Once-Abandoned Ascutney Basin Now Has Miles of Trails

Friday, April 17, 2015
West Windsor — The closing of Mount Ascutney Resort five years ago left an economic and recreational void in the village of Brownsville. Thanks to the Sport Trails of the Ascutney Basin (STAB) and its partnership with the town of West Windsor, the area has once again become a destination.

The western base of Ascutney now features approximately 34 miles of non-motorized, multi-use recreational trails, the result of exhaustive and persistent efforts from volunteer STAB members over the last decade. Led by co-founders Jim Lyall and Erik Schutz, STAB — a chapter of the nonprofit Vermont Mountain Bike Association — advocates to build and maintain accessible, low-impact trails in West Windsor and surrounding communities.

While STAB’s efforts aim primarily to serve local outdoor enthusiasts, the area attracts users from throughout the Northeast. Usage logs based at parking areas recently have revealed users from throughout New England, New York, Quebec and beyond.

“You go out there on a weekend, and there’s 20-30 cars and license plates from all over the place,” said Lyall, a 1970 Dartmouth College graduate and recently retired building designer. “A lot of people think the trails are pretty special.”

Last summer, STAB embarked on an “Ascutney Trails” branding initiative, creating a website and logo for the network along with new signage. The group is also working on a new map with suggested routes and fully named and numbered trails.

The area received an additional boon at a special town meeting last October, when voters agreed for the town to purchase a 460-acre parcel of the resort land, which will become part of the West Windsor Town Forest after the sale’s closing date this summer. That will permanently conserve roughly two-thirds of the network — welcome news for those who enjoy the trails and for residents who see economic potential. The property, purchased from resort owner MFW Associates for $615,000, will increase Town Forest acreage to more than 1,500.

That could lead to more public events in an area that already hosts the Vermont 50 annual mountain bike race, the West Windsor 5 and Dime foot races, and the Vermont Mountain Bike Festival — a celebratory event featuring guided rides, a barbecue and informal competitions.

Purchasing the resort land will be a favorable investment for the town, said Michael Bell, STAB’s interim president. “It means access to public recreation and development of that recreation, an industry that is stronger than ever right now,” he said.

The trail building process normally begins with Lyall, who scouts for desirable features such as rock outcroppings, natural obstacles and landscape vistas. The next step is designing the trail route, which can involve extensive planning in order to ensure minimal environmental impact, Lyall said.

“There are lots of nice places to be, whether it’s a nice looking cliff or a rock you think would be fun to roll over,” Lyall said. “Then it’s just a matter of getting there and doing it in a sustainable and accessible way. You’re on the side of a mountain, so to keep it flat enough, it’s normally a switchback pattern. You also have to angle it right so that water runs off the side and doesn’t create erosion. Sustainable trails take more effort than what’s known as ‘rake and ride.’ ”

Thanks to volunteer efforts from STAB members and others, the demands of that effort have consistently been met. Using chopping and digging tools such as a mattock (similar to a pickaxe, with a longer handle and stouter head), Pulaski (axe with adze on one side) and MacLeod (heavy duty rake and hoe), work crews collaborate to bring the trails to fruition. Sustainable trail building takes approximately 400-450 man hours per mile, according to Lyall, and he estimates approximately 700 volunteer hours per year are devoted to STAB’s network.

It’s enough to impress Vermont Mountain Bike Association Executive Director Tom Stuessy.

“Every mile of trail they’ve built is what I call sweat equity, and STAB has put in an incredible amount of it,” Stuessy said. “It’s a great way to take advantage of the topography and the landscape, and it also says a lot about the character of the people in that area. That level of dedication is really the backbone of what VMBA is all about.”

Ryan Thibault, proprietor of Stowe-based website Mountain Bike Vermont, rates STAB’s trails among the Green Mountain State’s top mountain biking destinations.

“It’s rare in Vermont to have such a cohesive network, where it’s kind of an epicenter or trails,” Thibault said. “A lot of places in Vermont are kind of chopped up by dirt roads or other diversions.”

Thibault’s favorite aspect might be the landscape itself.

“The atmosphere has this pastoral quality,” he said. “Just driving into the village of Brownsville, you feel like you’re going back in time. Then when you start climbing the (Broadway trail, near the ski lodge) you get this gorgeous view looking back into the town, which is just quintessential Vermont and very special.”

Another aesthetically remarkable section is the aptly named Grassy Knoll trail, featuring thin-topped trees allowing sunlight to bathe the area.

“That’s one of the most beautiful, really unique ecosystems I’ve ever seen,” Thibault said. “You can see trees for hundreds of feet in front of you and the (forest floor) is sedge grass that turns neon green at the height of summer. It’s just gorgeous.”

Upcoming STAB events include a trail cleanup day April 25 and its annual membership meeting on May 9.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.

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