Saturday, February 17, 2024

What a Saint

     Would you like to be known for your faults? Me either. But with mountains, faults can be the key to understanding their origin and history. Take St. Catherine Mountain for example. It forms the eastern backdrop to Vermont's Lake St. Catherine in the Towns of Poultney and Wells. It is part of a north-south range of hills and mountains with very steep west facing sides that reach their apogee at Pond Mountain. Here, impressive vertical cliffs tower 600 feet and more above the village of Wells. 

Google Earth screen shot of Pond Mountain looking north

Gwenne took this pic of the Pond Mountain cliffs
Looking east from Rt. 30 just north of Wells

       The dramatic topography here is the result of thrust faults where large chunks of the Earth's crust were pushed westward during  a plate collision 450 million years ago. Called the Taconic Orogeny, it gave us the hilly landscape of New York's eastern border.  

On this geologic map the heavy dashed line down the center
marks the position of a thrust fault

     To those of us who love to explore (my hand is raised), features like this ridge and cliff have an hypnotic draw. I've long dreamed of starting in Wells (with coffee and a pastry at the Wells Country Store!) before climbing along the spine of the range and finally coming down for a well deserved swim/beer/cookout at Lake St. Catherine State Park.

My fantasy hike starts with an ascent of Pond Mountain at the 
bottom right and continues along the ridge over St. Catherine
Mountain with a descent to the Park just off the top of the map

     Alas, it is not meant to be. To the best of my knowledge most of the route is privately owned with no public access. Most, but not all. Thanks to the Slate Valley Trails  and a generous landowner there is a path to a vantage point on St. Catherine Mountain that should not be missed. Gwenne, Zia and I hiked it recently and it gives an enticing taste of what the whole ridge walk could offer.

The hike starts at the red balloon on the right.
Two trails lead up the mountain to a viewpoint in image center.
Lake St. Catherine is on the left.

     To get to the Lewis Deane Nature Preserve take a right off Rt. 30 just before the state park entrance (Rt. 30 is the scenic road along the east side of Lake St. Catherine between Wells and Poultney, Vermont). Drive a little less than a mile on Endless Brook Road to a small parking lot on the right. The trail crosses the brook on a new footbridge to open meadows where there is an informative kiosk, some small ponds and a sentry on a hilltop.

Bridge over tumbling waters

Gwenne and Zia with the King of the Mountain

        In 2002 the landowners donated this 85 acre property to Green Mountain College for use in teaching, research and recreation. When the college closed in 2019 the land reverted back to the original owners who continue to let people hike here. There are two trails to the top of the ridge. We took the short and steep yellow trail up and returned via the green trail for a loop of several miles.

Up the yellow trail


     The forests are a mix of hardwoods and evergreens with some sections of dense hemlocks. Careful observation will reveal signs of past land use such as grazing and logging. Rock outcrops are of  greenish gray phyllite, layered and tilted. They originated as off shore muds more than a half billion years ago before taking a wild ride of 50 or 60 miles to end up here. No wonder they're crooked and crumpled.
     After hiking a mile or so you arrive at the top of the ridge and an amazing view. There is a wetland directly below and the lake just beyond. Quarries of the slate belt are visible with the hills of Washington County leading your gaze to the Adirondacks on the horizon. Faults aren't such a bad thing if they give you a panorama like this!

     I suggest taking the green trail back down. It switchbacks at a gentler grade and takes you thru some interesting forest stands. The long even slope down a hogback to Endless Brook is a delight and the final section to the meadow follows the stream.
     The state campground would be an ideal basecamp for adventures in this area. There are other Slate Valley trails nearby and one of my favorite bike tours leads from here to Poultney, Middletown Springs, Pawlet and Wells. The swimming holes of the Poultney River are just up the road and for refreshments you have several options in Poultney and the rustic elegance of The Barn restaurant down by Pawlet. It's a saintly place to spend time exploring.

     Let's finish up with some interesting images of the area that I found on the Web:

Looking south with the Pond Mountain cliffs and hills of the fault scarp left to right

Looking north past the steep west face of Pond Mountain

Looking south with St. Catherine Mountain, the cliffs of Pond Mountain
and other hills of the fault scarp angling from left to upper right

     And finally, a web image of a beautiful oil painting by Andrew Orr. Pond Mountain from across Little Lake: