“Drive around. Pick out a few campsites you like. Tell us the site numbers. We’ll let you know if they’re available.” Those were the instructions from the ranger at the booth as we drove into the Grand Isle State Park for the first time.
My wife, Deborah, and I, along with our youngest son, Peter, were there for just a one-night visit. For several weeks Deborah and I had been talking about camping on the Champlain islands, and spending a day biking around. (“I need to sleep in a tent” were, I think, her exact words. Who was I to argue?)
Peter’s soccer game at Missisquoi Union High School in Swanton provided the excuse to drive north and try out a new state park. Or, rather, the camping trip on Grand Isle was an excuse to go to an away game at Missisquoi. Between sons in baseball, cross-country, and soccer, we’ve had a combined 22 seasons of watching middle and high school sports, and had managed to avoid traveling to Swanton (a town deserving of the motto, “We aren’t actually in Canada, but we might as well be.”).
I have to admit that I get spoiled living in Vermont (and not just visiting the state), and sometimes I take certain things for granted, such as a bed to sleep in during leaf-peeping season. I forget that Vermont becomes a bit like Jerusalem in the Christmas story: There are no beds at the Inns.
“Don’t bother with the lakeshore sites,” the ranger added. “Those were booked 11 months ago.”
That was something else we learned. Though it is a campground only, with no day-use, Grand Isle is one of Vermont’s most popular state parks. Its proximity to Burlington and Quebec as well easy access on Route 2 make it a convenient stop. The rangers have to monitor and restrict guest access with a gate during peak season, and — like Vermont lodging in September and October — they don’t take reservations for fewer than two nights.
Turns out, though, there were plenty of good campsites left. We found a sheltered one with a flat and plush lawn, not quite close enough to Lake Champlain to see the water, but still close enough to hear loons calling during the quiet of the night. While Peter was on his bus en route to Swanton, we got the tent set up and the beds rolled out. Then we enjoyed a beautiful drive up Route 2 across the islands, to Alburg, and then east through the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge to Swanton.
The return drive from that evening, from Swanton back to North Hero, with the sun setting over the Adirondacks in front of us and glowing orange on Mount Mansfield behind us, was even more beautiful and enjoyable. A campfire, hot drinks, and s’mores took some of the chill out of the evening air.
But it was the next morning that we really understood why the Champlain islands are such popular destinations, especially for bikers. We took a twenty-three mile bike trek including an 18-mile loop from the state park (on the east side of Grand Isle) across the center of the isle to the west side, up the West Shore Road, back over the island to the eastern side, and then around Pearl Bay on North East Shore, and finally back down East Shore.
Part of the trip was on the Champlain Valley Bikeway, but part was just our own loop. The trip included a picnic lunch stop and tour at the state’s flagship fish hatchery, the Ed Weed Fish Culture Station on Grand Isle, as well as an impromptu pull over at a local farmers’ market where we refreshed ourselves with a calorie and fat boost from some lemon donuts glazed with maple cream.
(It was our third visit to a Vermont farmers’ market in about ten days, each in a different town, but with roughly the same tempting offerings each time.)
The gentle terrain of Grand Isle was wonderful for a casual day of biking. Views all around were a mix of pastoral lands, lakeshore, and distant mountains, with marshland mixed in from time to time. We saw deer near the park, and several herons in the marshy areas or lumbering overhead on their prehistoric wings.
With the exception of a few stretches on Route 2, we did not see many cars (though we did see plenty of other cyclists, mostly going in the opposite direction), What traffic there was on the back roads was slow and polite. And even the one stretch along Route 2 was fine. (The donuts at the farmers’ market rendered forgivable all the traffic we encountered on that stretch of road.)
We were only partway back on our Saturday evening drive home when we started thinking about a return visit, wondering how many more weeks of biking and camping season were left to us. And maybe more importantly, how many more weeks of farmers’ markets and homemade donuts.