Growing up in New England, my dad taught me many useful lessons about exploring back roads. For example, the fact that you don’t know where a road goes is a good reason to take it. “We can always turn around,” he would say.
Dad recommended investigating roads with the prefix Old, like Old Stage Road or Old Highway 28. Such roads tend to meet up with the main road again, and take you off the beaten path through a world the new road has left behind.
Roads including Ferry or Point in the name often stop at the water, Dad told me, but if it’s called River Road it probably bends and curves along a river and won’t likely dead end. Riding along a River Road also improves your chances of happening upon a covered bridge.
North America is home to about 1,000 covered bridges, close to 75 percent of the world’s total. Pennsylvania claims the most with 231. I’ve found them in New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts, and there are many more in states throughout the East, South, Midwest and Northwest. But the highest concentration of covered bridges is found in the small state of Vermont, which has 114. Covered bridges are synonymous with Vermont, but are much more than quaint pieces of history. They are widely recognized as cultural, economic, educational, aesthetic and historic resources, and an active network of scholars and citizens is working to document and preserve the significant ones. Most covered bridges in Vermont still do the job for which they were originally intended—getting you to the other side.
Though the structural designs vary, all covered bridges share the roof that makes them instantly recognizable. So why are covered bridges covered? It’s not to keep travelers dry. And it’s not to protect the deck, which is easily replaced. These bridges are covered to protect the most crucial and costly structural members, the wooden trusses.
Timothy Palmer is believed to be the first American bridge builder to advocate roofing bridges in the late 1700s. Palmer estimated that the life of a wooden bridge would be extended by as much as 40 years simply by keeping the trusses dry and shaded. Vermont’s covered bridges are an enduring example of New England’s well-earned reputation for thrift.
One hundred years ago there were more than 600 covered bridges in Vermont. The devastating flood of 1927 destroyed all but about 200. Fire and development have claimed more, but the remaining 114 include some of the nation’s finest examples.
Riding a motorcycle across a covered bridge is a short trip into history. Although Pulp Mill Bridge in Middlebury has two lanes, few covered bridges are wider than one lane, so you may have to wait your turn. Stay alert, too, as the wooden decks can be slick and approach angles are often sharp.
Even if you don’t find covered bridges fascinating, Vermont is a great place to ride a motorcycle. Glacial activity scoured the long valleys that run mostly north and south, and along these valleys are many byways and back roads. Roads running across the valleys and through mountain passes usually have tighter curves and more elevation changes. Either way, Vermont roads are this motorcyclist’s candy store, and there are more than a hundred covered bridges along the way.
My route is doable in two days, but allowing three will give you time to stop and explore. Begin in Brattleboro, in the southeast corner of Vermont. Head north on Route 30 and in six miles you’ll see West Dummerston Covered Bridge (c. 1872) on your right. You can ride across this 280-foot twin span over the West River.
Three miles farther along Route 30, take the left turn toward Williamsville, where you’ll find the oldest covered bridge in the region (c. 1869), a 120-foot span crossing Stony Brook. You can ride across this bridge as well. Enjoy the loop from East Dover back to Route 30 in Newfane which is pretty, though not all paved.
Continue north on Route 30 and beyond the town of Townshend is Scott Bridge (c. 1870). At 277 feet, it’s the longest single wooden span in Vermont. Scott Bridge crosses the West River but you’ll have to walk across as motorized traffic is no longer allowed. A few miles farther north stop for breakfast or lunch at the Townshend Dam Diner, a local institution with good grub and colorful patrons. Look through the illustrations of New England diners while you’re waiting.
In East Jamaica, 30 joins Route 100, the quintessential Vermont byway. This two-lane blacktop runs practically the entire length of the state, for long stretches along the eastern slopes of Green Mountain National Forest. It’s on as many “best ride” lists as any road in New England. You won’t find much in the way of covered bridges until you reach Waitsfield, but you will find farms, villages, some of the East’s premier ski resorts, and a great road for motorcycling.
Back on Route 100, consider two options. The first is to stay on 100 and enjoy the twists and turns along this more rural stretch of road. Or second, head north at Stowe on Route 108 to enjoy different twists and turns and more covered bridges. Route 108 takes the serpentine route through Smuggler’s Notch. At Jeffersonville, turn north on Route 109. There are five covered bridges in the short stretch between Waterville and Belvedere Center. Keep an eye peeled for small, numbered covered bridge signs pointing the way. At Belvedere Corners, head north on Route 118 and you’ll pass six more before you reach East Berkshire 15 miles later.
In East Berkshire, head east on Route 105, which meanders just south of the Canadian border. Routes 105 and 100 intersect not far from Newport and your two route options come back together. Stay on 105 to Island Pond then head north on Route 114. In this region of Vermont—the Northeast Kingdom—there is little except you, the road and the unspoiled outdoors. Moose are abundant, so stay alert, particularly in autumn when the urge to procreate makes them even more unpredictable.
Just before the New Hampshire border, head south on Route 102, which parallels the Connecticut River. You’ll find a covered bridge in Lemington, but this stretch of 102 is for savoring the ride. This winding river road always gets me singing inside my helmet.
The Connecticut River forms the border between Vermont and New Hampshire. This far north, upstream of the first dam, the river is narrow enough to be crossed by covered bridges. After Route 102 feeds into U.S. 2, look on the left for River Road (imagine that!) and cross over the Connecticut River on Lancaster Bridge (c. 1911). This is a good place to pull over if you want to walk down and examine the design and construction of a covered bridge’s trusses from underneath.
Immediately past the bridge, turn south on New Hampshire Route 135. (OK, so it’s not Vermont, but the ride along the river is better from the New Hampshire side through this stretch.) At Woodsville, head back into Vermont on U.S. 302 west. The P&H Truck Stop at the junction of Interstate 91 has fuel and stick-to-your-ribs fare. At East Barre, turn south on Route 110 toward the town of Tunbridge (population 1,325). This tidy hamlet is home to five covered bridges: Mill (an exact duplicate of the original destroyed by flood in 2000), Cilley, Howe, Flint and Larkin.
By this point in the ride you surely will have developed an interest in bridges, so make the short side trip to Brookfield. When 110 intersects 14 in South Royalton, head north on 14, then west on 65 to the center of Brookfield. There you’ll find the famous Floating Bridge. Yes, it actually floats and vehicles drive across. However, riding a motorcycle across the Floating Bridge requires a combination of bravery, skill and foolhardiness. The wooden deck is mostly submerged, covered in slimy green algae, and peppered with raised nail heads. It’s definitely worth a visit, but opt for a U-turn, and instead check out Ariel’s for supper and retrace your route to Royalton. From here there are many good options to complete your Vermont circuit. I like Route 107 west past Bethel, 12 south to Woodstock, 106 south to Downers, 131 west to Proctorsville, 103 south to Bellows Falls and U.S. 5 south back to the start/finish line in Brattleboro.
As I look back at those childhood weekends spent exploring back roads and small New England towns, I am thankful that my dad taught me to make exploring part of the ride.