Biking Vermont: Your guide to the Island Line Trail
If you’re looking for the bike ride of a lifetime, this is it. Vermont’s Island Line Rail Trail, formerly known as the Burlington Bikeway, stretches 14 glorious miles from end to end starting in Burlington’s Oakledge Park and ending on Martin Road in South Hero.
The Island Line Trail is just one segment of a more than 1,600-mile network of bicycle routes known as the Lake Champlain Bikeways in the Lake Champlain Valley of Vermont, New York and Quebec. With breathtaking scenery, temperate summer weather, quiet country roads, charming inns, farm stands, historic sites and plenty of shoreline parks and campgrounds, this area is a dream to explore.
What makes the Island Line Trail so great?
Unlike many bike trails, this one caters to every audience. It’s wide and flat enough to be enjoyed by all ages and experience levels, while offering beauty and length that even the most seasoned cyclists will appreciate. The trail follows the Burlington waterfront, skips along a series of shoreline parks and features a unique stretch over the lake where you’ll cruise on a 2.5-mile marble causeway with water on both sides of your bike wheels.
A (very) brief ferry ride connects the end of the causeway 200 feet across the water to South Hero, Vermont. Throughout the ride you’ll enjoy spectacular views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. The trail is a combination of asphalt and gravel, which can be soft in some stretches.
Access and more
Whether you choose to ride the trail out and back, or just a few miles along the water, it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.
Start at the very beginning
The trail’s official start is in the Oakledge Park trailhead on Flynn Avenue in southern Burlington, which offers plenty of parking and amenities.
Start at the Union Station trailhead
Just 2.1 miles down from Oakledge Park is the Union Station trailhead on King Street. If you plan to park here, be sure to bring extra change for the parking meters.
Start off College Street by the Burlington boardwalk
This is an easy access point if you’re staying at a hotel along the water in Burlington. Local bike shop, Local Motion, operates a trailside center on the Burlington waterfront if you want to park, grab a bike and ride. Local Motion also operates the short ferry ride across the causeway.
Start anywhere you like, really
If you’re staying anywhere between Burlington and South Hero, there’s a way to access this trail. Area brochure racks have Island Line Trail maps that are easy to follow.
How we did the Island Line Trail
Trip 1: Southbound city jaunt with chocolate
My husband and I were in Burlington for his work conference. While he worked the day away in meetings, I hopped on a bike to check out the trail.
We stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott Burlington Harbor which, like many others along the waterfront, offered free bike use for hotel guests for up to two hours. Our trip was dogged by occasional showers, so when it seemed the rain had cleared for the day, I grabbed a bike and set off with a clear destination in mind: the Lake Champlain Chocolates Factory Store at 750 Pine St.
A formerly seasoned road cyclist, I was pleasantly surprised to find my hotel bike loaner to be a smooth, well-maintained ride. It was a cruiser, 10 speeds, bike helmet and bike lock included. I knew I’d only be out for a short distance, so I wore shorts, a tank top and my trusty Chacos. (Ssshhhh … you should always cover your toes while biking!)
The hotel staff was super friendly at directing me where to go, including both street names and landmarks to look for. I cruised down Battery Street (taking the sidewalk – Burlington is very bike friendly, but this is a busier, steep road), took a right on College Street toward the bustling boardwalk, then hung a left on the Island Line Trail.
The trail hugged the water, crossing a small bridge or two, passing by a small public park and small beach with paddleboard rentals.
You can ride this to the trailhead at Oakledge Park or let your sweet tooth guide the way and hang a left when you hit the neighborhood at Harrison Ave. (It’ll be very clear – the trail will end and warn of railroad tracks and for you to hang a right into the neighborhood to continue on trail.)
Trip highlight – the chocolate factory
I exited the trail, crossed the railroad tracks and skipped down Sears Lane where the Lake Champlain Chocolates Factory Store awaited just across the street. This family-owned and -operated chocolate store is a can’t-miss stop. Be sure to take the 20-minute “tour” for plenty of free samples and a whole lot of intel about how chocolate is made.
A bike rack offers plenty of parking for cyclists, and the store sells insulated, branded bags for $5 and ice packs for $1 if you want to buy chocolate and ride away with it (like I did). The factory store also offers reduced-cost, less-than-perfect factory seconds that are not available at their retail locations.
The ride from the hotel to the chocolate factory and back was around 2.5 miles. I enjoyed my outing so much (and still had time in my two-hour window) that I overshot my exit at College Street and kept pedaling a few more miles to see what the path had in store.
I wrapped around Waterfront Park and Battery Park, past the North Beach campgrounds to Leddy Park, before a light rain (and that pesky rental time limit) made me turn around. The additional leg was probably another four miles round trip for a nice little six-mile jaunt, complete with chocolate!
Trip 2: Northbound Local Motion to end of Causeway
The following day my husband was finally freed from his work requirements, and he was eager to check out the trail. We left our car parked at the hotel, walked down Battery Street, and popped into trailside shop Local Motion just to the left of College Street if you’re looking at the water.
I read good things about Local Motion, and the shop didn’t disappoint. It’s a small outfit but the employees are experienced and helpful. You can choose from hybrid bikes and cruisers to a few tandem bikes. We chose hybrids — plenty of gears, in great condition, helmets, water bottle cages and front bar bike bags included. We paid $25 per bike for the one- to four-hour time frame. They operate May through October. (Check for exact dates. If it’s warm(er) in Vermont, they’re open.)
I wore bike shorts with a chamois, since my unseasoned rear was a bit tender from the trip the day before. My husband wore regular running shorts. If you plan on going any distance on this trail, I highly recommend wearing bike shorts with a cushioning chamois.
We set off with one goal in mind – to see the causeway. There aren’t words for how beautiful this trail is. I biked cross country from New Haven, Connecticut to Seattle, Washington in 2002 and of all the sights I saw on that trip, this Vermont trail still stands out as remarkable.
The trail has a little bit of everything – scenic lakefront, mountain views, wooded forest, and an amazing 2.5-mile causeway that’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
During our trip (June 2017) there was ongoing construction on a two-mile section of the trail. Detours directed us on to roadways to get around the construction. The bike shop told us that one road was fairly busy, but we found it easily to traverse with a wide bike lane.
Trip highlight – the causeway
Ever wanted to bike on water? That’s what this is like. Built in 1900 on huge marble rocks, the 2.5-mile, raised railbed actually juts out into Lake Champlain for unrivaled water views. The causeway ends in a short 200-foot expanse where a railroad swing bridge once stood. Local Motion operates a ferry, rain or shine, seven days a week in summer, to get cyclists across the water so you can continue your ride into the island town of South Hero, Vermont.
We turned around at the causeway end and failed to take the ferry across to South Hero (knowing we’d be staying in North Hero for a few days and would have more than our fair share of that island). Our Garmin recorded 22 miles out and back. (We overshot our trailhead start, grabbed two giant hot dogs at the snack stand and enjoyed the waterfront just past the Local Motion shop.)
Things to enjoy along the Island Line Trail
Switchback Brewing Co. makes for a great place to end your trail experience with a beer, a flight or some light fare.
Foam Brewers also can be seen trailside and offers a great vibe.
Burlington offers a ton of brewery options, these two are the closest to the trail. If cider is more your thing, I strongly recommend heading off trail to Citizen Cider.
As noted and linked above, Lake Champlain Chocolates Factory Store also isn’t far from the trail. They use as many locally sourced ingredients in their chocolate as possible and you can really taste the difference.
Shanty on the Shore can be seen from the trail and offers classic surf ‘n’ turf fare with a raw bar and views of the lake.
College Street offers a bevy of eating options that range from the snack stand (don’t miss Vermont’s famous maple creamees/soft-serve ice cream with maple syrup) to the Burlington Bay Market & Café, the decade-old Skinny Pancake creperie, and dockside dining at Splash at the Boathouse.
South Hero side
Bike off trail to the Snow Farm Vineyard at Crescent Bay Farm (which also has a B&B).
Allenholm Farm and the Accidental Farmer feature weekly specials, burgers, soups, pies, fall apples and the all-important maple creemee, complete with a petting zoo and playground.
Hackett’s Orchard: don’t miss the fresh cider donuts, apple cider, 47 varieties of apples, play area and fall wagon rides.
Keeler’s Bay Variety Store features fresh-brewed coffee, a deli sandwich counter, large drink cooler, groceries, liquor and more.
Downtown B-town, as it’s called, is an awesome place to explore off trail and is a great mixture of a college town with deep railroad and textile history. Burlington is extremely walkable and bike-able, and you don’t have to wander far to find great food, local arts, shopping and events.
Don’t miss Church Street Marketplace, Vermont’s award-winning, open-air mall. And if you’re looking for the best breakfast/brunch/lunch of your life, round the corner and stop by the Penny Cluse Café. The food is fantastic and fresh and portions are monstrous. The kitchen is also extremely sensitive to food allergies and dietary requirements. Locals know this to be the most popular breakfast spot in downtown Burlington, and with good reason. Go mid-week after breakfast to avoid the rush, or wait in line during peak weekend times. It’s worth it. No matter what you order, get the side of fruit. Thank me later.
- Wear bike shorts with a chamois if you plan to bike more than a few miles on the trail.
- Summer showers might kick up, but rarely last long and can be outbiked (in our experience).
- Plan to kick back and enjoy this trail. This ride is definitely about the journey and the fun stops along the way and not about how fast you can crank out these miles. Stop and swim (if the water is warm enough); try that maple creemee; and take that causeway extra slow so you can savor the landscape. Views like this don’t come around often!