Experiencing Quintessential Vermont Wilderness

Vermont is best known for maple sugar, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and quixotic politicians. Lesser known are the state’s secluded wilderness areas. One of Vermont’s most obscure and seldom visited wilderness areas is Phen Basin, a thickly wooded tract of mountainous terrain on the west side of the Mad River Valley in north central Vermont.

Phen Basin (sometimes Phenn or Finn), once home to hardscrabble subsistence farmers is now mostly public lands with major sections in the Camel’s Hump State Park. State ownership has brought restrictions on access and use with several trails closed and others restricted to wintertime use. Mountain bike access is limited to the “Chain Gang” Trail that links the ends of Phen and Stagecoach Roads in Fayston, Vermont.

In winter, the Catamount Ski Trail, a 300-mile ski trail running the length of Vermont from Massachusetts line in the south to the Canadian border in the north provides highly scenic access. The Catamount Ski Trail generally runs south to north through Phen Basin. Southern trail access is from the Battleground Condominium complex, which is on the north side of VT Route 17, 1.5 miles east of the Mad River Glen Ski Resort. From this point to the summit of Huntington Gap is a challenging, but highly scenic 4 hour round trip (out and back) hike, snow shoe or ski.

Trail users start by bearing left before the covered bridge that leads into the Battleground Complex. After passing an abandoned tennis court, a wood cutting mountain enterprise comes into view, which evokes memories of the time when Phen Basin was inhabited and commercially cultivated. Cross the first of fourteen bridges and turn right traverse an easy uphill gradient. Ranging from substantial bridges with handrails to those consisting of just a few planks, the trail crosses and re-crosses several creeks on the way to Huntington Gap.

 

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Mill Brook at trails start

The climb into the basin is a moderate grade for 1.0 mile until reaching the former junction with a closed trail to Beaver Pond. It is a shame that the Beaver Pond area is not open to visitors. The several acre wetland complex is an excellent example of beavers changing the area’s ecology by building dams and creating ponds. The impact on the land is impressive with many large dams and many downed trees. At one time, the pond area was a popular lunchtime destination with a picnic table and horse hitching posts.

The Phen Basin forest consists of mixed red spruce, yellow birch and hardwood trees. Particularly, the area around the pond contains many Beech tree stands, which are a critical source of protein for black bears. Beech trees bear fruit every 2 to 8 years, so there is a need for many trees to support a healthy bear population. Likely, the state closed the pond area due to overuse and to provide a wild sanctuary for the black bears where humans will not disturb them.

While tempting, it is best to respect the state’s wildlife management policy and skip the visiting the pond area. At the well-marked junction, bear left onto the new detour trail. The first section is a leisurely jaunt covering a moderate grade up a broad valley. To the right and left are brief glimpses of ridgelines. Further up the trail from the pond, there are four especially steep sections to navigate challenging trail users.

After 1.1 miles, a junction with a Vermont Association of Snowmobile Travelers (VAST) trail is reached. Turn left and continue on the VAST trail for a few hundred yards. Watch for the signs for the Catamount Ski Trail junction, turning right off the VAST trail. In this section, there are some steep hills interspersed with areas of relatively flat terrain. The trail reaches a height of land and then descends for a short period. Descents prior to reaching the trail’s terminal apex are always a little disconcerting, as visitors know that they have to re-climb these sections on their return trips.

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Catamount Ski Trail

After 1.5 miles, travel across a seemingly flat section to arrive at Huntington Pass which is at an elevation of 2201 feet. Initially visitors might not realize that they are at the pass, as it is wide and heavily wooded. A former road existed through the pass which connected the towns of Huntington with Waitsfield and Fayston. With the advent of the Route 17 through the higher Application Gap in the early 20th century, this unpaved road became unnecessary and it now forms portions of the VAST snowmobile trail system. At the pass, the VAST trail is several hundred feet south of the Catamount trail.At the pass is a four-way intersection with the famed Long Trail that also runs north and south the length of Vermont. The Catamount ski trail continues down the other side of the pass. A rugged four-season trail, the Long Trail sections just north and south of Huntington Gap are pleasant walks along heavily forested ridgelines interspersed with rocky sections and thickets of scrum evergreens. Teasing glimpses of open vistas keep visitors motivated to continue but there are no real foliage openings in the immediate area around Huntington Gap. For spectacular views, walk approximately three miles north on the Long Trail to Burnt Rock, which provides nearly 360-degree views of the Champlain and Mad River Valleys. Scrambling around Burnt Rock Mountain summit mound provides even more views of Camel’s Hump, Ethan Allen and Ira Allen Mountains.

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Burnt Rock Mountain

After exploring the Long Trail ridgeline, most travelers retrace their steps to the starting point at the Battleground Condominiums. Interestingly, the return trip provides new vistas with different experiences.   Midway through the descent, views of Stark and Glen Ellen Mountains and their associated ski areas emerge. Further down additional panoramas of far off ridgelines to the east come into view. This challenging but enjoyable winter hike, ski or snowshoe covers a 7.2 mile round trip with a net gain and loss of 1100 feet in elevation. Visit Phen Basin to experience one of the best examples of Vermont wilderness regions while contemplating what it would have been like to eke out a living in this desolate territory.

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