Around the mountains
Cyclists enjoy stunning views and a variety of adventures on a three-day circuit of the High Peaks.
By Ethan Rouen
WE HAVE HAD the breath ripped out of us by the beauty of the High Peaks as seen from the tops of mountains and on twisty roads as we sped by in our car, but my wife, Kim, and I wondered if there could be another way to capture the vastness of the hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness where we spend so much of our time.
Then we bought a bicycle trailer and packed it with our sleeping bags, a tent, and enough food to feed a peloton.
For three days, we huffed-and-puffed up hills, swam in lakes, and hiked on tired legs as we circumnavigated the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, always with the mountains looming just to our right.
The trip, which could be done in a day by an expert or in much smaller sections by a family, provided us with a level of intimacy with the region that we have never experienced before. No matter how one does it, or which section one chooses, biking around the High Peaks will offer new perspectives to even the most experienced peak-bagger.
Day 1: Chapel Pond to Newcomb, 40+ miles
The start of our trip gave us false confidence that we would quickly pay for. We parked our car at Chapel Pond and headed south on Route 73. The first few miles were a bit crowded with cars, but the steady downhill made towing a trailer seem like a breeze.
We covered five miles in about twenty minutes, and once we connected with Route 9 and passed under Interstate 87, the only other vehicles we saw were the occasional courteous motorcycles also taking advantage of this remote stretch of road.
Realizing we forgot to bring cash, we stopped at a store in North Hudson to ask for an ATM. When we told the cashier we’d be turning onto Blue Ridge Road, he said, “There’s nothing to buy for miles.”
He was almost right.
Shortly after making the right onto Blue Ridge Road, we passed the ghostly Frontier Town, a long-closed theme park where you can now find high-quality but underused trails for hikers and mountain bikers. Going under I-87 again, we soon came upon the Adirondack Buffalo Company.
Overlooking the herd of buffalo stomping up dust in the distance, the roadside store offered fresh produce and buffalo meat in various forms. The highlights, though, were the fresh-baked treats, ranging from cookies to zucchini bread, which was being brought into the store still warm as we browsed.
Our hubris of the previous flat-to-downhill first fifteen miles soon met the hills of Blue Ridge, including a multi-mile monster not long after leaving the buffalo herd. The next ten miles were slow going, our only comfort the shade that the trees provided and the sweeping views of the mountains around us. Anyone planning to do this ride should make sure to have adequate water before attempting this section.
Feeling a bit masochistic after hauling our trailer up hill after hill, we decided to reward ourselves with … more biking!
Four miles east of the hamlet of Newcomb, we made a right on Tahawus Road. Already exhausted, we only questioned our decision to do this sixteen-mile out-and-back for a moment. Tahawus is a fairly flat road offering superb views of the High Peaks in the background and marsh in the foreground. Near the end of the road, which follows the Hudson River, is an ancient stone blast furnace, a remnant from the area’s mining days. Less than a mile farther is the Upper Works parking area, from where you can hike to Henderson Lake for a dip, or even to Lake Colden.
Returning to Blue Ridge Road and continuing to Newcomb, we stopped at a public park that had one of the best views of the High Peaks that I’ve seen. A sculpture outlining the peaks lets visitors know which mountains they are looking at.
As dusk settled, we set up our tent at the well-maintained Lake Harris Campground, which is conveniently located near Scoops, an ice-cream shop in Newcomb. Too tired to cook, and looking for something more substantial than ice cream (is there such a thing?), we headed to the Newcomb House, the only eatery in town.
The place didn’t scream “gourmet dining” when we entered, but the pretzels with secret homemade sauce promised otherwise. And the pizza didn’t disappoint. Fresh dough and mountains of mushrooms led to burned mouths as we shoveled it in while chatting with the extremely friendly clientele and the wonderfully attentive bartender. After devouring the pizza, we thought we couldn’t eat another bite, until the bartender gave us each a slice of homemade apple bread slathered in butter.
Drunk on deliciousness, we headed back to our campsite and fell asleep to rain pattering on our tent.
Day Two: Newcomb to Tupper Lake, 40 miles
Our second day didn’t start out too promising. We left our gear at the campground and biked a couple miles to the truck road to Camp Santanoni, one of the few Great Camps that have been restored to their former glory. Unfortunately, our road bikes couldn’t handle the five-mile trip to the camp, but Kim found a narrow trail along Lake Harris that led from the start of the truck road back to the campground (she had to carry her bike).
The Newcomb Visitor’s Interpretive Center was our first stop of the day. In addition to some manicured trails and fascinating exhibits on Adirondack wildlife and climate change, the VIC provided a good cup of coffee and a picnic area to eat breakfast.
As we continued west on Route 28N, the cycling was close to ideal: mountain views, little traffic, and few uphills. Unsure of what was to come, though, we skipped a hike at Goodnow Mountain to make it to the town of Long Lake by lunch.
As we entered town, we turned right on Route 30 and took a break at the Long Lake Diner for a hearty lunch followed by a plate of free popcorn. We also stopped complaining about our aching legs after meeting a trio of cyclists who were on day sixty-seven of a cross-country journey that started in Seattle.
We breezed through the rest of town, stopping briefly at the town beach, tempted to swim by the waterslide on the floating dock but scared off by the overcast skies.
The next twenty miles made us realize how spoiled we had been for the previous sixty. Although the road’s shoulder was generous and in good condition, the traffic to Tupper Lake was a bit heavy by Adirondack standards. Still, cars were respectful, and the scenery distracted us from the slight uptick in vehicles.
We missed the short hike to the top of Coney Mountain, which we later regretted, but we made up for it with frequent stops along Tupper Lake and Raquette River to take in the views.
After pedaling through downtown Tupper Lake, we visited the Wild Center, one of the highlights of the trip. We got there too late to walk through the natural-history museum or eat at the reasonably priced café, but the building itself was worth the detour, with fascinating plant exhibits leading from the parking lot to the entrance and a lobby offering beautiful views of the pool just outside.
That night, we had the entire tent side of the Little Wolf Beach & Campsite to ourselves. Kim took a quick dip in Little Wolf Lake, and then we crossed the street to visit the Adirondack Public Observatory, a magnificent feat of engineering with a retractable roof and several powerful telescopes, before heading off to bed.
Day Three: Tupper Lake to Chapel Pond, 55 miles
For our longest day of riding, we fueled up with blueberry-packed pancakes bigger than our plates at the Swiss Kitchen downtown. We then headed east on Route 3 for twenty miles to Saranac Lake.
Again, the roads were perfect for biking, with enough hills to keep the ride interesting, but not so steep that we had to walk. Before entering town, we enjoyed views of Lower Saranac Lake, as well as the High Peaks, which had been keeping us company the whole ride.
Once in the village of Saranac Lake, we pedaled through quaint Main Street and paid a visit to the Adirondack Carousel, which has more than twenty beautifully hand-carved animals native to the area, as well as inexpensive snacks. For courage, we made a brief stop at Adirondack Bean-To Coffee before the busy eight miles to Lake Placid on Route 86.
We forwent the many tempting snack options in Lake Placid in favor of a peanut-butter sandwich picnic on Mirror Lake, taking in the views and rinsing off the road with a swim. We knew the final stretch would be grueling, but it would also offer some of the best views.
Out of town on Route 73, we passed the Olympic ski jump and stopped at the intersection of Adirondak Loj Road to take pictures. Just before the bone-rattling downhill, there are two opportunities for steep, but short hikes with rewarding views: Cascade Mountain and Pitchoff Mountain.
We rode our brakes with the Cascade Lakes on our right so we could soak in the heart of the High Peaks. We then took a brief detour on Owl’s Head Lane, which leads to Owl’s Head Mountain.
This mountain may have the highest payoff-to-effort ratio of any hike in the High Peaks. An easy 0.6-mile climb gave us a wide vista. We thought this hike would be a suiting final reward to our grueling trip, a chance to see the great wilderness we had just traveled around. But we weren’t done yet.
Tired but determined, we traveled through Keene and Keene Valley before the final climb back to Chapel Pond. We planned to take a short detour through the Ausable Club to see the magnificent club and its fabulous view of Giant Mountain, but we were too beat to tack on unnecessary mileage. Instead, we settled on a view of Roaring Brook Falls, a majestic waterfall we usually see as we speed by in our car. Seeing it at a snail’s pace made the painful uphill grind worth it.
We finally reached the height of land. Tired and dirty, we left our gear in the car as we headed straight for our last final reward: a cool dip in lovely Chapel Pond.