The Green Mountains are calling. Sure, the High Peaks of the Catskills are a couple of hours away, and the vastness of New York's Adirondack Park just a bit farther to the north, but Vermont's famed range is worth driving the extra distance. Running on a north-south axis from the state's southern border with Massachusetts all the way up to Canada, the Greens offer several scalable peaks over 4,000 feet -- and a great way to take them in.

It's called the Long Trail, and it's the granddaddy of American long-distance hiking trails, older than even the Appalachian Trail.

About 272 miles from start to finish (the first 100 or so miles are contiguous with the Appalachian Trail, which peels off near Killington), this "footpath in the wilderness" presents a challenging mix of steep, uphill climbs, rock scrambles and rugged, rooty terrain.

Though there are no technical obstacles along the way, trekking the Long Trail is work. The Green Mountains are their own microclimate: some 100 inches of rainfall on the higher peaks during a given year. You will get wet. Your boots will get muddy (bring extra socks, always), and you will sweat buckets.

But fear not, the Long Trail is eminently hikeable, a worthy test for those seeking a vigorous outdoor experience. Even going a few miles feels like an accomplishment, while the stunning views and the trail's mix of solitude and sociability are rewards in themselves.

Ideal for day trips

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Hardcore hikers do the Long Trail end to end in about a month; that means long hours of hauling it at least 10 miles a day. (Recently, a mother and her 13-year-old daughter completed the trail in 24 days.)

But with 185 miles of side trails, the LT, as it is known, is ideal for stage hiking and day trips for occasional hikers. Summer and early fall are ideal times to plan a trip. For the past few summers, I've headed out alone for several days at a time to some north central sections of the trail, located in the Breadloaf Wilderness near the quaint college town of Middlebury.

One of my favorite starting points is at the Skylight Pond trailhead, located just outside the town of Ripton. Follow Route 7 south from Middlebury onto Route 125 and then to U.S. Forest Road 59, which takes you deep into the forest to a parking area. The broad shoulder of Bread Loaf Mountain beckons above when you set out on an easy stretch and get your trail legs. The trail gradually steepens with hardwoods -- ash, maple, birch -- changing to a mix of conifers as you gain elevation via a series of switchbacks. It's 2.5 miles from parking lot to the LT: In about an hour, you're on top of the ridge, at about 3,200 feet. Here is the Long Trail, marked through its entire length with white blazes, on the left heading north, and to the right southbound.

A short distance east, a few minutes' walk from the trail, is Skyline Lodge, one of 70 primitive shelters, lean-tos and lodges you'll find along the trail. It's a fully enclosed cabin, with bunk room for 14, overlooking a pond. (Shelters are first come, first served, and totally free. If they fill up, most sites have places to set up a tent.)

On a recent trip, I had the place to myself and spent the night there during an eerie lightning storm that illuminated the dark skies in brilliant flashes. But during clement weather, I prefer to sleep in my tent. Nights can be chilly, so you'll want a sleeping bag warm enough to keep you snug, but not so heavy you'll roast.

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Pack it in, pack it out

On the LT, you pack it in, you pack it out -- there are no trash cans. For more than a few days, you'll want to make sure you're well provisioned. Protein bars for breakfast and trail mix for lunch served me well, and I cooked a proper dinner at night on my camp stove. (Shredded baguette, precooked chicken sausage and green beans heated in olive oil is a nourishing, fail-safe winner.) Most important, stay hydrated: There is an abundance of water sources on the trail, so keep your water bottles full.

After a night at Skyline Lodge, you're ready for a day's hike. I like to head north -- there is good ridge hiking in these sections, and you'll be able to cover some ground. There are some ups and downs, and jutting rocks to navigate, but this bit is relatively easy.

Weather is always a variable. You can find yourself hiking under bright sun, or wading through dense fog enshrouding a summit, as I did when I went over Mount Abraham last year. There is perhaps another reason it's called the Long Trail: Every point is always farther than you think, and each mile gained feels incredibly, well, long. But you find a rhythm as you steady your legs and get used to the weight of your pack.

You might not see another soul for hours, but the trail can be wonderfully social. Trail culture has its own special flavor, even if through hikers will tease folks like me out for short jaunts. You may find an eccentric character making you an espresso, as I did one morning last month at Cooley Glen Shelter. It was a perfect way to end a recent trip. My feet were wet and my legs were banged up, but as the morning sun rose, I found myself on the sublimely relaxing Cooley Glen trail, which, after the rigors of the LT, had the feel of a gentle country walk. A plunge into a bracingly chilly stream was a perfect capper to my days out in Vermont's glorious Green Mountains.

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IF YOU GO ...

The Green Mountain Club (802-244-7037, greenmountainclub.org) tends to the Long Trail, which is incredibly well-maintained and marked. They can assist with trip itineraries and helpful suggestions about what to pack and wear.

The GMC also publishes the indispensable "Long Trail Guide" ($18.95), now in its 27th edition. Chock-full of maps, trail and shelter information, and detailed descriptions of LT sections, it's absolutely essential for any trip, long or short, as is the GMC's waterproof Long Trail map ($9.95). Both provide shelter information and locations and can be purchased on the GMC website.

Don't want to sleep out? The plethora of side trails leading to the LT provide many opportunities for the day hiker. Cooley Glen Trail is one of my favorites. It's an easy 3.2 miles from a parking area off USFS Road 54 (also near Ripton) to the LT, and follows a picture-perfect mountain brook most of the way up.

For an even quicker jaunt up to the ridge, Skylight Pond Trail is 2.5 miles and a little steeper in parts, but worth a trip.