Rail trails could reshape the park into a biking destination
By Stephen Leon
You’re an Adirondack resident and a serious bicyclist. You take regular rides from your home base, and when you go on vacations, you often pile the bikes atop the car for some scenic touring at your destination. Or maybe you are a town supervisor, or a chamber-of-commerce president, somewhere in the Adirondack Park. Or you run an Adirondack inn, or a restaurant, or a bike or outdoor gear shop.
One night you go to sleep, and the next thing you know, you’re sitting up in bed, staring at a large map of the Adirondack Park. You don’t know whether you’re in a dream—or how the map arrived in your bedroom—but the map looks real and has bright red lines marking rail-trail routes across the park. You don’t know what year it is, but the map indicates that all the red lines are paved, state-of-the art trails for mixed-use bicycle and pedestrian traffic (and cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in the winter).
And they connect long stretches at the heart of the Adirondacks:
• One trail begins in the High Peaks region at Lake Placid, connecting the villages of Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake (34 miles total) and continuing on down to Old Forge (another 56 miles);
• Another trail has one end point at the southern edge of the High Peaks at Tahawus, tracing a route down through Newcomb to North River and North Creek (29 miles);
• From North Creek, one branch of the trail continues southward through Riparius, the Glen, Stony Creek, Hadley/Luzerne, and Corinth before terminating in Saratoga Springs (55 miles);
• Another branch splits off that trail near Warrensburg, and continues through Warrensburg to Lake George and Queensbury, terminating in Glens Falls (20 miles).
The map also highlights linked highways in the central Adirondacks that connect all the rail trails:
• Route 30 from Tupper Lake to Long Lake, joining Route 28N from Long Lake to Newcomb (36 miles).
Daring to dream
Also on the map are dozens of markers indicating the location of inns, restaurants, and bicycle-related businesses along the routes. Some you recognize—and some you’ve never heard of.
But it’s only a dream, right?
Peter Bauer, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Protect the Adirondacks, is among those who would like to think it can become a reality.
“To take the long view, and really dream a big dream,” says Bauer, “an Adirondack Park that has two world-class bike trails—one from Saratoga to North Creek and possibly extending all the way to Newcomb, and another one from Lake Placid, possibly all the way to Old Forge—would really put the Adirondacks on the map as a very high-quality bicycling destination, a place for serious bicycling tourists to come to.”
And the highways (routes 28N and 30) that crisscross the central Adirondacks to connect the network of trails, says Bauer, are “some of the best roads in the Adirondacks for bike riding.” They have wide shoulders and fresh pavement.
Seeking critical mass
Matt VanSlyke, the founder and president of Homegrown Bicycle Adventures and Cycle Adirondacks, puts it this way: “An interconnected network of rail trails, on-road cycling routes, and mountain biking destinations could be transformative for Adirondack tourism and quality of life for residents. In order to attract bicycle tourists from afar, there needs to be a critical mass of paths, routes and trails that can be promoted as multi-day destinations.”
The trail network, he adds, is just the beginning. “A concerted effort needs to be made that involves development of amenities that cyclists look for, and communication with the business community to ensure a positive experience for visitors and residents.”
Of all the rail-trail segments on the bicyclists’ “dream” map, only one—the Warren County Bikeway from Lake George to Glens Falls—exists today as a completed (and very popular) rail trail.
Almost every other one that was mentioned contains an existing railroad right of way, and the possibility of replacing tracks with a rail trail (or building a rail trail alongside the tracks) has been at least proposed for most of them. Only the rail trail from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake has advanced through legal and procedural hurdles and seems likely to be built soon; all the others are hypothetical at this point, and in some cases involved in a tug-of-war between conflicting interests.
Among those conflicting interests are railroad preservationists, as well as town and county officials who still see a potential industrial future in, say, a dormant mine or paper mill. To Bauer, however, the Adirondacks are like other parts of rural America that are “littered with the remnants of an old industrial past”—a past that isn’t likely to come back.
The outdoors, says Bauer, and the surge of interest from people who want to enjoy outdoor experiences, are “the Adirondacks’ greatest assets today for drawing new residents and tourists.”
According to the national nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, there are 23,000 miles of rail trails on the ground nationwide, and another 8,000 miles of trails ready to be built. In 1986, the year the conservancy was founded, there were fewer than 200 known rail trails in the country. Today, according to adirondackrailtrail.org, “there are more than 2,000 preserved pathways on former rail lines that form the backbone of a growing trail system that links communities, regions, states and, ultimately, the entire country.”
The idea of linking multi-use trails together has gained momentum alongside a general movement toward creating better, healthier community spaces and corridors for outdoor physical activity. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is already on board with the connectivity theme: What began as an organization dedicated to helping communities reinvent individual rail corridors as rail trails now states that its “mission is to create a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines, connecting corridors to build healthier places for healthier people.”
And New York State is out front as well: In 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the Empire State Trail initiative linking a system of multi-use trails from New York City to the Canadian border and Albany to Buffalo. Scheduled to be completed this year, the 750-mile project will link hundreds of communities across 27 counties via trails and some shared roadways, filling in gaps along the Erie Canalway Trail and the Hudson River Valley Greenway, and along 130 miles of roads up Lake Champlain’s “Adirondack Coast.” (The Albany-to-Canada segment, as currently designed, passes only a few miles east of the Warren County Bikeway, so a designated connector route between them seems plausible.)
“There is such great energy around trails in all parts of the state,” says Robin Dropkin, executive director of Parks & Trails New York. “The ongoing work on these projects will bring a bevy of economic, environmental and health benefits to communities large and small. Bicyclists, both tourists from afar and local residents, will soon be able to experience the scenic beauty of the Adirondacks from behind handlebars.”
Advocates for enhanced bicycling and multi-use infrastructure within the Adirondack Park also dream of a more connected network, incorporating rail trails whenever possible. But not everyone shares their dream—and certainly not railroad preservationists. When the state Departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation, along with the Adirondack Park Agency, approved a new management plan in 2016 for land including the Lake Placid-to-Tupper Lake rail corridor, it called for removal of the tracks and construction of a rail trail. The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society sued to block the plan, and in September 2017, state Supreme Court Judge Robert Main ruled for the plaintiffs.
Two of the bases for the ruling were procedural, and easily overcome, but the third presented a greater challenge to rail-trail advocates: The Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan did not permit changes to a designated “travel corridor” reducing it to exclusively recreational uses. With the backing of Gov. Cuomo, in December 2018, the APA voted to change the travel corridors classification definition to permit recreational activity sanctioned under an approved plan, clearing the way for the DEC and DOT to restart the planning process for the corridor. The amended plan calls for development of a multi-use recreational trail in the segment between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake, and rehabilitation of the currently unusable segment of railway between Tupper Lake and Big Moose.
The current plan is “unnecessary and does not comply with the state’s laws,” claims Robert Hest, a retired strategic planning consultant who has served on the rail preservation society’s board of directors for five years. The society operates the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which runs excursion trains between Utica and Big Moose. Hest says the society’s mission is to preserve and maintain the corridor and operate passenger and freight rail services along its entire route to Lake Placid, though the upper section has fallen in and out of use over the years and has not proven economically viable as a railroad.
Shared rail beds?
Hest and other railroad preservationists appear to be in a minority of people in the region who believe that dormant rails should be preserved for potential future train use. Still, he makes a point that not all rail-trail advocates dispute; noting that the width of the rail corridor from Lake Placid to Utica ranges from about 27 to 33 yards wide, Hest says, “There’s plenty of room for other types of activities in the corridor. The rail itself isn’t taking up a whole lot of room.”
VanSlyke, of Cycle Adirondacks, does not disagree: “I realize that the DEC and other regulatory agencies have identified characteristics that make this option challenging. … I understand the need to protect our natural resources. But if impacts can be mitigated and agreement can be reached, a trail adjacent to an active scenic rail line would be an unbelievable asset to promote.”
The Rails to Trails Conservancy website has a page devoted to “Rails-with-Trails,” noting that there are 930 miles of mixed-use trails in the United States running alongside active railroads, with more being built. It also lists some of the pros and cons, with safety being one of the obvious concerns.
In the Adirondacks, where a railroad runs through wetlands, a mixed-use trail not on the actual rail bed typically has to leave the corridor and share roadways before it returns. And snowmobilers, who do use the corridors but don’t like the risk of hitting the rails when the snow isn’t deep enough, favor having them removed. (The New York State Snowmobile Association supports continued train service between Remson and Big Moose, but advocates for removal of the rails from Big Moose to Lake Placid.)
Paul Winkeller, past executive director of the New York Bicycling Coalition and now a senior adviser at Urban Cycling Solutions, says the park has great bike-tourism potential and should come up with a unified trail “brand” to promote its unique hiking and biking assets.
“There is a clear interest in catalyzing bicycle tourism throughout the Adirondack Park,” he says. “Regardless of the ultimate strategies, there is an essential need for regional coordination on these opportunities.”
As it now stands, pending final APA approval, the tracks will be removed from Tupper Lake to Lake Placid, and work on the new rail trail could begin this year.
After that, who knows? If the momentum continues, soon there could be a large network of scenic rail trails and bicycle-friendly roads traversing up, down, and across the park, drawing tourists from far and wide, and boosting the Adirondack economy.
That’s the dream, anyway.