When I’m in a big city, I find myself drawn to historic working districts—old piers, marketplaces, train stations. Often these areas have been revamped and are now filled with restaurants and shops, but they still retain the flavor of their history and, hopefully, a little grit.
Millstone Hill, just outside of Barre, Vt., is the countryside equivalent of a historic working district. One hundred years ago, over 75 independent quarries operated on the site. Over time, the small quarries shut down and the forests grew back, but the land remained strewn with industrial waste. Fortunately, a local group of volunteers was unwilling to give up on this land. They formed a nonprofit organization, the Millstone Trails Association, to reclaim the land and develop it into an extensive, privately owned trail system. In 2005, 1,500 acres of quarry lands were opened to the public, and today over 70 miles of trails are open to the public for trail running, mountain biking, hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.
Make no mistake, this is no wilderness. There are many indicators that this was once a quarry, including signs that explain the history of the site’s excavation. At the same time, the remnants of the quarries give the land an almost eerie beauty. They are a constant reminder of how hard the Millstone Trails Association has worked to make something that could have been an environmental blight a wonderful place to explore and play outdoors.
The trails are designed with mountain bikers in mind, much like Pine Hill Park in Rutland, Vt., or Kingdom Trails in Burke, Vt., which makes them especially fun for runners, because they wind, weave, and go up and down a lot without being overly technical. A rudimentary trail map is available online, but to get the detailed, color map with trail names and ratings (“easiest” to “extreme” for biking), you’ll need to stop in the touring center at 34 Church Hill Road in Websterville and pay a small fee. Summer touring center hours are Monday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., but you may want to check the website to be sure hours have not changed. There is currently no charge to walk the trails in the summer, but there is a cost for biking and there are fees for winter use, which help the nonprofit to maintain the trails. Full information on rates and memberships is available online.
On my last visit, I started at the touring center and set out on the Wells & Lamson VAST trail and then up the Grand Lookout trail to the lookout. I then wove my way through some of the trails in the area of Millstone Hill (note that some of the trails in this area are bikes-only routes so check the signs) before heading back down Grand Lookout Trail to the Whetmore Heights trails. After exploring Whetmore Heights, I crossed Churchill Road and made my way up to the Holy Ghost Lookout, enjoying a number of trails, including the Black Lagoon and Holy Ghost trails. The trails were very runnable, and all were well-marked and easy to follow with bright yellow signs at intersections. These trails represent only a tiny section of the system.
If you really want to explore the entire system on foot or bike, you’ll need more than a day. Millstone Hill offers a variety of lodging options, from campsites to high-end bed and breakfast rooms. The setting is amazing, and you won’t even have to start the car in the morning since the lodge is right on the trails. You could easily spend a couple of days without getting bored or even repeating any trails, and the helpful folks at the touring center are more than happy to suggest routes of varying difficulty.
Entry fee: There is no fee for running the trails in summer. There is a $10 daily fee for biking, and season memberships are available as well. Check the Millstone Trails website for updates and details.
Pets: Dogs are allowed in the summer but must be leashed when in the area of the village. In winter, dogs are not permitted from noon on Friday through Sunday, but are otherwise allowed.
Map: A rough map is available online here. A more extensive map is available for purchase at the Millstone Trails touring center.
Trailhead: You can access the trails behind the Touring Center at 34 Church Hill Road in Websterville, Vt.