Exhibit: The History of the Long Trail
“… to make the Vermont mountains play a larger
part in the life of the people.”
– mission of the Green Mountain Club since its founding
When James P. Taylor first advanced the idea of a wilderness hiking trail through Vermont’s Green Mountains, his vision was as expansive as the landscape itself. People would come to Vermont, fall in love with the trail and the mountains, and grow to love and support the state itself. To that end, he and twenty-two others founded the Green Mountain Club (GMC) on March 11, 1910.
The newly-formed Green Mountain Club intended to build a hiking footpath from Massachusetts to Canada. Construction began in 1912, and the first completed section ran from Sterling Pond to Camel’s Hump. Over the next ten years, GMC members and other volunteers constructed an additional 209 miles and raised 44 trail shelters. In 1930, trailblazers cut the final link of the Long Trail from Jay Peak to the Canadian border.
Over the years, the trail underwent a series of reroutes in some areas to lift it from lower elevations to the high ridgeline. Work continues today to upgrade or relocate the trail to more suitable locations or onto conserved lands.
Through all the trail changes, the experience of hiking on the Long Trail remains a timeless and meaningful endeavor.
Hiking in the Green Mountains, particularly over long distances, can offer a welcome reprieve from the bustle of day-to-day living. The nature of that escape, however, has changed dramatically since the early 1900s.?
When the trail was less well-known and travelled, hikers could look forward to the company of the occasional caretaker at day’s end. Early caretakers were only stationed at shelters on popular peaks, like Mount Mansfield. Hikers might have also found company in farm families who provided a warm meal and bed for a nominal fee. But during the day, passing a fellow hiker on the trail was rare, and one could walk for miles—days even—without seeing another soul.
A hiking boom in the 1970s changed the hiking experience from true solitude to one that assured you would find company in the woods as more people flocked to the mountains to recreate. Technology today has hikers even more connected to the world; instead of tracking their thoughts and experiences in handwritten journals, some hikers livestream their daily progress to the internet.?
Solitude is now harder to find on the trail – but not impossible. Hiking the Long Trail is still a deeply personal and individual experience, no matter how many others share the trail.
The spirit of community is expressed both on and off the Long Trail. Since its beginnings, the Green Mountain Club has been organized into sections that correspond to geographic stretches of the Long Trail. Initially, these sections formed in order to cut and build the actual trail itself, but today they are robust volunteer-run chapters who take responsibility for trail maintenance in their areas.
Hikers could find support from local farmers along the trail in the early 1900s. They paid a nominal price for food and shelter and to bunk with the family or in the barn. Some farms grew famous as regular stops and were listed in the Long Trail Guide.?Today, towns, known as ‘trail towns,’ welcome hundreds of hikers in a season. Gear and grocery stores, restaurants, laundry facilities, post offices, and other services draw hikers to town.
Hikers can bond together for any number of reasons– common purpose, common interest, or lifelong relationship expressed through hiking. Some groups hike small sections each year over decades, and some families count three or four generations of thru-hikers in their ranks.
Many hikers adopt trail names as they continue along the Long Trail. Sometimes they choose their own names, and sometimes others choose names for them based on a habit behavior, or some silly thing they did.
Hiker shelters are an important feature of the Long Trail. Their locations, design, and how they are managed have changed. Early shelters were often rudimentary, using trees harvested nearby and constructed on site. Simple lean-tos or four-sided enclosed camps
were the primary styles. By the end of the trail’s first decade, there were 44 shelters; today, there are over 70. Many more were built but deteriorated over the years and were abandoned.
Repairing an existing shelter or constructing a new one today is a complicated process. Early shelters are subject to historic preservation guidelines and regulations. Some newer shelters are prefabricated off site or located in one of the six federally designated Wilderness Areas where power tools are prohibited. Lumber, materials, and tools have to be packed in (and out) on foot by GMC field staff and volunteers.
Gone are the days when hikers and trail maintainers could simply dump trash or unused equipment in a pile behind the shelter. In the 1960s, five decades of refuse was packed out by GMC volunteers.
Hikers may also leave the trail for a night or even several days at a time to return to the everyday world. Trail towns with services such as laundry and food stores welcome travelers. And even while still on the trail, today’s hikers are much more connected to civilization than their counterparts of a century ago, using technology to connect with friends and family whenever they want.
When the Long Trail was first proposed and built, Vermont was coming out of a long period of heavy overuse of natural resources. Over the nineteenth century, much of the state’s forests were clear-cut, and beaver, deer, moose, turkey, bear, otter, wolf, and catamount were heavily hunted, reducing or eliminating their populations.
In their absence, other animals flourished. Early hikers carried a small hatchet for use on the trail and to keep porcupines, which were drawn to the salty creosote painted on shelters, at bay. Today, there are more bear sightings on the trail than ever before. Hikers now carry bear-proof food storage containers and alter their thinking about how to behave in the backcountry.
Early on, the Long Trail traversed mostly private land, crossing hundreds of small farms and woodlots. In the early 1980s, many of the lands that had been safe for decades were put up for sale, and the Green Mountain Club began a concerted effort to purchase or permanently protect the trail. They succeeded, and today only 6.5 miles of the trail are outside of protected land.??
Climate change will be the Long Trail’s single biggest challenge in the twenty-first century. Severe weather events are becoming more common. Rain can wash out miles of trail, and wind blows down an increasing number of trees every year. Rebuilding trail and removing trees – when every tool is hand-operated and packed in – requires constant effort from section volunteers.