet of landing between the inclines.  Not exactly relaxing, but doable.  A mile from the gun range, a beautiful mountain brook crosses the trail, forming a small yet delightful falls area.  I stopped to take some pictures (and climb on the rocks a little).

As it turns out, it was good that I stopped, because the next half- to three quarters of a mile are some of the most difficult hiking I’ve done in several years.  The trail continues upward (obviously) in a similar manner to before the brook, but each “step” is now twenty or twenty-five feet tall, some angled at least 45°, and most covered in mud.  It had not rained that morning, or in the days preceding (to the best of my memory), so I can only assume it’ll be muddy like that the next time I go up—and there will be a next time, now that I know what I’m getting myself into.  That delightful mountain stream is the confluence of several above it, many of which flow on the trail.  Not next to it or across it: literally a trickle of water flowing down the surface cleared for gaining access to the summit.  In places, the mud was ankle deep, and I slipped on multiple occasions on both the way up and down, but I only needed to catch myself once.

All that said, a mile and a half in (and over 950 feet higher than where we started), the trail levels out.  In the last half-mile to the top, there is just one more push to the top, though it is as steep and muddy as before.  Finally, after all the pushing—and many, many breaks—I found it was totally worth it.  The sense of accomplishment I feel at the top of a mountain is unparalleled.  The way the wind moves, the fact that distant things can be just barely audible, the vistas… I got my good view of Camel’s Hump (though it wasn’t exactly photogenic), and I could just see Mt. Mansfield, which I didn’t know to hope for. There is the cell tower station fenced off at the top, but the actual summit is still accessible, and the area they’ve cleared of trees makes for actual views, so we’ll call it even.  My trek back down was uneventful and much, much easier than getting up. As I said: I can’t wait to go back.

This is in no way a beginner hike.  It’s not really a touristy hike, either.  It’s weird to access, difficult to climb, and there’s no real great vista to make it all worth it.  However, as a local? With this in my back yard?  I sort of love it.  I didn’t encounter a single other person on that trail, and I don’t think it’s because it was Monday.  I’ll be heading back up there, because that’s my new home trail: the mountain looming over my home.  I can recommend it if you have a completionist spirit and want to climb as many Vermont mountains as possible, or if you’re very familiar with the area and are looking for something you haven’t done before. It’s certainly rewarding, and you can’t beat free.

Overall, I was so glad to be able to get up there.  As I said, it’s why I’m back in Vermont, and ideally it’s an avenue toward better health.  Whether it is or not, though, I can’t overstate how wonderful it feels to be back on the travel writing wagon.  I won’t be doing this every week again (the burnout is still too real, even though it’s been a couple years), but I’ve always wanted to keep writing these articles.  I have a new Adventures in Aryest short story in the works, so you can watch for that in the coming months, and of course I’m still streaming every week, so come find me!

Thank you for reading; I hope you enjoyed it!  If you did, I humbly ask you to consider tipping me or checking out my social media.  Thank you again, and I hope you enjoy the next one!

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