Cycling through historic valley

Great Sacandaga Lake and Conklingville Dam. Photo by Alan Cederstrom.

By Phil Brown

Great Sacandaga Lake is only slightly smaller than Lake George, which is the largest water wholly within the Adirondack Park, but it doesn’t get nearly as much respect.

Lake George is billed as the Queen of Lakes. Thomas Jefferson, despite his love for the wilds of Virginia, called it “without comparison the most beautiful water I ever saw.”

No one would say that about Great Sacandaga Lake. Hell, it’s not even a natural lake: it was created in 1930 by damming the Sacandaga River at Conklingville.

But Great Sacandaga has many charms. It’s less developed and less crowded than Lake George, and that suits a bicyclist just fine. I saw only an occasional car when I biked around the “finger” of Great Sacandaga in November—a 31-mile trip that took about three hours with stops. (There’s more traffic in the warmer months.)

If you look on a map, Great Sacandaga resembles a great dipper. The handle of the dipper betrays the lake’s origins: Here the water is channeled through a narrow valley with hills rising sharply on either side, and it looks very much like a wide river.

My jaunt took me around the handle. The authors of 25 Bicycle Tours in the Adirondacks recommend beginning this trip in Batchellerville, where a state bridge crosses the water. I chose to start at the Conklingville Dam, one of the loveliest spots on the lake and a nice place to relax after a long ride. Starting here gives you the option, if you still have energy at the end of the loop, of extending the tour by continuing to the Stewart’s Bridge dam a few miles away. And if you stop for a bite to eat at one of the stores in Batchellerville or Edinburgh, you’ll be nearly at the midway point.

I parked on Kagan Road, just south of the Conklingville Dam, and pedaled two miles or so to County Route 7, which hugs the south shore of the lake. It was a chilly day, and wood smoke rose from the few camps that had not been shuttered for the season. I was struck by the variety of homes along the lake. Many were modest places, a little worn around the edges. I passed several trailers. But I also noticed newer camps that were more expensive, as well as others under construction. I wondered what the future holds for Great Sacandaga: Will it become as built-up as Lake George? Will development begin creeping up the slopes?

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

Well, those were worries for another day. I wanted to enjoy the ride and the scenic surroundings. For although Great Sacandaga’s scenery is not as dramatic as Lake George, where Tongue Mountain plunges into the water and islands dot the Narrows, this artificial lake is a beautiful sight.

At first, I saw the lake only through a screen of trees. After 4.3 miles, I pulled off at a lookout beneath some large pines where there is a wonderful view of the vast reservoir as you face west. The farther you look, the wider the lake appears.

After about 10 miles, I passed an old stone house and spied a string of barbed wire in the woods. An old farm, no doubt. It reminded me that a lot of history is buried under Great Sacandaga: When the dam was built, it flooded several villages. As I cycled around the lake, I saw several historical signs recalling the vanished past.

At 13.8 miles, just before the Batchellerville Bridge, I stopped at the Olde Country Store, which sells sandwiches, groceries and camping supplies. I wanted to buy a sub, but I was short of cash, so I got a 93-cent hotdog and a homemade muffin. It was enough to keep me going for the rest of the trip. Across the road from the store are glass cases with photos and newspaper clippings from Batchellerville in the days before the dam.

The three-quarter-mile bridge was built more than 70 years ago. In the late 1990s, when the state revealed plans to replace it, a controversy erupted over the height of the new span. Sailboat owners wanted it to be 55 high to provide clearance for their craft. Many people argued that such a high bridge would be an eyesore. A year ago, the Department of Transportation settled on 42 feet. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2005 if the state can find funding for the $35 million project.

Cyclists enjoy superb views while riding across the bridge. Looking west, you see the cup of the dipper, a broad expanse of water surrounded by low hills. Looking east, you see the handle, a ribbon of blue flowing through a steep valley. Hadley Mountain, the highest peak in the neighborhood, rises to 2,675 feet.

After crossing the bridge there is a short climb to a four-way intersection, the hub of Edinburgh. You’ll find a gas station, diner and an 1836 Methodist church. Turn right and prepare for a half-mile downhill. On the descent, you’ll pass several historical buildings, including the town museum. By the time you reach the bottom you will have passed the halfway mark of the trip.

On the return to the Conklingville Dam you will be riding on County Route 4, which offers many views of the lake. One of the more interesting historical signs along the way draws attention to an old dirt road that, since the flooding of the valley, leads straight into the lake.

About 20 miles from the start, you reach a picnic area maintained by Saratoga County. After 24 miles, you come to Bill’s Country Store in Day, another place where you can buy a sandwich. Shortly after entering the town of Hadley, look for Overlook Road on the right. Turn and head downhill to cross the dam.

Designed by Edward Haynes Sargent, the 1,100-foot-long dam holds back 283 billion gallons of water. I stopped at a small pulloff to enjoy the vista to the west, taking in one last time the beauty of this man-made lake. The water is released through a rocky gorge. A few miles downstream, it pools again behind the Stewart’s Bridge dam. In summer, rafters ride the river below the second dam to the village of Lake Luzerne, exiting just before the Sacandaga meets the Hudson.

I thought about continuing my ride to the second dam, but it was chilly–in fact, it had started to snow–and dusk was approaching. Maybe next time, on a warm, spring day.

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

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