Champlain Valley super for cycling

2 states on 2 wheels

By Phil Brown

A cyclist stops to admire the view from Vermont of the Adirondacks. Photo courtesy of Vermont Bicycle Touring.

It was a day of perfect late-summer colors: blue sky, green grass, gold-tinged leaves and fluorescent purple shirts. Well, not all of them were wearing purple shirts.

As I watched the stream of Day-Glo hues and skin-tight shorts pour off the ferry at Essex and zip up Route 22, I wondered what it is about cycling that compels people to dress up like insects. Do they do it to cut wind resistance and go just a tad faster? If so, I was happy to be wearing khaki shorts and a T-shirt.

You don’t want to rush through the Champlain Valley on a day such as this.

Most of the cyclists were participating in a two-day tour organized by Lake Champlain Bikeways, a non-profit group that has been working hard to publicize the joys of biking in the valley. Since 1994, the organization has mapped out more than 40 cycling routes, totaling 1,200 miles, in New York, Vermont and Quebec, including a 350-mile loop around the country’s sixth-largest lake. Often, the routes wind along back roads or through quaint hamlets, offering wonderful views of the water, mountains and fields. Nowhere else in the Adirondacks will you find such a diversity of scenery.

Peaks of barns are also part of the Champlain Valley landscape. Photo by Gary Randorf.

The cyclists began their 150-mile circuit in Burlington on Saturday morning and headed south to Charlotte to catch the ferry. From Essex on the New York side, where I joined them, they pedaled north to Plattsburgh to dine and spend the night. On the next day, they continued north, crossed the Rouses Point Bridge into Vermont and returned to Burlington.

Bike Champlain 2000, as the tour was called, attracted about 40 participants, mostly from other states. “It worked out great,” said Maja Smith, a spokeswoman for Lake Champlain Bikeways. “The riders loved it. They said they’d be back this year.”

The sponsor has changed the name of this year’s event to the Tour de Champ, added fun stuff such as lectures and field trips, and moved the circuit north. The cyclists will start in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu in Quebec, ride south to Plattsburgh, cross the lake and return to Quebec Province. Although this route skips the Adirondacks, Smith said the organizers hope to expand the tour in future years to circle the entire lake.

The Tour de Champ will take place the weekend of Sept. 14-16. The $155 fee covers meals, entertainment and road support.

For paupers and cheapskates, there are plenty of other options. One is the two-state loop I did on that September day. From Essex, I followed the crowd north to Willsboro and took a series of rural roads to Ausable Chasm. There we parted company, as I turned east to catch the ferry to Burlington at Port Kent. Once on the Vermont side, I cycled through the city on a bike path and eventually found myself on bucolic byways that led to the Charlotte-to-Essex ferry.

This two-way boat trip costs only $6.25 for a “combination ticket” that lets you return on the Charlotte ferry. If you feel flush, you might want to buy a hot dog or other treats on the ferry to Burlington. Whether you buy or bring your lunch, though, it makes sense to eat on the boat, since the Port Kent-Burlington crossing takes about an hour.

Altogether, you will pedal about 45 miles. Expect lots of gentle ups and downs and a few steep hills. As far as scenery, expect a lot of everything: woods, farms, orchards, historic homes, city streets. From New York, you can look across the lake to the Green Mountains; from Vermont, you look across the lake to the Adirondacks; and from the ferry you can see both mountain ranges by turning your head.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

If you start your trip in Essex, park your car in a public lot across the road from the ferry dock. There’s no need to hop on your bike right away. Instead, take a stroll down Main Street. Essex has so many fine old buildings that the entire hamlet has been put on the National Register of Historic Places. When you do climb into the saddle and begin pedaling north on Route 22, you’ll immediately pass a stately specimen of 19th-century Greek Revival architecture: Grey-stone House and Gardens, which is now a museum with period furnishings.

The road to Willsboro is fairly level and offers several views of Lake Champlain. Often you’ll pass woods bordered by stone walls; my guess is that those woods were once farmsteads. Willsboro, founded by William Gilliland in 1765, is a village of modest houses. On the day I passed through, several people were selling homegrown tomatoes from stands on their lawns. The Boquet River (pronounced Bo-KET, Bo-KWET or Bo-KAY, depending on who’s doing the pronouncing) flows through the settlement on its way to the lake. If you’re cycling in the fall, stop at the Willsboro Fish Ladder to see if Atlantic salmon are migrating upriver. They swim up the Boquet to spawn anywhere from early September to mid-November, but the busiest time usually is early October to early November.

Soon after crossing the river, you face a long, arduous climb. As you coast down the other side of the hill, be on the lookout for the Highland Road on the right, a woodsy lane of hard-packed dirt. At the start, the trees form a canopy over the road, but later the views open up. At the road’s highest point, reached after a few climbs, you will enjoy marvelous vistas of Lake Champlain, Four Brothers Islands and the Green Mountains.

At the end of Highland Road, you turn left and follow country roads past orchards and farms to Ausable Chasm, one of the natural wonders of the Adirondack Park. The Ausable River has carved out a 150-foot-high gorge through sandstone that was formed from deposits by the Potsdam Sea more than 500 million years ago. You can pay to walk a trail along the chasm’s rim or just peer down into the dizzying depths from the Route 9 bridge. Either way, don’t miss it.

From the chasm, it’s a short ride down Route 373 to Port Kent. The ferry will leave here 13 times a day from June 21 to Aug. 26 and will follow a somewhat abbreviated schedule before and after that period. The views from the boat of the lake and the mountains on both sides are spectacular. On the New York side, Whiteface Mountain stands out. On the Vermont side, you can see Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield. If you’re feeling especially flush, you can drop a few quarters in the coin-operated binoculars on deck. It can get windy out on the water, but you can always duck inside to look at the souvenirs or buy a snack.

In Burlington, the ferry docks at a city park that’s made the lakefront a popular attraction. Get on the bike path—which you’ll share with rollerbladers, joggers and baby carriages—to get out of town. As you cycle along the shore, the Adirondacks are visible across the lake. Eventually, the bike route takes you over a few city streets to Farrell Park and thence up to Overlook Park. Here is your chance to stop and contemplate the whole of the sweeping vista: the lake, the islands, the valley, the Adirondack foothills and the High Peaks.

Leaving Overlook Park, you head south on Spear Road. Although this road is fairly busy, it has a wide shoulder and offers nice views of Vermont and New York. You’ll take less-traveled roads through Shelburne Falls and cross Route 7 near the Shelburne Museum. If you have time, you might want to visit this sprawling complex. The 23 buildings include a blacksmith’s shop, an apothecary’s shop and general store.

On the last leg of the bike tour, you feel part of a pastoral postcard, pedaling down quiet roads past cornfields, pastures and red barns. At one point, you pass through a covered wooden bridge. When you reach Ferry Road, turn right to catch the Charlotte ferry to Essex. Until Sept. 3, it will leave every half-hour from 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. but will follow a curtailed schedule after that date. Since the lake is narrower here than at Burlington, the ride back to New York takes only 30 minutes. Upon returning to Essex, treat yourself to a cone at the ice-cream shop on Main Street. You deserve it.

About Adirondack Explorer

The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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