Pedaling Green Mountain National Forest

Mountain Biking Trails of Vermont
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Trail at a Glance

Length/configuration: Natural Turnpike is a 23-mile loop; Steammill Road is an 11-mile loop that fits inside the Natural Turnpike loop (they share the first 5 miles and final 1 mile)

Aerobic difficulty: Easy to moderate

Technical difficulty: Easy dirt roads

Overall rating: Difficult and advanced intermediate

Scenery: Densely wooded; both rides pass the site of a former steam mill

Special comments: A beginning and an expert rider can start out together, and at the 7.5-mile mark the beginner can stay on the Steammill Road while the expert branches off for a longer ride on the Natural Turnpike; the rides join again, 1 mile from the end; excellent for mud-season training.


Central Vermont is a hotbed for mountain bike riding, and the Green Mountain National Forest is no exception. The rolling terrain makes for excellent riding, and there is no shortage of trails. Mountain bikes and motor vehicles are permitted in all of the same parts of the park, except the Contest, Ash Hill, and Pine Brook Trails and the Leicester Hollow and Silver Lake, where bikes are welcome and motor vehicles are not. (You are subject to a $100 fine if caught riding on national forest trails posted closed to mountain bikers.)

Several rides described in the following pages are on U.S. Forest Service roads that are smooth, gently graded dirt roads not maintained in the winter. They were originally intended for access to the backcountry by national Forest Service employees, but now they are used mostly to access recreational areas such as hiking trailheads. They receive little vehicular traffic and are usually mellow places to ride. Forest Service roads, also called Forest Roads, are marked with a brown sign and the letters FR in white, followed by a number in white (for example, FR 55).

For information and maps on the northern half of the Green Mountain National Forest, write or call Green Mountain National Forest, Route 7, Middlebury, VT 05753; (802) 388-4362.

Natural Turnpike and Steammill Roads Rides

In the early 1900s the Natural Turnpike was built as a stagecoach road running north-south between South Lincoln and Ripton. Over a period of years, the U.S. government purchased much of the land surrounding the Natural Turnpike for the Green Mountain National Forest. From 1960 through the 1970s the road was upgraded to allow for public travel, recreation, and forest commodity transport. It was also used as a fire road, but its main purpose during that time was for transporting logs from logging operations to the main highway. Some logging is still being done, but the road is now primarily used for recreation and by hikers accessing Vermont's Long Trail.

The Steammill Road, also a Forest Service road (FR 59), takes you from VT 125 to the Natural Turnpike (FR 54), 2.5 miles north of Ripton at the Bread Loaf campus of Middlebury College. On the Steammill Road is the site of a former sawmill which used a steam engine to convert logs to lumber for easier transport out of the forest. Although very little remains of the sawmill, the open meadow attracts wildlife, and therein lies the trailhead to the Skylight Pond hiking trail. The Steammill Road circles back to Ripton and is the shorter ride (11 miles), while the Natural Turnpike spurs off the Steammill Road for a 23-mile ride.

Neither the Natural Turnpike nor the Steammill Road are plowed during the winter, making them excellent places for winter outdoor recreation. As a result, the roads do not suffer from the inevitable potholing that erodes most of Vermont's roads during mud season. They remain smooth throughout the spring and are excellent roads for early-season riding.

Beginners will enjoy the Steammill Road loop—the climbs are gently graded and the road surface is smooth, yet the remoteness of the national forest allows for a sense of solitude. The Natural Turnpike is more challenging, mainly because it is twice the distance. Much of the riding on both loops is streamside. Depending on the time of year, you will see a variety of wildlife, including mallards and beavers, and there's even a good chance of spotting a moose. Except for a freshwater spring near the end of the Natural Turnpike ride, there are no places to refill your water bottle along the way, so be sure to carry at least two water bottles on hot days.

General location: The town of Ripton on VT 125, 6 miles east of Middlebury.Elevation change: Both rides start out by gaining 900' in elevation during the first 5 miles (1,100' to 2,000'), but the climbing is gradual since the roads were built to accommodate logging equipment and fire vehicles. For those riding the Steammill Road loop, it's all flat and downhill for the remainder of the ride. For those riding the Natural Turnpike loop, you will climb an additional 200' before descending 700' into South Lincoln. From there you will climb steadily for 500'. Your reward is a long, gradual descent back to the start. Total elevation gain on the long ride is 1,600'.

Season: Anytime except winter when the roads are not plowed.

Services: Rudimentary services are in Ripton (general store, phone, bed-and-breakfast). All services can be found in Middlebury, 6 miles west of Ripton. The Bike & Ski Touring Center is located on Main Street in Middlebury (802-388-6666).

Hazards: The possibility exists of encountering an occasional logging truck, but chances are you won't encounter one.

Rescue index: At the farthest point you are 5 miles from the nearest phone.

Land status: Most of this ride is in the Green Mountain National Forest where cyclists are allowed on Forest Service roads but nowhere else.

Maps: You'll need four USGS 7.5 minute quads: Bread Loaf, East Middlebury, South Lincoln, and South Mountain. Northern Cartographic and DeLorme's atlases are also good references. All can be found at the Vermont Book Shop (802-388-2061) on Main Street in Middlebury, 8 miles from Ripton.

Finding the trail: Park at the town hall in Ripton, 8 miles west of Middlebury on VT 125. The ride begins here.

Source of additional information: The best place for information about anything pertaining to the Green Mountain National Forest can be found at the Middlebury District headquarters, 7 miles from Ripton on VT 7, just south of Middlebury. You can write or call Green Mountain National Forest, Middlebury District, Route 7, Box 1260, Middlebury, VT 05753; (802) 388-4362.

Notes on the trail: Steammill Road loop: From the town hall in Ripton, begin by riding east for 2.7 miles on paved VT 125, climbing gradually to Middlebury College's Bread Loaf Campus. You will know you have reached the campus when you see a cluster of yellow buildings. Turn left onto FR 59, a.k.a. Steammill Road, and continue climbing gradually on this smooth, gravel surface with dense woodland on both sides of the road. You are now in the Green Mountain National Forest. Eventually you will come to an opening where the steam engine-driven sawmill once sat; the site is now a small parking area for hikers using the Skylight Pond Trail. Descend gradually until you come to a well-signed junction (7.5 miles into the ride) and turn left, still riding on FR 59.

FR 59 takes you back into Ripton on a gradual descent. Cross over Sparks Brook, and at Cooks Cemetery, bear right on Robbins Cross Road (paved). Ride to a T-intersection and turn left onto Ripton Road (there is no sign) and descend steeply on pavement to VT 125. Turn left and immediately you will see your starting area. Total of 11 miles.

Natural Turnpike loop: Begin with the Steammill Road directions above. To complete the Natural Turnpike loop, go to the junction at the 7.5-mile mark and turn right onto FR 54, the Natural Turnpike. Continue climbing gradually through dense woodland. There are many tempting side trails used for winter recreation, but don't venture onto them; they lie in national forestland where bicycles are not allowed, and anyone caught faces a $100 fine.

Soon you will begin a long descent followed by a mile of flat that affords great views of Mount Abraham (elevation: 4,006'). In South Lincoln (no services) you will come to a 3-way junction—stay to the left and cross over a low bridge. Pass two dirt roads on the left: one has a small white sign that reads Old Country Road 41, the other is FR 68 (both dead ends).

Come to a T-intersection and turn left. This is known locally as the Ripton-South Lincoln Road, or vice-versa, depending on which town you live in. Climb steadily; when you pass a sign on your right for the Bristol Notch Road you have reached the top. Begin a long, gradual descent. Shortly after passing the St. Theresa Cemetery on your right, you will come to a 4-way junction. Bear left (not the hairpin left) onto the Lincoln Road, which parallels the north branch of the Middlebury River. Keep your eyes open for the freshwater spring on the right, a good place to refill your water bottle. Though old, the spring is clearly marked"Compliments of Lucky Seven". The water comes from a pipe and is regularly tested by the Vermont Health Department.

Soon the road turns to pavement. Pass the Robbins Cross Road on your left (this is where the ride rejoins the Steammill Road loop). Descend steeply on pavement to VT 125. Turn left and immediately you will see your starting area. You've just completed a total of 23 miles.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

View: Trail Map

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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