Located in the northwestern corner of Vermont, Lake Champlain is a large body of water that straddles both the New York and Canadian Borders. Some, a distinction that not all residents of Vermont appreciate, considers Lake Champlain the sixth Great Lake. At 107 miles long, 14 miles wide and 405 feet deep it surely meets the distinction stretching from Missiquoi in Quebec Province, Canada, all the way to Whitehall, New York, just a short drive from Glens Falls on the Hudson River.
Formed about 10,000 years ago with the retreat of the Wisconsin glacier that covered most of North America, Lake Champlain started as a cold inland sea. A skeleton of a whale found in Charlotte, Vermont is on display at the University of Vermont in Burlington and serves as proof of it's ocean origin (or some ancient Native Americans had a great sense of humor). As the ice dam on what is now the St. Lawrence Seaway melted and the ground rose, the ocean water flowed north and was replaced by fresh water melting into the valley.
Once heavily farmed, the shores of Lake Champlain have given way to becoming a popular tourist attraction. It's relatively close proximity to major US cities like Boston, Providence, Hartford and New York with excellent interstate access makes it a popular summer time and fall retreat. The state of Vermont only enhances this experience with a string of excellent state parks.
Located on the islands of Lake Champlain, North Hero State Park, Burton Island State Park, Knight Island State Park and Woods Island State Park make up a 939-acre paradise where you can explore the islands of Lake Champlain and enjoy a variety of experiences.
If you don't have your own boat, or if paddling long distances in potentially rough conditions isn't your idea of a good time your adventure will probably start at Kamp Kill Kare State Park in St. Albans Bay, Vermont. This 17-acre day use park was once a private boys camp and the massive three-story hotel now serves as modern changing facilities and office space for park employees. Picnic tables and cooking grills dot the area throughout the park. The park has two public swimming areas, with the one on the southern shore having a sandy bottom.
It is here where you can catch a ride on the state run Burton Island Ferry. Operated from the week before Memorial Day to Labor Day, the open deck passenger ferry makes six trips a day across Lake Champlain weather permitting. The scenic trip is $2 one-way per person and affords an opportunity to look for Lake Champlain's elusive resident monster, Champ.
If you own your own boat or plan to paddle your adventure can start at Kamp Kill Kare State Park or North Hero State Park. Located in North Hero on Grand Isle, North Hero State Park is considered by some the crown jewel of the Lake Champlain Island Parks. At 399 acres it is the largest and offers a variety of services and facilities. Ninety-nine spacious, wooded and private campsites, as well as eighteen large Adirondack style lean-tos are available in this park. Picnic areas, hot showers, an unimproved rocky beach and a boat launch make this remote location 13 miles from the Canadian border a great place to start a paddling adventure. Once heavily farmed, the park is a bucolic mixture of hardwoods, evergreens and meadows affording beautiful views of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains to the east.
Knight Island State Park is a difficult eight-mile paddle across open water from North Hero State Park. The park can also be accessed by ferry via Burton Island State Park with prior reservations. The special trip is $5 per person with a minimum fee of $25. At 175 acres, Knight Island State Park was created in 1990 and all but the southern tip of the island is owned by the state. Heavily farmed in the 19th century, Knight Island has a variety of meadows, aspens, birch, and mixed hardwoods on it today. Only primitive camping with permit is allowed and no potable water is available on this remote spot (of course plenty is available from the lake). Campers are allowed a two-day minimum and fourteen-day maximum stay. A hiking trail rings the shore of the island and passes a variety of small ponds, marshes, meadows and forests. When visiting Knight Island State Park be sure to find a nice spot on the western shoreline to see a spectacular sunset looking back at Grand Isle.
About six-miles to the south of Knight Island State Park is the hub of the island parks, Burton Island State Park. Amazingly this remote island was used largely as a cow pasture in the 19th century. Evidence of this farming history can be found in the forests and meadows where old fence lines, stone piles, ancient and rusted farm implements and even some old foundations can be found. When the state of Vermont bought the island in 1960, it was planned to install an auto causeway from the mainland. Fortunately it never happened and now the only way there is by boat or ferry.
Today Burton Island State Park had excellent facilities, offering 15 boat moorings and a 100-slip marina. Dockside electricity, fuel service, and a pumping station are all available. The island's campsite has 17 wooded tent sites and an additional 26 Adirondack style lean-tos. If you are camping remember that you will have to carry everything with you from the ferry so be sure to pack light.
Burton Island offers running potable water, hot showers, a park store with camping supplies and food, and a restaurant. There is over three miles of shoreline to explore on this 253-acre island and a swimming beach. If you crave an adventure by canoe or just want to meander around in a rowboat, both are offered for rent on the island. During the regular season at Burton Island you can visit the Nature Center where the resident naturalist conducts a number of interpretive programs about the wildlife, history, geology, and geography of the island.
For an easy walk you can take the mile long North Shore Trail that runs the length of the northern shore from Burton Island Campground to Eagle Bay. In just one mile you will pass through meadows being reclaimed by forest, new growth tangles of ferns and raspberry bushes, marshes, mature forest, old growth forest with hemlock trees over 200 years old, and climax forest in decline. Along the way the trail has eleven stations that outline the geological evolution of Lake Champlain and Burton Island. If you're lucky during the early evening hours, you will hear the mournful cry of a loon carrying across the waters of the lake.
If you really want to get away from it all then get your kayak and paddle and make your way to Woods Island. Once envisioned as a place for corporate retreats, the one mile long by quarter mile wide island has an abandoned airstrip right down the middle of it. There are only five primitive campsites on the island, and advanced reservations must be made through Burton Island State Park. The remote campsites are ideal, all but one is located on the western side of the island and they are all about a quarter mile apart from each other. A two mile long hiking trail rings the outside of the island, and another trail, about a quarter mile long cuts across the heart of the park and can take you to the old airstrip. The islands farming history can be found here also with more artifacts and foundations that can be explored. When visiting Woods Island State Park be aware that the southern edge is habitat for a number of endangered plant species and to stay only in designated areas.
Famed around the world for green pastures, rolling hills and quaint villages, no visit to Vermont is complete without seeing massive Lake Champlain. Whether it's simply a day trip to Burton Island State Park on the ferry, or a backcountry wilderness experience on Woods Island, there is something for everyone on the island parks of Lake Champlain.
Just The Plain Facts
Name: Island Parks of Lake Champlain, North Hero State Park, Kamp Kill Kare State Park, Woods Island State Park, Burton Island State Park, Knight Island State Park
Location: Northwestern Vermont, Burlington, Vermont
Nearest Major Air Service: Burlington, Vermont, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Fees & Permits: $2 per person on Burton Island Ferry one way, $5 per person or $25 for trips to Knight Island on the Burton Island Ferry.
Why Visit: Secluded and scenic. Lake Champlain has excellent water quality. Boating, and fishing paradise, many historical and scenic towns and villages to explore, region is rich in military history. Look for elusive Lake Champlain monster, Champ.
When To Visit: May to October, most park facilities are closed after Labor Day
Essential Gear: Depends on activity, sunscreen, lip balm, wind breaker, camera, binoculars, and water (other equipment strongly recommended)
You Should Know: Make reservations as far in advance as possible. North Hero State Park is very remote and has the least amount of visitors of the three parks that can be easily accessed. If paddling Lake Champlain is very cold, rarely getting warmer than 65° F., weather conditions can change making the waters dangerous. Do not paddle above your ability.
More Information: For Burton Island, Kamp Kill Kare, Woods Island and Knight Island State Parks contact Burton Island State Park, Box 123, St. Albans Bay, Vermont 05481 - summer: 802-524-6353 or winter: 802-879-5674 and 800-252-2363. North Hero State Park, 3803 Lakeview Drive, North Hero, Vermont 05474 - summer: 802-372-8727 or winter: 802-879-5674 and 1-800-252-2363