Sunday, July 6, 2008

Rock 'n Roll at Millstone Trails

Burlington Free Press
July 4, 2008
By Lauren Ober
Photo Glenn Russell

WEBSTERVILLE — On its face, mountain biking in a quarry seems patently ill-advised.

First, there are apt to be jagged granite blocks everywhere, remnants of an industry that celebrated its heyday nearly a century ago. Then there are the quarry pits themselves, which could easily swallow up any cyclist who happens to mispedal. The combination seems like an imminent disaster, and yet at Millstone Trails in the heart of Barre granite territory, it is the quarries themselves that make the mountain biking stand out.

Four years ago, Pierre Couture began the long process of cutting trails for nonmotorized use on his 350-acre property that abuts the Rock of Ages quarry. Couture, who grew up on the property, remembers hours spent in his youth exploring the abandoned quarries and wanted to allow the public to experience that. Thus Millstone Hill Touring Center was born, and hikers, bikers, cross-country skiers and snowshoers have access to some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes in the region.

The height of the Barre granite industry’s production came about 100 years ago when nearly 75 independent quarries operated right around Millstone Hill. Most of the hill was cleared and quarried, and Barre became the granite capital of the world.

But the march of progress brought with it the consolidation of Barre’s many quarries, leaving most small quarries abandoned in its wake. The exodus left behind a stark, pock-marked landscape. The pits filled with water, and the area turned into an industrial wasteland.

But slowly over time, the land began to rejuvenate itself. What was once a bleak moonscape became a thriving forest environment.

“It makes you think about how dynamic nature is,” Couture said.

When Couture moved back to his family’s land to start a bed-and-breakfast, he wanted to open up as much of the property as he could to the public. Couture, a history buff who has a near encyclopedic knowledge of the Barre granite industry, thought recreation trails would be the best way to expose people to the physical history of the area.

The past three years have seen steady growth in the number of mountain bike trails available to ride. Couture guesses the Millstone Trail Association maintains about 70 miles of trails that range from family-friendly cruisers to rugged switchbacks with gnarly rock drops. This season saw the opening of about 15 miles of new singletrack designed by some of the state’s top trail builders.

For mountain bikers visiting Vermont for the first time, or for grizzled locals who think they’ve ridden it all, the Millstone Hill trails are not to be missed; $8 will get riders a day pass, some intense riding and a serious dose of local history.

All rides begin on Lower Mainline, an easy doubletrack that inches up a slow incline before hitting the main trail network. From there, riders have numerous easy options. But to best see the 20 quarries, you’re probably going to have to hit a more challenging trail like Locomotion, which takes bikers right past the Jones Brothers and Barclay quarries.

Along the way, riders pass an old boiler at the beginning of the Boilermaker loop. While much of the leftover metal from the railroads and quarries was pilfered for scrap during World War II, the boiler remains as a symbol of the once booming industry.

The newest trails, some of which were designed by Hans Jenny of the Chittenden County mountain bike group Fellowship of the Wheel, are on the south side of Graniteville Road and can be found by following the Grand Canyon trail. Even before you get to the newly cut advanced trails, it is imperative to stop at the Rock of Ages lookout, overlooking one of the largest granite pits in the world.

For years, Rock of Ages, the largest quarrier of granite in North America, has allowed public access to their 1,800-acre property. Couture said the quarry owners didn’t object to trail development on their land and that the Millstone Trail Association has been “ambitious” in its trail work.

At the lookout, riders get a breathtaking view of the quarry pit stories below them. Old guide wires and huge iron hooks are all that are left of the quarry operations. From the top of the pit, riders can see over to one of the two working quarries left in Barre.

Continuing along the Grand Canyon trail, which rings the rim of the quarry, riders can easily access the Fellowship Ring, a directional advanced singletrack trail that folds back on itself numerous times. Along the trail, riders will find giant roots, slick rock gardens and narrow switchbacks.

It’s not a beginner trail by any means, but the persistent rider will be rewarded by a spectacular view of a working quarry. At Quarry View Lookout, guide wires attached to boom derricks that seem to stretch to the heavens extend all the way back into the trees behind the lookout. It’s not your standard mountain biking scenery.

Like Kingdom Trails in East Burke, it is easy to spend an entire day or more exploring the trails at Millstone Hill. That is partly by design. Couture said Tim Tierney, executive director of the Kingdom Trails, has been a mentor to him with regard to building a mountain bike destination. Tierney returns the compliment, saying he’s supportive of their efforts and thinks the trails are coming along well.

Ideally, both mountain bike areas will help Vermont become a destination for out-of-state cyclists, Couture said. As long as the trails at Millstone Hill continue to be sustainably developed and refined, Tierney thinks that time isn’t far off.

“They’re working towards developing quality trails, and as long as they keep that in mind, they’ll succeed,” Tierney said.

Contact Lauren Ober at 660-1868 or

No comments:

Post a Comment