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By Lucy Higgins • July 15, 2023

In this second installment of our series on Vermont’s Velomont Trail, we caught up with RJ Thompson, the Executive Director of Vermont Huts Association (VHA), to learn more about the partnership between the Velomont Collective—a new chapter of Vermont Mountain Bike Association—and VHA. Thompson dives into the process of creating a hut along Velomont Trail, where current projects stand, and the potential impact of Velomont on Vermont’s rural communities. 

Lucy Higgins: Tell me a little bit about where the partnership between Velomont and Vermont Huts Association is at right now.

RJ Thompson: Currently we operate under a joint venture, which is kind of a fancy way of saying we work really closely with one another to ensure that trail and hut alignment are in lockstep. The goal is to provide trail users with an experience that allows people to get from hut to hut roughly every 10 to 15 miles along the Velomont corridor. We share a team of project coordinators who are in the field scouting potential trail connectivity routes, and while they’re in the field, they also look for conceptual hut sites along the way, which is really helpful. 

So that’s been really effective and allows those project coordinators to work super closely with a lot of the VMBA chapters in our current areas of focus. 

LH: That’s super cool. Could you tell me a little bit about some of the recent huts that you’ve got rolling? I know there’s a couple new ones along the trail.

RT: Our flagship hut, the Chittenden Brook Hut, opened a few years ago. There was hiking and backcountry skiing out the door from that hut. But right now it’s super exciting that Velomont Trail is currently being built to get up to the Chittenden Brook Hut. So that’s gonna be really fun when that happens. You’ll be able to bike from the hut down into Rochester and create an adventure out of it. 

The Chittenden Brook Hut / Image Courtesy Vermont Huts Association

We just opened the Grout Pond Hut down in the Green Mountain National Forest. We’ve gotta go through additional permitting with the US Forest Service to get some trails reclassified for mountain bike use. But right now, as it stands, it’s along the Catamount Trail and also super close to the Grout Pond, which is great for paddlers and hikers, and then of course skiers in the winter. So those are the huts that we own and operate that are along the corridor. There are a couple other fun private, mom-and-pop operations that are popping up along the corridor, as well as a new hostel called the Stable Inn down in Rochester, which is super accommodating for bikers. We are part of this larger movement that’s happening all over the state. So it’s fun to see it all come to fruition. It’s been years in the planning (laughter).

First Floor Common Area at the Stable Inn / Image Courtesy Stable Inn

LH: That must be amazing to see it all come into fruition. You mentioned you have these potential hut sites, and I would guess this varies from site to site, but could you tell me a little bit about the process from a spot getting flagged as a cool place to put a hut to the reality of having one there? What does that look like?

RT: That’s a really great question. Do you have time for like six beers?

I’ll start by saying, you know, the process varies depending on the land type. You’ve got a different process on federal land, a totally different process on state land. Then of course, private land as well, and on private land that can vary by town. The huts that we’ve built thus far have been on federal land. We will do projects on state and private land, but, in general, what we do is we’re out there in the field analyzing what the terrain allows for, what your access is going to look like, both for construction and then general maintenance and public access as well. So there’s a lot of things that go into just picking a conceptual site.

Then you’re also looking at surrounding natural resources, any ecologically sensitive species, whether that be a tree or plant or, citing if [the site is]  too close to a wetland. So you gotta avoid all that stuff. And if you don’t, then once you bring the specialist out to look at it with you, they’ll, they’ll tell you. If it’s on public land we would invite land managers out to check things out. And really, before we even settle on a conceptual huts location, we’ve been talking to locals in the area to gather their thoughts on where they think a good spot for a hut would be.

Many of the land managers are also local to those particular areas. So you gather as much info as you can at the outset, before you land on a couple options. Then you start the conversations or continue the conversations really with the land managers, ensuring that everyone’s on the same page. On federal land, you’ve gotta go through what’s called NEPA, National Environmental Policy Act, review, which is a way of making sure you have sign off from all the scientists—soil scientists, botanists, ecologists,  archeological reviews, all of that stuff.

Any hut goes through the ringer. It’s a long game. And similarly for trails. Once you get your permits in place and you are good to go, then the funding ends, then you’ve got your build crew and think about how you’re gonna access the site. At Grout Pond Hut, the Vermont Youth Conservation Core did 99 percent of the construction.

On both federal and state land, you go through a public comment period as well, so the public has a chance to weigh in. There’s a lot of private land in Vermont, and I think as the Trail Corridor and Hut Network expands we’ll definitely be doing projects on private land as well.

Telephone Gap Propsed Recreation Map / Image Courtesy USDA/USFS

LH: That’s great. So what’s next for you guys? What’s on the horizon?

RT: Right now we are waiting on a Forest Service review for a larger project called the Telephone Gap Integrated Resource Project. That’s kind of a watershed-view analysis of a number of activities that could occur on federal land, so that they look at everything from timber harvest to recreation to declassifying any roads, erosion control, et cetera. 

We’re also working on expanding our offerings into hostels. Velomont Trail is intentionally routed into a lot of Vermont rural communities in an effort to bring some sustainable traffic into those towns, spend some money at the businesses, grab a burger, get a coffee, have some pastries.  Folks will also need a place to stay in some of these communities because there’s really not any overnight accommodation available. So hostels are a good low cost option that we hope to bring into some towns. Right now we’re looking in Hardwick and Randolph and potentially Morrisville and St. Johnsbury.