Unearth the hidden gem of Observatory Knob in St. Johnsbury, Vermont—a sanctuary boasting peaceful hiking trails and captivating panoramic vistas of the Northeast Kingdom.
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St. Johnsbury’s Best Kept Secret for Hiking and Stunning Views
Observatory Knob (elevation 1,099 ft.), nestled on the edge of St. Johnsbury, is a charming hill with gentle slopes, wooded trails, and breathtaking panoramic views of the Northeast Kingdom. This hidden gem, steeped in history since the late 19th century, was once a beloved destination for locals, enticing hikers with its sweeping vistas of the town and surrounding mountains. While it has since largely faded from local knowledge, Observatory Knob remains a cherished spot for hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing, offering a tranquil escape for nearby residents and nature enthusiasts alike.
History of Observatory Knob
In the 1870s, a forest fire cleared Preston’s Hill, now Observatory Knob. It created a stunning vantage point overlooking St. Johnsbury and the Passumpsic River, offering breathtaking views of the Northeast Kingdom and the Presidential Range. In 1887, a dedicated group of residents constructed a 22 ft. observatory with a covered deck from which visitors equipped with telescopes could witness the mesmerizing sight of trains ascending Mt. Washington’s Cog Railway.
A new carriage road increased accessibility, making Observatory Knob a popular destination. Sadly, tragedy struck in 1894 when strong winds destroyed the observatory, but the community rebounded, erecting a larger two-story structure. In 1914, another windstorm again demolished the observatory, ending its existence and leading to a decline in visitors and neglect of the hill. Over time, nature reclaimed the carriage road and hiking trails, fading the prominence of this once-beloved landmark.
St. Johnsbury Aquires the Knob
The large yellow border marks the lands acquired by St. Johnsbury.
Over the years, landowners graciously allowed hikers on Observatory Knob’s trails. In 2021, the St. Johnsbury recreation department, with the Vermont Land Trust’s help, purchased 117 acres, ensuring public access and preserving its natural beauty and rich history. Additionally, landowner Dave Brown donated 5 acres, including the old observatory’s summit, and maintains the scenic hiking trails that loop through his wooded property. The purchase of Observatory Knob reflects St. Johnsbury’s commitment to preserving landmarks and providing public spaces for residents’ enjoyment.
Hiking Observatory Knob
To access Knob Hill, park at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, as no parking is available at the trailhead. From there, walk up the road until you reach a gate on the left where the trailhead starts (0.14 mi.). Although there are no signs at the moment, the trail is well-maintained and easy to navigate. It begins in a field and soon transitions into a logging road surrounded by trees.
wooded trails And gentle slopes
As you venture forward through nature’s canopy, the trail leads you to a serene field, treating your senses to awe-inspiring vistas of the picturesque countryside and a nearby farm. Relish the fleeting beauty of the open expanse as the field gracefully gives way to the embrace of the woods once again.
A brisk journey through the woods awaits, guiding you to a slightly more challenging terrain—a steeper field that beckons you to conquer its slopes. Prepare for a rewarding climb, pushing your limits while soaking in the breathtaking surroundings. The trail then mellows out as you reach the summit, providing a well-deserved respite (0.5 mi.).
Check The Mailbox and Browse the Logbook
At the summit, a bench and mailbox, thoughtfully installed by Dave Brown, await you. Since 2007, visitors have been able to leave comments or peruse the logbooks stored in the mailbox. Take a seat on the bench and enjoy the breathtaking views of Burke Mountain, the Willoughby Gap, and the Kittredge Hills. Immerse yourself in the stunning natural beauty that surrounds you.
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See Where the Observatory Once Stood
Beyond the bench, you’ll discover two trailheads that venture into the woods, forming a loop that leads to Dave Brown’s house. Opt for the trail on the left, which guides you to the flattened-out area where the observatory once stood. Along the way, you’ll encounter the remnants of the old carriage road, and two cut granite stones, serving as a reminder of the observatory’s past. As you continue your journey, the well-maintained trail gently descends, guiding you back down the mountain (0.28 mi.).
Exploring the Trails
As you continue along the trail, you’ll see a sign indicating entry into Dave’s property and welcoming foot traffic. At the end of the trail, as you near the house, you’ll notice a lack of signs guiding you further. Feeling uncertain and slightly confused, we opted to turn around and retrace our steps instead of crossing the driveway near the house to search for the trailhead. If you ever find yourself in this situation, don’t worry. After inquiring, I received confirmation that the property owner allows hikers to cross their driveway and access the other trailhead.
Please show respect towards the generous landowner who has graciously permitted the path to pass through their property.
Back down again
Upon returning to the bench (0.28 mi.), we opted for the trail on the right, leading us on a rapid descent before re-entering Dave’s property and briefly merging with the old carriage road before branching off. The meticulous effort people put in to clear the woods and establish an exquisite trail system was evident. Eventually, we found ourselves near Dave’s house again, but this time we confidently crossed the driveway to access the entrance of the trail we had initially hiked down (0.31 mi.).
Discovering the Carriage Road
At this juncture, I realized we had another choice. Instead of sticking to the trail, we could venture forward across the field and follow the path of the old carriage road, which led back up the hill (0.25 mi.). The road started with a gentle hike through a variety of trees, but as we went on, it became steeper and more demanding than the regular trails. Thinking about the challenges horses and carriages must have faced on this very road a century ago, I couldn’t help but admire the tremendous effort it required. Even in modern times, I believe it still poses a formidable challenge for off-road vehicles.
One Final View Before the Descent
We took in the breathtaking views from the summit once more before descending the hill back to our car. However, shortly before reaching the gate we had entered through, I saw another trail that branched off into the woods on the right (0.45 mi.). Intrigued, we chose to follow this path (0.14 mi.), which took us on a downward journey and eventually led us to Mt. Pleasant Street. From that point, it was a mere short walk back to our car parked at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery (0.14 mi.). From the tranquil allure of its forested pathways to the sweeping panoramas offered at the summit, Knob Hill boasts meticulously maintained trails that meander through its wooded slopes and lush meadows, inviting all to revel in their splendor.
Total Distance: approximately 2.71 mi.
Elevation Gain: 825 ft.
Route Type: Out and Back
Note: If you are only hiking from the cemetery to the summit and back your total distance will be 1.2 mi. with an approximate elevation gain of 349 ft.
Despite the absence of the observation tower, the spirit of Observatory Knob and its significance to the community remains. The hilltop continues to offer breathtaking views, and efforts to preserve and maintain the area as a public park have been successful. The Knob offers a glimpse into the town’s past while providing ongoing recreational opportunities for future generations to cherish. After your first time hiking Observatory Knob, you’ll be hooked on the breathtaking beauty of this Vermont gem.