Gravel bikes provide a new experience on Massawepie Traverse
By Phil Brown
I already owned a road bike and a mountain bike. Did I really need a gravel bike? Was the latest cycling trend just a lot of industry hype? After initial hesitation, I decided to get one, and since then I’ve ridden it a few hundred miles on dirt roads, logging roads, easy single-track trails and, when necessary, pavement.
I was having so much fun that I sensed my girlfriend Carol was envious. For her birthday, I surprised her with her own gravel bike. That weekend we took the bikes out for a ride I had scoped out a few weeks earlier.
We started near Cranberry Lake and rode more than 18 miles to Horseshoe Lake, following logging roads, an old railroad bed and a dead-end dirt road. We were on pavement for only a mile. Though it was a sunny Saturday in June—and the Ampersand Mountain Trailhead parking had been full when we passed—we didn’t see another person for the first 17 miles.
“I kept thinking how we drove past the Ampersand Mountain trailhead and it was chock full,” Carol said in the car afterward. “And then we did what we did and didn’t see anybody.”
We dubbed the ride the Massawepie Traverse, because we biked through the Massawepie Mire and then along the Massawepie Road, a well-maintained logging road that traverses land protected by a conservation easement.
Since we did an end-to-end trip, we left a car at Horseshoe Lake before driving 37 miles to our starting point.
We parked at the Brandy Brook Flow trailhead in the Cranberry Lake Wild Forest and pedaled east on State Route 3’s wide shoulder for 0.75 miles to a gated logging road on the right. The gate is to prevent unauthorized motor-vehicle use, but hikers and cyclists are welcome to use the road under the terms of the Conifer-Emporium Conservation Easement. In the following account, distances are measured from this point and do not include detours.
About a mile up the dirt road, we saw and heard the South Branch of the Grass River on the left—the first of many such encounters. In another half-mile, the logging road curved sharply right, but we veered left onto a grassy road and found ourselves beside the Grass again. We soon bore left at another junction and at 2.1 miles came to a major intersection. Here we took a short detour, turning left to check out Grass River Flow, a serene waterway frequented by a variety of waterfowl, including herons, ducks, geese and bitterns.
We returned to the junction and continued on our way, passing a beaver pond and soon reaching a vehicle barrier at a property boundary. On the other side of the barrier, the state owns an easement only on the corridor of the former Grasse River Railroad, so visitors should not leave the rail bed.
Carol loved this part of the trail, where the tree branches formed a green archway, allowing only splinters of sunlight to reach the ground as well as some shade on a hot day.
Once again we could see the Grass River through the trees, winding through a marsh on its way to the flow. About four miles in, we came across some rotting railroad ties. We would see many more. We rode over or around most of them without difficulty.
Grasse or Grass? What’s in the name? Read more here
At 4.6 miles, we passed a large wetland with views to the south. About 6 miles from Route 3, we stopped at a bridge over the South Branch and enjoyed views of peaks to the north and south. By this time, we had left the woods and were traversing the enchanting Massawepie Mire, one of the largest bogs in the state. It’s a premier birding area, one of the last refuges of the spruce grouse in the Adirondacks. The birds sometimes dust themselves in the railroad bed, but they are a rare sight.
A mile from the bridge we re-entered woods, crossed a private road and then went around a vehicle barrier. We were now on easement lands again and no longer confined to the corridor. In a minute, we came to a pull-off where people park when visiting the mire. At a junction near the parking area, we took a short detour, heading right to a logging-road bridge over the Grass. This is the put-in for canoe trips downriver to Grass River Flow.
Returning to the junction, we continued straight and came to the Massawepie Road, a major logging thoroughfare. We turned right and immediately started pedaling up the first of several hills we would encounter over the next 4.5 miles. This was the most arduous stretch of the route. With all the ups and downs, we climbed about 700 feet.
“It’s not an easy ride. I wasn’t expecting so many hills,” Carol said. Nevertheless, she welcomed the opportunity to push herself on her new bike.
Logistically, the Massawepie Road posed no difficulties. There was one vehicle barrier, easily got around. About 1.5 miles past this gate, we came to a major fork and continued straight (that is, bearing right). Apart from this intersection, it’s impossible to get lost if you stick to the main road.
Eventually, we came to yet another barrier at the end of the Massawepie Road, where it meets a dirt road west of Horseshoe Lake. We made a final short detour, turning right to go to another bridge over the Grass. We were now at the headwaters of one of the longest rivers in the Adirondacks. Here the Grass is a placid little stream meandering through a lush wetland, offering no hint of the turbulent rapids and powerful cascades to come on its journey to the St. Lawrence.
We hopped on our bikes for the last leg of our own journey—4.8 miles of easy riding on a woodsy dirt road. A few weeks earlier, exploring the area on my bike, I had seen a large black bear. Carol and I didn’t see any megafauna, but we did flush some squawking ravens loitering in the middle of the road.
Although this road is open to cars, we didn’t see any until we reached Horseshoe Lake, a popular camping destination. Soon after crossing the lake’s scenic outlet we passed a side road that leads to a put-in on the Bog River. Just beyond this we hit pavement for the first time in more than 16 miles and cruised a few hundred yards to a large pull-off where we had parked Carol’s car. An observation deck next to the pull-off afforded a broad view of Horseshoe Lake. We thought of taking a dip, but alas we left our bathing suits in the other car.
From car to car, including the three detours to the Grass River, we had cycled nearly 18.5 miles in a little over three hours. Carol judged the inaugural ride a big success.
“I love the gravel bike,” she said. “It’s great for a long-distance ride.”
Yes, we could have done the trip on our mountain bikes, but the gravel bikes are lighter, faster and more comfortable. They’re made for dirt and distance. And we have plenty of both in the Adirondacks.
Additional ride options
If you don’t have two cars or don’t want to bother with a shuttle, here are three ideas for other rides. The first two rides are mostly flat. On the third, you will face hills in both directions.
- Explore the dirt roads west of Horseshoe Lake. The main drag leads to the Grass River headwaters described in the article. You also can take a side road (closed to vehicles) to Lows Upper Dam near Hitchins Pond and the ruins of the Augustus Low estate. Your mileage will depend on where you park. If you park at the Upper Dam Road, the round trips to the Grass and the dam will total 10 to 11 miles.
- Starting at the Cranberry Lake trailhead, ride through the Massawepie Mire and turn back–a 14-mile round trip.
- Stronger cyclists can do the entire route both ways–a 36-mile round trip. In this case, I would recommend riding to Lows Upper Dam instead of Horseshoe Lake.