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Slayton: Smugglers' Notch

08/15/12 5:55PM By Tom Slayton
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(Host) When journalist and commentator Tom Slayton visited Snugglers' Notch recently, as part of his summer series on Vermont State Parks, he discovered some of the subtler attractions of the place.

(Slayton) Smugglers Notch, as just about every Vermonter knows, is a huge cleft in the rocks between Mount Mansfield and its neighbor to the north, Spruce Peak. Cliffs 1,000 feet high tower above a steep mountain pass. A narrow state highway that twists and turns so extravagantly that you think it might tie itself in knots threads its way through  fallen boulders as big as cars and houses.

That's the obvious side of Smugglers' Notch State Park, the side you can't miss. But there's a less obvious side as well.

Look high up on the rocks that tower above you. The sharp-winged birds you may see soaring and diving are the peregrine falcons that nest on the Notch's cliffs. In recent years 25 or more of these rare hawks have been fledged here.

Or look down: on the walls and floor of the notch are some of the rarest and most delicate plants in Vermont. In fact, 34 rare and endangered plants grow here, giving Smugglers' Notch one of the highest concentrations of rare plants in the state.

At roughly 2,200 feet in elevation, Smugglers Notch is about halfway between sea level and the top of Mount Mansfield, right next door. It's recognized as a National Natural Landmark and Route 108, the road that winds its way through it, is Vermont's first State Scenic Highway.

The place is called Smuggler's Notch because it was believed to be a route for smuggling goods during the trade embargo with Canada that President Thomas Jefferson decreed in 1807. That was when there was little more than a horse track here. Big Spring, just down the way, is now a convenient watering stop for tourists and hikers. But in the 1920s, there was a tiny clutch of tourist cabins there. Vermont history is embedded in those steep cliffs and that twisting road.

The Long Trail passes through the southern end of the Notch, the rocky, icy cliffs nearby attract rock climbers from around the country, and there's a steady stream of cars along Route 108, until winter closes it down. This is a place where people and the rugged side of nature meet, face-to-face - and it's accessible by state highway!. Yet much of its subtler beauty is not widely known or appreciated.

But that will change soon.

A group of state and private agencies - the Friends of Smugglers' Notch - is working to restore Barnes Camp, an historic old lodge near the ski lifts at the southern end of the Notch. When the project is completed next year, Barnes Camp will become a visitor center, with information about the scenic, cultural, natural and historic resources of this place.

The full story of Smugglers' Notch will be told at last. And one of Vermont's most striking natural wonders will finally get the respect and attention it deserves.


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