America’s smallest state capital, Montpelier offers big-time fun with first-rate restaurants, museums, galleries, music and a historic statehouse that commands the city, all set against an idyllic New England backdrop
Vermont is what Thomas Jefferson envisioned the United States becoming: a small society of independent and self-reliant farmers and merchants. Montpelier, the country’s smallest state capital, with a population approaching 8,000, has that feel, making good on the vision of the nation’s third president.
Montpelier and its surrounding environs make for a memorable RV destination, with shops, restaurants, campgrounds and all sorts of outdoor recreation. The region has a number of highly rated RV parks, and for those who prefer a more isolated camping experience, Little River State Park in nearby Waterbury provides a beautiful public campground.
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Nearby are Stowe, another picturesque New England village, and impressive Mount Mansfield, the highest peak in Vermont at 4,393 feet. A toll road and gondola lead to trails that reach the summit for panoramic views. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory in Waterbury is a fun and tasty stop for everyone.
Once a farming community with roots going back to the early 1800s, the area suffered massive flooding in 1927 that caused extensive property damage and loss of lives. Another major flood in 1934 drowned the town of Waterbury. These natural disasters became the impetus for construction of the Waterbury Dam, built between 1935 and 1938 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, creating 860-acre Waterbury Reservoir. At its zenith, the CCC camp was a thriving community of 2,000 men and 80 buildings. Now only a few concrete foundations and solidary chimneys remain.
Little River State Park is located in Mount Mansfield State Forest, just off Interstate 89 in Waterbury, about 15 miles from Montpelier. Reaching the campground requires a 3½-mile drive over dirt-packed Little River Road. Nevertheless, it is one of the largest and most popular parks in central Vermont. The campground includes 81 tent and RV sites, sans hookups, and four restrooms, three with hot showers for a fee.
On the shores of Waterbury Reservoir, the state park has two beaches, a boat launch and boat rentals. It is centrally located to major attractions in the Montpelier area, but after a long haul from New Jersey, my wife, Linda, and I decided a relaxing swim was in order. Then we’d plan our next day’s agenda, which, naturally, included visiting the capital city.
Just east of Montpelier, in Barre, is the impressive Rock of Ages Quarry. It’s the world’s largest open-face granite quarry with a depth of 600 feet. Narrated shuttle tours are provided, and you can take a self-guided factory tour and watch artisans sculpt and polish the internationally renowned Barre granite. A stop at the visitor center allows you to view exhibits, watch a video about the operation and tour the gift shop.
From there it’s a short drive to Montpelier. The city’s slogan, “A little capital goes a long way,” is a play on words that is representative of this unique state. Small in size and population, Vermont is America’s most rural state, yet it is rich in sophistication, political activity and contradiction. Although its population is considered liberal overall, Vermont has few gun restrictions for ownership or to carry. Residents run the gamut from small farmers to independent shop owners, professionals and hippie entrepreneurs. Most decisions are voted on directly by the people in town hall meetings, bringing to life Jefferson’s vision of an independent, self-reliant citizenry providing local rule.
It’s difficult for many outsiders to fathom a capital city with fewer than 8,000 people, but with Vermont’s total population of only 625,741, it’s not that surprising. Linda and I were most impressed with the statehouse, a Greek and Renaissance Revival building completed in 1859. Its gold-leaf dome actually has real gold in it.
Contrasted against the deep-blue sky and green trees of Hubbard Park, the statehouse symbolizes democracy and seemed to sing to us. We contemplated Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill … from every mountainside … let freedom ring.”
Freedom extends to the fee-free guided tours of the statehouse, which are offered from July through October, Monday through Saturday. With marble floors, spiral staircases and carved wood trim, the interior is as impressive as the exterior. We were able to visit the ceremonial governor’s office, the Senate Chamber, and Representatives Hall, the meeting room for the Vermont General Assembly. On a previous visit many years ago, my tour guide was the mother of Patrick Leahy, now Vermont’s senior U.S. senator — I bet that would never happen in a big state!
Only a few steps from the statehouse is the Vermont Historical Society Museum, whose mission is to emphasize “Freedom and Unity.” The museum’s multimedia exhibits represent Vermont history from the 1600s to the present. You can walk through a full-size Abenaki wigwam and see the re-created Catamount Tavern, famous for being the gathering place of Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys. Allen and 83 of his militiamen captured New York’s Fort Ticonderoga from the British, giving the Continental Army its first victory during the Revolutionary War. The Green Mountain Boys also captured Crown Point, another British stronghold in the Champlain Valley.
For a hawk’s-eye view of Montpelier, visit Hubbard Park, with 7 miles of hiking trails and a 54-foot observation tower offering views of the city’s church spires. Reaching the tower requires about a 20-minute round-trip walk. As an alternative, drive to the Cliff Street overlook for a view.
Experiencing downtown Montpelier on foot is easy, as it is only about five blocks long, yet it is filled with unique restaurants, stores, historic buildings and a lively music scene. We enjoy people-watching, and the city’s colorful blend of artists, businesspeople, government workers, college students, outdoor enthusiasts, musicians and aging hippies make it all the more fun. Some of the downtown venues have live entertainment on weekends, and when the weather warms up, evening concerts take place on the statehouse lawn.
Julio’s Cantina, Mexican Cuisine and Margarita Bar has indoor and outdoor dining next to the Book Garden bookstore (“Where ideas grow”) and the Vermont Trading Company, all worth a look-see. On Saturdays at the Capital City Farmers Market, more than 50 vendors showcase products that include hand-dyed wool hats, raw goat milk, cheese and, of course, maple syrup, among other delights.
In 2009 the Vermont General Assembly passed the Farm to Plate Initiative to encourage a sustainable agricultural economy. Subsequently, a number of farm-to-table businesses have sprung up in Montpelier, such as the Hunger Mountain Coop market, deli and café, which carries 2,000 local products, and Kismet, a restaurant offering artisanal meals made with fresh, local organic ingredients.
Should you need a relaxing cool-down from your walking tour, Wrightsville Beach Recreation District is 6 miles north of Montpelier on State Route 12. Here, the north branch of the Winooski River has been dammed to create a reservoir. There is a beach, a boat launch and boat rentals that include canoes and kayaks, plus an 18-hole disc-golf course, a picnic area and multiuse trails. Be aware that dogs are not allowed from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
We headed west for a different way to cool down by visiting the famous Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory in Waterbury. The 30-minute guided tour includes a free sample of ice cream (you can buy more outside), an explanation of the manufacturing process and a company history video.
As we learned on the tour, Ben and Jerry are two self-proclaimed misfits and childhood friends from Brooklyn, New York, who had failed at everything they tried. However, after successfully completing a $5 correspondence course about ice cream, they decided to open Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop in Burlington, Vermont. With their hippie philosophy and cleverly named flavors like Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey, they soon developed a cult following, and the ice cream became a popular brand.
A must-drive in the Montpelier area is the Stowe Mountain Resort Auto Toll Road, open from late May through mid October, weather permitting. RVs aren’t allowed on the steep 4.5-mile dirt and gravel road, so take your tow vehicle to experience the awe-inspiring views that lead up to the 3,850-foot-high parking lot. To reach the actual 4,393-foot summit of Mount Mansfield requires a 2.8-mile round-trip hike, mostly above the tree line. On a clear day, the summit offers impressive views of the Green Mountains, Lake Champlain, Quebec’s Mount Royal in Quebec, New York’s Adirondack Mountains and the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
The mountain is said to look like the profile of a face, with the peak being the chin. Hiking the ridge north on Long Trail takes you through an alpine environment that is more typical of arctic areas 1,500 miles to the north. For us, the first 360-degree view came after a 15-minute walk, and the next 360-degree view came another 10 minutes later. Since it was quite warm and hazy, we opted not to hike all the way to the summit. However, the view on clear days is said to be well worth the effort, but be prepared for weather changes that can be abrupt and extreme, even during the summer.
You can take it easy on the Gondola SkyRide for great views without the walking and enjoy lunch at the Cliff House Restaurant. For the more adventurous, six tree-to-tree aerial courses and a zip-line await at Stowe’s TreeTop Adventure, open from June 25 through September 5 this year.
After leaving the mountain, we stopped briefly in Stowe Village, a quaint town with shops, restaurants, bicycle paths and country churches. The town seemed to have been invaded by the Redcoats — British cars and Union Jacks were everywhere. Then I spotted a sign proclaiming exactly that: Stowe Village was hosting its British Invasion, New England’s largest U.K.-lifestyle event. The annual gathering of Anglophiles and British automobiles takes place September 16 though 18 this year.
Heading back to Little River State Park, we observed a steady stream of classic British cars advancing on Stowe. We could not help but be amazed at the uniqueness of the Montpelier area, with its elegant capital city, scenic mountains, convenient parks and diversity of activities. I was already thinking about what I wanted to do on our next visit.
Stay and Play
Rock of Ages Granite Quarry
866-748-6877 | www.rockofages.com
Stowe Mountain Resort Gondola SkyRide
800-253-4754 | www.stowe.com/activities/summer/gondola-skyride
Vermont Department of Tourism
800-837-6668 | www.vermontvacation.com
Vermont State House Tours
802-828-2228 | www.leg.state.vt.us/sthouse/sthouse.htm
Camping Near Vermont’s Capital
Limehurst Lake Campground
9 miles from Montpelier
802-433-6662 | www.limehurstlake.com
Abel Mountain Campground
25 miles from Montpelier
802-728-5548 | www.abelmountain.com
Sugar Ridge RV Park and Campground
30 miles from Montpelier
802-684-2550 | www.sugarridgervpark.com
Lake Champagne Campground
25 miles from Montpelier
802-728-5293 | www.lakechampagne.com
Little River State Park
14 miles from Montpelier
802-244-7103 | www.vtstateparks.com/htm/littleriver.htm