Mount Mansfield in Winter

Hiking Mount Mansfield in Winter

On winter solstice, we hiked up Mount Mansfield–the tallest peak in Vermont–taking a relatively short 7 mile route from Underhill Trailhead up Sunset Ridge Trail and down Laura Cowles Trail.

Hike Date: December 21, 2021

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Route Description

0 mi0 miStart at the winter parking area 1 mi short of Underhill State Park
1 mi1 miRoad walk to Underhill State Park
0.6 mi1.6 miEagles Cut Trail to Sunset Ridge Trailhead
1.7 mi3.3 miSunset Ridge Trailhead to the Long Trail
0.2 mi3.5 miLong Trail to the summit of Mt. Mansfield
0.2 mi3.7 miLong Trail back to Laura Cowles Trail
1.2 mi4.9 miLaura Cowles Trail down to Sunset Ridge Trail
0.1 mi5.0 miSunset Ridge Trail back to the trailhead
0.6 mi5.6 miEagles Cut Trail back to Underhill State Park entrance
1 mi6.6 miRoad walk back to winter parking area

Map

Hiking to Vermont’s tallest peak, Mount Mansfield, on the first day of winter was the perfect way to kick off the official winter hiking season. The route we took provided both above treeline hiking and winter wonderland forest walking.

Getting to the Trailhead

At 11:00am on the winter solstice, we began our hike up to Mansfield. There are a few different routes and we opted to take a roughly 7 mile loop that we hadn’t hiked before: Sunset Ridge Trail up and Laura Cowles down from Underhill State Park. Ordinarily, this route would be shorter, but during the winter, the road is not plowed all the way to the up to Underhill Trailhead. The plows stop about a mile before the trailhead, making the road impassable in our tiny Prius (although one large truck was able to make it all the way to the trailhead – you know your vehicle and the conditions best).

Walking on a snowy road
Walking the unplowed road in

Fortunately, plows leave a make-shift lot to park during the winter where we left our car and walked the mile up the unplowed road to the trailhead (you gain some elevation in this section, but it is mild).

The Ascent to Mount Mansfield Up Sunset Ridge Trail

At the Underhill Trailhead, we continued past the campsites then turned right onto Eagles Cut Trail for a short 0.6 miles that ducked in and out of the woods, crossed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) road a couple of times, then joined the CCC road until it ended. We turned left onto a snow covered bridge and began the 2.1 miles up Sunset Ridge Trail to the summit of Mount Mansfield.

Entering Underhill State Park
Entering Underhill State Park
Eagles Cut Trail
Sunset Ridge Trailhead
Finally at Sunset Ridge Trailhead
Bridge on Sunset Ridge Trail
Bridge on Sunset Ridge Trail

At 0.1 miles in, we met a trail juncture where we stayed left on Sunset Ridge Trail instead of taking Laura Cowles Trail (which we would descend). Sunset Ridge is more exposed and a little less steep. The first mile or so of trail was relatively mild and beautiful. Wearing our microspikes for traction, we plodded up the snow-covered trail pretty easily, only taking pauses in places where we had to use our hands to haul ourselves up some larger boulders. Throughout this section, we loved catching glimpses of Mansfield and the ridgeline through the leafless trees. 

Trail juncture
Climbing one of the steep sections
Looking up at Mt. Mansfield
Looking up at Mt. Mansfield

We emerged from the trees and realized that the second half of the ascent was totally open and exposed, providing constant views of snow-capped Mount Mansfield in front of us and endless waves of mountains around us. We could even see Camel’s Hump, another Vermont 4,000 footer, in the distance. The wind was almost nonexistent and the shining sun made it feel much warmer than it was. The trail consisted of exposed rock slabs, frozen sheets of ice on top of rock slabs, powdery snow on top of rock slabs, and snow-covered trail. Luckily, having good microspikes made us feel confident on all of these different types of terrain.

View of Camel's Hump in the distance
Camel's Hump in the distance
Fully exposed rock slab trail
Fully exposed rock slab trail
Getting closer to the top

We turned right at a summit sign and entered a short section surrounded by tiny scrubby trees.  Then, we turned left towards the open ridge and joined the Long Trail for the last push to the summit. This part of the hike was very familiar since we had backpacked it over the summer in 2020 and it was even more beautiful in the winter. Once we got to the top, we were blown away by the 360 degree views on a surprisingly clear day.

Sign directing us to the summit
Hiking the snowy trail up top
View from the Long Trail on Mt. Mansfield
View from the Long Trail
Hiking to the summit of Mt. Mansfield
Hiking the final stretch to the summit
View from Mt. Mansfield's summit
View from Mt. Mansfield's summit
Enjoyed the views above the clouds

The Descent from Mount Mansfield Down Laura Cowles Trail

On our way down, we decided to take a different route, Laura Cowles Trail, which is shorter than Sunset Ridge Trail, but much steeper right off the bat. We ducked under the tree cover and although the trail dropped quickly, we felt comfortable in our ability to take it slow, use our poles, and take careful steps down the powdery snow. That said, I don’t know if I’d enjoy climbing up Laura Cowles Trail in the winter. It seems like people do it, but we really liked going up Sunset Ridge Trail for the views and the openness. To each their own (assuming you have all the gear)! 

Trail sign above treeline
Trail sign above treeline
Super steep descending Laura Cowles Trail
Super steep descending Laura Cowles Trail
Lower on Laura Cowles Trail
Lower on Laura Cowles Trail

When we got to the trail juncture, we knew we only had 0.1 miles back to the Eagle Cut Trail and then road walking back. On the shortest day of the year, the sun was already beginning to set around 3:30 in the afternoon. Golden rays shone through the trees, making the snowy road walk down much more beautiful than we could have expected. 

Walking the road out

All in all, this was an awesome winter hike and we would definitely recommend it!

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