The Sterling Pond Trail is one of the most popular and accessible hikes in Smuggler’s Notch in northern Vermont. We arrived here mid-morning on a beautiful, sunny Labor Day. The lot was full and cars lined the edges of the narrow, winding mountain road. While we looked for parking, we passed a trail of steep, stone steps disappearing into the woods. I hope that’s not our trail, I thought. Somehow walking up an incline, no matter how steep, seems easier than climbing up steps. I avoid them when I can.
We found a spot to pull off the road to park and headed to the trailhead. Sure enough, these rustic stone steps were the start of the Sterling Pond Trail. The trailhead sign rated the trail as difficult and cautioned that it was steep and slippery. The information I had found described the two-mile round-trip hike as “moderate” and noted just 855 feet elevation gain. No mention of steps.
There were a lot of people on this trail; families, kids, couples and small groups of all ages. The terrain quickly separated the people, however, as no one hikes at the same pace. Soon we felt alone on the trail in the quiet woods.
This roots and rock trail snakes up the side of Sterling mountain with occasional views of the mountains that line the other side of the notch. Most of the ascent is a persistent, gradual incline through birch forest. Intermittently we scrambled over boulders and crossed streams that ran across the trail down the mountain. The trail, after yesterday’s day-long rain, was itself a bit of a waterfall along much of the climb.
As I hiked up through the water and negotiated my way over the rocks and around the tree roots, I kept thinking, “How am I going to make it back down?” I’ve never been described as “sure-footed.” It’s easier, mentally, for me to hike up mountains. I’m leaning forward, I feel closer to the ground and if I slip it’s not too far to fall – more of a stumble. On the way down, alternatively, I’m placing each step on the wet, downward slope. My momentum could easily turn a small slip into a substantial slide and fall. So that’s in the back of my mind as we go up and up.
Occasionally someone passes us and occasionally we overtake someone else. But, for the most part, and in spite of the crowd at the trailhead, there’s quite a bit of solitude on this trail. At the top of the mountain, we join the Vermont Long Trail, a wide, well-groomed path running along the crest in the trees that takes us around toward Sterling Pond. In a short distance, we descend another rock slide that is the trail down to the trout pond.
There are people scattered all along the pond edge, poking out at every break in the trees. We found a spot off to the side with some good sitting rocks and lingered a bit. Mountain lakes and ponds are one of my favorite landscapes and this was no exception. Next to us sat a lone hiker who was looked like he was thru-hiking the Long Trail (it runs the length of Vermont, 273 miles). His well-worn backpack was outfitted for camping, he was unshaven, worn and looked like he’d been on the trail more than a few days. Maybe he was disappointed in all of the people in his wilderness? (I know I prefer my wilderness less populated). Or maybe he was grateful for the company?
The trail around the pond started with a climb (a deterrent) and would add 1.4 miles to our already 3-mile hike, so we retraced our steps back up the rocky slope, along the Long Trail and back down the waterfall steps. The way down was harder on my legs than the way up as I firmly planted one foot and then tensed to stabilize as I reached for somewhat level ground with my other foot. At one point I stepped aside for a woman with an infant, who couldn’t have been 2 months old, strapped to her chest, essentially running up the mountain trail. Amazing on so many levels! With my slow and deliberate pace, I made it comfortably back down over the rustic steps and onto the winding road.
It was such a nice hike in spite of the numbers of hikers and in spite of the stairs. I’m glad I saw the “moderate” trail rating first and not the “difficult” one at the trailhead and most definitely not the one that rated it “most difficult” (and mentioned the stairs!) that I saw at our next stop. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.