The wind ripped through the trees and we stared up at the jagged peak just visible through the pines. I wasn’t aware that any mountain in New England could look that ominous. Maybe, I thought to myself, this wasn’t such a great idea for our first hike together.
My boyfriend Erich and I were climbing Camel’s Hump, a jagged and beautiful peak in Vermont’s Green Mountains. But what started as a simple day hike was turning into something far more strenuous.
What Is Camel’s Hump Mountain?
Camel’s Hump is the third highest mountain in Vermont, standing at 4,083 ft. Though it sits lower than nearby Mt. Mansfield or Killington, Camel’s Hump is by far the most recognizable peak in the Green Mountains due to it’s intriguingly shaped peak. The mountain’s unique shape was carved by glaciers many, many years ago.
The first people to name the mountain were the indigenous tribe known as the Abnaki who lived in the Green Mountains. They called it “Ta Wal Be Dee Esso Wadso” which has been translated a number of ways but my favorite is “Prudently, we make a campfire in a circle near water (and rest) at this mountain.” But probably the more reasonable translation is “resting place”.
Then the French showed up in the colonial period and besides ruining everything with diseases and capitalism, they called the mountain “Le Lion Couchant” or the resting lion. And although we all should have quit while we were ahead, the English apparently didn’t feel the mountain was quite as majestic as a lion so they renamed it Camel’s Rump and finally, Camel’s Hump.
I personally am of the opinion that we ought to go back to “Prudently, we make a campfire in a circle near water at this mountain” because that’s what we all really want to do there, anyway.
Our Adventurous Hike up Camel’s Hump
The morning of the hike to Camel’s Hump dawned clear and cool. It was Memorial Day Weekend and this would be my first time hiking with my boyfriend Erich, and his first New England 4k footer. I knew the hike would be 7 miles long over some rugged terrain and I wanted to get going early. I had fraught memories of the slightly stressful Franconia Notch hike with my mother last fall.
So, much to Erich’s chagrin, I was out of bed at 6:30, making coffee and preparing our lunch. Yet despite my best intentions, things never move as quickly as you think they should in the morning. We didn’t hit the road until 8:30.
We headed for the Monroe Trailhead, a great access point if you’re interested in a mix of moderate to challenging New England hiking. Arriving at 9:30, we parked in the overflow lot. I was a bit worried we’d end up behind the crowds but we found the main lot nearly empty. Clearly, the sense of urgency I felt in Franconia Notch was not to be found on the laid back slopes of Vermont’s Green Mountains.
Erich and I headed into the woods.
The Monroe to Dean Trail
Stepping onto the trail, the deciduous forest enveloped us and the world of cars, cities, smog, and corporate greed dropped away. My vision was imbued with the vibrant green of sunlight filtered through early spring leaves. Beech trees and oak rustled in the wind. Saplings reached up towards the sun.
The trail began to work its way up the mountainside gradually. There are a few steep spots at the beginning but nothing to fret about. The first mile passed by quickly and we found ourselves at a fork with the Dean Trail splitting off to the left, and the Monroe Trail continuing on ahead.
Taking a seat on a rock to break into our first snacks, Erich asked me, “So, how close are we to the top?”
It was my first hint of that perhaps I hadn’t chosen the most sensible hike for his first. Perhaps someone with greater empathy would have chosen a lower peak, a less exposed mountain, a less challenging hike.
“We aren’t close yet at all.”
Hey. At least I’m not a liar.
Hiking Camel’s Hump via the Long Trail as an introduction to New England hiking was the rough equivalent of watching a child flounder in the deep end of the swimming pool.
From the fork, we headed for the far less trafficked Dean Trail, which continued the previous trend of gently heading up the mountain. The trail was narrow and overgrown. Easy to follow but clearly not much used. It wound through wetlands and reached up into the liminal area between deciduous and pine forests where both types of tree vie for the attention of the sun above. A few more gentle inclines, and we had entered the spruce forest: one of the most delicious environments in New England. The air smells like Christmas. The ground is soft and springy beneath your feet and the entire forest feels like it is holding its breath.
Coming around one curve we found a smaller offshoot peeling off to the right and into a small clearing. Directly across the field, we could see the peak of Camel’s Hump rising above the treeline. A bank of clouds rolled across the summit on the wind, obscuring the rocks from view.
I consoled myself that we still had at least another hour of hiking to go before we reached the summit. Hopefully, the cool air and fog would clear before then. I didn’t relish the idea of Erich’s first summit lacking the views.
Back to the Dean Trail and it wasn’t too much further before we hit the intersection with the Long Trail.
Taking the Long Trail to Camel’s Hump
For the uninitiated, the Long Trail is America’s oldest thru-hike. A 270-mile relentless trek through the Green Mountains of Vermont. It famously lacks switchbacks and mercy. Still, somehow, I thought it would be a great introduction to hiking in New England.
This hike would be my first time setting foot on the Long Trail. I’d heard stories of this trail from my dad; how challenging it could be, how beautiful, how the old Yankees had cut the trail straight up the side of a rugged mountain without regard for future hikers knees.
Excitement bubbled up within me. I was finally here! Walking on the Long Trail.
The intensity picked up immediately. Where the Dean Trail had crossed a saddle on the side of the mountain, the Long Trail headed north, straight up the spine and onto the first ridge. Before long, we were scrambling up granite boulders taller than our heads.
Coming up over the first scramble, I found myself on an exposed outlook, a ragged shelf of granite jutting out between the pine trees. The wind blew fast and hard into my face as I stared out over the Appalachian landscape. We were facing east, towards the parallel ridge of the Green Mountains and in the distance, New Hampshire.
I turned around to celebrate this first viewpoint with Erich only to find him sitting by the edge of the trail several feet away from the edge, looking shaken. I had forgotten he had a fear of heights and didn’t love the wind.
“I’m fine,” he asserted, “I’m just going to stay over here.”
We continued. The trail remained rugged, cutting straight up the side of the mountain through jagged granite boulders. The footing and scrambling required no small amount of creativity. The trail ran mostly through the trees, sheltered from the wind, but at times the trail was wide open; granting stunning views of the surrounding mountains but exposing us to the increasingly high winds.
The Long Trail’s approach to the summit of Camel’s Hump accentuates a peculiar feature of the mountain’s geography: the trail ascends to a false summit before dipping down towards a saddle then ascending once more in a final, steep lurch to the top.
Just before that dip in the saddle, a clearing opened in the pines above us. We were granted a glimpse of the summit. It felt present. Imposing. It commanded respect and no small amount of fear. The wind howled around us. The jagged, sharp, dark grey granite rocks stood out ominously from the swirling gray sky. From this angle, it appeared we would need to scramble straight up the side of the cliff to reach the summit.
Quite an introductory hike you choose, Megan.
We wound through the pines as the wind raged around us and we steeled ourselves for the final ascent. It would be exposed, windy, a little dangerous, and would involve plenty of scrambling. I had known when I planned the trip that this trail would be challenging but I’d had no concept of just how intense this final stretch would be.
We headed into the pines, climbing a giant’s staircase made of granite through the trees, sometimes reaching up to hold onto roots and trunks as we hauled ourselves up the steep trail.
With the summit in sight, the trees disappeared and we faced the final challenge: an exposed, wind-whipped scramble along sheer granite rocks, the white blaze of the long trail painted just often enough for us not to get lost. We clung to the boulders as we navigated sideways and upwards towards the summit.
Coming over the top of the final rise, we found a group of hikers cowering against the wind, tucked into crevasses and any sheltered place atop the windy, exposed summit. As we pulled on our jackets I looked over at Erich. I must admit I was moderately afraid I’d find him in shambles, cowed by the height and the wind. Had I permanently traumatized him?
He already had his phone out to take pictures of the view.
The fog we’d seen from the valley below had vanished on the wind. The summit offered a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape. Lake Champlain stretched to the west, with the distant Adirondacks a blue ridge beyond. To the east, the low lying Green Mountains sat closest while the White Mountains rose above them in the far distance. North, Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s tallest peak, stood proud but shadowy, it’s summit wrapped in fog.
We sat for a few minutes, swapping encouragement and jokes with the few other hikers present, enjoying that strange camaraderie that comes from reaching the summit of a mountain at the same time.
Something about the mountain transforms you from strangers to companions, sharing an appreciation of the surrounding splendor and the struggle you went through simply to be there.
At last, buffeted about by the wind and more than a little worried that our accessories or even entire backpacks might be blown off the mountain, we raised ourselves into low crouches and headed down the rocky summit and back to the relative safety of the pine-covered trail.
Descending via the Monroe Trail
Since I have a strange aversion to out and back hiking, we descended via the Monroe Trail. This was starkly different from our Long Trail ascent.
On the way up we had been alone, the sole hikers on the trail. This descent was more like walking down a hill in a city park. The trail was crowded with rambunctious groups of college kids, young adults, avid hikers, and families bounding up the mountain.
The solitude gone, we walked down the trail with everyone else, pausing now and again to let the faster hikers pass us. As with most hikes, the descent always feels just a bit longer than the ascent. Legs are tired now, knees are starting to ache, feet to sting, and what should feel like the easiest part of the hike begins to present its own unique challenges as the pain of the day makes itself known.
Still, the trail was comfortable and not overly steep. We descended swiftly and were back at the car by 2pm.
All that was left for the day was to find a good spot for some post-hike pizza and craft beer.
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