Local News

The road less traveled by Backroad leaf-peeping: tips to safely navigating dirt roads

By Julia Purdy

There are some knockout foliage drives along major highways in southern Vermont. Route 4 through the Sherburne Flats north from West Bridgewater and over Sherburne Pass into Mendon rewards leaf-peepers year after year, as does Route 7 up the Valley of Vermont through Dorset and Danby. But back roads offer immersive foliage viewing, with a fresh delight around every bend as sunlight filters through red and orange leafy tunnels and mountain and farmland views open up unexpectedly. One nice feature is that you are not pushed by traffic so you can take your time, and in fact on back roads you should take your time.

Vermont is a quirky state and its road system is just as quirky, with most town roads laid out long ago according to the needs of a farming population and still in use. State roads can be counted upon to be paved — and more towns have been paving more once-dirt roads over the year. But about 55% of all streets, highways and roads in Vermont are unpaved.
If you are tempted to explore back roads, here are some tips for driving them enjoyably and safely, along with two of our favorite backroad foliage drives. The art of backroad driving can be summed up in two words: patience and courtesy.

Farm equipment

If you come upon a tractor or loaded farm truck trundling along, it is not a good idea to try to pass it, partly because the visibility up ahead may be poor but also because the operator realizes he or she is holding up traffic and may, at their discretion, pull over to the right and gesture to let traffic pass. Usually it isn’t traveling very far, moving between fields or to the home farm. If you are stuck behind such a vehicle, relax, sit back and enjoy the scenery. The operator will appreciate your patience and show of respect.


Some older farms were built to straddle the roadway, to minimize the distance between the house and the barn. Those arrangements have not changed in many cases. In some roads, cows are still walked across the road from pasture to barn. Those crossings are marked by a yellow and black sign that shows the silhouette of a cow. In any case, in passing through those farmsteads, 20 mph is not too slow, because there could be all manner of creatures wandering across the road, such as a cat, poultry, a loose calf, someone crossing to the barn.


Speed limits do apply even on back roads and are posted by the towns. The range may top out at 45 mph on open stretches, dropping to 40 when passing houses, but other locations could post 25 mph. Conditions, caution and the honor system determine reasonable speed on back roads.

Stay alert

The key to backroad driving is to continually scan in front of you and to the sides, and keep a controlled speed that enables you to do that, including braking quickly. Aside from the odd squirrel or skunk, deer can do a lot of damage to the car, as well as to themselves, and moose are huge and top-heavy. Both can appear without warning, so a slower speed and vigilance can mean the difference between an exciting glimpse of wildlife and a ruined day.


On back roads it may appear there is no traffic, but don’t assume you have the road to yourself. In the next moment,that can change. Back roads are shortcuts used by farmers, locals, delivery trucks and the daily rural mail delivery car. There may be people walking with dogs or babystrollers, bicyclists, or horseback riders. Many back roads are one-and-a-half lanes wide, with “blind” curves, hills and driveways. It’s always good to note a driveway or spot to pull off the road if necessary. Be prepared to slow down and pull over or stop to let an oncoming vehicle pass.

Road conditions

Gravel roads are maintained regularly by towns but do show signs of erosion after rainstorms, and they often have “washboard.” Washboard is a corrugated surface that can develop on uphill curves. The way to navigate washboard is to cross it at a shallow angle if possible so all your tires are not bouncing on the washboard at the same time. Road grading breaks up potholes and washboard.


Going uphill, save gas and shift into Low, even with automatic transmissions, or with the extra sport gear some newer models have. On the downhill, using your gears will spare your brakes. Moderate speed and try to avoid pressing the brake pedal for the entire hill; apply the brakes briefly and lightly to check speed but rely on low gear for the most part.

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