A July bike outing uncovers a new favorite route
By Phil Brown
Fourth of July, hordes of tourists, a pandemic—I would have to put on my thinking cap if Carol and I were to escape the crowds and mitigate the risk of contracting the coronavirus.
We knew we wanted to mountain bike, but we feared that our go-to place—the BETA trails off Hardy Road in Wilmington—would be mobbed. So I suggested a ride I had discovered earlier in the year, a 15.6-mile loop over logging roads and little-used town roads in the northern Adirondacks.
It turned out to be a good choice. Apart from 2 walkers and an occasional car or all-terrain vehicle, we encountered no one in three hours of cycling. And we were rewarded with striking views of mountains and waterways and a thrilling downhill that lasted nearly two miles.
The ride is moderately strenuous. With all the ups and downs, we ascended a total of 1,135 feet (nearly all of it in the first 7 miles). At times, we also had to contend with rocky and/or sandy road surfaces. But, hey, it’s mountain biking. Leave your thin-tire velocipede at home.
We began at a public parking area on North Branch Road, one of the main logging thoroughfares on the Kushaqua Tract, nearly 19,000 acres of commercial timberlands that are open to the public under a conservation easement held by the state. Mountain bikers can ride on about 65 miles of dirt roads. Most of the roads dead-end, but after a few visits this spring, I found a way to bike from North Branch Road to Loon Lake.
At the parking area, we hopped on our bikes and then continued up the road, soon crossing a sizable tributary of the North Branch of the Saranac River. At 1.5 miles, we reached a junction with Aden Hill Road (marked by a sign) and turned right. This road is a bit narrower and a bit rougher, but it’s still fine for mountain biking.
We pedaled uphill for about a mile, with mostly easy grades. After a short downhill, we began an easy climb and spotted the fire tower on the main summit of the Loon Lake Mountains—the first of several such sightings. Our route would take us through a pass between this mountain and a neighboring peak in the range.
At 3.2 miles, we turned right at an unmarked junction. In less than a half-mile, we coasted down to a spectacular view of the seldom-seen Sable Mountains, which rise as high as 2,910 feet. Carol called the vista “a hidden gem.”
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A little farther on we passed two large clearings with more views of Loon Lake Mountain. Both clearings were covered with rotting wood, the debris of timber operations. One of the interesting aspects of recreating in the Kushaqua Tract is that you see firsthand what logging looks like. It’s not always pretty, but the state does require the landowner to adhere to the principles of sustainable forestry.
We reached Shady Rock Junction at 5.5 miles, where another logging road entered from the right. “This is a snowmobile trail,” I told Carol. “I don’t think we’ll be seeing any today.” By this time, we had gained a net total of 430 feet of elevation. With temperatures in the mid-80s, we were hot and sweaty. We retreated to a large boulder in the cool woods to rest and refresh ourselves with water and energy bars.
As soon as we resumed riding, we took in the closest view yet of Loon Lake Mountain and its tower. We couldn’t dwell on scenery, however, for the toughest climbing of the day lay just ahead. We often fought for traction as we neared the top of the pass, with the fire-tower summit on the left and the secondary peak on the right. At 6.0 miles, we reached our high point at 2,228 feet—a net gain of 515 feet from the car. Continuing on, through more dips, we finally came to the verge of a two-mile downhill.
We had come 6.75 miles, and I had been looking forward to this the whole way. The coast down is a blast, but you need to control your speed as you’ll encounter many obstacles: rocks, ruts, loose stone, sand. I reached a top speed of 17 mph, but more daring or more reckless souls could easily surpass 20 mph. Not that I am suggesting they do.
At the end of the downhill, we passed a vehicular barrier and reached a power-line corridor. Just as we arrived, a half-dozen or so ATVs came down the dirt track that runs beneath the lines. Fortunately, we were headed in the opposite direction. Turning right, we biked along the corridor a third of the mile to the Blackfly Slab, a steep curtain of bedrock. I pointed out some rock-climbing routes established in the 1990s by Dick Tucker, of the potato-growing family in Gabriels.
We pedaled along the corridor another half-mile, then exited left to get on a dirt road and enjoyed a fun downhill cruise. In less than a mile, we reached a junction and continued straight. Beyond here, the road became much rougher. After climbing a few short hills, we arrived at a bridge that crosses the North Branch of the Saranac as it flows out of Mud Pond.
Although the bridge is now closed to motor vehicles, we had no fears about walking our bikes across. Indeed, we lingered awhile taking in the scenery. To the northwest, the Loon Lake Mountains rose above Mud Pond. On the other side of the bridge, the river presented a picture of wildness (ignoring a tire stuck in the mud).
Once across, we turned right onto the Mud Pond-Kushaqua Road, which led past tall pines standing sentinel over the pond’s south shore. After an easy uphill, we rolled down to the concrete bridge near the foot of scenic Lake Kushaqua, a large impoundment of the North Branch. Its waters feed Mud Pond.
Just 3 miles to go! We pushed up a steep, short uphill and then enjoyed a leisurely ride to a former chapel once owned by the White Fathers, a Catholic missionary organization active in Africa. The chapel is now a private residence. Just beyond, we crossed the power-line corridor and then passed Little Hope Pond. At 15.0 miles, we reached the start of North Branch Road. Turning right, we arrived back at our car in a bit more than a half-mile.
You could begin this trip at many places along the loop, but the North Branch parking area strikes me as the best starting point. After the long bike ride, you can take a short cool-down stroll to the river. Just walk to the far end of the parking area and look for a path on the left.
The Loon Lake Loop is now one of my favorite bike rides—lots of scenery, lots of variety and little traffic. Carol also loved it. “We escaped the crowds, saw some good scenery and worked up a sweat,” she said. What a great holiday.
DIRECTIONS: From the four corners in Bloomingdale, drive north on County 55 for just 0.1 mile, then bear right onto Oregon Plains Road. Go 5.5 miles to a T-intersection and turn right onto County 30. Go 0.9 miles, then turn left onto the Mud Pond-Kushaqua Road. Go 1.1 miles to North Branch Road and turn left. Go 0.75 miles to a parking area and trail register on the left.
Phil Brown says
Update: I biked this again in late August. The logging road on the long downhill has been graded, evidently in preparation for timber operations. Much easier biking.
Sean P. Darrow says
I have been riding this area for greater than 10 years without a lot of other people. Sad to see it get so much press.
Hi Phil – thank you so much for this very detailed article! I’m heading to Lake Placid and my friends are planning to do this loop. I’m a pretty beginner cyclist – in fact, I’ve never ridden a mountain bike before. Do you think I would be able to handle it? If not, any beginner-friendly loops you’d recommend? Thank you!