The road is winding and full of switchbacks, with some corners cutting so close to the edges of its boulder-lined walls that it would make anyone's breath catch in their throat. This, to the uninitiated who are visiting Vermont, is the iconic Smugglers' Notch, aka Vermont Route 108. The Notch, as it's referred to by the locals, is a road that cuts between Mount Mansfield - the highest peak in Vermont - and Smugglers Notch State Park, home to the Sterling Range and Spruce Peak. The drive is only somewhat harrowing with its hairpin turns and tight lanes, and it's certain to give visitors a run for their money if they happen to be driving a car that's even slightly larger than a sedan.
With that being said, it's also one of the most popular destinations in the Green Mountain State. With a tremendous history behind it and more than 70 hiking trails, this scenic route is just as popular for driving as it is for those hiking in Smugglers' Notch. This famed landscape has an intriguing history behind its namesake, and it's one that everyone should learn before visiting these hallowed hills.
How Smugglers' Notch Got Its Name
When driving through the Notch, it's easy to see how it could have been used as a hidden route to get from one place to another. More specifically, it was used during the early 19th century to bring trade goods to and from Canada during the War of 1812. Not only was the route precariously cut through the mountain in some of the most rugged territories in the state, but its many boulders and rocks allowed for well-hidden crevices. This meant that if someone did happen to be on the trail of a smuggler, it was easy enough to hide from sight until the route was once again safe enough to pass.
With cliffs on either side that sometimes reach a height of 1,000 feet, it's also easy to see how very few people would have been caught on their way to and from one country to another. The landscape looked completely different in the early 1800s and there were far fewer people - and towns - meaning this region was even more remote. After former president Thomas Jefferson passed the Embargo Act in 1807, the restriction of trade between countries had a drastically negative impact on the state of Vermont. As the state shares a border with Canada, this trade route was by far the easiest to use, and once that was cut off there were many citizens and businesses that suffered in the northern part of the state.
While the name implies some kind of highly illegal activity, in reality, Vermonters were only doing what they needed to in order to survive the embargo. This doesn't take away from the legalities - or lack thereof - regarding the under-the-radar trades, though. Those who were caught would face penalties for what they were doing, as it was considered to be breaking a major law.
- Fun Fact: Vermonters would cross the Notch with donkeys or horses, or with supplies simply strapped to their backs. In order to avoid being caught, they would sometimes hide in the caves that can be found throughout the Notch and on various hikes in Smugglers Notch State Park.
This route was not only used for trading. Fugitive slaves would also utilize the route to make their way through Vermont and into Canada, which gave it another historic purpose.
Route 108 through the Notch is open seasonally. However, without fail, a truck will get lodged between switchbacks during the off-season months, requiring assistance to be moved. Please avoid using the Notch during the winter season when it's often impassable and dangerous.
Smugglers' Notch And The Prohibition Era
The use of Smugglers' Notch didn't just end there, though. As Vermont progressed into the 20th century, they would be subject to yet another restriction - this time, on alcohol. When Prohibition came about in 1922, the state was lucky enough to have opened Smugglers' Notch to automobile traffic. This meant that those using the route would no longer need to cross on foot or horseback, which opened up even more illegal trade route options. In this case, it was Vermont's loophole during the time when it was legally a dry state.
Bootlegging would be the last purpose the Notch served in terms of smuggling, and then it would become a tourist destination and a spot frequented by hiking locals. Today, it's home to a popular resort and some of the state's best skiing and snowboarding during the winter months. During the summer, its 78 trails are open for hikers, featuring stunning waterfalls, scenic summit views, and plenty of fresh mountain air.
While visitors enjoy the scenery that the Notch provides, it's also worth knowing its history. Those driving along Route 108 will be traversing a route that many smugglers did before them, all on a mission to rebel against whatever laws were enacted at the time. Now, doesn't that make it much more of a bucket-list destination?