When Vermont state parks reopen for family camping in late June, you’ll be able to sleep under the stars with close friends and family on the Lake Champlain Islands and enjoy the summer’s most peaceful getaway.
I was lucky to enjoy just that with John and Diane, who are kind of like family because we have prepared meals, celebrated holidays and traveled together, like families do. The fun we had on our weekend vacation in the Lake Champlain Islands of Vermontinspires me to share our experience with others looking to travel in that area.
We set out for our camping trip on a July morning, with a trunkful of tent, sleeping bags, coolers, and backpacks. We expected the drive from Ipswich, Massachusetts to northwestern Vermont (predominantly on Route 89) to take about four hours, but we knew that we would stop to see things on the way.
Picnicking along the Way
Our first sightseeing stop, and a convenient place for a picnic lunch, was well into Vermont. The well-visited Quechee Gorge crosses paths with Route 89 in the eastern part of the state. A high bridge spans over this deep gorge with bright green trees and white water below.
Travelers can just drive over to catch a glimpse, but for the full effect, park in the adjacent lot and walk onto the bridge. You will feel the traffic make it shake and have a majestic photo op.
Some trails around the gorge leave from the bridge, and picnic tables, a gift shop, and restrooms stand nearby. The gorge is part of Quechee State Park, a large recreation area with a campground. Do check this out as another option for a budget overnight. The facilities are small so you will probably have to book ahead — this summer for sure.
Eating our Way through Vermont
Though we had already eaten lunch by the time we reached our second stop, we saved room for dessert! The Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory is located near Stowe, Vermont (take exit 10 from Route 89). If anyone in your family enjoys their ice cream, STOP HERE! An aura of good karma (or caramel?) surrounds this landmark of the socially conscious company, supposedly one of the top tourist attractions in the state (check their website for reopening information).
For a reasonable fee, when tours start up, visitors can learn about the company’s history, watch ice cream production and partake in some samples. I was excited that cups of Phish Food, my favorite flavor, were waiting for us in the sample room.
Outside, there’s a scoop shop (of course) and other refreshments, a playground, and a coloring station. Diane colored a postcard while John and I visited the departed victims of poor mixing and marketing in the Flavor Graveyard. The factory grounds are rampant with children and their parents. I noticed also a busload of senior citizens disembarking and making a b-line for the scoop shop. This is truly a simple and fun activity for any age, especially on a sunny day, though it gets crowded.
Sightseeing in Burlington
Burlington is a cool “little town” – though it’s the largest city in Vermont, it has somewhat of a small college town feel. Most people walk with great purpose and direction on Church Street, but this pedestrian area looks more suitable for slow meandering past its many restaurants and storefronts. After dinner at Ri Ra, the local Irish pub, we went for a stroll, ducking in and out of book and kitchen shops. Also, we watched a street performer do some wacky things on a high wire, impressing his sizeable crowd.
Another pleasant place to hang out in Burlington is down by Lake Champlain. Walk down the hill to the end of College Street, and you’ll be there. The sturdy, porch-like swings that align the waterfront are perfect for restfully watching the boats and the sunset. A neighboring brewery festival provided us with musical entertainment, too! There’s also a nine-mile bike path for those more interested in active pursuits.
Exploring South Hero and Lake Champlain
From Burlington, we phoned our campground and then drove another half-hour to South Hero Island to claim our spot. We raised our tent on a plot at Skyland (more on this campground later), then headed back for our only non-smelly night on the town.
What a full day we had on Friday. Sometimes I have trouble sleeping on the ground, but I conked right out with childish abandon when we returned to our tent.
Touring South Hero Island
Our camp was located in South Hero, on one of the five Lake Champlain Islands: North Hero, South Hero, Grand Isle, Isle la Motte, and Alburg (which is technically a peninsula, but who cares?). This rural community is connected by bridges and is about 30 miles long. In the areas we passed through, tourism development was present but quiet, mainly contained to peaceful lodgings, farms, and orchards open to visitors.
Not seeing much around in the way of hiking, John, Diane, and I drove to Isle la Motte to go for a long walk. Our five-mile loop along the roadside (maybe this wouldn’t be the best with kids, but it worked for us) brought us past farmland, quaint homes, residents on riding lawn mowers that wave as you pass, a tiny town library, and ruins of old buildings that reminded me of rural Ireland.
We started and finished in front of St. Anne’s Shrine, located on the original site of Fort St. Anne, the first settlement in Vermont, constructed in 1666. This was also the site of the first mass celebrated in the state. Now, in addition to statues of Catholic saints and an outdoor altar, there is a snack shop, restrooms, and picnic tables right on the water. This is another decent spot for a dip in the lake, especially after a long, paved hike on a hot day.
Pitching Tents at Lake Champlain
Using what turned out to be incredibly green wood purchased on the honor system from someone’s yard on Isle le Motte, we prepared a dinner of hot dogs and s’mores that evening. The novelty of cooking on sticks, of course, made the meal, just as it did for me countless times at Girl Scout camp. An ongoing struggle involving lots of newspaper and a borrowed hatchet kept the fire going just barely enough to cook.
Late that night, we watched a surprising spectacle from inside the tent – our fire flared up by itself, with no cajoling at all!
Remember to look up in the sky at night, especially if you live in an urban area. I saw more stars from Skyland than I had seen since traveling across rural Montana.
It was a typical early morning in a tent – awaking to the squawking sound of birds and breathing in the stale air heated by the rising sun. It was refreshing to exit into the fresh air, go for a swim with John in Lake Champlain (Diane, the swimmer of our group, had already gone in), and look around the campground.
Family Camping at Skyland Camp
Camp Skyland has overlooked Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains, and New York’s Adirondack Mountains since 1927. It’s a straightforward spot with a breathtaking view and plenty of families playing together. Of the 33 campsites, 11 are tent sites with picnic tables and fire rings. There are also 12 cabins for two to six people with toilets, hot showers, porches, bedding, refrigerators, and cooking facilities. A building with flush toilets and showers is available to all guests of the campground – we assumed this would not be the case, so having not brought any soap or shampoo, we washed our hair with careful amounts of dish soap. Not long after our trip, the person cutting Diane’s hair commented on how healthy it felt. Lake Champlain water and dish soap turned out to be a good styling routine!
Camp Skyland has several other features that make it a fun place to relax. Row boat and canoe rentals are available, and the small wooden docks are perfect for dangling bare toes into the chilly water. Guests can try their hands at horseshoes (John was definitely the champion) or for rainy days, the main office building has shelves full of books and board games (think beach reading and vintage games like “The Waltons”). We enjoyed reading, napping, and listening to our French Canadian neighbors chatter over their camp stove throughout the day.
By the way, the camp swing set has the best vantage point I’ve seen for playground equipment – and don’t think I didn’t try it out – as it directly overlooks the lake. Children meet new friends on these swings, bicycle around the grounds, and play frisbee with their parents in the central, grassy field. This is classic stuff – nothing fancy, but everyone looked like they were making some nice memories.
Too Soon to Head Home
Sunday morning was the time to head back to Massachusetts, but we weren’t exactly in a hurry. After a leisurely breakfast, wash-up, and packing routine, we began the long drive (by East coast standards, anyway) home. It didn’t take us long to make a stop.
Allenholm Farm, which turned 150 this year in South Hero, is one of the many visitor farms in the area. It has a cute shop and loads of interesting residents. Visitors can hang out with the farm’s donkeys (one of whom loves peppermint candies), sheep, rabbits, horses and Scotch Highland Cow (it’s surprising to drive past the farm and see a “hairy coo” from the road). Inside the shop, we saw also a beehive and a box full of very little peeping chicks. The bees and chicks were not for sale, but the shop does sell a variety of Vermont products, natural foods, and homemade pies. There’s also apple picking in the fall and a bed and breakfast on the premises.
Traffic heading back toward the Boston area on Route 89 supposedly gets really heavy on summer Sunday afternoons/evenings, but we seemed to get through before the worst of it. Our silence in the car expressed that feeling of comfortable exhaustion that results from spending a weekend together outdoors. Our camping trip was one of my favorite journeys of this summer and I would recommend the Lake Champlain Islands to families looking for a no-frills kind of getaway. And remember, dish soap makes a decent shampoo!
Things We Didn’t Have Time to Visit but Maybe You Will
When John was working for a University of Vermont summer program a couple of years ago, he brought a group of kids to the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory. He describes the experience as “a brief tour (probably about as long as the Ben and Jerry’s tour) that shows the different steps in making their teddy bears, and gives some history behind both teddy bears and this particular factory.”
In addition to the factory tour, visitors can enjoy the Bear Shop, café and ice cream parlor, and even make your own “Friend for Life” (for a much larger, additional fee, of course). Located in Shelburne, Vermont; take exit 13 from 89.
The same exit takes you toward Shelburne Farms, a 1,400-acre, environmentally sensitive working farm and a National Historic Landmark. In addition to checking out the Visitor Center and Farm Store, visitors can wander the 8 miles of walking trails, watch cheese being made, or stop by the Children’s Farmyard, where farm representatives and guests share chores like milking cows, churning butter, and collecting eggs. There are also guided tours, an inn, and a restaurant open in the summer. Check their web site for a calendar of special family programs. General admission is $6/adult, $5/senior, $4/child age 3-14 and free for children under 3.
ECHO, or Ecology, Culture, History and Opportunity at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, is located right on the Burlington waterfront, near those pleasant porch swings. It was closed by the time we passed by in the evening, but it looked like an interesting museum. Over 60 species of fish, amphibians, and reptiles live here, while the building itself has an environmentally friendly design. Visitors learn all about the science and past of New England with interactive exhibits like the “Awesome Forces Theater” covering 800 million years of geologic history, the Atlantic touch pool, and a replica of shipwreck. In addition, toddlers through age 6 children have their own Discovery Place.
Surprising Attractions While Family Camping in Vermont
Those who embark on the Spirit of Ethan Allen III can choose between scenic narrative, lunch on the lake, Sunday brunch, or a variety of dinner cruises. This 500-passenger luxury yacht departs from the Boathouse on Burlington’s College Street. While cruising, keep an eye out for Champ, Lake Champlain’s resident sea monster. Discounted rates for children ages 3-11 years are available.
Find out about the man the boat is named for at the Ethan Allen Homestead Museum just outside of town. This was the last home of the Vermont folk hero and leader of the Green Mountain Boys. The education center has a multi-media show and hands-on exhibits, while outside there are trails, picnic areas, gardens, and a children’s history playground. Another plus for little ones is the Kid’s Corner with its 18th century clothing and games. Tours are available all summer, and admission costs $5/adult, $3/child age 5-17, and nothing for kids under 5 (there is also a $15 family rate).
Herrmann’s Royal Lipizzan Stallions have their summer home in North Hero’s Knight Point State Park. Diane has seen these Austrian horses perform before, and she was impressed and perplexed that horses could jump so high vertically with their hind legs. The agility of these “ballet dancers of the horse world” results from military training dating back to the 1600s, which teaches them awesome jumping strength and intricate movements. Owned by Austrian nobility for centuries, a past generation of stallions was held hostage by the Nazis and dramatically rescued in the 1940s. Now the horses show off their skills four times a week in the summer.
Ed Weed Fish Culture Station on Grand Isle offers an up-close view of the salmon and trout being raised in its hatcheries. The Visitor Center has educational displays, while visitors can watch and feed the fish. Best of all, it’s free.
Jennifer’s Guide to Helpful Websites
There are several websites for the different regions in this part of Vermont. For general tourism information, maps, a visitor’s guide and lodging information, please see the Lake Champlain Islands Chamber of Commerce or Vermont’s official tourism and travel planner.
The Vermont Attractions Association has an informative web site for advanced research; their Attractions Guide and Road Map are super useful. Do check out Vermont State Parks for the latest healthy and safety rules for camping and other outdoor activities. And while you’re there, check out Hero’s Welcome, a landmark gift shop in North Hero with all the souvenirs you’ll ever need.
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