Grasse River rail trail offers a trip through historic terrain
By Tom French
One of my favorite images of Adirondack history is the circa 1912 Laying the Rails – Emporium R.R. Cranberry Lake. The track undulates through the forest into the distance like waves on water and looks more like an early roller coaster than a railroad. I imagine those loggers riding those bumps like a ride at the fair, though I know the work was hard and dangerous.
In the hopes of experiencing those same bumps, I recently rode “those rails” between Route 3 near Cranberry Lake, across the Massawepie Mire (the largest bog in New York State), and almost to Conifer. Both the Massawepie and Conifer-Emporium Easements provide dozens of additional miles of riding for those who crave the thrill of hills along with views and wildlife opportunities. Multiple trails extend from Gale, Cranberry Lake, and all the way to Horseshoe Lake.
The 15-mile Grasse River Railroad (GRRR) was built between Childwold Station and Cranberry Lake for both logging and passengers by the Emporium Forestry Company. Access to a 66-foot-wide right-of-way obtained by the DEC can be found from the Massawepie/Town Line Road via the Boy Scout Camp in Gale or from a DEC Parking/Picnic area near Cranberry Lake where Route 3 crosses the South Branch of the Grasse River.
Grasse or Grass? What’s in the name? Read more here
The old railroad bed literally grazes this picnic area, though it is difficult to find. Look across Route 3 for an overgrown canoe access (the railbed) and you can line it up. The railroad’s bridge over the Grasse River was a half mile to the east. Because the bridge no longer exists, access begins along a St. Lawrence County Snowmobile trail, a third of a mile west.
My introduction to the area began with my friend, Doug Miller, of Saranac Lake. We were planning to bike on the mire along the railroad bed from the Massawepie side, but fate intervened. In less than 100 feet, Doug rolled over a branch which jumped and bit his derailleur, snapping it off the frame. We checked out boardwalks on the mire instead.
I returned to the railroad a few weeks later by myself for a 20-mile out and back from Route 3. Signs at the gate may say the trail is closed, but they refer only to motorized vehicles. The snowmobile trail was closed last winter due to timber harvesting.
ADIRONDACK RAIL TRAIL: When can people start using the trail that will run between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake? FIND OUT HERE
The gravel road generally climbs for .75 miles before a hill down to the railbed where the road turns sharply to the right. To the left is the overgrown path to where the railroad crossed the Grasse River. I walked the 100 yards. The Grasse flows quickly here and is strewn with rocks and boulders, but I was able to hop and skip toward the middle of the stream to investigate further. Other than earthen abutments and some ties, nothing remains.
The gravel bed follows the Grasse for two-thirds of a mile with glimpses of the river, one very large erratic, and Class I – III rapids (canoe access can be found from Route 3). When the gravel road veers to the right, go straight on the grassy path, still along the river which is flat and meandering at this point.
A third of a mile later, the railbed swings right while the snowmobile trail continues straight. A faded Grasse River Rail Trail sign may be spotted on a tree, though I suggest a detour to the Grasse River Flow. A 3-way junction is 200 yards ahead. Stay to the left for another 250 yards and you will reach a bridge that looks over the flow, a small dam, and rapids below. This is the end of public access, don’t go beyond the gate.
Return to the railbed by going straight at the 3-way junction. The bed mirrors the Grasse with flashes of the flood plain on the left as the access corridor leaves easement lands across a private holding – please respect the property owners by staying on the railbed until you reach the eastern access near the Massawepie/Town Line Road.
After about two miles, the trail breaks from the river for a series of straightaways. past a slight turn near Silver Brook where a spur headed southwest and again at “Massawepie Boulevard.” If traveling from the east, stay left. Railroad ties in the road to the north are deceptive, as well as signs saying “Gas & Food” and “Do Not Enter” – contradictory information if there ever was.
A bridge over the Grasse before the mire reveals Berkley and Center Pond Mountains to the south.
The mire is the most challenging section due to railroad ties still embedded in the road. A narrow path can be found on one side or the other, but be careful, it disappears then reappears on the other side, forcing either quick turns or bumpy rides. Although it’s cool to ride the mire, the best views are from the boardwalks on the Boy Scout property.
After the mire, the trail crosses Grasse River Club property, then swings left at the parking area for access from the east. The junction with the Massewepie Road is a quarter mile beyond.Turn left for a 1.5-mile detour to the boardwalks. (Note: it’s closed to the public from June 15 through Aug. 31. Look for the sign pointing to Boot Tree and Townline Ponds. After walking 100 yards, turn right at the junction to the boardwalks with interpretive signage from the Nature Conservancy.
For me, the final 1.5-mile section toward Conifer was the most enjoyable. For most of the day, conditions under tire went from gravel to grass to leaf and pine covered sand. I rarely made it out of my low gears, but this last section hints at the rolliness of the old pictures. Unfortunately, the right-of-way ends about a mile before Conifer and what would make an excellent location for another entrance to the railbed. Keep your eye out for Forest Preserve signs along the side of the bed marking the 66-foot-wide corridor. Their disappearance is the only indicator to the end of public access. If you reach the gate at Dead Creek, you’ve gone too far.
Volunteers are working to negotiate access to Conifer and beyond. The Grass River Rail Trail Initiative is working with the Clifton Fine Economic Development Corporation, a 501(c)(3), to create a multiuse trail for the entire length of the main line. Trail stewards cleared the sections I rode and placed the GRRR signage. They are also hoping to restore the bed between the DEC Picnic Area and Cranberry Lake. The possibility of connecting to Childwold Station could create opportunities with the Adirondack Scenic Railroad should that section of the rail line be rehabilitated into an operating tourist train.
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