A Perfect Fall Day in the Northeast Kingdom
Keeping your eyes on the road while driving along Route 91 as it winds through Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom (NEK) in the fall is no small task. With Vermont’s Green Mountains to the west and New Hampshire’s White Mountains to the south, the Northeast Kingdom is more rolling hills than steep peaks—but that does nothing to detract from its grandeur. When temperatures start to drop, the lush green hills lining the road slowly transform to the red, orange, and gold associated with fall in New England, and hidden among the hills, lakes, and aging farms of the Northeast Kingdom is one of the country’s best bike destinations: Kingdom Trails in Burke, Vermont.
On fall weekends, the roads heading toward Burke, and Kingdom Trails’ 100+ miles of trail, are bustling (at least for a town of roughly 1,700 people) with cars sporting a full rainbow of license plate colors—New York yellows, Massachusetts reds, Vermont and New Hampshire greens, and Connecticut blues—mirroring the landscape and filling the single-lane country road leading into town. You’re sure to spot a plethora of Canadian plates as well; the NEK shares a border with Canada, and Burke is an hour closer to Montreal than it is to Boston and Quebec City is two hours closer to Burke than New York City.
Home to the densest amount of singletrack, the Darling Hill area is where most visitors begin their Kingdom Trails odyssey. Accessed from Uptown, slowly and steadily weave through the multi-colored fall forest moving toward the top of Darling Hill. It’s not uncommon to hear whoops of joy as you near the top of Uptown, as riders exit one of Kingdom Trails’ most popular downhill runs, Kitchel. Machine-built, one-way, with grin-inducing jumps and head-high berms, it’s nearly impossible to ride this trail just once.
Best saved for dessert, resist Kitchel’s siren song, and continue climbing moderately graded switchbacks through the autumn-gold forest to eventually gain the road. This is most likely the only pavement your bike’s wheels will touch at Kingdom Trails, so let your mind drift toward dirt and admire the view of the well-kept homes on Darling Hill and the magnificently cared for fields laid before you, or peek over your shoulder at the hulking mass of Burke Mountain rising prominently above all else. Better known as a ski mountain—and, in the warmer months overshadowed by Kingdom Trails’ epic singletrack—the lift-served riding at Burke Mountain Bike Park looks very appealing at this point of the climb.
Topping out Darling Hill breathing hard, three of Kingdom Trail’s most popular trails—Troll Stroll, Tap n’ Die, and Tody’s Tour (together called the Three Ts) lay just across still-green fields. Each similar in character, the Three Ts each snake down a strip of smooth, super-tacky dirt through dense hardwood forest. Packed with berms and small jumps, it’s easy to feel at your limit as S-turns rapidly accelerate and decelerate riders, and the forest creeps into just-larger-than-handlebars widths. Get to the bottom of any of the Three Ts, wipe the giant smile off your face, and climb up the seemingly never-ending switchbacks of Burrington Bench to do it again!
Moving on from the Three Ts, a mix of doubletack and windy singletrack leads to Webs. Short and sweet, Webs delivers a fast, non-technical descent through a landscape that feels quintessentially Vermont. The widely spaced pine trees without undergrowth offer an interesting change of pace from the otherwise dark, dense forest found around Burke, and as much fun as Webs is to ride, its equally interesting to watch your partners descend, flashing in front of, and behind, trees.
From Webs, the aptly named Meadow Wood trail leads riders up a steep, loose climb past cows grazing in fields that will soon be covered in snow, with only a small strip of electric fence to separate the trail from the field. On the other side of the trail is the vibrant fall forest, and sounds of newly fallen leaves rustling under tires as riders rip down another must-do Kingdom trail: Sidewinder.
Sidewinder is approximately a quarter-mile long, and descends a gully by screaming riders down one side of it, only to whip them back up the other. One of the few trails outside of the bike park to be rated as a double-black diamond, riders are challenged to avoid using their brakes and let gravity do its thing as it pulls them through successive turns. Style the jump at the end—there’s almost always a crowd watching—and pretend like that wasn’t the longest (and best) quarter-mile you’ve ever ridden.
A short climb back up the hill brings riders to the Market Cafe. Located in the middle of the woods, at the juncture of numerous trails, the only thing rivaling the vibrancy of the forest colors is the electric blues, highlighter yellows, and fiery oranges found on the helmets and jerseys of riders congregating around Market Cafe. Classically Vermont, Market Cafe serves sandwiches and wraps made with Vermont-raised meats, locally sourced produce, and, of course, Cabot cheese. Market Cafe also has drool-worthy baked goods and cold drinks for sale.
Sitting on a log bench in the crisp fall air next to Market Cafe, surrounded by other riders, in a town that seems wholly committed to mountain biking and the bike community (90+ contiguous landowners allow the Kingdom Trails Association to manage and maintain trails on their property), it’s hard to believe that the town is better known for its cold, steep, icy slopes than its flowing, smooth singletrack; in fact, in just a few short weeks, the town will transform into a training ground for numerous future Olympic hopefuls.
Located at the base of Burke Mountain is Burke Mountain Academy, one of the leading ski racing academies in the U.S. Established in 1970, Burke Academy has taken advantage of Burke’s snowy slopes to develop some of the country’s most successful skiers. In its roughly fifty-year history, Burke Academy has placed 117 students onto the U.S. Ski Team and has been the home of 33 Olympians—including two-time gold medal winner Mikaela Shiffrin.
It’s easy to linger around Market Cafe, but don’t stay too long. This spot is about as far away from downtown as you can get on the Darling Hill side of Kingdom Trails, the days are short this time of year, and there is plenty of riding left to do.
Advanced riders can ride the area’s other double-black diamond trail—the intimidating, bridge-packed Jaw—before linking up with Pines, a fun flow trail that ends with a blocky granite roller, leading to a slightly bermed bridge, and an impress-your-friends double.
Others looking to keep sampling the Northeast Kingdom’s superb singletrack can head for the 360-degree views of the Vermont landscape offered by Heaven’s Bench, before dipping into a blur of reds, oranges, and yellows as they descend through the forest along the roller coaster ride of Ridge and Rim which speed riders into town. No matter how you head back to town, don’t forget to take a couple laps on Kitchel before calling it a day!
Back in town, pull on a puffy (it gets cold the as soon as the sun starts to set), weave through the maze of bikes on the lawn next to the main parking lot, and find a seat at Mike’s Tiki Bar. The Tiki Bar is always packed with riders fresh off the trail and delivers one of the best bike après scenes around. If Mike’s is too much of scene, consider heading for the bar at Village Sport Trailside on top of Darling Hill. Smaller and more reserved than the downtown scene, here you can enjoy peace, quiet, and expansive views of the Vermont countryside while sitting on the outdoor patio next to the fire pit.
With its incredible trails, amazing community, and vibrant outdoor culture, a fall trip to Kingdom Trails should be on every mountain biker’s list. And, if you like Burke in the fall, make sure to come back in a month or two and ski the same terrain the next generation of great U.S. skiers uses to prepare for racing on the world’s most iconic mountains and race courses: 3,267-foot Burke Mountain.