OverviewIf you have ever driven along southern I-91 in Vermont, you have probably noticed the large, impressive mountain rising nearly straight up from the Connecticut River valley and dwarfing every nearby summit. This is Mount Ascutney, one of the highest summits in Windsor County, and among the 25 most prominent mountains in New England, eclipsing peaks such as Camels Hump and Monadnock in this category.
The mountain, located in Ascutney State Park, is serviced by four major trails (and a number of minor ones), and an auto road leading to the upper slopes of the mountain. The actual summit is in a clearing in the woods with a few cell phone/radio towers, but an observation platform a few hundred feet distant provides 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and countryside. Views include the majority of the Green Mountains' crest to Mt. Mansfield and beyond, the Connecticut River, and on an exceptionally clear day, Mount Washington, some eighty miles distant.
Ascutney has a unique character and a unique place in Vermont's history. The mountain is effectively an old volcanic plug of an extinct, formerly much taller volcano. It juts up from the surrounding farmland and rolling hill country, providing sweeping views in every direction despite its relatively low absolute height. The small cliffs and slides, multiple ridgelines, and wrinkled appearance of Ascutney speak to its volcanic origins. It is a popular hang gliding site due to its height above the surrounding terrain and conditions apparently good enough to allow gliding all the way to the coast, 90 miles away!
Trails from the base of Ascutney to the summit tend to be between 3 and 4.5 miles one way, involve around 2500' of uphill gain, and are class 1/low class 2 in spots. The difficulty is much greater during the winter months, when everything may be covered in a layer of ice or snow. Each trail has its own unique features: the Weathersfield is popular due to its cascades, Brownsville has interesting rock formations and the Tolkienesque environs of the old quarry, and the Windsor trail is a relatively straightforward and unrelenting climb to the top. I personally would recommend the loop hike as described in the link to the DOC page.
At the base of the mountain is the town of Windsor, where Vermont's statehood was decided. By some accounts, Ascutney is where the Long Trail, spanning the length of Vermont, was first conceived, and of course the Long Trail eventually led to the creation of the famous Appalachian Trail. America's longest covered bridge lies near the base of the mountain, connecting Windsor with Cornish and the state of New Hampshire. Cornish itself is the home of both St. Gaudens Nat'l Historic Monument and the reclusive author J.D. Salinger of Catcher in the Rye fame (yes, I know where he lives, and no, I won't tell you!).
In all, though not one of New England's higher peaks, Ascutney is a mountain unto itself, and is definitely worth a look.
Getting ThereDespite Interstate 91 running just past the base of the mountain, reaching any trailheads from it is a bit tricky.
Weathersfield Trail: Take I-91 to Exit 8 (VT 131). Go W on 131 for about 3.3 miles to Cascade Falls Rd. on the R. Stay L at the first fork a short distance down the road, pass a few private residences and drive to the end of the road at the obvious parking lot. See red tape.
Brownsville/Windsor Trails: See the Dartmouth College link below
Auto Road/Futures Trail: Take I-91 to Exit 8 (VT 131). Go E on 131 for a short distance before meeting the intersection with US 5. Turn L (north) onto US 5 and continue 1.1 miles to the splitoff of VT 44A on the L (alternately, if coming from Windsor, this is a VERY sharp turn to the R). Take 44A another 1.1 miles, passing over I-91 on the way, to the entrance to Ascutney State Park and the auto road.
Red TapeAscutney is located in Ascutney State Park.
The auto road is closed during the winter months. When open, there is a toll to drive the road.
Some of the access routes to trailheads, if not the trails themselves, lie on private property--please be considerate. There have been rumors of property damage to vehicles parked at the Weathersfield trailhead, so park there at your own risk.
CampingThe park has several campsites. Additionally, a shelter (albeit a dilapidated one) can be found a good part of the way up the Windsor Trail. Check the park website for camping rates.
External LinksAscutney State Park. Some info on camping and the auto road.
DOC trail information (northern routes only)