Ski towns attract runners to the Upper Connecticut River Valley
The author runs on the Futures Trail at Ascutney State Park, Windsor, Vermont. Photo by Joe Viger.
Fifteen minutes after leaving the Town Forest trailhead in West Windsor, Vermont, I’m so disoriented I might as well be blindfolded. The sudden hairpin turns and screaming downhills that are a hallmark of this trail network—called the Sport Trails of the Ascutney Basin—induce the sort of adrenaline rush usually associated more with skiing than with running, which might explain why I’m having trouble keeping my mind on navigation.
Fortunately, I’m with Jim Lyall, who not only runs these trails regularly but also helped build them. Lyall and other locals have been running, biking and skiing here for years. For most of that time the trails were visited only by the fortunate few who knew about them. But that changed in 2010, when Mount Ascutney ski area closed due to the owners’ financial troubles.
The ski-area closure has had a noticeable effect on the local economy, Lyall says. To keep tourists coming to the area, more landowners began opening their property for running and mountain biking. Now, local trail users are hoping that the mountain can become known for its singletrack rather than its ski slopes.
Scoot to Ascutney … and beyond
Mount Ascutney looms over the Upper Connecticut River Valley region of Vermont and New Hampshire, an area that is home to endless miles of trails. The Sport Trails of the Ascutney Basin are home to 25 trail miles, with the primary trailhead now located near the empty ski lifts at Ascutney Mountain Resort. The trail network cuts across the ski slopes before entering the woods on a mix of old logging roads and singletrack.
Just to the north of Ascutney, in Woodstock, Vermont, another trail system makes use of carriage roads built in the 19th century and once owned by the Rockefeller family. The property is now a national historic site, and offers 20 miles of carriage roads and singletrack.
The carriage roads wind up and around the sides of Mount Tom (1250 feet), traversing open fields and skirting a small pond. From the summit, the church steeples, small shops and quiet streets of the village of Woodstock look like something from the set of White Christmas. Several peaks are visible to the south, including Ascutney. Although Woodstock is known for its fall foliage and its proximity to Killington, it’s also a prime destination for runners.
To the north of Woodstock, the Appalachian Trail (AT) traverses the Upper Valley, cutting east over small peaks and through forests to Norwich, Vermont, before crossing the Connecticut River into Hanover, New Hampshire. The AT runs right down Main Street in Hanover, making it one of the few spots in the country where you can “trail run” on pavement.
From Hanover, it’s possible to mix the AT with roads and other trails to create loops of just about any distance. One challenging 17-mile loop showcasing a mix of terrain heads north from Hanover on the AT for about six miles before hopping on a scenic dirt road that winds back toward town and another trail system. The loop is one of local runner Chad Denning’s favorite ultramarathon training runs. “That thing will chew you up and spit you out,” he says. “Whenever I do the whole loop without walking, I know my fitness is getting there.”
After years of running adventure races in Colorado, Denning moved east to the Upper Valley in 2004. He has since used the local trails to train for a number of ultras, including four in 2011, finishing in the top three in all of them.
“It’s unbelievable how many trails exist here,” Denning says. “I think it’s totally on par with what’s out West.”
Like Lyall, Denning is becoming involved with local trail running. He started the eight-mile Stoaked trail race in Hanover on the cross-country ski course operated by Dartmouth College, and more recently he put together the eight-race Western New Hampshire Trail Racing Series and a series of winter races up local ski slopes, a tradition he says he brought with him from Colorado.