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Workouts and panoramas at Vermont's fire towers

Email|Print| Text size + By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / October 1, 2006

ELMORE, Vt. -- From their offices in Elmore State Park, Katie McKay and Beth Turcotte can look up at the fire tower atop Mount Elmore.

One rainy morning, the two park employees had already done a 4-mile round -trip fitness hike to the tower before clocking in. ``We have patrons who go up there nearly every day for exercise," said McKay.

A quick trip to the tower offers a great workout, certainly. But there is the side benefit of the breath taking vistas , even on a day when the sun is taking its time getting going.

``I like being above the clouds and looking down on the valley," said Turcotte.

On a clear day, the northern Vermont panorama from the tower on the 2,608-foot summit includes Jay Peak to the Worcester Range, Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, and the Lamoille River Valley below. But on this day, even from the site of an old fire tower below the existing one, a curtain of clouds hid much of what was below.

Thirty-eight fire towers once stood in Vermont, dating to the early 1900s, when the state was being heavily logged. Over time, airplane surveillance replaced the fire watchers who manned the structures. Today, according to the Green Mountain Club's ``360 Degrees: A Guide to Vermont's Fire and Observation Towers," some 12 fire towers and five observation platforms remain. Some are linked to ski areas like Ascutney, Burke, Bromley, Okemo, and Stratton.

The beauty of the fire towers is that they provide a stage above the trees. They can be shelters with roofs, or simple platforms open to the breeze. There will certainly be steps, probably many up the tower. Some are wood, others steel.

When heading up a tower, be sure to hold the railings and share the limited real estate with fellow hikers . Leave vertigo at home. But the effort is worth it. You will find yourself closer to the birds surfing the thermals. You can have that mountain-top lunch above the mountain.

Vermont Route 65 is a Green Mountain State dirt road that leads through farm, forest, and field all in the course of a mile on the way to Allis State Park in Brookfield, which has a drive-to fire tower atop Bear Hill.

You can motor right to the base and walk up the steps to a window on central Vermont. From it, the view to the south presents Ascutney, Killington, and Pico, while Camel's Hump and Mount Mansfield -- the highest peak in Vermont -- are in clear view to the north. The White Mountains are to the east with Lincoln, Abraham, and Ellen to the west.

The Gile Mountain Trail hike provides outstanding rewards , considering the light effort needed to reach the top. From a dirt Turnpike Road in Norwich, the easy hike up can be made in under a half hour. But it offers a panorama of the Connecticut River Valley in Vermont and New Hampshire from the top of the roughly 90 steps. Mountain bikers can pedal to the tower on a separate multiuse trail.

A pair of legendary hiking paths wind through Vermont , overlapping at times. Vermont's end-to-end Long Trail and the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine to Georgia , are the same pathway in southern Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest along the way to the Stratton Mountain fire tower.

The 7.6-mile round-trip hike to the tower can make for a long day, particularly given the elevation gain, which makes the hike strenuous at times.

The fire tower atop the 3,936-foot mountain is one of the oldest in the state. The 70-foot tower provides a platform just over 4,000 feet. It is manned from Memorial Day through Columbus Day by the Green Mountain Club. The caretaker oversees the tower and fire warden's cabin, renovated by the US Forest Service in the 1990s.

On the summit, hikers can get some advice on traversing fragile mountaintop ecosystems as well as help in picking out the peaks from Mount Snow to the south, to Glastenbury Mountain with its own fire tower to the southwest, New York's Taconics to the west, and New Hampshire's Mount Monadnock to the southeast.

The fire tower atop Mount Olga in Wilmington provides the vantage point for vistas that normally might not be seen from the small mountain's wooded summit. Just over the Massachusetts border and on the edge of the Green Mountain National Forest, the steel tower on the 2,415-foot summit is part of Molly Stark State Park.

A trip to the tower -- last officially used in 1974 -- involves a 2-mile round - trip loop. A wooden bridge over a small brook, a stalwart stone wall, and lots of evergreens are landmarks on the way to the tower. From there, the horizon takes in southern Vermont, northern Massachusetts , and southwestern New Hampshire.

In winter, fire towers like Mount Olga 's make for exceptional snowy adventures as well. Just be sure to take the snowshoes off before climbing the steps.

Marty Basch can be reached at marty@martybasch.com.

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