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Trail Adventures at Colchester's Niquette Bay State Park

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A sign at the trailhead of Niquette Bay State Park's Ledges Trail - CAT CUTILLO
  • Cat Cutillo
  • A sign at the trailhead of Niquette Bay State Park's Ledges Trail

I have loved Niquette Bay State Park since my first week in Vermont. When I moved here in 1999 to begin my graduate studies, one of the first places our class went was the state-owned parcel of land in Colchester called "Malletts Bay State Park." It was not yet an official state park and did not have any signage. It felt like a secret place for those in the know. When my parents came to visit a few months later, I grabbed the vague directions I'd scribbled down and borrowed some snowshoes, then dragged them along with me to find it. My mother still talks about the magical adventure we had that day.

I took a class on dendrology — the study of trees — a few years later, and we wrapped up the semester at this same spot — newly christened Niquette Bay State Park — with a "hundred tree quiz." Though a park document identifies only 97 shrub and tree species found thus far, the park's flora is incredibly diverse, with a profusion of things to discover in a compact amount of space.

Sponsored by Vermont State Parks
  • Sponsored by Vermont State Parks

The park's Allen Trail is wide, gently sloping and an efficient half-mile walk to the beach. Trout Brook empties into the lake nearby and may be more attractive to some kids than the beach itself is. There is also a 2.5-mile hike on the western side of the park, along the Burns and Muhley trails, which offers many shorter off-ramps and lovely views of Mount Mansfield and the Adirondack Mountains from a 440-foot peak. But my favorite part of the park is the mile-long Ledges Trail. It runs over ridges, past tiny caves and across a short boardwalk that crosses a swamp brimming with frogs on its way to meeting Allen Trail at the beach.

At the trailhead, there is a beautiful sign drawn by previous park manager Lisa Liotta that delineates the natural communities and noteworthy historical features you'll come across. Snap a photo of it and it can function as a treasure hunt as you make your way toward the lake. Want to find a stone wall built in the early 1800s? You'll see it within the first few minutes of setting off. Many of the trees have signs identifying their species, including a majestic 250-year-old red oak, identified as the oldest tree in the park. You can also keep your eyes peeled for a vernal pool, the swamp, and the site of a cellar hole and barn foundation, dated to the late 1700s or early 1800s.

As you walk along the ledges, you'll see orange and red exposed bedrock. This calcium-rich quartzite and dolostone is a big reason for the plant diversity at Niquette Bay. Many of the species here, including a profusion of wildflowers in the spring, need the high levels of calcium coming from this bedrock.

Alicia Daniel, executive director of the Vermont Master Naturalist Program, has made a gorgeous video called "Chasing Spring Wildflowers" about Niquette Bay's flora that you can find on the Vermont Master Naturalist YouTube channel.

On your way up the Allen Trail back to the parking lot, you'll make your way through time as you climb to the top of a sandy terrace. The sand is what remains of a delta left by the Lamoille River back when the glaciers were melting into the Champlain Sea 10,000 years ago — and it offers plants an extremely different set of growing conditions than do the ledges.

Keep in mind the rich land-use history as you walk through these seemingly undisturbed woods. The park's land was likely important to Indigenous peoples. Park documents indicate that the area was a French settlement dating back as far as 1736 and speculate that the park was logged in the 1700s and cultivated for crops, hay and pasture in the early 1800s. The land was part of several farms from the 1850s to the 1940s, as the cellar holes hidden throughout attest. By the mid-1940s, the area that would become the park was 80 percent reforested.

That's a lot of biological, historical and recreational richness in return for a mile-and-a-half walk! As ever, when you come back from the woods when the temperature is above freezing, do a thorough tick check.

Heather Fitzgerald teaches field ecology and environmental science at the Community College of Vermont, University of Vermont and Saint Michael's College.

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