Great North VT Adventure: Part 1 (Littleton to Marshfield)

Meg and I once again completed our longest self-supported bike tour yet: seven days of dirt roads, singletrack, surprisingly nice Vermont corner stores, and Heady Topper. I'm dividing this journey into seven posts, one for each day.

Through the power of internet magic, I'm posting all seven links at the top of this first post. Each link will start working once I actually write the post for that day. But until then, enjoy my absurd 404 page.

the whole trip was beautiful but this view probably takes the cake
the whole trip was beautiful but this view probably takes the cake

Shipping Out

most of the gear & clothes
most of the gear & clothes

Meg and I wake up at 6am for an espresso & an english muffin. This fuels our ride down the Ammonoosuc Rail Trail.

gotta stop for a foggy littleton pic, 3 minutes on the road
gotta stop for a foggy littleton pic, 3 minutes on the road

The trail ride starts with some rough going: lots of baby heads and soft, sandy surface. Our tires sink into the soil. We hopscotch rocks and mud puddles. But thanks to striking fall foliage, the excitement of a full week's bike vacation, and a shared affection for fog, we push south to Lisbon, where the trail improves.

nate won the bet on when we'd see the first cows
nate won the bet on when we'd see the first cows
the rail trail crosses mostly small side roads which is nice
the rail trail crosses mostly small side roads which is nice
foggy corn
foggy corn

This is the first time we've biked the entire length of the trail to the VT border. It's really neat! Like most rail trails, the Ammonoosuc features a number of old rail bridges. My favorite looms high above a sandy beach just down the trail from Bath. We'll return next summer for a swim -- for now, the water is a tad cold for a dip.

massive rail trail bridge about 200 feet above the river
massive rail trail bridge about 200 feet above the river

Shortly after the high bridge, a rafter of turkeys appears in the path. We creep up for a photo op, but they, uh... fly away down the trail. For a sizable distance. Huh. Earlier in the day, we followed a fawn down the trail for a while, but "flying turkeys" are my favorite memory.

On the subject of "cool stuff you don't see from a car": Bath, NH is home to a very long, very pretty, covered bridge that you can only view properly from the rail trail. It's a great spot to consider eating a donut, but decide against it because you're saving stomach space for a breakfast sandwich.

you don't get this view from the highway
you don't get this view from the highway

Second Breakfast

thankful that nate begrudgingly stopped for a pic on the side of the busy road
thankful that nate begrudgingly stopped for a pic on the side of the busy road

After a brief spooky road ride across the VT border to Wells River, we reach our second breakfast destination: The Hatchbox, a very small towable trailer transformed into a breakfast sandwich kitchen. But they're unexpectedly closed "for the weekend". Sigh -- VT small businesses strike again! So we settle for a stop at the nearby diner, Tuttle's, instead.

tuttles is the true wells river experience
tuttles is the true wells river experience

Not a Mistake

When we mapped out our route, I dreaded one section of the ride the most: the brief post-breakfast stint on the shoulder of US-302 from Woodsville to Groton. It's technically part of the Cross Vermont Trail, or XVT. But Meg and I have driven a car along that stretch of road before, and the wide shoulders did nothing to ease my worries about 50MPH speed limits and claustrophobic guard rails.

Fortunately, I was completely wrong.

Heading out from breakfast, the road is a smidge busy. But Meg reminds me that the XVT repeatedly diverts onto side roads and trails to keep bicycles off 302 as much as possible. We soon follow the XVT signage off the road onto a stretch of doubletrack. It leads through a quiet, peaceful, mushroom-filled chunk of forest completely separated from the road. We pass under the highway and the highway off ramps. A picnic bench presents an opportunity for a cider donut within spitting distance of the highway. Because somehow Vermont managed to make a park near a highway a pleasant place to be. Who knew?

xvt trail looking suprisingly cute right after hopping off 302
xvt trail looking suprisingly cute right after hopping off 302

Mouse and Moose

On the subject of those donuts... we stored them overnight in our bike bags before setting out. When we opened up the bag for a pre-lunch snack, we discovered that something ate its way through the bag and into one of the donuts for an overnight bite. A mouse? A hungry late-night Nate or Meg? Who knows?

Post mouse-surprise, we spot a large, dark, long-legged animal on the trail ahead of us. It quickly noticed us and sped off, but Meg's completely convinced it was an adolescent moose. I didn't see a white flashing tail, and it definitely had long legs, so who's to say? We'll call it the first moose sighting of our New England experience.

Experiencing Confusion

We soon rejoin the road, where the XVT signs (or lack thereof) immediately stymie us. They aren't ideal -- we frequently hit intersections with no indication of how to stick to the XVT. But thanks to Ride With GPS and Osmand, we (roughly) figure it out. Eventually. None of the roads are busy, the weather is beautiful, and the foliage just keeps getting better. Neither of us minds getting a little lost.

back on that classic VT dirt
back on that classic VT dirt

Eventually, we end up on "Old Railroad Bed," a proto-rail trail through Groton State Forest. This trail has it all: lakes, brilliant autumn oranges, reds, and yellows, massive boulders, easy grades, friendly people, vintage bikes, knives, lollipops -- exactly what you'd expect on a bike ride through the Vermont woods this time of year. And we spot our first sugar bush (of many), complete with a massive network of blueish sap piping.

groton state forest hitting us with the views
groton state forest hitting us with the views
snack break rock thoughts
snack break rock thoughts
the route through the state forest had a mix of state forest roads and rail trail - aka perfection
the route through the state forest had a mix of state forest roads and rail trail - aka perfection

Resentment and (Non)Forgiveness

With time, the XVT diverts from the "Old Railroad Bed" to dirt roads, plummeting towards Marshfield. Meg still resents me for making her climb a steep uphill around here because I saw a really cool waterfall. Some things, you just can't forgive. But it was a really cool waterfall.

'meg, there's a waterfall up this massive hill that we don't need to go up' - nate
'meg, there's a waterfall up this massive hill that we don't need to go up' - nate
'sick, totally worth it. i'm sure we won't see any other waterfalls this trip' - meg
'sick, totally worth it. i'm sure we won't see any other waterfalls this trip' - meg

The Hot, Instagrammable, FOMO, Zoomer, Calzone

Our course briefly separates from the XVT for a visit to the Marshfield Village Store, where we:

  • repeatedly step outside to cool off from the sweat-inducing heat while we wait for deli food
  • wolf down a surprisingly well-executed thin-crust veggie calzone
  • purchase our first heady topper 4-pack (of many) of the trip
  • acquire a delicious deli sandwich for later consumption at our campsite
  • puzzle at the background music -- early 2000s rap in the deli and beer section, 1990s pop in the store
  • just cannot understand the instagramming leaf peeping zoomers who ventured upstate from Massachusetts to avoid Autumn FOMO
who knew general store calzones are pure bike fuel?
who knew general store calzones are pure bike fuel?

Actually a Mistake

Now we make our first major mistake of the journey: we diverge from the old railroad bed. All because we're too lazy to climb the hills we just descended to reach the general store. We end up riding down the shoulder of route 2, where the leaf peepers drive as fast as possible to get to their AirBnBs by nightfall. The shoulder literally crumbles under our tires, and even if most drivers are polite, I'll never get used to RVs driving by me at 50MPH.

After a few harrowing miles on 2, we reach Onion River campground. The owners are incredibly friendly, and even deliver firewood to our campsite. Special thanks to Onion River for accommodating us despite a massive group reservation consuming most of their sites. We called ahead well in advance to make sure it was OK, but it was still kind of them.

mushroom friends at the campsite
mushroom friends at the campsite

A couple of heady toppers, 2-human Gin Rummy, a campfire, and a sub later at our riverside campsite, we lay our tired, smoky, smelly bones down in the tent. Life is good.

camp #1 - onion river campgrounds
camp #1 - onion river campgrounds

The Saga Continues

Check out part 2 (whenever I finish writing it -- maybe I already have?) at Day 2 (Marshfield to the Lincoln Gap).