Gravel bikes come in handy on these 3 rail-trail rides
By Phil Brown
This spring I took my gravel bike on a 23-mile ride that had a bit of everything: paved highways, dirt logging roads, foot trails, a snowmobile trail and a section of the yet-to-be-built Adirondack Rail Trail. It performed well on all parts of the trip, proving the versatility of gravel bikes.
The trip also demonstrated the potential for the rail trail to change the region’s biking scene. Not only will cyclists be able to bike the 34-mile rail corridor between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake, but they also will be able to devise loop rides that combine sections of the corridor with adjacent roads and trails.
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My idea for a loop ride came to me while writing about the rail trail last winter. I did the loop alone in late May and liked it so much that I repeated it a few weeks later with my girlfriend Carol. The variety of the scenery—wetlands, streams, peaks, ponds, woods and fields—matched the variety of riding.
Carol and I started cycling right from my home in Saranac Lake, but out-of-towners should begin on the Bloomingdale Bog Trail just north of the village. That’s the starting point in the description that follows.
The Bloomingdale Bog Trail is one of three former railroad beds in the loop. From a parking area off state Route 86, it runs north more than nine miles to Onchiota, passing through one of the Adirondack Park’s largest and most scenic wetlands. On this trip, follow the trail for only 3.7 miles, as far as county Route 55.
Since it’s mostly flat, the trail is ideal for gravel bikes, or mostly so. There is one half-mile stretch with a lot of big roots. Carol and I were able to ride over them by going very slow. Earlier, we had to pedal through short stretches flooded by beavers. In one spot, we had to dismount to carry our bikes on a plank over a water-filled gap.
Don’t let these minor difficulties deter you. They’re the worst obstacles you will encounter in 23 miles. Think of them as the price of admission for the privilege of biking through a wild landscape.
At Two Bridge Brook, we stopped to admire the views of nearby peaks and take a few photos. In another 0.75 miles, we arrived at Route 55. Turning left, we followed the little-traveled road about two miles to its end, then turned right on Route 86. We followed the state highway (it has wide shoulders) past farm fields and through the hamlet of Gabriels. After 3.2 miles, we came to a sign reading “Entering St. Lawrence River Watershed.” We crossed the highway and headed down a short, rough road that leads to a trailhead for the Jackrabbit Trail, a long-distance ski route that extends from Paul Smiths to Keene.
After 5.2 miles on paved roads, we were happy to enter the woods again. We followed the Jackrabbit for a bit more than a mile through a state-owned forest filled with birdsong. The trail is relatively flat, but there are a few dips and a few rocks to watch out for. The biggest dip—a mile in—bottoms out in a wet area with 30 feet of old corduroy. You may want to walk the bike here.
Shortly after the dip, we came to a logging road on land that’s owned by Paul Smith’s College but open for public use. We turned left and followed the logging road (which is part of the Jackrabbit) for 1.3 miles to a junction with another logging road. We turned left and then stopped to eat sandwiches in a flowery meadow.
We stayed on the second road 1.5 miles to its end and turned right onto the former bed of the New York Central Railroad. In winter, it’s a snowmobile route. In other seasons, the smooth surface of cinders and dirt is ideal for gravel bikes. We followed it 1.6 miles, past a large beaver pond, to Charlie’s Inn in Lake Clear.
From the Jackrabbit trailhead, we had cycled 5.6 miles without seeing anyone, mostly on logging roads and an old rail bed that is essentially a graded dirt road. This is the stuff that gravel bikers’ dreams are made of.
Adirondack Rail Trail
Charlie’s Inn, a stone’s throw from the rail trail, boasts a full restaurant and bar. Since Carol and I had eaten already, we didn’t stop. Upon reaching the inn, we turned left to get on the trail.
Although the rail trail won’t be finished for a few years, the tracks have been removed. Much of the bed is covered by large gravel and not great for cycling. Happily, the stretch between Lake Clear and Saranac Lake has almost no gravel. It’s like a dirt road. I had no trouble on my gravel bike, but the ride will be even better when the bed is covered with packed stone dust as planned.
Turning left onto the rail trail, we immediately crossed state Route 186 and then continued 1.2 miles to McMaster Road, our final road crossing before Saranac Lake. In the remaining 5.5 miles to the village, we passed through deep woods and enjoyed views of McCauley Pond, beaver meadows and several peaks. When we reached the causeway that splits Lake Colby, we knew we were almost home.
At Route 86 in the village, we rode local roads to my home. However, if you left your car at the Bloomingdale Bog trailhead, you’ll need to get back there. Turn left on Route 86 and after a very short distance, veer right onto Old Colby Road, a quiet byway. Take this 1.2 miles to its end. Turn left and make a quick right to get on Route 86 again. Follow the busier state road 0.8 miles to the trailhead on the right.
Incidentally, I had blogged about the route for BikeADK after my first ride in May. Joe Martens, who pushed for the rail trail when he was state Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner, saw the post and set out the following weekend. Despite taking a wrong turn on the logging roads, adding four miles to the tour, he gave it a thumbs-up.
“Overall I thought the loop was a great ride, and it’s always nice to be able to mix roads and trails,” he remarked in an e-mail. “The rail trail will open up this and, I assume, lots of other possibilities.”
What if you don’t own a gravel bike? Martens did the loop on an old hybrid bike, which he said worked well enough. A mountain bike is another option. Indeed, a mountain bike might be preferable in the rougher sections on the bog trail and the Jackrabbit, though it would be overkill on most of the route, especially the paved roads. A cyclocross bike also can handle a variety of terrain. A road bike, however, would be impractical.
Carol and I already owned road and mountain bikes when we purchased gravel bikes last year. If you wonder why we needed a third bike, it’s for rides like this.
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