On the Road: Discovering 3 Spectacular Swimming Spots in Northern Vermont

More than a century ago, in 1915, poet and naturalist Robert Frost captured the charm and allure of discovering a secluded body of water in Going For Water: 

Each laid on other a staying hand
  To listen ere we dared to look,
And in the hush we joined to make
  We heard, we knew we heard the brook.

A note as from a single place,
  A slender tinkling fall that made
Now drops that floated on the pool
  Like pearls, and now a silver blade.

Frost, a lifelong resident of Vermont, most certainly drew upon his own affection for the natural bodies of water spread far and wide across the state of  Vermont in his writing career that spanned decades.   

Vermont boasts a seemingly endless stretch of water-logged habitats large and small–its myriad lakes, streams, brooks, waterfalls and watering holes among them–thanks to the generous levels of annual precipitation and relatively unspoiled mountain terrains, quarries and stream beds that provide avenues for aquatic movement to flourish.  

Due to the state’s rural architecture, however, exploring Vermont’s waterways could be a challenge, and finding the obscure among them even a Sisyphean task. I embraced the Sisyphean option during a recent cross-state road trip with my two children. 

Warren Falls

Departing from Lake George, New York, we followed a circuitous route along highway 17 toward Warren in hopes of reaching a local wonder: Warren Falls. The two-lane road led me through non-descript stretches of farmland and valleys, then wound perilously north with a steep incline, traversing the Appalachian Gap. The stream of severe sharp turns caught us off guard.

After recovering from a serious bout of throwing up from motion sickness by my adolescent, I wound my way painstakingly toward our destination. 

At last reaching a plateau, I drove past a worn muddied white wooden sign to my left–obscured by a bush–that read, “Warren Town Center ” with an arrow leading to an unmarked road with yet another sharp turn that concealed the sleepy town. The entrance to the Falls lay just a few hundred feet further down the road.

Warren Falls is described by multiple online sources as Vermont’s premier watering hole, and I quickly discovered that this depiction was clearly en pointe. Attempting to pull into the dusty unpaved parking area, I was clearly late to the party; several cars were lined up in queue, waiting for a parking spot to open up.

In the approximately 25 by 25-yard space, dust-covered Subarus and Jeeps with emerald VT plates—an undeniable sign that we scored upon a local’s favorite destination—were crammed alongside each other to the last inch of available yardage. I shamelessly snagged the handicapped spot; we all needed to stretch pee and our legs and had face tones to match the local plates from the stomach-wrenching drive. 

Getting There

After gathering our swim gear, we took the brief ¼ mile muddied path among a cluttered forest of Northern Red Oaks and Eastern White Pines. The first opening appeared on the left: a cliff-jumping spot not for the faint of heart (or stomach). A group of young men stood atop a massive slate boulder overlooking a series of small waterfalls that led downstream.

We continued another few hundred feet to an incline leading toward the streambed. We left our gear and shoes and made our way barefoot across the rocks and pebbles below the frigid fresh water. Many dozens of people of all ages were exploring: the fearless among the crowd leapt from the stone precipice into a deep pooled area safe for a water landing without hitting bottom; mothers and toddlers geared with Keens and snack bags picking their way along the lower, flatter section of the stream; a group of teenage girls in bikinis splashing in their own hidden oasis–a small pool of water between two brief falls upstream from the crowds.

My children watched, fascinated, as several young men and a girl no older than 12 walked balance-beam style onto the middle of a fallen tree that someone had placed between a middle section of the large slate boulder and boulder of the same height on the other side–the center of the fallen tree made for a prime jumping spot directly into the middle of the pool. The adventurers jumped, swam, clamored back up, then jumped again.  

Cheever Falls

Two days later, after settling in at the highly-rated, clean, and well-equipped budget hotel Comfort Inn & Suites near Burke Mountain in St Johnsbury, we embarked upon off road adventure redux. This time, a friend–a longtime resident of VT–would lead us down a clandestine path to a truly remote watering hole that “Best of Vermont” sources certainly don’t cite and, in fact, only locals among the locals even know about. 

My friend had heard from an inside source about Cheever Falls, a miraculously untouched series of small falls and meandering shallow streambed with a gentle current safe for children of all ages located near Hardwick.

We met outside Hardwick and drove east on highway 15. Then, we turned left onto a dirt road that was, in fact, no more than an off-road path with two engraved indentations in the mud where the wheels of vehicles had clearly trodden.

I followed my friends Subaru with an emerald plate as the path continued to narrow and become bumpier, strewn with jagged rocks. After a few miles, we pulled into a clearing and parked. I spotted the words “Cheeves Falls” carved onto a rickety wood sign nailed onto a tree trunk a few feet past the clearing. 

Getting There

We embarked intrepidly upon the mile-long hike to our destination. To call it a trail was a stretch; we followed a barely discernible path soaked in half a foot of mud from recent rainfall. The end of the path led to a series of four-foot-high boulders hovering along the bubbling creek. Two miniature waterfalls separated a series of shallow pools.

The pools continued north and west, leading us along a natural aquatic pathway where nature had carved a 10-foot-wide opening for larger descending waterfalls, miles of continuous up-streams and substantial bouts of rainwater to make their way southbound over millennia. We picked our way up half of a mile along the pools, curiously framed by elongated smoothed slate planks that looked as if they had been carefully set in place strategically by a giant’s able hands, and plunked across the stream amid chunks of granite of all sizes.

The gentle Northern rays of sunlight stretched past the limbs and leaves to stroke our foreheads and shoulders, spreading our weightless shadows across the carelessly meandering water. Pollen-infused air infused our nostrils and coated our airways. The pure, pristine waterway beckoned us further and further, but at last we felt the prudent route to be the one heading back. We had the place to ourselves, singular souls savoring blissful moments of holistic solitude.   

Shadow Lake   

Seeking a more simplistic experience for our last outing (think brush clearing, gentle-on-the-feet sand, and a wading area), the next day we ventured half an hour north to the Northeast Kingdom’s premier lake region.

The most well-known of the area’s lakes is a landmark of sorts called Caspian—an onx-toned, oval-shaped summer vacation destination frequented by northern-bound tourists. More affluent visitors rent homes on the water, while travelers on a budget can rent cabins or even camp nearby and frequent the lake for kayaking and swimming. Of course, residents of Greensboro—the sophomoric town with a sophisticated edge where Caspian Lake is located—spend the summer on the lake as well.  

In his final novel Crossing to Safety, published in 1987, one-time Greenboro resident and Pulitzer prize-winning author Wallace Stegner described the stunning view from the hilltops looking down onto the town and its treasured lake: ‘below me the unchanged village, the lake like a pool of mercury, the varying greens of hayfields and meadows and sugarbush and black spruce woods.”

Getting There

I had been to Caspian Lake several times already during previous visits and remembered its public beach to be overrun during the heart of summer. So, for the next and final destination, I opted for a hidden gem dubbed Shadow Lake 20 minutes further north of Caspian—this one flanked by a small beachfront known strictly by locals. In fact, my sister had only caught wind of the glorified swimming hole recently, after living in the area for several years.

After placing my life in the hands of my phone’s GPS and following a seemingly circuitous route that became increasingly remote past unpaved roads, unplowed fields, and a tunnel of massive arching Red Oaks, at last I reached a narrow road in a residential area. I almost cruised right past a wobbly little sign at the eye level of a toddler that read “Beach Parking,” with an arrow pointing toward a cozy parking area filled with the oh so familiar soot-covered hatchbacks with emerald plates.

Dust up to the gills was a ubiquitous part of everyday life in these parts. After snagging a legitimate spot, I set us up on a soiled picnic table in the shade of a hearty Red Oak on the far edge of the small silver-powdered cove. 

A large group of what appeared to be family members with a gaggle of babies and small children cluttered the water’s shallow edge, splashing, wading and socializing. Within half an hour, the group picked up and left, reducing the beach to a perfectly precious private oasis.

The foggy aqua water was warm to the touch, and stretched wide-mouthed in a northwestern C shape. Modest homes were packed along its edges, a scoop of little multi-colored matchboxes glued side by side. The body of the lake itself rivaled the beauty of New York’s opulent Lake George and the Berkshires beloved Stockbridge Bowl, with its unfettered views, cleansing aroma and jumping whitecaps.

I thought for a moment of googling the housing values here. But I reminded myself of the brutal and relentless months of winter to come in this far northern region near the Canadian border. I forced myself to imagine the frigid winds, snow and rain mercilessly whipping the water view-facing window panes of the little matchboxes. Only then was I able to turn away and leave.   

Final Thoughts

I am always drawn to the power and beauty of water–watching and listening to its movement somehow makes me feel more alive. After spending a week visiting the hidden lakes and streams of Northern Vermont, I felt invigorated, if not inspired. When it was time to head home, I didn’t dare clean the ruddy soot splattered across the exterior of my car–an affectionate reminder of the beautiful memories. 

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Where to Stay in Northern Vermont

The Pitcher Inn, a Relais & Chateau property

275 Main St, Warren, VT 05674

(802) 496-6350

From $400/night

Comfort Inn & Suites near Burke Mountain

703 US-5 South, St Johnsbury, VT 05819

(802) 748-1500

From $150/night

Highland Lodge on Caspian Lake

1608 Craftsbury Rd, Greensboro, VT 05841

(802) 322-4456

From $200/night

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