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Burlington Bike Path: Queen City’s enduring core artery undergoes renaissance

DVT-FALL-2015-CRAIG-THOMAS-19-copyWords // Keith Morrill
Photos // Craig Thomas

I’m always up for new adventures—new trails to hike, new waters to swim, new paths to travel. But there’s something to be said for looking at old things with a new perspective. This summer I set out to find something novel in my old haunts around Vermont, and with so many things going on in and around the Burlington Bike Path, it seemed an obvious place to start.

As a lifelong Vermonter, I’ve trodden the path so well running, walking, biking, and a shameful stint in the late 90s rollerblading, that I was starting to feel like the bike path had little left in the way of surprises to offer.

For those not in the know, the Burlington Bike Path runs for nearly eight miles along Burlington’s waterfront, from Queen City Park Road in the South End of Burlington to the mouth of the Winooski River. The path is a recreational artery that not only offers gorgeous views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains in New York, but also grants access to a number of off-path venues for dining, relaxation, and entertainment.
The bike path is experiencing a renaissance right now. After roughly 30 years in existence, it is undergoing an extensive rehabilitation project intended to accommodate the growing number of bike-path users and extend the path’s longevity.

It had been a few years since I put in some serious time on the bike path, so there seemed no better time to reacquaint myself with all the path has to offer. I started at Oakledge Park and headed north, spending little time looking at the familiar things like beach loungers and bike riders, and more time poking around off-path.

It turns out the bike path is a recreational artery with a network of sometimes-hard-to-spot dirt trails branching out from it. At Oakledge this led me to a clifftop somewhere above a colony of sun-tanners and swimmers draped on the rocks. The locale was secluded and offered a choice view of the lake.

As I continued my explorations, I discovered more of these side trails, and each offered a bit of solitude and some new views. All of the trails were dirt, and either poorly marked, or not marked at all. Few people on the path seemed to be able to tell me much about them, so I turned to Burlington Parks and Recreation for answers.

DVT-FALL-2015-CRAIG-THOMAS-21-copyCory Campbell, bike path and trail maintenance specialist for Burlington Parks and Rec, knows the path like perhaps no other, and he offered some answers. While some of these ancillary trails are sanctioned, others are what he called “social trails,” paths that run through private property and create gray areas for both recreation users and land managers. “It’s an ongoing issue that we are slowly resolving on a case-by-case basis,” Campbell said.

Campbell was able to point me toward some trails that were both legit and a bit off the paved path. If you’re on the south end of the path at Oakledge Park, he recommends checking out the same clifftop I visited. He notes that the nearby concrete slab was once the overlook of a homesteader.

Roughly at the midway point of the trail, the area around North Beach is rich with opportunities for those willing to leave the paved confines of the bike path itself. About a half mile past North Beach exists an unmarked trail head on the right that accesses the Arms Grant Trail System, four-miles of trails traversing multiple ecosystem types. Campbell said it is quiet, and one of the few spots along the bike path where you won’t run into people or be able to hear traffic.

At a locale near the Burlington Bike Path’s terminus at the Winooski River is Starr Farm Park. According to Campbell, in the woods just beyond Starr Farm’s dog park and playground is a network of mountain biking trails built and maintained by locals and featuring a number of sweet jumps and whoop-de-doos (biking lingo for moguls), all of which can be accessed via a few unmarked side trails. Not too far away is Starr Farm Beach, a stretch of sand unmanaged by the city and which, Campbell said has “enough driftwood to build a small town.” Though the beach is frequented by locals, it still offers a quiet lakeside experience.

In the past, I’d always been a bike-path tourist, sticking mostly to the path and treating it as a convenient way to count mileage on a walk or a run. Yet when I took the time to slow down, to explore, and to ask around, I found new enjoyment in the hidden diversions and tangents to which the bike path has given rise.DVT-FALL-2015-CRAIG-THOMAS-42-copy