January 10, 2022

Cruising Lake Champlain

Katie and Gene Hamilton

Bring Binocular News

Inviting clear fresh water and charming ports of call

Lake Champlain, the sixth Great Lake was our destination one summer in late July. As former Lake Michigan sailors we knew our way around pristine fresh waters and were curious to see if Lake Champlain was as special as we heard. Many cruisers rave about the lake’s clean water, breathtaking backdrop of surrounding mountains and unlimited anchorages. We wanted to see it for ourselves and cruise from the Chesapeake Bay to Lake Champlain in New York and Vermont.

For visitor information about the area go to Lake Champlain Region.

setting sun on Lake Champlain VT
A beautiful horizon on Lake Champlain.

Cruising to Lake Champlain from Chesapeake Bay

In our Grand Banks 36-foot trawler High Life we went from the Chesapeake to Delaware Bay, north up the Atlantic coast with a layover on the Jersey shore at Atlantic City. Then on to New York Harbor. Everyone we met confirmed everything we heard about cruising Lake Champlain. At least part of the day the tide was against as we headed North. Our only passenger, Samantha B, our year-old kitten experiencing her first long cruise.

As we continued up the Hudson we used our binoculars to take in the views from the congested hustle and bustle of the Battery to the scenic beauty of New Jersey’s Palisades. We got a glimpse of trains on rail lines running along both shorelines. And we spotted the Half Moon, a replica of the original Dutch ship of Henry Hudson, sail by.

Half Moon Dutch sailing ship
The Half Moon, a replica of Henry Hudson’s Dutch ship

We passed Fort Ticonderoga to the west with the Adirondacks in the background. To be honest the fort didn’t look that foreboding through binoculars. It was hard to imagine the tug of war between the Brits and U.S. fighting to dominate the fortress. During our Revolutionary War with the British, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold surprised the British holding Fort Ticonderoga and forced them to surrender.

The Little City of Vergennes

Our first stop was Vergennes, 50 mile north on the Vermont side of the lake so we turned into Otter Creek. We rounded the last bend opening into a protected harbor with an impressive waterfall. Since the town docks were full we anchored with other boats in front of the falls. As the sun went down lights on the falls lit up creating a magical setting.

waterfalls of Vergennes VT
High Life anchored at the waterfalls of Vergennes VT on Lake Champlain

The next day we grabbed a spot at the dock and visited the town just a few blocks up the hill. That night we had an impromptu “docktail party” with outer cruisers at picnic tables. Many of the cruisers we met were Canadians and it’s no wonder given the lake’s proximity to Montreal.  We learned that the Canadian construction industry shut down for the last two weeks in July so we saw many Canadian hailing ports on the sterns of their boats.

We quickly learned we could easily crisscross Lake Champlain because of the short distances.  As we became familiar with the lake we saw how ferry transportation is an integral part of the area with service at the north, central and southern parts of the lake.

TIP  Our firsthand experience using binoculars on a boat: Binoculars are vulnerable on a boat. An unexpected roll from a passing boat wake can send binocs onto a hard deck surface or worse, bouncing off the boat. To protect binoculars, stow them near the helm so they’re readily available but tucked in a safe cubby that prevents them from being damaged.

Samantha looks on as I knit in High Life’s cabin at anchor on Lake Champlain

Samantha B was getting her sea legs and seemed quite as home, catnapping during the day when we were underway. When we stopped to anchor or tie up later in the day she grew curious to the new smells and sounds, especially nearby cruising dogs. By nature she’s a scaredy cat so we hoped that would keep her close at hand.

Burlington VT

 At Burlington VT a profusion of daylilies in the waterfront park line the shoreline near the Boathouse marina. It’s an idyllic setting with a walking and biking trail along the lakeshore and minutes to a thriving urban city overlooking the lake. It’s the center of boating activities with car ferries and cruise boats coming and going.

Church Street Market, Burlington VT
Church Street Market in Burlington VT

We took the free shuttle bus to visit the city and found the Church Street Market Place. It’s a closed off city street with over 100 vendors and specialty shops. We snooped around some of the shops and picked up some provisions at the City Market. At night the waterfront was alive with music and stargazers enjoying the night sky.

As tourists to Burlington we enjoyed visiting ECHO, an aquarium science center that sits on the waterfront and read the words of native people of the region in the Indigenous Expressions exhibit. We watched kids of all ages get blown away in the Category One Hurricane Simulator exhibit.

ECHO, aquarium science center
ECHO, an aquarium science center on the shores of Lake Champlain

Burton Island in Northern Lake Champlain

After being city slickers for a few days we headed to Burton Island State Park just west of St. Albans and north of Burlington. The park is only accessible by boat making it a welcome spot for cruisers and campers who arrived daily on the ferry. It looked like most of the boaters who arrived were frequent visitors.  Once their dock lines were secured they set up collapsible canopies, chairs and tables near their boats and around firepits. The island was ideal for boat camping and clearly a family place with kids swimming on the beach and riding bicycles on the trails. 

In the morning at the breakfast bar we noticed picnic tables full of kids with a big brother or sister in charge of their little siblings.  Who was enjoying it more we wondered, the kids going out to breakfast on their own or their parents who were sleeping in?

A 2-mile walking trail winds its way to the southern tip of the island lush with fields of goldenrod and Queen Anne’s Lace. Remote campsites were tucked away off the trails lined with wildflowers and foliage. At the tip of the island we sat on a bench and marveled at the wide waters and Vermont’s rolling hills in the background. 

Crossing the Lake from Vermont to New York

On the Vermont side we reached Malletts Bay through a cut in an old railway roadbed. It led into a wide bay lined with waterfront homes and summer cottages. We ducked into a nice protected anchorage near Red Rock Point and stayed a few days enjoying the warm weather and calm waters. Heading into the lake we saw a large pontoon boat operating as a bike ferry that transported cyclists across the cut.

seaplane in Malletts Bay VT
A seaplane is a popular form of transportation at this lovely home on the Malletts Bay

Across the lake we saw a massive wind farm with vanes high on top of the Adirondacks to the west in Plattsburgh in upstate New York. South of there is Valcour Island, a popular anchorage and park accessible only by boat with campsites and trails.

 Willsboro Bay had lovely homes perched on high granite cliffs and a huge marina lining its shore. It felt like we were in a fjord.  The chart showed water from 50 to150 feet deep, but we anchored in 10 feet at the base of the bay. Wherever we were the British racing green waters seemed to match the pine and evergreens outlining the rocky shoreline. 

Samantha B was an experienced cruiser and had her first shoreline encounter in Essex NY, a charming summer resort town on the western shore of the lake. One evening, much to our surprise, she jumped off our boat onto one in the next slip. She paused, looked around and returned back home, just enough excitement to satisfy her curiosity.

cruising Lake Champlain in Vermont and New York
Samantha with her sea legs walks the decks of High Life at anchor on Lake Champlain

A short walk up a hill to the main street we found a few shops and a deli that had everything we needed including a Sunday newspaper. The main activity was a few blocks north near the ferry dock at the Old Dock House where we sipped cold beer and sampled sandwiches watching cars and bikers pedal off the ferry.

Homeward bound on the New York shore

Making our way south we crossed the lake back to the Vermont side and stopped at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum where we picked up a mooring ball near a replica of Philadelphia II, a 1776 gunboat. We went ashore to tour the museum next to the Basin Harbor Club, a lovely resort on the banks of the lake and had lunch there. Samantha had adjusted to being left home alone when we went ashore and seemed hardly phased by our absence.

Lake Champlain Maritime Museum VT
A replica of Philadelphia II, a 1776 gunboat at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum near the Basin Harbor Club

Our last stop was Westport NY another summer resort charmer where we picked up some fresh produce at the Farmer’s Market. Before leaving we stopped to visit with neighboring cruisers before going south to the Champlain Canal.

We marveled at the crystal fresh waters of Lake Champlain and the bounty of its anchorages and marinas such short distances apart. Look east to Vermont’s Green Mountains or west to New York’s Adirondacks. The vistas and scenery make it an amazing cruising ground and an area we want to visit by car to see more.  All the accolades we’d heard about Lake Champlain are true. It’s a special place.

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Gene and Katie Hamilton are veteran sail and power boaters and award winning boating writers. They are authors of Coastal Cruising Under Power and Practical Boating Skills. They are members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.
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