Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Trip Report- Millstone Hill Trails: True Grit (October 2011)

One of the many bedrock spines.
At the geographic heart of the Green Mountains, the trails at Millstone Hill near Barre are the embodiment of Vermont's stern and ingenious spirit and among its premiere mountain biking destinations.

While you probably won't need your climbing harness or pitons, you'll need to bring a heaping helping of true grit.

Raised in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, I often grew up with a reality of Vermont much different than the popular image of places like Stowe and Woodstock.  In fact, I like to tell people who watched the eighties sitcom Newhart that I grew up identifying more closely with Larry, Darryl and Darryl than with the Loudons.  That is to say, my shirts were flannel and not merino.

Near the top of Z Screaming Demon.
There's no town in Vermont that better embodies the hard-scrabble, flannel wearing crowd than Barre.  And while I think that Vermont has always been a mutually beneficial coexistence of this tribe with the sweater wearing elites, it isn't always a love fest.  Especially in high school.

Back then my hardest fought basketball games were always against Barre's Spaulding High.  Always.  My school, St. Johnsbury Academy, was quasi-private and had a number of dormitory students from well-to-do families around the world. To Spaulding we were the tie and sweater wearing, prep-school elitists-- and they gave us hell for it.  We, on the other hand, felt we had something to prove to them.  Even if we did go to a private school, most of us grew up in the Northeast Kingdom and felt the need to show  the folks from Barre we were just as tough.

Brad can't stop smiling.  
These themes continue to resonate for me, even as I compare the two areas' mountain biking trails.  Kingdom Trails, located not far from St. Johnsbury, consists of mostly smooth cross-country single track.  It is the kind of place any mountain biker can go and have an absolutely amazing day, but not feel that their life was in mortal danger.  This has diminished somewhat with the addition of Burke Mountain downhill trails, but the image is still out there. The biggest criticism of Kingdom Trails has been that they are too easy. Too soft.  The tame bucolic pastures, sugar glens and picturesque bed and breakfasts are magazine caliber Vermont.  What's missing is the wilder, less manicured character. The grit.

Much of Millstone Hill is a tougher, more raw experience than what you'll find at the Kingdom.  Carved out of the granite hillsides, Millstone incorporates the abundant stone to create drops, jumps, and other technical challenges.  A copious number of wood bridges and ramps also connect the trails.  There are no-fall lines mixed in with difficult bedrock spines and other balancing acts.  As a result the trails are less of the buttery smooth and flowy singletrack common in the Kingdom, and more like the name "Millstone" implies:  roughly hewn and course.  An afternoon of riding will churn, grate and wear at you.  However, much like the stone from this quarry, all of this milling will ultimately transform you into tougher, more polished rider.

A fun bridge to bridge to bridge section.
Before I scare off the casual biker, I should say that Millstone also has plenty of gloriously fun beginner singletrack.  The trails are generously marked so as to keep beginners from getting in over their heads-- provided that their egos doesn't write blank checks.  While trails like Z Screaming Demon and Roller Coaster will keep smiles on the freerider's faces, cross-country bikers looking to ratchet up their skills can tackle less acrobatic lines. In short, Millstone has plenty of room for a rider to grow.  

Industrial wasteland or epic natural beauty?

Perhaps even more than the variety of the trails available, my favorite thing about Millstone is simply the impossible genius of its existence.  When you take a step back, you suddenly realize that the locals have pulled off an amazing magic trick of Yankee ingenuity:  they've turned what is really an industrial wasteland into a scenic park where you can go to experience nature and enjoy the outdoors.  In true Vermont fashion,  Millstone is simply the utilization of the discarded remnants and empty husks of the Granite industry re-born and re-purposed for tourism.   So while you won't find sugaring houses or picturesque meadows, you will find the more subtle beauty of nature reclaiming the landscape.

Further, the trails taste less like "leftovers" than creative dishes served up by the local trail chefs.  In the southern corner of the park even sits a trail, "Fellowship Ring" designed by the folks who put together Fellowship Trails in Hinesburg, VT.  While Brad and I only touched a small portion of the trails in this section, these were some of my favorites.  They had an excellent combination of flow with mild technical challenge.

The majority of our day at Millstone was spent in the northwest corner of the park, where we did laps on Harrington Ridge.  The scenery in his area was oddly alien: almost as if we had entered some portal to the Pacific Northwest.  The singletrack cut a bedrock path through soft mossy carpets.  After climbing to the ridgetop, beautiful views ranged Westward toward Camel's Hump.   
Which way to Seattle?
We also took a runs down the imposing Z Screaming Demon and Rollercoaster.   If three foot drops are not your thing you might want to stick to the intermediate bypasses conveniently provided next to the hero lines on these trails.  I probably should have.

The folks at the trail center were very friendly and accommodating.  Mixed in among the traditional general store fare I was able to find a few bike wares like chain lube and some energy bars.

After a long day on the trails we headed down the hill into Barre for some post ride brews and discovered The Quarry on Main Street downtown.  It instantly became one of my favorite post-ride pubs given their friendly attitude and the fact that they had twelve taps with only one  non-Vermont beer (Stella).

I knew you wouldn't believe me so I took a photo.
Similar to my previous trips to Barre, I left this one a little sore and exhausted, but as always with a continued respect for this tough and resourceful place.

If you haven't visited, the folks at Millstone tell me that they will try to stay open on weekends through November.  It might be a little cold, so just make sure to wear your warmest flannel, and leave the merino at home.

Here's the video:


  1. Awesome report. Gotta go back there soon. Lodging is also CHEAP in that area, which is good for me.

  2. Good for us all. Saw your Pico report... Way to get some early turns!

  3. Great report. Almost wishing fall would last long enough to check the place out.

  4. Thanks! November should provide a few good riding days. Just make sure to take the antlers off of your bike helmet so as to avoid any life altering mishaps with hunters. Also be sure to check with them before making the trip. Their Facebook page has updates every Thursday on trail conditions/closures.

  5. Excellent read. Makes me want to plan a few trips over that way next summer to add some variety to my NEK riding. I've only ever been over there once for the Millstone Grind race and thought the course was a blast. Definitely more technically entertaining than KT. It sounds like there's a lot more there worth exploring.

    On the other hand, if Kingdom Trails doesn't seem very technical, you're not riding fast enough. :)

  6. Thanks singlespeed. I was wondering when someone would call me out on that statement. KT definitely has some techy riding.. just not in the abundance you'll find at Millstone. Our average speed at Millstone was about half what we averaged at KT. You also reminded me of something I forgot to mention in the piece. Brad did that entire day (and the day before at KT) on a singlespeed. I think he deserved some sort of trophy.

  7. Nice write-up. I've been riding at Millstone the past 4 years, but haven't made it out there recently due to crazy work summers. I know what you mean about Barre vs. Stowe. I live near Stowe, and am fed up with the tourons and old-money rich folks. I'm not going to move to Barre anytime soon (though I'm there all the time), but it has potential. Too bad it's in the dumps these days. Same goes for Rutland. Glad you checked out the Quarry. That place is brand new and I haven't had time to try it out yet.
    Anyway, Millstone is rad, and your post makes me want to go back there ASAP. Too bad winter is imminent...