ON a recent late-spring afternoon, I found myself teetering knee-deep in the rushing waters of the Mad River in Warren, Vt. The water temperature hovered around 53 degrees, ideal for trout. But not so much for me: shivering in my tan waders despite four layers of clothing underneath, I crouched forward, aiming my fly upstream toward a rock.
My right arm quivered with exhaustion from hours of false-casting, first on a meadow, then in the river. "Let that line unfurl gently, gently," bellowed our guide, Jake Petrasch, from downstream, where my husband — having mastered the technique and rhythm of casting — was having a grand time.
Though my fantasy of hauling a trophy trout back to Manhattan had quickly faded, I was no less captivated by the pristine beauty of the river and the surrounding valley.
Bordered by the Green Mountains to the west and Northfield Ridge to the east, the Mad River Valley, with a population of just over 6,000, is defined by this narrow 26-mile ribbon of a river —just several dozen feet across at its widest points — that flows north from its headwaters in Granville, through the picturesque towns of Warren, Waitsfield, Fayston and Moretown, before emptying into the Winooski River.
Well known as a winter skiing destination — it is home to the sprawling Sugarbush resort and "ski it if you can" Mad River Glen — the valley reveals itself in warmer weather, when history, culture and a hyperlocal food scene come to the fore.
The aptly named Mad River can rise rapidly, especially during the spring runoff. Once used to power 19th-century mills and factories, the river now propels kayakers, canoeists and tubers.
Until the early 20th century, the Mad River Valley was predominantly agricultural, with heavily forested hills supporting lumber and maple syrup industries. Bypassed by the railroad, villages largely retained their independent, small-town character.
The shift to a recreational, tourism-based economy began in 1949 with the opening of Mad River Glen in Fayston, then Sugarbush in Warren, in 1958.
Living in a community that offered an active outdoor life was a priority for Mr. Petrasch, 31, who owns Valley Anglers, a fly-fishing guiding service, and also works as a wilderness therapy program field manager, developing back-to-nature interventions for teenagers. "Everyone here is active, regardless of their age," he said, "from toddlers to 80-year-old skiers with whom I've shared chairlifts."
The town of Warren, a 19th-century lumber and grain milling center, oozes New England charm. Its covered bridge (built 1879-80), on the southern end of Main Street, is the starting point of an annual Fourth of July parade. The Mad River runs behind the Warren Store, a community gathering spot with an excellent from-scratch deli and bakery and a good wine selection.
Across the street, the elegantly resurrected Pitcher Inn — the original 1850 structure burned to the ground in 1993 — is a popular wedding location, and it was where my husband had booked two nights as an anniversary surprise. Each of the 11 rooms pays quirky tribute to a specific aspect of Vermont life, like a Trout Room with a fully stocked fly-tying desk, a canoe-ribbed ceiling and a fireplace built of local river stones.
The best way to enjoy the valley is on foot (or bicycle). The Fuller Hill Road loop, a seven-mile trek, offers jaw-dropping mountain and valley views. From Main Street, turn right on Brook Road, then take a second left on Dump Road, a climb that becomes Roxbury Mountain Road. We walked a piece before taking the second right onto Senor Road, then another right onto Fuller Hill Road back to the village.
Our hike to Sunset Rock, near Warren, was shorter, a two-mile round trip. From the trailhead on Lincoln Gap Road, off Route 100, we followed the Long Trail, traversing fiddleheads and wildflowers and scrambling up moss-covered rocks. The designated rock, which draws locals and visitors at dusk — afforded views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks.
Afterward, we headed to Waitsfield, the valley's commercial hub, about 15 minutes north of Warren. One of its biggest summer events is the monthlong Vermont Festival of the Arts in August, with workshops, demonstrations and exhibitions by state artists.
The General Wait House, the first frame structure built by the town's founder, Gen. Benjamin Wait, now houses the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. It is also a good place to start a self-guided walking tour of the village. The 28 sites span mid- to late-19th-century architectural styles, including the landmark Great Eddy Covered Bridge.
Waitsfield was once 80 percent farmland. Today, there are just seven working farms and various smaller-scale organic food producers. But its agricultural past, transformed into an ardent local-food consciousness, lives on at the Saturday farmers' market on the Mad River Green and at restaurants, from vegetarian-friendly fare at the Big Picture Theater Cafe to a sophisticated seasonal menu at the Green Cup.
Perhaps Waitsfield's best-known restaurant is American Flatbread, where two-hour waits for its wood-fired pizza with organic and local ingredients are legendary during peak season. But we managed to score a table by the famous hive-shaped wood-fired oven. "We can't possibly finish that!" we protested when our server set down a 18-inch pie studded with tender garlic shoots, arugula, olives and Vermont chèvre. "Oh, but you will!" she said knowingly. (She was right.)
Eager to explore more of the back roads, we rented bikes on our last day. We were staying at the Wilder Farm Inn bed-and-breakfast, run by Luke and Linda Iannuzzi. Mr. Iannuzzi, an avid mountain biker, sent us on a 14-mile route that started across the street at the Mad River Path. There were a few climbs, as Mr. Iannuzzi had warned, but I soldiered on. Passing through the Pine Brook Covered Bridge onto Common Road, we gaped at farmscapes framed by blue skies and the lush Green Mountains.
Then came the payoff: a long downhill on East Warren Road. Accelerating, we whooped wildly. Our Mad River Valley moment was seconded by a shirtless 20-something, his Adirondack chair planted in front of stellar mountain views. Smiling as he looked up from his laptop computer, he whooped back and gave us a thumbs-up.
IF YOU GO
The Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center (4061 Route 100, Waitsfield; 802-496-3409; www.madrivervalley.com) has advice and maps, including a self-guided Waitsfield walking tour.
WHAT TO DO
Valley Anglers (802-279-7246; www.valleyanglers.com) offers half- and full-day guided fly-fishing tours. Rates start at $180 per person, less for two or more. A state fishing license (from $15) is required.
Clearwater Sports (4147 Main Street, Waitsfield; 802-496-2708; www.clearwatersports.com) rents bicycles as well as kayaks and canoes. The retail store also carries outdoor gear, apparel and equipment.
The Waitsfield Village Historic District Walking Tour is self-guided, with a map available at the valley's Chamber of Commerce, or online at www.cvregion.com/visit/walktour/waitwalk/index.html.
Waitsfield Farmers Market on the Mad River Green in Waitsfield (www.waitsfieldfarmersmarket.com) is open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. mid-May to mid-October.
WHERE TO EAT
Warren Store (Main Street, Warren; 802-496-3864; www.warrenstore.com), has excellent baked goods, inexpensive sandwiches (vegetarian options available) and a good wine selection; ideal for breakfast, lunch and picnics to go. Open 8 a.m. to at least 6 p.m.
American Flatbread at Lareau Farm (46 Lareau Road, off Route 100, Waitsfield; 802-496-8856; www.americanflatbread.com) has no shortage of devotees. Be prepared to wait; they do not accept reservations. Flatbreads start at $13. Open for dinner Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Green Cup (40 Bridge Street, Waitsfield; 802-496-4963; www.greencupvermont.com) features local and seasonal fare. Open for breakfast and lunch, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday through Tuesday; dinner only 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday through Monday. Closed Wednesday and Thursday.
Big Picture Theater & Café (48 Carroll Road, off Route 100, Waitsfield; 802-496-8994; www.bigpicturetheater.info), with its funky interior and local food focus (also vegetarian- and vegan-friendly), is a popular brunch spot. Open daily, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.