A hidden gem in Vermont, Grand Isle State Park
GRAND ISLE, Vt. — As dusk falls over Lake Champlain, the sky on a summer night turns blush pink. The sun sets above the trees that cover the lake’s many shores, reflecting oranges and yellows off lakeside homes. The outline of the Green Mountains forms a deep purple silhouette in the distance.
This picturesque view is less than a four-hour drive from Boston, making a majestic camping getaway to Vermont perfectly attainable for a short weekend trip.
Ashley Brisson, a lifelong Champlain Valley native who has worked since high school for the state Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, says visitors should really make their treks to the Green Mountain State longer.
“Vermont state parks have reached more than 1 million visitors [annually],” she said. “More people are going on ‘staycations.’ They don’t want to go out of the country. People have settled for smaller, shorter, more outdoorsy, and cheaper vacations. And coming here is cheaper than, you know, flying to the Bahamas.”
The hidden gem in this region is Grand Isle State Park, an easy jumping-off point for beachy and woodsy mini-breaks only 35 minutes from the urban charm to be had in Burlington.
Brisson, the park manager, has worked at Grand Isle for the last nine seasons. With 160 pristine campsites, as well as cabins and striking waterfront lean-tos, the state park is ideal for a getaway in every sense of the word. Tenting and fireside experiences abound in the park, though a vacation can take on many shapes here, with daytrips to the magnificent nearby beaches or stops in the islands of northern Lake Champlain. Locals recommend not only hiking and biking but hunting through antique stores, farmer’s markets, and art galleries.
Bill Champagne, who runs Grand Isle’s Island Homemade Ice Cream, has lived in the area his entire life. He said on his days off, he ventures out onto the lake to fish, and maybe to spot the elusive “Champ,” the valley’s mythical Loch Ness Monster-like beast that supposedly lurks in the lake’s waters. (Burlington’s cruise tour boat “The Spirit of the Ethan Allen” claims the “largest mass sighting” in 1984, when reportedly more than 50 riders saw Champ, or possibly something else, in the lake.)
“That’s really a story for kids,” Champagne said, adding the region has more to offer than legends. “Stop in for the little arts and crafts shops, or the farmer’s market every Wednesday and Saturday. . . . Snow Farm Vineyard makes wines, and every Thursday night in the summer, there’s a concert and we scoop the ice cream.”
The Island Line Rail Trail is a perfect daytime adventure, with 14-miles of lake views from Burlington to South Hero. Cyclists eventually come across a 200-foot gap in the panoramic lake causeway. They can turn around or spend $8 to ride a little white ferry the short distance across and continue onward.
A favorite stop in South Hero (just 10 minutes from Grand Isle State Park) is Allenholm Farm, a seven-generation apple orchard in operation since 1870. Maple-flavored soft-serve “creemees” are for sale, along with the snacks from the adjacent outdoor Accidental Farmer Cafe. Exhausted cyclists can carb up with the delicious “farmer’s nachos” — fresh baked potato slices topped with beans, sour cream, and salsa.
Burlington has shopping on Church Street and plenty of restaurants. While in the city, explore the region’s microbrews, including those from Hill Farmstead Brewery and the difficult-to-find Heady Topper from a Waterbury, Vt.-based brewery called The Alchemist.
Brisson said she thinks many people, especially young parents, don’t put Vermont on their vacation list because it lacks a theme park or other typically tourist venues.
“We’re not all capitalism, capitalism, capitalism,” Brisson said with a laugh. “We really appreciate our greenness and the outdoors. I think it’s a little rugged for some people and it tends to get overlooked as a destination point, but I think as soon as people find it . . . they fall in love with it.”
Grand Isle State Park camping and lean-to reservations book up fast, with reservations coming online at the state park’s website 11 months in advance.