Friday, September 15, 2017

Biking Burlington

Bill and I generally take a few days in early August for a trip to nearby Vermont. We hadn't given much thought to where in the state we would go this year.

We ended up being prompted to go to Burlington by Bill's purchase of a new bicycle in July.  While riding in Albany is fine, his 1.5 mile route to the College of St. Rose has lights every few blocks and traffic.  Two of my friends had told me with great enthusiasm about the rail trail out of Burlington.  Not only that, another friend had raved about an airbnb there.  We hadn't been to Burlington in a long time...and Vermont's plethora of craft breweries were always high on Bill's list.  It didn't take us long to make a reservation.

After the scenic trip from Albany, we had two full days in Burlington and chose the best one for our bike ride.  We easily bicycled through our neighborhood, down the hill to Lake Champlain, and to the start of the rail trail.

With the whole day ahead of us and lunch packed, we could take our time, stopping for scenery all along the way.  Our first scenic pull-off had benches, a beach, and white sand.  We stopped for a few minutes and then continued on.

We often caught glimpses of the lake and houses beyond the trees.  The houses varied.  Sometimes they were large and expensive, likely summer homes for people who spent much of the year in cities.  Other neighborhoods appeared humble, poorly kept, and struggling.

A few miles along, we came upon a detour and had to leave the trail due to repaving. I remembered that the two friends I knew who had biked here had both gotten flat tires on this trail.  Nice new black top would be a good thing, but we were disappointed to have to leave the bike trail and its scenic relaxed mood, substituting traffic and noise.  The detour felt long.  With the return to lake views and beaches, our easygoing vacation mood came back also.

Occasional plaques and Bill's iPhone described the fascinating history of the unusual train route that later became this recreational path.  In 1899, the Rutland-Canadian Railroad built the Island Line. The incentive to create this spectacular stretch of railbed was to provide a direct connection from southern New England to Lake Ontario.


The most famous part of the rail line was the three-mile Colchester Causeway that went directly across the water through Mallet’s Bay and Lake Champlain.  A feat of railway technical evolution at the time, this causeway was kept open for freight trains all year round.  

(the trail is raised over wetlands)

The Island Line served the New England communities well until moving freight by other means became cheaper. The last passenger and freight trains ran in 1955 and 1961 respectively. Not until the early 1980s did Burlington citizens begin to consider the idea of a recreational trail on the abandoned train line. 

(new bridge over the Winooski River)

Much renovation and rebuilding had to be done before the public could use the trail.  The former railroad bridge over the Winooski River had been dismantled in 1972.  A new bridge finally opened on August 1, 2004. The bridge, with its connected half-mile of elevated boardwalk, joined the Burlington Bike Path with the Colchester Causeway.

(we took pictures of others, and they took a pictures of us)

As we rode over the river and through the woods, the trail came to a small park, where signs and arrows pointed "to Causeway."  In minutes the vegetation opened to Lake Champlain, and the paved trail changed to fine packed stone gravel. What a treat to ride surrounded by water on both sides!

Families suddenly appeared for summer bike rides. They could conveniently leave their cars at the park we had just passed through, and spend their time riding the three-mile causeway.  It was great to see children enjoying this day exercising outdoors with their parents.

(with binoculars an estate is visible on the point)

We chose to sit on rocks in the shade for our lunch stop.  With my binoculars, I brought large and small boats into view as they cruised in the distance.  We peered through the lenses across to a large estate nestled in the trees on a point as well.

(a lone elm trees looks healthy and strong along the causeway)

An osprey circled above.  All of a sudden, it took a straight-down dive at rocket speed, vanishing into the water with barely a splash.  Its efforts proved fruitless, however, when we saw it fly back up without a fish.  It continued to circle above, but then flew away to another part of the lake.

(A gnarly white birch has seen some harsh weather)

To my surprise, swimming is allowed all along the causeway.  On a hotter day, a bike ride and a dip before the return could be very inviting.  We saw only one person in the water.

(Bikers roll their bikes down the ramp onto the Bike Ferry)

In the spring of 2011, the water in Lake Champlain rose to a record high, severely damaging the causeway.  Fearing that the causeway would be lost, the surrounding towns came together and raised funds to match FEMA's contribution for disaster relief.  Rebuilding the causeway became known as The Big Fix.  After reading plaques describing the railroad's struggles with weather long ago, we learned about and appreciated the causeway's ongoing vulnerability. 

(The Cut is open for boats to pass through)

Our destination was "The Cut."  Back in the day when the Island Line Railroad ran from Rutland to Montreal, a swing bridge was built at the north end of the line, cutting the track in two. Employees opened and closed the bridge to boat traffic as needed to allow passage to and from Mallet’s Bay and Lake Champlain.

When the railroad was dismantled, the bridge also came down, leaving a 200-foot gap, or cut, in the line. Until the bike ferry came to carry people around the gap in 2005, cyclists and pedestrians  could not pass to the other side.  Now bikers pay $8 round-trip to ride through The Cut on the bike ferry. 

(Anything is possible once you cross The Cut)

We watched the bike ferry make its way around The Cut, drop its passengers off and come back with a new group of bicyclists.  Options on the other side were limitless.  Besides the Champlain Islands with their beauty and amenities, bicyclists on a multi-day trip could ride over to the Plattsburgh ferry and head into the Adirondacks to the west, or Montreal to the north.  Many bikers with small children were satisfied with just the short round-trip on the causeway, and others, like us, made a longer relaxed day outing.

On our return trip, we stopped again at a beach.  The atmosphere had cleared and we had good views of the Adirondacks on the New York side of Lake Champlain.  When we reached the detour, I planned to take a picture of the unpleasant ride on the busy road for this blog post, but the miles didn't feel so long this time.  It seemed better to keep going than to stop for photos.

At our final beach stop, I took off my shoes and waded in the clear pebbly water.  I sat in the sand and buried my feet to dry before going back up a stairway to the top of a bluff where Bill enjoyed the view from a shady spot.

(Time for a beer on the deck of our airbnb)

We decided that we would continue along Lake Champlain south to the very end of the bike trail, but it kept going.  Every time we reached a place where we thought the trail must end, it continued on.  After a few miles, we concluded that 28 miles for the day was enough and turned back. We rode up the hill to Winooski Street and back to our lodging.  Our biggest evening challenge would be to decide where we should have dinner, given Burlington's myriad restaurants, all just a mile walk from our place.


  1. Amazing imagery, feel like I could step right in!

  2. I miss living on both sides of Champlain. Great description. Northern New York and northern Vermont all leading to bridges across Champlain and/or an easy dinner out in Montreal. Good memories.