The Mountains of Vermont

 

Words to Know

topography

prominent

notch

hogback

plateau

alpine zone

Arctic

"mountain rule"  

View south from the Long Trail on Mansfield's Summit Ridge

 

            Topography is the landscape, or the way that the land looks.  It includes all of the natural or "man-made" features on the surface of the earth, like lakes, rivers, and mountains.  Vermont's mountains are the most prominent physical feature on the state's topography.  There are mountain ranges and peaks in almost all of the state's physiographic regions.  Vermont's mountain ranges are really part of the Appalachian Mountains which run from the southern United States all the way to the Gaspé Peninsula in the Province of Quebec.

 

            Vermont has several peaks over 4,000 feet high.  There are many more over 3,000 feet in elevation.  Some examples are Mt. Mansfield (4,393 feet), Mt. Ellen (4,135 feet), Camels Hump (4,083 feet), Killington Peak, (4,235 feet), Pico Peak (3,957 feet), Mt. Equinox (3,816 feet), Jay Peak (3,861 feet), Mt. Ascutney (3,150 feet), and Mt. Hunger (3,620 feet).  (Click here to find out more about these mountains.)  Some big mountains like Lincoln Mountain or Mt. Mansfield may have a number of separate peaks.

 

            Some other features associated with mountains are notches, passes, or gaps.  These are places in long mountain chains where the elevation is lower and it is easier to get across.  Some of the best known are Smugglers Notch in Stowe, Hazens Notch near the end of the old Bayley-Hazen Military Road in Westfield, Middlebury Gap on Vermont Route 125, and Sherburne Pass on U.S. Route 4 in Sherburne.  As you read in the section on Vermont Rivers, the Winooski, Lamoille, and Missisquoi Rivers also cut features called water gaps through the northern Green Mountains.

 

The Taconic Mountains

            The Taconic Mountains are a major range of peaks in southwestern Vermont that extend north to Brandon.  These mountains are made of very old rocks.  The Taconics are the home of Vermont's important slate quarrying industry.  The highest peak is Mt. Equinox in Manchester.  The Valley of Vermont separates the Taconics from the Green Mountains to the east.  South of Vermont, the Taconic Mountains and the Green Mountains become much lower.

 

The Green Mountains  

            The Green Mountains are probably the oldest mountains in New England.  They were once much higher than they are today, but over geologic time they have been worn down by erosion.  The First Range, or the Front Range, is really just a series of small hills called hogbacks.  The Hogback Mountains near Monkton, Bristol, and Starksboro are part of this Front Range.

 

            The Second, or Main Range, of the Green Mountains runs from Massachusetts all the way to Canada.  In southern Vermont, the mountains are like a very high, wide, upland plain or plateau.  Peaks like Glastenbury (3,764 feet) and Stratton (3,936 feet) rise above the plain.  North of Rutland in the Main Range, the mountain chain narrows and includes many of Vermont's highest peaks.  Some, like Mt. Mansfield, have fragile alpine zones.  These alpine zones are areas containing plant life usually found far to the north in Arctic climates.  The spine of the Main Range is broken by the Winooski and Lamoille River water gaps.  Other ranges include the Sterling Range in Stowe and Morristown or the Cold Hollow Range in Enosburg.  When the Green Mountains reach Quebec, they are called the Sutton Mountains.  In Massachusetts, they are known as the Berkshire Hills.

 

            The Third Range is really a series of smaller ranges.  They include the Braintree and Northfield Mountains, the Worcester Range (including Mt. Hunger), and the Lowell Mountains.

 

The Piedmont and the Northeast Highlands

            The Granite Hills are located to the east in the Vermont Piedmont.  This range includes Signal Mountain (3,348 feet) in the town of Groton.  Along with the Main Range of the Green Mountains, they form a "Y" shaped mountain pattern.  Washington, Lamoille, and Orleans counties lie between the two arms or branches in the Y.  The Piedmont region has many rolling hills and monadnocks, like Mt. Ascutney in Windsor.

 

            To the north in Essex County there are the scattered peaks of the Northeast Highlands, like Monadnock Mountain (3,140 feet) in Lemington.  Geologically, these granite monadnocks are really part of the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

 

Vermont's Mountains and Their Role in the State's History

            The first European to see the green, forest-covered mountains of Vermont was probably Samuel de Champlain in 1609.  He was sailing up the lake he discovered and named after himself.  Champlain also named one of the great mountains Le Lion Couchant, which means "the couching lion".  This mountain later came to be known as Camels Hump.

 

            When the first settlers arrived in the region, they found that the Green Mountains were a barrier and very hard to cross.  The mountain ranges divided the early towns into eastern and western sections.  The disputes between New York and New Hampshire over the territory helped the Green Mountain Boys bring the two sides together as one Green Mountain republic in 1777.

 

            Even after independence, the mountains divided Vermont and its people.  The "mountain rule" was an informal way that the early settlers in Vermont chose their elected officials.  Political offices were shared by the eastern and western sides of the state.  For example, when the governor was from a town on one side, the lieutenant governor was always from a town on the other.  Each election year, a new governor was chosen, first from the west side and then from the east side.  This political system lasted for many years in Vermont.  We will see in the Cultural Geography section how the state capital was chosen in the same way.

 

            If you look carefully at a map of Vermont's mountains, you will see how the boundaries often follow peaks and ridges.  The early surveyors of Vermont, like Ira Allen, James Whitelaw, and John Johnson were very keen.  They used the topography of Vermont's rugged Green Mountains in laying out town and county boundaries.  The natural boundaries of the mountain ranges, as well as lakes and rivers, helped to form political boundaries in the new state.

 

            Mountains also divided individual towns in Vermont.  For example, the early town of Windsor was split in half by Mt. Ascutney.  When cultural differences also divided the two sides, West Windsor was created as a separate town.

 

Click here for a list of various Vermont mountains and links

 

Questions from the Mountain section.

  1. Why do you think Vermont is called the Green Mountain State?
  2. What was the mountain rule?
  3. What is a notch?
  4. Have you ever been on one of Vermont's mountains?  If so, which one, and what did you do there?