Unexpected Tundra in Vermont

As the tram ascended Jay Peak, we disappeared into the ubiquitous cloud that veiled the top.  Like most tall peaks, this mountain tends to generate its own weather as the warm, moist air near the ground rises to collide with the cool, dry air near the top.  Jay Peak has a reputation for being lost in the clouds.


We had driven here through the rolling hills and farmlands of northern Vermont on a cool, fall morning under blue skies and big, puffy, white clouds.  The fall color was just starting its show and was more evident here at the higher elevation.  We were lucky to find the tram open early today, it usually doesn’t start until noon on Fridays.  Today there are laborers on the mountain working on an off-season construction project at the Sky Haus Deli.  Since the tram driver had to take the workers up, he thought he’d just open to the public early today.  Good thing for us because we’d arrived at 10 am.  We were the only people there, so our personal tram driver escorted us from 1840 feet at the base up into the clouds at 3858 feet.Vermont (361 of 453)

The cool morning turned downright cold at the windy, sunless peak.  I started down the north-side ski trail. Exposed granite, dwarf pines and lichens dominated the tundra-like landscape.

There were also plentiful mushrooms, another surprising find up here.

I continued down the trail, taking photographs, careful not to step on the soft, dense mats of fragile plants. Mountain low-bush cranberries, red-capped British soldier lichen, reindeer moss, dwarf heaths and mushrooms all made for beautiful tiny landscapes.

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Red-capped British Soldier Lichen (Cladonia floerkeana)

This was a beautiful and unexpected landscape as true alpine tundra occurs at elevations higher than 4000 feet.  It is the steep, windy slope of this rocky face that hosts the cold stone and thin soils that mimic the tundra environment.

As I hiked back up to the peak, I was walking along a portion of Vermont’s Long Trail, a 272-mile trail that runs the length of Vermont from north to south.  At the peak, wooden steps ascend to a barren, rocky field where an indistinct trail disappears into the Jay Peak fog. The slick, wet rocks were not inviting me up these steps today.

The white blaze marks the Long Trail as it ascends indistinctly into the clouds.


The ski trail continued on a sloping path down the southwest side of the mountain.  The trail here was wide and carpeted with grass.  Its leeward location protects it from the perpetual cold winds.  The ecosystem here is dramatically different than the one I just left 50 yards back.  Grass dominates and stone is rare.  Flowers are blooming along the fence line (that serves to keep you on the mountain) and juncos are flitting about the pines, which are a little bit taller. Gone are the beautiful lichens and mushrooms. After walking a while down this trail, I turned to slog back up to the top where our private tram driver was waiting to escort us back down the mountain, out of the clouds, and back into the colorful fall day.Vermont (356 of 453)-Edit

I was reluctant to go up to the shrouded peak.  I thought the benefit was only in the views. On a clear day you can see Mt.Washington in New Hampshire to the east and  Canada just 5 miles to the north.  But not today.  And I knew it would be cold.  But, what the heck, we were here, we might as well go up.  (I think the woman at the ticket counter thought we were nuts).  I’m so glad we did.  You just never know what you’ll find.


2 Replies to “Unexpected Tundra in Vermont”

  1. I thought cranberries grew in water?! You call that slanted, rocky patch a trail?!! A fence line is supposed to keep skiers on the trail?? I learn a whole new vocabulary from you as I enjoy your various adventures….the descriptive ‘slog’ back up the trail…lol? Thanks again for sharing your adventures…

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