All along The Long Trail: Jay & Big Jay Peaks

What..? Come on Erik! Really.. another ski resort?

Yes! I mean, well.. not really just another ski resort – this mountain – which does feature a spider-web of ski slopes, lifts, gondolas, even topped with a restaurant adorning the highest summit boulders; yes – this is the Jay Peak that you have heard of. Year after year, season by season – commercials and radio ads try to convince you that your season will not be complete until you ski their lines, or mountain bike their glorious routes.

This is ski country, but you won’t find me strapping into ski or snowboard bindings for this excursion – for, I am here to taste.. The Long Trail!

Located just a mere twenty minutes (by car.. just a bit longer by foot!) from Journey’s End, home of the Long Trails northern terminus; this 274 mile foot trail cuts directly over the highest point of Jay Peak and continues southward through the state and reaches its endpoint upon entering the lovely little town of North Adams, Massachusetts.

A part of this hike was being used as recon mission for when Ciara and I take on the nearly month-long trek with our puppy-dogs, but seeing as today’s hike featured more blowing snow than mud and cool autumn sunsets.. landmarks were noted and the good times were commenced!

With realistically two options of where to initiate my hike, I chose the more popular trail head located on Route 242. Depending on which direction you are entering from – I came from the east and dropped down onto the main road, passing the official parking areas for the ski resort and within several windy miles finding the hiker lots located on the left bank of the road.

Finding two lots, I chose the second simply because it actually had what looked like trail head signage, a kiosk with maps and a fenced off area with gigantic solar panels. Both lots were plowed well for my 8am start time, and much to my surprise – my Subaru had completely free-range of the lot when I pulled in.

I was actually shocked to notice the parking lot filled with perhaps 25 to 30 cars when I arrived at the end of my day – but after talking with a few folks prepping their skis and split boards I found that most others out this windy morning were staying at lower altitudes, east of the main road on the Catamount Trail.

There were signs indicating that I had parked in the correct lot, but it took digging out my phone and firing up the AllTrails app to locate where the Long Trail actually crossed the road and re-entered the forest. Turns out I was very close to the trail, just out of view of any official markings or signage.

Gear choices could have been negotiable, but I chose the new Tubbs Flex Alp snowshoes for my traction source.

The trail cuts off Route 242 and instantly begins to ascend steeply up the side slopes of Jay and its surrounding mountainous nubs. Barely 20 feet into my climb and I already wanted to stop and make some photographs of the tiny hut just out of sight of the highway, remaining private enough for a 6-10 hikers to find refuge if needed. I did not see any nearby signs indicating whether overnight camping was permitted or not (but thought this may be a perfectly sheltered, wooden platform for our Long Trail journey, if allowed of course).

I absolutely cannot wait to re-hike this section of trail in the coming warmer months; I often times find my mind glancing around in the winter, trying to get an idea or create a rendering of what the surrounding topography might look like under these feet of snow! I bring this up because this section of the Long Trail appeared to be in a gully, the trail was very well packed (I probably could have gotten away just fine with spikes on my boots) with suggestions of multiple feet of snow off to either side.

All around was evidence of prior bushwhackers and backcountry skiers taking advantage of the freshly fallen powder as they created their own lines down to the base of Jay Peak.

Cutting through a beautiful forest dotted with old, gnarly white birch the trail ventures through several small open groves – making the mind wander off to a time in early spring with birds singing, buds budding and blue skies as far as the eye could see, certainly a place I may not leave when we revisit during our thru-hike!

When I say that the path began ascending the side of the mountain, it really did not stop until climbing nearly 1,500 feet and topping out about a mile and a half later, bisecting the ski trails.

I made the mistake of not remembering that my hiking trail actually crossed the ski paths and continued along the broad rocks, in my error I ended up simply continuing along the ski trails – I’ll let it be known though that this peak was actually not open to skiing (another pleasant surprise), the ski trails were littered with rocks and open patches with grass blowing in the high winds.

It was super eerie roaming around the summit (honestly, at this point in my trek – I did not step foot on the actual peak yet!), seeing the unoccupied restaurant with chairs neatly turned up and stacked on the tables – very reminiscent of the then closed Saddleback ski resort in Sandy River, Maine.

The summit screamed for me, but I did not answer.

Wind, wind.. and occasionally even more wind! The wind this morning was absolutely nuts, blowing in circles from the instant I left the shelter of the forest canopy and stepped out onto the ski slopes. Needing an extra layer I ducked between building and what remained of the carved out summit cone, fighting through sideways blasting winds for my Gore-Tex shell, the moment the fleece layer was protected I instantly warmed up. Ready for more!

Glancing down the ridge, I spotted my next objective. But how to obtain this so-called bushwhack of northern Vermont? I had read the reports, checked the maps, now the 3,786 foot rock massif stood quietly before me – just a wall of gusting, screaming wind roaring between my snowshoed boots and the summit. Make that trek!

Unsure of how to locate the herd path over to Big Jay, I simply began trekking down the empty ski trails – I could remember reports of folks instructing to ‘look for the repaired fence‘.

I quickly put distance between myself and the high reaches of the 3,858 foot peak of Jay. The only direction that made sense to my mind was to trek down one of the ski slopes to where the grade of the ridge appeared gradual enough to hopefully contain a path.

Bushwhacking Big Jay

According to maps and tracks, I had descended southwest about three-tenths of a mile and located the famed fence. Perhaps this barrier had been broken in the past, it was in superb shape at my arrival – in fact there was even a fence.. fitting behind the fence allowing skiers and all-around adventurists to slip between and around – all the while I was looking for a literally busted up fence, with jagged planks to limbo under!

A quick glance at the French and English signage (so close to the Canadian border it makes sense!) and I was officially making footprints on a trail that I had anticipated for so very long!

Had there been an award for ‘biggest grin’, I would have taken home first place.

Herd path? More like hard-to-miss path!

I suppose had the skiers not come before me and packed down a six-foot wide path with their angled skis, it may have been slightly more tough to follow, and in Big Jay’s defense – there were plenty of areas where the fresh powder had blown and drifted clear over the ski tracks. Some idea of navigation came in handy today!

Within minutes of trekking through a most lovely forest, I could glance back and see just how far I had come – it looked like miles to get back to the pointy Jay Peak!

The terrain continued to roll but all the while, I could glance up and just slightly off-centered left there stood my peak, and naturally that too appeared to be miles away! All I could do was keep on laughing, continue my solo fun-fest and leave my snowshoes pointed at that big ol’ rock up ahead.

Reaching the col, it was back to climbing – which was gradual, some steep parts to really test out the traction on the new Tubbs snowshoes; I really enjoy the security that these snowshoes offer, they constantly felt stuck to whatever terrain I put under them – packed powder, loose fluffy powder, crusty ice, several feet of powder (as was the case when I reached Big Jay’s summit), the snowshoes aided me in crushing any place I wanted to venture!

Noticing several spur trails swinging off to the left (east), I continued straight toward the behemoth reaching skyward in front of me; but I recalled the articles I’d read earlier of several skiers who decided to actually slash their own ski trail down one of Big Jay’s faces – thinking I had found memories of these cuttings.

End of the line.

“This can’t be the end!” I pleaded with myself – I suppose one could argue that the path did continue onward southerly, but in all essence of the word, it terminated here.

Glancing around, I thought I saw where skiers had continued down the mountainside – I was certainly not here to follow their descent, however!

Assuming that I had reached the summit, I poked and prodded around.. looking for what bit of land might stand just a few inches taller than where I was, into the deep, fluffy snow I bounded.

Branches had been snapped, twigs all broken off.. to me, that meant that people had slammed their way through these trees – for one reason or another! I followed through the sharp, stabbing branches.

One glass jar hanging by a yellow cord, containing a yellowed pad of paper.

This is what I climbed for, this glass jar hanging from a green summit sign which eloquently read BIG JAY. This is why I drove hours north, this is why I strapped snowshoes and laughed my bum all the way up that hill.

In all honesty, I had no idea that this trail-less summit even contained a summit canister; I knew that there was at one time or another, a canister that had been stolen – but I was completely unaware that it had been replaced.

10:18AM on January 25th, 2020 – I signed the summit register.

I sat there, kneeling in the snow, guarded from the gusting winds over head. I did it. Glancing through the register, I noticed it had been several weeks since anyone had located the canister and signed in, and there I was.. scribbling in granite to last all eternity.

I climbed my mountain; or at least that’s how I chose to remember it!

The trek down showed the strength of the wind around – my tracks had been blown clear over, but with a decent idea of direction I bounced down the hills, up and over rolling topography, back through the col and stopped short by the first friendly faces I’d ran into of the day!

Three skiers grunting their way up the bushwhack path, the first two said hi and inquired about the state of trails ahead, the final was (my best guess) a young teen – she exclaimed that this was her first day on skies! and they were all skinning their way over to Big Jay.. impressive to say the least!

Back to my hosting ski trails, I was still alone on Jay’s slopes so I weighed my options.. go directly up to the summit via a steeper path with open rocks and blowing grass – why not, I thought aloud and fired my breath off into ‘slow and steady’ mode.

Greeted by winds as I opened back up onto 3,800 feet, I could see weekend riders shredding it up and making passes on a minor peak within the resort – I was still alone on Jay, well.. except for the one guy hunkered down under a flight of wooden stairs trying to get a cell signal on his phone, he never saw me waving to him though.

The stairs leading to the actual summit were roped off.. so more bushwhacking is just what the doctor ordered! In all actuality, it was maybe a 25-foot light scramble up some boulders, some icy, primarily snowy though and in short time I found myself standing on the pinnacle.

There were elegant stone benches and signs scribed with the names of both hikers and locals, complete with varying tidbits regarding the Long Trail; I would have read them if it had not been for bursts of high winds – I needed to use trekking poles to stand upright, creating a sort of tripod with my body and trekking poles.

Finding the USGS survey marking disc atop this pile of rocks, I let out a few salty tears.. which may have been exacerbated by the blinding winds tugging to sandblast my corneas behind sunglasses.

Seconds seemed like minutes as I finally decided enough was indeed enough.

It was time to retreat, back down the ski slope and finding my path, ducking back into the canopy of forest protection: I was back on the Long Trail once more today.

The decent took what seemed like minutes, almost galloping down what took so much effort to climb, I let gravity guide my body in a ‘controlled fall’ down the mountainside until I began running (almost literally) into dog walkers and other friendly forest goers.

Those without snowshoes left a trail of evidence behind them as heels plunged into the packed snow, I hoped my wide footprint would help disguise their destruction – perhaps it would take another bout of snow.. it is still early winter, after all!

The sound of traffic grew louder and before long I saw the wooden structure once again.

 

My day was done, my mountain had been climbed.

 


Overall stats for the day

Recorded with COROS Pace

  • 6.15 miles
  • 2hr 57 minutes
  • 2,890′ elevation gain

Interested in how the Tubbs Flex Alp snowshoes held up on my trek along The Long Trail in Vermont? I’ve put quite a few miles on these puppies over super varying terrain – don’t forget to check out my post about the Tubbs snowshoes.. right.. over.. here (click the link!)!!

As always, thanks for following and reading along! Let me know if you have any questions about the hike or my gear.. or anything! Have a great time in the mountains – and whenever you find yourself needing fresh gear.. don’t forget to use any of the REI.com banner ad links found here.. or on the right column of the home page.. it helps put gas in the Subaru and bring you more adventures, gear reviews, trail reports, races recaps.. whatever fun stuff happens.. you know it will be fueled by plants and brought straight to you – Cheers! Happy Climbing!

– Erik!

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