Fall Color: The Sans-Granny-Gear Foliage Tour

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1994

Fall Color: The Sans-Granny-Gear Foliage Tour

Off-season pedaling on Vermont's Champlain Islands
By Catherine Fredman

The mention of an October bike tour in Vermont conjures up a pair of contradictory images: that of a transcendent, Edenesque experience in the midst of one of North America's most colorful leaf extravaganzas, and that of a hill-hammering, RV-dodging war of attrition against both geography and a bunch of other folks with the same idea but more horsepower. While both versions can certainly ring true, you'll have a better chance of achieving the former and avoiding the latter if you head for the Champlain Islands, a string of pastoral blips just south of the Canadian border in Lake Champlain. Not only are they one of the few places in Vermont where you don't need 21 gears, but because they comprise a summer resort area in which about half the businesses close right after Labor Day, you'll find their October landscape to be as flat and uncrowded as the state's five-character license plate.

North and South Hero Islands, modestly named by Ethan Allen and his brother Ira in honor of their Revolutionary War activities, form the backbone of the chain and are basically a continuous landmass, save for a mile-wide bridge-spanned strait. A third chunk of land to the west, Isle La Motte, and Alburg, the peninsular finger pointing south from Canada, round out Grand Isle County. The main road, U.S. 2, serves as a shortcut from Montreal to Burlington and should be avoided whenever possible; narrow shoulders, large trucks, and a surfeit of drag-racing "Quebes" (the local term of endearment for our French-speaking neighbors to the north) reduce pedaling pleasure to near zilch.

But the backroads, dotted by wildflower meadows, fields of Ben and Jerry's trademarked Holsteins, and neat brick houses that date back to the midnineteenth century, are another story. The place to start is South Hero, right after you've crossed over from the mainland just north of Malletts Bay on Sand Bar Bridge. Head west through town, keep going until you hit the shore, and then follow it north, detouring onto any little dirt road that strikes your fancy. (It's impossible to get lost, since all roads either dead-end on the lake or wind back around to Route 2.) Here you'll find the bucolic Vermont of your dreams, and you'll have it all to yourself. And though you have to be brave to wade into Lake Champlain too far into October, the shore is pocked with beaches, mostly accessible and deserted. This holds true all the way up to Stephenson Point, in the state park at the northern tip of North Hero, which despite a three-cornered view is rarely crowded.

Persistent pedalers can cover the 32-mile run to the border in a day, but that's not what a foliage tour is about. Instead, after leisurely paralleling South Hero's western shore, do a full loop of its sister island, all the way through North Hero State Park, before pedaling across the bridge to Alburg. There, stop in for a quintessentially Vermont evening at Thomas Mott Homestead B&B (800-348-0843), right on the lake a mile and a half east of Route 2, where $55- $69 gets you a double room with a private bath, a stack of pancakes with Vermont's famed maple syrup, and the owner's guarantee that you'll catch one of 11 varieties of fish by your third cast. If you're traveling on a tighter budget, head for the six-site Goose Point Campground on Route 2 ($12 per night), which has showers, a swimming pool, and a boat launch. Either way, you'll have saved Isle La Motte--home of the world's oldest fossilized coral reef, which sits in a pasture half a mile east of the isle's main road, Vermont 128--and the eastern shore of South Hero for the next day.

Since the tourist information office on South Hero closes for the year after Labor Day, you should call the office on North Hero (802-372-5683) for a map before heading out. Lake Champlain Bikeways, a cooperative agency set up by the governments of Vermont, New York, and Quebec, also has maps and offers more bicycle-specific information; call 802-241-3688. It recommends that you bring a mountain bike, since the islands' most scenic roads are dirt or gravel; if you don't have your own, you can rent one from North Star Cyclery in Burlington ($16 a day; 802-863-3832), about 20 miles to the southeast.

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