Craftsbury is a postcard perfect New England town that’s retained a pristine, horse-and-buggy era quality with no mini marts, retail outlets, or strip developments on the two-lane road that meanders into town. Just clapboard houses (most of them painted white), a general store, dairy farms, and sweeping vistas of the knolls and peaks leading up to the Green Mountains.
It’s natural to assume this quiet northeast Vermont town of 1,000 souls is a destination for sightseers seeking the real Vermont, and that may be. But the greater lure of Craftsburywhich draws more than 20,000 visitors from around the world each yearis all but invisible from the road. It’s a network of trails 68 miles long branching out from the Craftsbury Outdoor Center two miles from the town common.
From the center, serious athletes disappear into the majestic landscape all year aroundhikers, mountain bikers, long-distance runners, and cross-country skiers using the well-worn trails running through Craftsbury from neighboring towns to the north and south, traversing property held by 80 different landowners.
The Craftsbury Outdoor Center is at the heart of this web of trails. Nestled against Big Hosmer Lake, the center offers an eclectic, outdoor athletic program geared both for team-sport types and for individual sports activities such as running, hiking, sculling (an English rowing technique), mountain biking, and cross-country skiing. The center also holds weeklong, elderhostel programs that focus on appreciating nature, such as the geology and natural history of the area, or the astronomy of the northern skies.
The center isn’t a resort though; it’s a haven for people who love to be outdoors. Accommodations are rustic. If you have fond memories of bunking down at summer camp, the center is for you. There are no televisions, no refrigerators, and few private bathrooms. Sleeping areas are shared, though some small individual rooms are available. Food is served in the dining hall.
“We wanted it to feel like an old-fashioned camp,” says Russell Spring Sr., who, with his wife, Janet, founded the center in 1974. “It’s not a fancy place at all.”
This camp-like atmosphere has proved surprisingly popular, judging by the number of people from other states and countries who make the trip each year to Craftsbury to participate in center programs.
But Russell Spring is most proud of the fact that local people use the center, too.
One of many local devotees is George Hall, a 65-year-old retiree who moved to Craftsbury recently so he could live near the center. Through the winter he regularly skis the trails that lead from the center to the common. In summer, he runs the trails and rows on Big Hosmer.
“Anybody in town can use the trails for nothing, which has always been a nice feature for anyone here,” says Yvette Brown, who serves as Craftsbury’s town clerk. Brown says the center also brings much-needed revenue into town and employs about 40 local people.
In addition, the center provides free training for the town’s high school ski team. Students from Craftsbury Academy, the local public K-12 school, use the trails every week through the winter. Skiing is their physical education program during the winter, says Betsy LeRoy, the school’s principal.
Spring also lets the school use the center’s van for sports events and offers small scholarships to students who want to pursue the arts.
“I think essentially the most important thing that affects us is the community,” Spring says. “If you’re going to be a part of it, you have to give back to it. It’s just the way you do things. When you’re part of the community, it’s an equation that goes both ways.”