Hiking tips

Backroad leaf-peeping the road less traveled: Tips for navigating dirt roads safely

By Julia Purdy

There are breathtaking foliage drives along major highways in southern Vermont. Route 4 through the Sherburne Flats north of West Bridgewater and over Sherburne Pass to Mendon rewards voyeurs year after year, as does Route 7 which winds its way up the Vermont Valley through Dorset and Danby. But back roads provide an immersive view of foliage, with new delight at every turn as sunlight filters through leafy red and orange tunnels and vistas of mountains and farmland open up so unexpected. A nice feature is that you’re not pushed around 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 network is equally quirky, with most urban roads being developed long ago to meet the needs of an agricultural population and still in use. National roads can be counted on to be paved – and more cities have paved more formerly dirt roads over the year. But about 55% of all streets, highways, and roads in Vermont are unpaved.
If you’re tempted to explore the back roads, here are some tips for driving them safely and enjoyably, along with two of our favorite back roads. The art of driving on the road can be summed up in two words: patience and courtesy.

Farm equipment

If you encounter a rolling tractor or loaded farm truck, it is not a good idea to try to pass it, partly because visibility ahead of you may be poor, but also because the operator realizes that he is blocking traffic and may, at their discretion, pull over to the right and wave to allow traffic to pass. Usually it does not travel very far, moving between fields or back to the farm of origin. If you get stuck behind such a vehicle, relax, sit back and enjoy the scenery. The operator will appreciate your patience and respect.


Some older farmhouses were built astride the roadway, to minimize the distance between house and barn. These provisions have not changed in many cases. In some roads the cows still cross the road from the pasture to the barn. These crossings are marked with a yellow and black sign that shows the silhouette of a cow. Anyway, going through these farms, 20 mph isn’t too slow, because there could be all sorts of creatures wandering the road, like a cat, a fowl, a loose calf, someone crossing barn.

The rapidity

Speed ​​limits apply even on secondary roads and are posted by cities. Range can reach 45 mph on open stretches, dropping to 40 when passing houses, but other locations might see 25 mph. Conditions, caution and the honor system determine a reasonable speed on secondary roads.

stay alert

The key to secondary road driving is to continually scan ahead and to the sides, and maintain a controlled speed that allows you to do so, including braking quickly. Aside from the odd squirrel or skunk, deer can do a lot of damage to the car, as well as themselves, and moose are huge and heavy. Both can appear without warning, so slower speed and vigilance can be the difference between an exciting glimpse of wildlife and a wasted day.


On back roads it may seem like there is no traffic, but don’t assume you have the road all to yourself. In the next moment, that may change. Secondary roads are shortcuts used by farmers, locals, delivery trucks, and the daily rural mail delivery car. There may be people walking around with dogs or strollers, cyclists or horse riders. Many secondary roads are one and a half lanes wide, with “blind” curves, hills and driveways. It’s always good to note a driveway or a place to get off the road if needed. Be prepared to slow down and pull over or pull over to let an oncoming vehicle pass.

road condition

Gravel roads are maintained regularly by cities but show signs of erosion after torrential rains, and they often have “washboards”. The washboard is a wavy surface that can develop into uphill curves. The way to navigate the washboard is to cross it at a shallow angle if possible so that all your tires don’t bounce off the washboard at once. Road grading breaks up potholes and washboards.


Uphill, save gas and shift into Low mode, even with automatic transmissions, or with the additional sport equipment of some newer models. Going downhill, using your gears will spare your brakes. Moderate the speed and try to avoid pressing the brake pedal during the whole slope; apply the brakes briefly and lightly to check speed, but rely on low gear for the most part.