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Destination Recreation: Barr Hill Natural Area 

click to enlarge A rainbow over Caspian Lake - MOLLY RITVO
  • Molly Ritvo
  • A rainbow over Caspian Lake

While, for some, the name Barr Hill conjures top-shelf Vermont-distilled spirits, it also belongs to a family-friendly hiking area in the Northeast Kingdom. Earlier this summer, my husband, Jason, our 16-month-old daughter, Jimi, and I checked it out while vacationing in the area — a summer tradition for my extended family. We rented three neighboring houses on Caspian Lake and spent our days enjoying low-key outings, including visits to Willey's Store for sweet strawberries and local cheese, to Pete's Greens farmstand for fresh produce and meat, and to Cassie's Corner for ice cream. We took leisurely bike rides on the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, but we also tried to get out to stretch our legs.

Barr Hill Natural Area is a 256-acre preserve owned and maintained by the Nature Conservancy of Vermont. Philip Gray Sr. donated the land, which is immortalized in Wallace Stegner's classic novel, Crossing to Safety. On a bright June morning — armed with snacks, water, bug spray, sunscreen and a hiking backpack — we drove to the trail head, which is about 10 minutes east of the lake.

There are two well-maintained trails to choose from — a 1/3-mile and a 4/5-mile loop. Keeping in mind a toddler's average attention span, we chose the shorter one. After a quick climb up a gradual hill covered with ferns, we entered a lush forest. Jimi was eager to get out of her backpack and walk over the gentle terrain while holding our hands. Along the way, we passed tall conifers; red spruce; and hardwood trees, including sugar maple, yellow birch and beech. Jason and I attempted to point out the different types of trees to Jimi, but she was more interested in the wood chips at her feet.

click to enlarge Molly, Jason and Jimi - MOLLY RITVO
  • Molly Ritvo
  • Molly, Jason and Jimi

Informational pamphlets point out natural features marked by letters posted near each. You can see a 2-foot-wide trough that a glacier gouged in bedrock, a granite boulder dragged and dropped by a glacier 10,000 years ago, and black rock that began as mud at the bottom of a sea 425 million years ago.

Also fun to see is the collection of fairy houses between markers K and L.

In the 1800s, this hill was cleared for timber and potash, then pastured for sheep for the woolen mill industry. It was named for the A.E. Barr family, who lived in the area around 1800 and grew potatoes. My favorite stops were C, a conifer-framed view of the lake and J, a panorama to the northwest of Belvidere Mountain, Haystack Mountain and Jay Peak.

The short loop took us just half an hour at toddler speed. It concludes at a flower-filled field, a scenic spot for pictures. After stopping for a few family photos, we headed to the car — and back to Caspian Lake for a refreshing afternoon dip.

Barr Hill Natural Area, 1521 Barr Hill Rd., Greensboro

Sand & Sun

If you're looking for a beach with clean water and no crowds, it's hard to beat Caspian Lake. The calm, clear glacial lake covers nearly 800 acres and has a maximum depth of 142 feet. Summer cottages and year-round residences dot the shores. The only public access for swimming and boating is Caspian Public Beach (125 Beach Rd., Greensboro). The sand is a bit rocky, so wearing water shoes is a good idea. There is a free parking lot, several bathrooms and a small changing area. Motorboats are allowed on the lake, but the daytime 40-mph speed limit and shallow boat launch helps keep them pretty mellow. Fishing for trout is also a popular activity. My daughter preferred the clusters of minnows that circled our feet as we enjoyed the cool water. Willey's Store, just down the street at 7 Breezy Ave., is a good place to pick up bait and beach snacks.

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