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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Through our lens: foliage, fall, and the unexplored

Middlebury is a school that is largely defined by its outdoor access and culture. Yet, after four years of photographing Middlebury, as seniors we feel like the beautiful landscape surrounding the college is still underappreciated. If not underappreciated, then it is certainly underutilized.

Within a 30-minute drive from campus, there are a variety of waterfalls, lakes, hiking trails and scenic viewpoints. Within an hour, there are many more. And within an hour and a half, you may find yourself among some of the northeastern United States’ most enchanting views. The Green Mountains to the east, the Adirondacks to the west, and the numerous swimming holes sprinkled in between offer endless outdoor recreation opportunities for Middlebury students. 

While opportunities for outdoor recreation exist year-round in Vermont, autumn brings about a special aura in the landscape. New England, and Vermont in particular, boasts some of the most beautiful foliage in the country, drawing millions of visitors each year. What many people travel across the country to see, we have right at our fingertips.

The Middlebury College Snowbowl at sunrise from above. This photo was created by taking multiple photos and stitching them together in a panorama.

Take it from two seniors — your Middlebury experience will pass you by quickly. During our first three years, we failed to take full advantage of all that autumn has to offer. Now, as we’re in the midst of our last fall in Vermont as college students, we finally prioritized capturing the fleeting foliage that surrounds us. And we didn’t have to travel very far.

Fall colors surround the downtown of Middlebury, VT.

The scenes of leaves turning from deep greens to various flavors of orange around the Middlebury campus may feel sufficiently fulfilling. Admittedly, the views out to the west towards the Adirondacks from Bihall or to the east towards the Green Mountains from the rear windows of Davis are stunning during peak foliage. 

Just minutes beyond campus, however, there are endless opportunities not only to see the foliage but to immerse yourself in it. 

This semester, unlike my previous semesters at Middlebury, I, Sam, have spent many early mornings chasing quintessential autumn moments and photos that encapsulate them. From sunrise hikes at the Snow Bowl, to composing photos at Bristol Falls and long hikes in the Adirondacks, it has been a goal of mine to experience the fall moments that people travel from all over the country to witness. 

Two particular moments stand out. 

On a sunny day in early October, I decided to take advantage of a permit I had reserved for the renowned Indian Head Mountain hike in the Adirondack Mountain Reserve. I headed out with hopes of catching sunset on the mountaintop. As I drove across Lake Champlain towards the expansive Adirondacks heading to the trailhead, I couldn’t help but feel regret. Regret for the fact that this was my first time driving across this bridge, my first time venturing into the Adirondacks. As I neared the trailhead, the mountains rose more dramatically from the roadside, and the orange and red mountain sides began to dominate my view. I could not believe I had missed out on the beauty of the Adirondacks for the past three years. 

Five miles and 3,500 feet of elevation gain later, I summited Indian Head. The fjord-like views at the top of the mountain were some of the best I have seen during my time at Middlebury. The skinny Lower Ausable Lake cuts through the steep mountain sides, speckled with various shades of reds, oranges and yellows. 

After about an hour on the mountaintop, I found the composition for which I had been searching. As the sun dropped behind the western mountain face, I had forgotten about my regret, still in awe of the view and determined to capture the best photo of the scene as possible. I took the picture then quickly ran the 5 miles back to my car to make it back to Vermont in time for an evening Physics TA session.  

The next morning, I woke up an hour before sunrise to go for a sunrise paddle on the Sugar Hill Reservoir, just 30 minutes from campus. Sugar Hill sits inside Moosalamoo National Recreation Area, providing views of the gradually-rising Green Mountains. When I arrived, the reservoir was perfectly still and the air cool enough to emit a light fog from the surface of the water. 

I went out with aerial photography in mind, intending to capture a scene of a lone canoe on an otherwise untouched lake engulfed by vibrant fall colors. As usual, my motivation for this outdoor adventure was photography, but I came back to campus with more than just a photo. The views from the lone canoe reminded me how fortunate we are to have such proximate access to the outdoors, especially during this time of peak foliage. 

Stormy sunrise at Bristol (Bartlett) Falls, Bristol, Vt. I, like many Middlebury students, have visited Bristol falls numerous times. With not another person in sight, the faint pink glow of sunrise, and the orange and yellow hues dabbled throughout the forest, this moment felt different.
Taking in the view on Indian Head Mountain, Adirondacks, N.Y. This 11 mile round trip hike is known to offer some of the most impressive views in the northeastern US.
Sunrise canoe on Sugar Hill Reservoir, Ripton, Vt. The Sugar Hill Reservoir, found just off of the gravel Old Goshen Rd., is an underappreciated destination not far from Middlebury’s Bread Loaf campus. The Canoe is pictured to the right of the island, providing a sense of scale in the vast landscape.
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While the breathtaking beauty of foliage-coated mountain vistas is undeniable, there are far more inconspicuous fall scenes, like the extensive network of Vermont backroads, that hold equivalent power and charm. These, we hope, are not overlooked. 

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A foggy morning on Shacksboro Road, about twenty minutes from Middlebury College. This three-mile drive winds through farmland and canopy before reconnecting with Quiet Valley Road off Highway 74.

For me, Dylan, the backroads of Vermont are restorative. The college seems so far away. The landscape is constant and predictable, but majestic nonetheless: The Adirondacks rise gently above farmlands and trees, the canopy envelopes the road, a quiet stillness drapes the earth. And when the leaves fall, it’s altogether magical.  

Have you ever driven down Shacksboro Road? The gravel path hugs the Lemon Fair River, moving past small farmsteads and the occasional house. When a cool, gentle wind meets the overhanging trees, the road becomes laden with leaves—a sight few are lucky enough to see. 

I remember standing alone on Shacksboro Road one morning this fall, the surrounding fog frozen in place, a fiery orange contrasting the bitter cold. It was stunning. Having found an ethereal scene fifteen minutes from the college, I wondered about the exceptional places I had yet to discover. And long after I leave Middlebury, I know I will wonder what landscapes and opportunities I left unexplored. 

The next morning, the fog had lifted, and I headed in the opposite direction toward the Green Mountains. I had no destination. An aimless drive down Vermont Route 125 eventually led me to National Forest Road 24b, little more than a small clearing in the trees. Most people turn back at Moosalamoo Campground but I continued further, crossing the North Branch Sucker Brook as the canopy grew denser, the path narrower, the going rougher. There, caught in a downpour amid the Vermont backwoods, I found the most picturesque scene. With the winter coming and my graduation impending, I question when — or if ever — I will go back.  

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The narrow gravel path of National Forest Road 24b, captured during a rainstorm at dawn. The road ends at a maintained clearing that overlooks the Champlain Valley – a place unmarked on Google Maps.

We know Middlebury can feel overwhelming at moments — we have experienced it intensely these past three years. But we also realize that our time here is limited. When your course load  gives you a breather, we encourage you to experience the surrounding environment how ever you can: by trekking, exploring or even driving aimlessly through some back roads. And when the college piles it on, do the same thing. 

A road winds through Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest.
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A small offshoot of Highway 74 — North Bingham Street — at the peak of fall foliage.