A pedaling paradise
The author and her husband explore a maze of logging roads on the Kushaqua Tract open to mountain biking.
By Susan Bibeau
Recently my husband Jeff and I rediscovered our love of mountain biking, and so after I surprised him with a brand-new bike this spring, we started looking for new places to explore.
We had already ridden the Kushaqua-Mud Pond Road, a long seasonal road that starts in Onchiota and stretches all the way to Loon Lake, with miles of beautiful riding. When a friend told us about the nearby Kushaqua Conservation Lands Easement Tract, we couldn’t wait to check it out.
The 18,989-acre Kushaqua Tract comprises land north and west of the hamlets of Onchiota and Loon Lake, a twenty-minute drive from our house in Saranac Lake. The land is owned by the Lyme Timber Company, but the state purchased a conservation easement with public recreation rights in 2004. It’s bordered on all sides by Forest Preserve in the Debar Mountain Wild Forest.
The tract has 130 miles of logging roads and trails open to the public. Where to start? A map on DEC’s website shows a spider web of unmarked roads. Undaunted, Jeff and I set out like Lewis and Clark on a series of expeditions to explore the area.
Of course, Lewis and Clark didn’t have mountain bikes. Nor did they have a GPS app—which allowed us to view satellite and topographical images of the terrain as well as the network of dirt roads. What the app does not reveal, we quickly found, is the condition of the roads.
The main roads are in great shape for riding, though I would recommend your bike have front suspension. The roads that have fallen into disuse are now no more than herd paths with shoulder-high grass and muddy swales. Many of these side roads are not rideable in the conventional sense, and we often found ourselves “bicycle bushwhacking.”
I am not a huge fan of bushwhacking, and I am even more loath to do it on my bike. Jeff, however, lives for it. On more than one of these rides he seemed to me like one of the early explorers, convinced that a through passage existed to the New World and determined to find it for the glory of God and country (and bicyclists).
Often we’d start down a maintained road that would inevitably get more overgrown. Eventually, we would dismount (sometimes inadvertently) and push our bikes through the tall grass or shin-deep muck. One misadventure led us into an impenetrable thicket of raspberry bushes as far as the eye could see.
“The satellite image shows that the road continues on the other side,” Jeff said.
“If I didn’t love raspberries, you would be so dead right now,” I replied.
Although these rides were not my cup of tea, they had their own rewards. Deep in these remote woods we found abundant evidence of wildlife: tracks of turkey, coyote, deer, fox, bear, and moose.
On one outing we followed a pair of fresh moose and bear tracks running side by side down a muddy path for nearly a quarter-mile. On another day we spied a set of moose prints as big as dinner plates. Jeff put his foot next to one for scale, and I snapped a photo. I was both excited and anxious that we would encounter the beast and remained in a state of high alert for the rest of the ride. Though tough on the body, these outings left us in awe at just how wild and beautiful this area is.
A long loop
After many misadventures, we plotted a sixteen-and-a half mile loop that is the perfect combo of great scenery and rideable terrain.
It begins near the headwaters of the North Branch of the Saranac River on North Branch Road. At the end of the public road is a parking area and register. A gate prevents visitors from driving beyond this point, but as you continue on your bike, stay alert for logging trucks. The road is sand and cobble, usually hard packed with occasional spots of washout. Follow this wide road for 1.5 miles until you come to a fork, then turn right onto Arden Hill Road.
DEC’s online maps give names for the roads, but this is the only one with a sign. (It’s also marked by an old painted lawn jockey.) Once you make the turn, the road changes to more of a sandy two-track, with some intermittent spots of loose cobble. Follow the road up a slight incline and down a short hill to a large clearing at 2.75 miles from the trailhead.
At the clearing, take the right fork in the road and continue up another hill where, at 3.1 miles, you come to another clearing with a large slash pile. The road forks again; stay right. At 3.5 miles, you cross a lovely stream and get your first good view of Loon Lake Mountain and its fire tower to the northeast.
From here the trail winds through a beautiful wooded valley beneath Loon Lake Mountain. As you continue riding, the views of the mountain get better and better, culminating in a gorgeous vista of rocky cliffs on the south face. The farther you venture, the wilder your surroundings become. At around 5.7 miles you will have ascended to the height of land at around 2,200 feet.
“Congratulations! You have climbed about five hundred feet,” Jeff teased me on one of our rides.
“And what goes up, must come down!” I reminded him.
The next two miles are an all-out downhill. My husband the daredevil loves this part of the ride, often boasting about his max speed.
“The GPS says I was going thirty-six miles per hour!” he told me.
“Does the GPS know how high our insurance deductible is?” I shot back.
The descent is not excessively steep, but it is pretty rocky and you will gain significant momentum if, like Jeffrey, you let it rip. Use your judgment.
The end of the downhill run takes you to a gate and a junction with a power-line trail near County Route 26. To continue on our loop, cross under the gate and take a right onto the power-line trail. If you’re feeling adventurous, though, you could make a left onto Route 26 and ride the paved road 1.7 miles to the Loon Lake Mountain trailhead (see sidebar on page 23).
The power-line trail follows an old railroad bed that stretches from Lake Clear all the way to Plattsburgh. The trail is flat and scenic, another great place to ride. In just a half-mile, you come to another gate on the right.
At this point, you could continue straight on the trail, which eventually meets the Kushaqua-Mud Pond Road north of North Branch Road. Jeff and I prefer to turn right and duck under the gate. We then follow a road that is bit overgrown and narrow. After a rocky climb and a more gradual downhill, we come to the wide road we came in on. Turning left, we shortly reach the trailhead, completing the loop.
At 16.4 miles, this ride is challenging but rewarding, and it offers an overview of the riding possibilities on the tract. My advice is to do some exploring on your own. Bring a compass or GPS app. You might end up bushwhacking a bit, but you won’t be disappointed. You might even see a moose!
Kushaqua Tract: From the four-corners intersection in Bloomingdale, head northeast on State Street for 0.3 miles and bear right onto Oregon Plains Road. Go 5.5 miles to the Gabriels-Onchiota Road (County 30). Turn right and go 0.8 miles to the intersection with the Kushaqua-Mud Pond Road. Turn left and go 1.2 miles to the North Branch Road. Turn left and go another 0.8 miles until you come to a gate. The parking area and sign-in box are on the right.
Summit trail open to public
The 3,355-foot summit of Loon Lake Mountain offers a wonderful vista that includes the Kushaqua Tract. The 2.8-mile trail rises more than 1,600 feet from County Route 26 to the top of the mountain. From the open ledges, you can see countless other peaks, including Lyon Mountain to the northeast, Whiteface Mountain to the southeast, and Debar Mountain to the northwest. Before the state purchased conservation easements on the Kushaqua Tract, climbing Loon Lake Mountain was problematic. Even though the summit was in the Forest Preserve, most of the lower slopes were on private land owned by International Paper. Since the easement deal, the state has marked a trail to the summit.
Loon Lake Mountain has a thirty-five-foot fire tower, but it is not open to the public. The bottom set of stairs has been removed to discourage people from climbing to the cab. The tower was originally erected in 1917. It was rebuilt in 1928 after being blown over by strong winds in the winter of 1927-28. The structure is on the New York State Register of Historic Places.
DIRECTIONS: From NY 3 between Bloomingdale and Clayburg, turn northwest onto County 26. Go 7.9 miles to a parking area on the left.