Every year I hike Mount Mansfield to the summit at least four or five times. On other occasions, I don’t make the summit but still enjoy hiking around the trails to look for birds and flowers. It is a challenging mountain to climb but the views can be spectacular and panoramic, from either the Forehead or the Chin. I prefer the Underhill side of the mountain because it is a shorter drive to the trail head, rather than trek to Stowe.
After dutifully waiting until Memorial Day (from April to the end of May—otherwise known as mud season—hiking trails are closed to protect them from erosion), I chose a favorite trail, Nebraska Notch. It starts out as a meander through the woods, follows a stream and then gradually climbs to the intersection with the Long Trail. Usually there are not many hikers on this trail, possibly because it takes longer to get to the Forehead summit on this route. The trails were not crowded at all and I took my time taking videos and photos of the blooming spring ephemeral plants along the way. One species I had not seen yet this spring was Dwarf Ginseng, Panax trifolius. It is a native perennial plant that grows from 4 to 8 inches tall, with each plant having one round umbel of white flowers; it prefers to grow in shaded woods with rich soils. Dwarf Ginseng has a rounded root that was used by Native Americans to alleviate symptoms of many ailments including rheumatism, chest pain, venereal disease, gout and headaches.
Most of the plants I observed in bloom on the lower part of the trail were typical for this time of year, but as I gained elevation, I felt like I had been taken back to the beginning of May or the end of April. Trout lilies and goldthread were still in full bloom and tree leaves were just beginning to emerge. I have read that the air temperature drops approximately 3.5 ° F for every 1000 feet of elevation gain, which stratifies the plant and animal communities that live on a mountain. Other factors are an influence too, such as wind and precipitation, but the annual growth cycle for plants and animals is shorter and slower with increased elevation, just as it is with increased latitude. The types of plants and animals also changes and diversity of species decreases. The alpine plant communities that grow at the highest elevations on Mount Mansfield are similar to the communities that grow on the arctic tundra.
Once on the Long Trail, I hiked toward the Forehead, passing the Twin Brooks Tenting Area and the intersection with the Wallace Cutoff Trail. Climbing the Forehead always gives me a rush because of the rock scrambles and ladder climbs. Once my ex-husband and I decided to hike this section with our beloved black lab, Hannah, but we had forgotten some details about climbing the Forehead. Upon arrival at the first ladder, we said oh, how is she going to climb these? Normally Hannah was up for anything, anytime, but she was not into ladders. My ex-husband had to carry her (all 65 pounds) piggy-back, up all the ladders!
The Forehead is only 3,940 feet compared to the Chin, which is the highest point on the mountain and in Vermont at 4,393 feet. After the Forehead ascent, I decided to hike over to the nature center next to the Toll Road parking lot, to check out the information about plants and animals in the alpine area. The University of Vermont owns almost the entire summit of Mansfield—about 400 acres—most of which is above 4,000 feet. The summit of Mount Mansfield is one of several natural areas managed by the UVM Natural Areas Center, established in 1974 to “recognize the University’s responsibility of leadership in the identification, protection, and management of important natural areas on University-owned lands”. And because the Long Trail spans the entire summit, the Green Mountain Club shares in the protection of fragile alpine communities with the presence of summit caretakers that educate visitors on how to minimize their impacts, such as keeping dogs on leashes and staying on the trails.
After my visit I started down the Maple Ridge Trail to make a loop, but the wind was blowing really hard and the ridge so exposed that I turned around, climbed down the Forehead and took the Wallace Cutoff over to the Frost Trail. The day’s adventure ended where it began at the Stevensville Brook parking area, but I still have many miles of hiking to go.