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Autumn view, Elmore State Park, photo Ross Bryant
Best State Parks of the Fall

Words // Phyl Newbeck
Photos // Courtesy of Vermont State Parks

Sure, there are some Vermont state parks that are best visited in summer when the days are long and the water is warm. In fact, there are many that are only open in the summer, but there are others that shine in autumn. Take advantage of the cooler temperatures and the changing palette of the landscape and visit some of Vermont’s state parks this fall.
Director of Vermont State Parks Craig Whipple noted that roughly half of Vermont’s campgrounds are open through Columbus Day, making about 1,000 campsites available for the fall. “The camping experience is noticeably different after Labor Day,” he said. “The weather changes dramatically. It can be a little chancier but the bugs aren’t as prevalent. It’s quiet so it’s perfect if you’re looking for outdoor camping with a little seclusion, and the atmosphere is much more relaxed.”

One park that stands out in the fall is just outside Burlington. “It’s hard to beat Mt. Philo,” said Whipple. “The views are breathtaking, the foliage is beautiful, and there are nice cool breezes on the mountain. Some people go specifically to see the hawk migration in the fall. It’s the iconic small destination.” Mt. Philo has a 10-site campground at the summit which includes three lean-tos, hot showers and flush toilets, as well as an indoor pavilion. The camping area can be reached via a foot trail through the woods or a paved road.

John Frigault has been the ranger at Mt. Philo State Park for three years. “From my perspective, Mt Philo is a really magical place,” he said. “A lot of people don’t believe in magic but once you come up to the top of the park, the views are incredible.” Frigault noted that the park has an abundance of butterflies and, in addition to hawks, it’s a migratory route for more tropical birds like scarlet tanagers and warblers. “You hear these birds and if you find a niche or alcove and sit quietly, all these things come to you and you get a chance to entrench yourself in nature and rejuvenate and you get a brand new perspective on things,” he said. “That’s what keeps me coming back.” In the winter, Frigault lives in Costa Rica and watches the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. “The sunset at Mt. Philo is that or better, he said. “We have world class sunsets over Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks.”

Whipple also recommends Elmore State Park, which has 45 tent/trailer sites and 15 lean-tos, as well as hot showers. The park also features water access from a large sandy beach and hiking trails to the fire tower atop Mt. Elmore. “The Elmore area is spectacular in the fall,” said Whipple “and the campground is fully operational.”

Agnes Barsalo, now in her fourth year as Park Ranger at Elmore, touts the hiking trails as a perfect reason to visit the park in the fall. “Our trails are unbelievable,” she said. “From the fire tower you can see Stowe, Morrisville, Mt. Mansfield, and Camel’s Hump and to the east is the Groton State Forest. In the fall the air is clearer so you can see even further.” For those not able to hike the full route, there are beautiful reflective views in the lake at lower altitudes. Although Elmore never gets as busy as nearby Stowe, it’s even quieter in the fall. “You’re getting a lot of peace and quiet,” said Barsalo. “I love this town. Everything about this area is great.”

For a change of pace, step into history at Coolidge State Park, which is almost unchanged since it was founded in 1933 near Plymouth Notch, the birthplace of President Coolidge. The park has 36 lean-to campsites which have views of the Black River Valley and the Green Mountains. Visitors can fish for brook trout in several streams, as well as hike miles of trails. Wildlife at the park includes barred owls, moose and occasionally black bear. Lovers of history can search the grounds for the stone walls and foundations that are testament to previous inhabitants who tilled the land and raised sheep. The 70-person pavilion with electricity, grills, fireplaces and picnic tables is a great place for a party. “It’s high in the mountains with a few campsites with incredible views,” said Whipple. “It’s a pretty cool place to be in the fall.”

Ranger Ken Coucher agrees that most people come to the park because of the views. Eight of the lean-tos have open vistas of Killington Peak and the Black River Valley. In addition, there is a 15-acre clearing at a picnic area atop one of the hills. “Coolidge State Park is known for its vistas,” Coucher said. “You can’t get these types of views in a lot of places in Vermont without hiking. In the fall, people also come here for the beautiful foliage. We have a lot of great color with birch and maple trees.”

Although Vermont State Parks are no longer fully operational after Columbus Day, that doesn’t mean they are complexly shut down. “They’re open and available all the time,” said Whipple. “Some of our areas are arguably as popular or more popular when they’re perceived to be closed.”

Come on out and enjoy the fall.