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Lake Willoughby is one of those special lakes that are rarely found in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. The action of prehistoric glaciers gouged out a portion of high ridges to create Mount Hor and Mount Pisgah. Between these landmark mountains, glaciations left an exceedingly deep lake: Lake Willoughby. Lying fiord-like at the base of the towering granite slabs that comprise the sides of these two famed mountains, Willoughby Lake's 300 foot depth holds a wealth of native fish. With natural sand beaches at both north and south ends of the lake, lovely Lake Willoughby is a vacationer's dream. The source of the Willoughby River, Lake Willoughby's waters flow north to join the Barton River and drain into Lake Memphremagog on the Canadian border.
The origin of Lake Willoughby's name is a matter of conjecture. The most likely origin is that it was named after early settlers whose origins have been lost to time. The area of Vermont where the lake lies was settled early, with New Englanders coming to take advantage of the many falls and rapid rivers for running mills and machinery. Nearby Barton was the site of some of the most intensive early industrial development. Lake Willoughby certainly had visitors and even settlers, but the steep terrain along the cliffs of the twin mountains made road-building nearly impossible.
For a period of years, there were no lakeside roads, making industrial mills useless. A lumber mill was built near the south end of Lake Willoughby, but no road was attempted along the shore until sometime after 1850. Once transportation became possible, it wasn't long before inns and hotels were being built beside the lake. One famed establishment, called 'The Lake House' was a very popular, somewhat exclusive resort frequented by the well-to-do. By 1854, the proprietors of The Lake House had cut trails up the side of Mount Pisgah so guests could ride up by wagon in comfort and safety to see the spectacular view. Other resort establishments soon followed and the days of the Vermont resorts lasted in fading splendor until the turn of the century. By that time the availability of rail access to other resort destinations became possible and, looking for something new, the wealthy visitors moved on. Most of the buildings have fallen to ruin and the few hotels that were left had all died out by 1950. By that time, lakefront vacations had taken on a new persona - that of the private home or cottage.
Much of the shoreline of Lake Willoughby is undeveloped. Both Mount Pisgah and Mount Hor are within the boundary of 7300-acre Willoughby State Forest. Willoughby Cliffs Natural Area encompasses the vertical cliffs of both mountains and provides excellent habitat for the study of alpine and cliff-dwelling plants. The sheer cliffs provide excellent nesting habitat for peregrine falcons making the area popular with bird watchers. Less steep areas of the shoreline support summer cottages and year-round homes. Lake lubbers here indulge themselves in water sports such as swimming, sailing, wake boarding, jet skiing, canoeing, kayaking, tubing and pontooning. Adjacent public land provides ample trails for hiking, biking, rock climbing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and wildlife observation. Downhill skiing and snowboarding is available at nearby Burke Mountain. Black bears, bobcats, moose, deer, fox, rabbits, hedgehogs, raccoons, skunks, mink, beaver, chipmunks and squirrels have long been known in the area.
Ice skating and ice fishing are available in winter but the huge lake doesn't freeze as quickly as others in the area due to its extreme depth. The open water is highly prized by fishermen who engage in the hunt for landlocked Atlantic salmon (mainly stocked), rainbow trout (wild and stocked), burbot, rainbow smelt, longnose sucker, yellow perch, lake chub, white sucker, and round whitefish. The latter, alternately known as menominee, pilot fish, frost fish, round-fish, or menominee whitefish has extremely limited natural range in Vermont. Lake Willoughby is likely Vermont's best trout lake, with some of the largest lake trout caught here year after year. The single remaining dam on the Willoughby River has been modified, allowing rainbow trout to swim upstream to the lake.
With depths exceeding 300 feet, mountainous cliffs rising from the water, and abundant wildlife, it is not surprising that Lake Willoughby is reputed to support a likely mythical lake monster called "Willy," much like Champ in Lake Champlain. The first sightings of Willy date back to 1868 when a 12 year old boy killed a 23-foot eel-like monster. More recent sightings describe a serpentine creature with humps on its back. Willy's exact nature is unknown, so pack your camera when you plan your visit to this gem in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.
The days of the elegant resort may be over at Lake Willoughby, but there are multiple small resorts and other forms of lodgings available along the shore. The town of Westmore on the northeast shore can provide for immediate needs in the way of groceries and bait. Private owners often lease their properties as vacation rentals, and there are many quaint bed-and-breakfast businesses in the surrounding countryside. The area retains its agricultural atmosphere, and local villages and towns are filled with small museums and historical locations. One of the more interesting of historical settings is the Brick Kingdom Park nearby in Barton. This complex of aging and decaying buildings is of great interest to those with a bent toward industrial history; the entire complex consists of different types of businesses that used the water power from Crystal Falls to build an industrial economy very early in Vermont's history. A self-guiding interpretive trail winds through the complex leading visitors to examples of great industrial diversity over a period of nearly a hundred years.
A few miles north of Barton, outside of Orleans, the Old Stone House Museum provides a small group of preserved and restored buildings centered around a school complex. Constructed by Alexander Twilight, the first African-American college graduate and state legislator, the complex offers a view of life in the early 1800s in rural Vermont. Less than ten miles from Lake Willoughby, one can easily spend an afternoon here for a change of pace.
While touring the countryside around Lake Willoughby, one may find the perfect piece of real estate to purchase for a retirement home or country retreat. Even after more than 200 years of settlement, the Vermont countryside is still picturesque and a joy to view, particularly during autumn leaf season. Only 30 miles north of St. Johnsbury, Lake Willoughby is now truly accessible via modern highway. Come spend a weekend or a week at Lake Willoughby.
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