ADVENTURE, TRANQUILITY, CONNECTION – THE SHIRES RECREATION SCENE OFFERS SOMETHING FOR EVERYTHING
By Cherise Madigan in Partnership with the Regional Chamber of Commerce
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
— Robert Frost, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, written in Shaftsbury, VT —
Nestled within the “lovely, dark, and deep” forests of the Green Mountains, the Shires boast an unparalleled landscape abundant in adventure, tranquility, and connection.
That connection is of a variety not found through a screen, but rather one found deep in the wilderness, at the apex of a physical challenge, or in the quietude found far away from society — the kind of connection that leaves you “plugged-in” in all of the right ways.
Looking at a map, it’s not hard to see why this little-slice-of-heaven lends itself to such ample outdoor opportunities. The region’s topography — though peppered with peaks like Glastenbury, Mount Anthony, and Mount Equinox — is wholly green, illustrating the Shires’ prime position in the depths of the expansive Green Mountain National Forest.
“We have an astounding amount of open space—something like 75 percent of the state’s land is still forested,” said adventure enthusiast Sarah Lang of BDCC, who works closely with initiatives to enhance outdoor recreation in Vermont. “As a population we recognize the value of having that open space; that sort of unbroken landscape.”
“The outdoor recreation resources in this region are unimaginably vast,” remarked Rob Terry, Executive Director of Merck Forest and Farmland Center (a recreation haven in the Northernmost corner of the Shires). “This region, in part because of the mountain ranges and the great fishing that you find in the Battenkill or the Mettawee, has a real mountain-town feel that’s unique in Vermont.
That authentic aesthetic isn’t lost on travelers to the Northeast, who have increasingly begun to seek out wild and open spaces to unwind, unplug, and connect. Just a few short hours from major metropolitan areas like New York City, Boston, and Albany, the Shires have gained a reputation for unbeatable skiing, breathtaking hiking, and so much more.
“You can find more people within 60 or 90 miles than anywhere else in Vermont; millions of people,” Terry explained. “When we do the math, it’s pretty easy for [Merck Forest] to find somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 visitors a year to Rupert, Vermont—population 700.”
That low population density in itself is a major draw for the region. With no major highway or thruway running through this valley of Vermont, it becomes even easier to take the path less traveled.
“This land has a unique character with our two mountain ranges, the Greens and the Taconics,” said Terry, noting that large expanses of open forest—rather than suburbs, cities, and roadways—are tough to find in other recreation destinations. “With so much unfractured forest there’s amazing wildlife in these woods, and an incredible habitat.”
The unfractured forests that Terry praises house bountiful rivers, extensive trail networks like the Long Trail and Appalachian Trail, and staggering ski slopes. While endeavors like mountain biking, backcountry skiing, and trail running continue to grow in popularity, adventure of all varieties isn’t hard to come by.
“You can go 20 minutes in any direction and find an incredible outdoor experience,” said Chamber President and local business owner Jonah Spivak, an avid explorer of the outdoors in his own right. “I’m a big fan of fishing personally, and the fishing is really good in Southwestern Vermont.”
“We have it all—everything from horseback riding to kayaking to snowshoeing,” explained Silvia Cassano, a leader of the Bennington Area Trails System (BATS) collaborative. “I was cross-country skiing until May 2 this year at Prospect Mountain.”
BATS, which pursues and advocates the development of multi-use trails in the region, is one of many organizations in the Shires centered around outdoor recreation. NATS, the northern counterpart of Cassano’s collective, works closely with the Vermont Mountain Bike Association to develop and maintain trails near Manchester; Bart J. Ruggiere Adaptive Sports Center advocates accessibility for all within the region’s outdoor resources; and burgeoning initiatives like Bike Manchester invest in those pastimes that are just beginning to take hold.
“With all of the recreation to be found here, you get to do it in this scenery,” said Battenkill Bicycles owner Barrack Evans, who is active in efforts to grow the Shires’ cycling scene. While events like the Vermont Challenge have begun to amplify the activity, advocates continue to pursue developments like a rail trail linking Manchester to nearby Dorset—paving the way for a cycling corridor akin to the Long Trail or Catamount Trail.
“If you could connect it to the D&H Rail Trail in West Pawlet, which runs all of the way up to Castleton, now you’re talking about something that’s near the top of off-road bike routes when it comes to length,” he added. “Adults can ride it, kids can enjoy it, and you can cross-country ski on it in the winter.”
Such efforts to expand the area’s biking, hiking, and skiing trails embody the voracious appetite that Vermonter’s have developed for outdoor recreation — more than 70 percent of the state’s residents venture into the wild in pursuit of adventure, and 34,000 direct jobs are derived from the industry alongside $2.5 billion in consumer spending.
With such staggering statistics it’s no surprise that companies like Orvis (founded and headquartered in the Shires), Darn Tough, and Burton Snowboards have chosen Vermont as their home, and the industry has the capacity to play a major role in the state’s economic future.
“Outdoor recreation is a powerful marketing tool for both tourism and economic development,” Spivak acknowledged. “There’s fertile ground for new businesses to open up as more people seek out this area, and we have a lot of untapped potential.”
Even Vermont’s government has recognized that potential, with Governor Phil Scott launching the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative (VOREC) in 2017. Locally, the Shires Outdoor Adventure and Recreation (SOAR) initiative is pursuing a similar goal: promoting the region’s vast natural resources while simultaneously making them accessible to everyone, regardless of expertise.
“It seems that we’re poised to turn a corner and make outdoor recreation an economic driver in the region,” said Anne Houser, owner of the Shires’ premiere outdoor gear store The Mountain Goat. An active member of both the recreation and business communities in the area, Houser also recently led the charge for Manchester’s designation as an Appalachian Trail Community.
“Whether you’re a visitor or a resident, we have an increasing number of trail networks to be traveled,” she added. “At the Mountain Goat we’re committed to offering extensive information about hiking and camping in the region… and the availability of information in the Shires region has increased dramatically.”
Making information on local trails, events, and resources more accessible to visitors and locals alike is a major goal of both VOREC and SOAR, and many supporters of those initiatives contend that doing so will draw more adventurers into the wild.
“One of the critical needs for us as a community is to provide the scaffolding for people who haven’t already made the leap; to actively engage those who are only in the nascent stages of the outdoor lifestyle,” Terry explained. “We need to build a community that’s inclusive.”
“As long as we don’t get stuck on one type of recreation, one type of recreator, there’s a lot of roads to be had,” added Lang.
But where do those paths lead? In a state that is grappling with the issue of youth retention, and actively working to attract new residents to the Green Mountains, there is hope that a bustling and accessible outdoor recreation landscape will not only grow Vermont’s economy—but the community behind it as well.
“There was a big ‘back to the land’ movement in the 70’s, and I think we’re going to see a similar urge for people to have a closer connection with the outdoors,” Spivak mused. “I wonder, in the age of everyone having their personal screen and devices, if the pendulum will swing at some point.”
“There’s a lot of good research that demonstrates how time spent in the outdoors, particularly time spent in a forested landscape, has a positive psychological, emotional, and physical benefit,” added Terry. “We are literally surrounded by that resource.”
In working to grow and invest in those resources, Vermont’s leaders are equally committed to ensuring that the state’s trails, rivers, and slopes will remain in-tact for future generations to enjoy.
“A big part of why we still have this bucolic landscape is our agricultural heritage. We’ve been stewards of this landscape,” Spivak said. “We’re known as the Green Mountain state and, yeah, we’re a little greener than other people around; you can see it in our trails and in our waterways.”
And Vermont’s valleys, mountains, and forests are well worth conserving, promoting, and enjoying. As unplugging from technology becomes increasingly fraught in the annals of modern life, and connection with the natural world grows scarce, there’s nowhere quite like the lovely, dark, and deep forests of the Shires to seek out adventure.