As good as it gets
By Dick Beamish
Along with the Champlain Valley, the gentle terrain north of Saranac Lake offers the best road biking in the Adirondacks. The roads are well-paved but little used, especially before July 4th and after Labor Day. You can bike for miles with no sign of human habitation, through woods and across plains, past boreal bogs and wild marshes, along streams and lakes. Landmark mountains come into view, and in some places the panoramas are spectacular. Riding these roads is often like biking through wilderness, but with the added pleasure of passing through farm country (rare in the Adirondacks) and stopping in small settlements with general stores and country diners.
Spring is a fine time for such sport, with days still cool, the countryside freshly green, and no need to worry about black flies if they’re out. They can’t keep up with a bicycle! Of course, summers are made for biking, too. Even on the warmest days you’re air-cooled as you wheel along at 10 or 15 mph enjoying a refreshing breeze of your own making. And then there’s our magical fall season, when it doesn’t get any better for bike touring. At the peak color change in late September and early October, you might well catch a glimpse of the first snowfall on the distant peaks.
The various loops on the accompanying map range from an hour to a very big day when you combine them, or even several days depending on your pace and propensity to smell the flowers, check out a cemetery, or jump into a lake or stream along the way. Lodgings and restaurants abound in nearby Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, and at Buck Pond there’s a stellar state campground.
Though today is Memorial Day, the parking lot at the state’s Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC) is mostly empty. Rachel and I unload the bikes, don helmets, secure handlebar bags and pedal out to Route 30 and south to the entrance of Paul Smith’s College. Turning left on Route 86, we immediately come to Church Pond, the take-out point for a dandy canoe trip, where we make the first of many stops. The next one is just down the road at St. John’s in the Wilderness, a little stone church in whose cemetery are buried the two men most responsible for putting the northern Adirondacks on the map. We find the grave of Dr. Edward Livingstone Trudeau, who came here to die of consumption in 1873 but survived to turn the backwoods outpost of Saranac Lake into an international center for the treatment of tuberculosis. Nearby is the resting place of Apollos A. (Paul) Smith, the entrepreneurial guide and storyteller who, with his wife Lydia, created the famous resort where his namesake college now resides.
On past a side road to White Pine Camp, the summer White House for Calvin Coolidge on Osgood Pond, we go left onto Jones Pond Road. For three miles there are no cars and no houses. The pines, growing happily in the glacial sand, overarch the road in places. Crossing over the outlet from Jones to Osgood Pond, we recall ducking down in our canoe as we floated through the echo-chamber tunnel under this low bridge. A luxuriant bog/marsh appears on our right with the outlet meandering through it. Soon we come to Jones Pond and pass the camping and canoe-launch area, an entry point for the voyage to Church Pond.
At the Gabriels-Onchiota Road we swing left, passing through a sparse settlement identified on a road sign as Rainbow Lake. The lake is out of sight, but we pass many lanes with mailboxes and name signs on trees. A few miles on we pass the remnants of Jimmy LaTour’s Lumber Co., perhaps the last of the oldtime Adirondack sawmills until it closed down a few years ago. It was here we once discovered some three-foot-wide slabs of white pine that made a wonderful countertop and coffee table.
Another mile and we’re in the heart of downtown Onchiota. A big sign tells us that this is the home of “67 of the friendliest people in the Adirondacks (plus a couple of soreheads)”. Going straight we would soon reach a canoe put-in on Rainbow Lake, but since we’re pedaling rather than paddling we turn right, pass by Oregon Pond and go left on the entrance road for Buck Pond Campground. We continue 1.5 miles, passing through a toll booth, to the beach on a pretty little lake. There’s no lifeguard on duty, and no swimming is allowed yet. The beach is empty except for a canoe that lands with three campers from down the lake. (One reason Buck Pond is so appealing is that’s it’s closed to motorboats.)
We take a beach break, devour a large number of Fig Newtons and wash them down with Gatorade. Thus fortified we bike back through Onchiota and onto the Oregon Plains Road across from the old lumber company. For the next five miles or so we will pass through conifer forests, see no houses and encounter almost no traffic as we travel peacefully, side by side, on what seems like a newly paved, 28-foot-wide bikepath. We pass the intersection with Swinyer Road, which leads left to the remarkable outlooks from Norman’s Ridge, one of our favorite places to bike, but today we continue straight through the “Oregon Plains,” an ecosystem the Adirondack Council has described, in its Biological Diversity Report, as the largest black-spruce sandplain in the Park. Soon Moose Mountain comes into view as we descend a long, gradual hill for a mile or so into Bloomingdale.
Norman’s Country Store (since 1904) stands at one side of the crossroads, opposite the Town Hall and Four Corners Diner. After an Popsicle break at Norman’s we take a sharp right up a hill out of the village, past an abandoned farm field with Loon Lake Mountain prominent to the north. Up ahead is St. Regis Mountain, with its fire tower clearly discernible. Two miles on we answer a nature call at the beginning (or end) of the trail through Bloomingdale Bog on an old railroad bed—a tempting bike ride of about 4 miles if we had fatter tires. This is one of the longest bogs in the Adirondacks, and it’s also a prime place for spotting such northern breeding birds as the black-backed and three-toed woodpecker, gray jay, boreal chickadee, rusty blackbird, Lincoln’s sparrow, white-winged crossbill, and maybe—just maybe—the rare spruce grouse.
Farther on we pass Split Rock Road, which goes left to Harrietstown Hill and a world-class view—but we continue straight up a rise and suddenly enter a large, wide-open plateau. The Asplin Tree Farm (balsam firs) appears on the left, and the Leavitt and Tucker potato farms stretch out ahead on both sides of Route 86, which we rejoined at the hilltop. A cemetery crowns the hill, and we stop for the last of the Fig Newtons and a stroll among the family plots, many of them marked with small American flags commemorating the veterans of wars going back to the Revolution. Mount Marcy and the other High Peaks punctuate the horizon to the south. McKenzie and Moose rise impressively to the east. We decide that if you have to be dead, this isn’t a bad place to be.
On we ride past farmlands and more long views, into the hamlet of Gabriels with the Corner Diner across from Bert LaFountain Road, named after a notable North Country rum runner from Prohibition days. Route 86 may be a fairly well-traveled state highway, but it’s certainly bicycle-friendly with its 8-foot shoulders. We pass the alluring entrance to Camp Gabriels, with a sign showing a scene of woods and mountains. An Adirondack lean-to was erected next to it. The arrangement suggests an idyllic children’s camp just up that road, though we know it’s a minimum security state prison, utilizing the buildings of a former TB sanatorium that goes back to Dr. Trudeau’s days.
We pass the St. Regis Restaurant on the right—we must try it again with its new management—and Over-the-Hill Deli on the left, aptly named as it sits abandoned and forlorn at the top of Easy Street. Down the long hill we coast, past a number of old wooden houses that were once the homes of guides who worked at Paul Smith’s Hotel.
During the long winters when they weren’t busy guiding “sports,” they were said to be “living on Easy Street”—and the name stuck.
At the bottom of the hill we pass the Jones Pond Road, thus completing our circuit, and continue on into the campus of “The College of the Adirondacks” overlooking Lower St. Regis Lake. Where the great hotel once stood is the Joan Weill Library, the impressive new centerpiece for Paul Smith’s College, which recently expanded its program from two to four years.
One more mile and we’re back at the VIC and our car. If we didn’t have dinner plans, we’d probably take a late-afternoon hike around some of the nature trails, the very same trails we’ll be skiing on come December. But that’s another season, and much as we love winter, it’s comforting to have many months of quality cycling still ahead of us.
A sampling of bike loops in the Saranac Lake vicinity
LOOP 1—30 miles. SEE MAP ABOVE
LOOP 2—9.3 miles. Includes Norman’s Ridge, a high, fertile plateau with old barns, potato fields and a wide-angle view of mountains from Catamount in northeast to Whiteface, McKenzie Range, High Peaks, Ampersand, Seward Range and more.
LOOP 3—15.3 miles. From Bloomingdale, follow River Road 8 miles along the Saranac and finally along Franklin Falls Reservoir. Good resting place near dam with peaceful outlook across lake to Moose Mountain. After steep hill, there’s a pleasant return on Fletcher Farm Road, with many open views of mountains and former farms.
LOOP 4—16.1 miles. From town hall in Saranac Lake take Forest Home Road up several hills closely bordered by woods, follow McMaster Road to Route 186 and on to Donnelly’s Corners, with magnificent mountain views and widely heralded soft ice cream. Then on to Saranac Lake via Route 86 with some interesting ups and downs, on a good shoulder for biking, past Lake Colby and the hospital, back to the village center.
LOOP 5—12.5 miles. Takes in west end of Forest Home Road to state Fish Hatchery, where tours of the fish-breeding operation are possible, then back through hamlet of Lake Clear past airport to McMaster Road. This is a natural extension to Loop 4 or Loop 6.
LOOP 6—18.2 miles. Ride west from Donnelly’s on Route 186 about 4 miles, then north on Route 30 past Lake Clear and its popular beach (watch for road on left), past the St. Regis lakes well-hidden from the road, and on to to Paul Smith’s College. Go right on Route 86 (see Loop 1 description) and up Easy Street to Gabriels, past the potato fields and wide-open country. Bear right and continue up a long hill and—voila! You’re looking out over what many consider the best roadside view in the Adirondacks. The scenery continues to dazzle as you descend to Donnelly’s for another reward.