The classic tune by John Denver could have just as easily been about Vermont instead of West Virginia. When it comes to country roads, Vermont has a lot of them — more than most other states, thanks to its rural development pattern over the past few hundred years.
There are 6,008 miles of gravel roads and 1,590 miles of roads made of graded earth in Vermont, making up nearly 50 percent of our state’s total road mileage. Including primitive or unimproved roads and untraveled dirt roads, it’s nearly 55 percent that are unpaved, according to statistics on the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s website.
“In Calais, we have 82 miles of road. Only four-and-a-half miles of that are blacktop,” says road crew foreman Alfred Larabee, from the town garage. “We are in the top five towns in the state for most miles of gravel roads.”
The extensive gravel roads in Calais, a sprawling town that includes three village centers with stores and post offices, take a four-person road crew all year long to maintain. When I asked him to tell me about what is required to maintain all of these gravel roads, he laughed and asked, “How long have you got?”
Vermont’s gravel roads are often scenic and beautiful, and can make a great setting for a country drive, bike ride, long walk or run, or a quiet place to ride a horse. They are also the scene of Vermont’s unique fifth season: mud season, which falls somewhere between winter and spring. And, says Larabee, he has a bad feeling about mud season this year.
“Because of the speed of it warming up — it’s so late in the season for signs of spring — I think this is going to be a bad one,” he says. He gets calls every year during mud season from taxpayers who want to know why he’s not doing more to maintain the roads. He asks me to point out to readers that sometimes there’s nothing that can be done. “We have to be patient with Mother Nature,” he says.
Sometimes, Larabee says, putting trucks out on to the roads to make repairs during mud season just causes more damage, but his crew does what they can. Each of his four team members is responsible for 20 miles of road; that’s higher than other towns, where the average is more like 10 to 14 miles per road crew member.
Calais has so many miles of gravel roads because of the way the town was developed back when it was settled. The location of these roads, and their surfaces, has more to do with human settlement patterns. These roads can travel over bedrock, surface materials, or even wet areas.
“Geology isn’t necessarily a factor in where roads are located,” points out state geologist Marjorie Gale. “But the material that makes up the road surface, that’s where things get interesting.”
Material on the road is mostly sand and gravel from glacial deposits that are 12,000 to 14,000 years old. That means when you’re driving, walking or riding your bike or horse on a gravel road, there is a good chance you’re walking on what used to be a beach or other glacial deposit thousands of years ago. The specific age of the material depends on which deposit the material came from.
Think of the glaciers advancing and scraping up and depositing till, then retreating and melting and leaving that material behind. The ice acted as a dam, creating lakes at different elevation levels and at different times as the glaciers retreated. The deposits that now make up our roads are different ages depending on which lake levels they were formed in. Generally, the sand and gravel making up our roads is quartz, which was more resistant to erosion as the glaciers retreated.
Many towns harvest their own sand and gravel from pits within town limits, although Calais does purchase material from Vermont suppliers in Wolcott and Marshfield. At town gravel pits, sand and gravel is extracted with machinery, then sorted by size using sieves and washed to remove fine particles.
Hinesburg has one of our state’s largest sand and gravel pits. Gale explains it is located in a spot where the Winooski River used to flow south into town, instead of its current path toward Lake Champlain. At the spot where the river came into town, a large deposit of sand and gravel was left behind.
Sometimes, town sand and gravel pits do get depleted, and so towns move on to find another one. Gale says no one is sure whether our state is running out of material, although sometimes she hears people saying that from a town that can’t find another source locally.
While using a gravel road might now make you think of a lakeside beach, many Vermonters and tourists alike see our gravel roads as prime spots for adventure. Take Janet Nielsen of Marshfield, for example. In 2014, she walked the entire length of the historic Bayley Hazen Road with her daughter, Jenny Nielsen Warshow, also of Marshfield, many miles of which were peaceful, scenic gravel roads. (Read about their walk in “Adventures in History” from Sept. 27, 2015.)
Gravel cycling is another popular way to enjoy Vermont’s dirt roads, and the sport is growing in popularity. Gravel riding in general is one of the fastest-growing segments of the cycling industry, and Vermont has become a mecca of sorts for the sports’ enthusiasts.
“Gravel riding is closer to mountain biking than road cycling,” says Arlon Chaffee, owner of GRVL Cycling, a company that presents a number of cycling and running events, including gravel rides like Raid Lamoille, held in Craftsbury in July.
“In general, people who ride gravel are more relaxed riders,” he explains by phone from his home base in New Hampshire. “It’s about challenging yourself with elevation gain, or freshly graded roads that are hard to pedal through, or the potholes and deep ruts of mud season.” He says these riders are often looking for a safer and more relaxed experience than road riding.
Anecdotally, he says there has been an increase in popularity of gravel riding.
“When I started Raid Lamoille in 2012, there were two other gravel rides happening in Vermont — the Waterbury Area Trails Alliance Gravel Grinder and the Dirty 40,” says Chaffee. “Now, there’s many more.”
He quickly rattles off the first 10 that come to mind.
In addition to his own event, Raid Lamoille, and the two other aforementioned rides, there’s the Vermont Overland Maple Adventure Ride, the Muddy Onion presented by Onion River Outdoors, Rasputitsa, The Ranger, Dirty Pizza and Rooted. Two more are in development.
On July 21, 2018, Raid Lamoille had some 200 riders, with a loop starting and finishing at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. Riders relaxed after the event over good food, Vermont craft beer and coffee and swimming on Great Hosmer Pond.
The ride pulled in cyclists from all over the country. In fact, only 40 riders were from Vermont — perhaps because they are “Yankee frugal,” as Chaffee politely put it, or because they have endless miles of dirt roads out their doors that they can ride any day. Vermonters, he thinks, may be less likely to pony up an entrance fee to participate in an organized event when they can ride these roads any day of the season.
Beyond Vermont, Raid Lamoille attracted one rider each from Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland and Rhode Island, plus 11 from Connecticut, 50 from Massachusetts, 15 from Maine, two from New Jersey, 10 from New York, 20 from Ontario and 45 from Chaffee’s home state of New Hampshire.
Chaffee says the reason Vermont does so well as a site for gravel rides “is because of its abundance of attractive and well-maintained gravel roads.”