Get off your bike for some camping, hiking and fishing along Adirondack Rail Trail
By Gillian Scott
My family has hiked, camped, cross- country skied and paddled throughout the Adirondacks. But our bicycle adventures have been more limited. Part of the reason for this is because we’re parents of a pre-teen and Adirondack highways—even those with wide shoulders—are not hospitable places for a child on a bicycle. Closer to our upstate New York home, there are abundant rail-trails and multi-use paths to use, but options are fewer in the Adirondacks.
So we’ve been watching the development of the Adirondack Rail Trail with great enthusiasm. When complete, the trail will stretch for 34 miles from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake along the bed of an old railroad, cutting through miles of wilderness and offering access to a variety of recreational opportunities nearby.
My family and I set out at the end of August to see what we could see. We found out after our trip that the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) warned that use of the developing trail was “strongly discouraged due to uneven terrain.”
That is the state’s way of saying recreational trail users may find a mix of hard-packed dirt, loose-packed dirt, loose-packed stone and mud. We struggled to ride our mountain bikes on some sections, and had to walk for a mile or more on others.
Just a few weeks later, by mid-September, the Department of Transportation (DOT), which currently owns the trail and is tearing up the rail, had posted signs prohibiting pedestrian and bicycle use.
Michael Flick, a spokesman for DOT’s Region 7, said the closure will last until line removal is complete.
In an email, Flick said the multi-use trail “will comprise some of the nation’s most majestic scenery.” But he described the pathway as “an active construction zone” where for public safety “access is restricted unless otherwise authorized by permit. Once the rail removal is complete this fall, operation and maintenance of this segment of the corridor, including trail construction, will be turned over to DEC.”
The trail’s surface will be compacted stone dust, which should provide a smoother ride. For now, the trail is a work in progress: during our ride, we came across several crews removing rails, or using small skid loaders to rip out brush or roots.
Despite our struggles through some sections, our trip was still remarkable for the scenery, with the trail passing multiple wetlands, ponds and lakes. Despite its close proximity to communities like Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Lake Clear and Tupper Lake, the Adirondack Rail Trail also plunges users deep into the wilderness. We saw loons, kingfishers, ducks, deer, and once spotted a moose. Near Saranac Lake, a heron flew so close over our heads we joked we almost had to duck.
Though we loved the scenery, I was also fascinated by the remnants of the past scattered along the trail. Communities like Lake Placid, Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake have done a great job preserving their train stations. Other stations, like the small depot near the Federal Correction Institute in Ray Brook, are not in as great shape, but still serve as a reminder of the corridor’s earlier use. Railroad spikes and other small pieces of rail detritus were also common during our ride, though those will presumably be buried under a layer of stone dust before the trail officially opens. Signs along the trail with a “w” on them left me puzzled; I later learned they were whistle posts, there to let engineers know they needed to blow their whistles before road crossings.
We found the most excitement, though, in realizing how many opportunities the trail presented for recreation. Users will find camping, hiking, paddling, fishing and other options all in close proximity. The path can be used for short walks from town, day trips to nearby lakes, or multi-day adventures.
Though experienced cyclists will be able to ride the trail out and back in one day, those seeking a more leisurely trip—or more miles—have plenty of options as well. We started our trip north of the trail, riding the Bloomingdale Bog Trail from Vermontville (Merrill Road) 6.5 miles south to Saranac Lake (Route 86). The Bog Trail is mostly hard-packed dirt, and varies from wide to single track. Beaver activity has left a few sections under several inches of water and we needed to walk our mountain bikes.
A bed and breakfast on Route 30 served as our home base for three nights. From there, we took day trips by bike—a short ride to Floodwood Road to paddle on Floodwood Pond and Fish Creek and a long day pedaling into Tupper Lake and back—before biking into Lake Placid.
A variety of dirt roads offer access to the Adirondack Rail Trail, allowing bicyclists to jump on and off the trail. For instance, Rat Pond Road off Route 30 in Santa Clara offers access to the rail trail via a rutted dirt road.
Cyclists should be aware, however, that bicycles are not allowed on trails in the St. Regis Canoe Area, with the exception of the 4.7-mile Fish Pond Truck Trail, from Little Green Pond to Fish Pond, and the Saint Regis Pond Truck Trail.
Options vary for breaking a trip along the trail over several days. The most obvious (and expensive) is to stay overnight at a motel, hotel or rental home. But trail users with camping gear can save some money—and spend more time in the great outdoors—using campgrounds and campsites along the trail.
Backcountry camping on state land adjacent to the rail trail is allowed. State rules on primitive camping apply—when designated campsites aren’t available, campers must set up camp at least 150 feet from a water body, road or trail.
In the 2020 amendment to the 1996 Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor Unit Management Plan, the DEC states that it anticipates the trail, with its close proximity to so many campgrounds, will have an impact on traffic: “The State anticipates a potential decrease in local automobile traffic by residents and tourists between Tri-Lakes communities and campgrounds, and an increase in recreation and commuting in the Corridor.”
The Adirondack Rail Trail borders the St. Regis Canoe Area from Little Clear Pond west to Floodwood Road, passing Little Clear Pond, Little Green Pond, Rat Pond, Turtle Pond and Hoel Pond. St. Regis Outfitters, located at the trail’s crossing of Floodwood Road, offers rentals of canoes and all the gear needed for paddle trips. Paddlers can put in on Floodwood Pond and explore the ample paddling south of the designated canoe area, or carry a boat a quarter mile to a put-in on Long Pond to access routes like the Seven Carries. Nearby businesses like St. Regis Canoe Outfitters, Raquette River Outfitters and Mac’s Canoe Livery provide rental boats with reservations.
When we biked the trail in August, we ran into David Cilley, owner of St. Regis Canoe Outfitters, at the business’s Floodwood Road outpost. Cilley said he is planning to create a map for trail users, pulling together information on recreation, lodgings, food, connecting trail loops and more. He said he’s also looking into offering shuttles to trail users, as well as bike rentals.
In the meantime, he’s watching the state’s development efforts with interest, and wondering if enough facilities are being built to accommodate the visitors for what he expects will be a very popular trail.
“I don’t think they have any clue as to how busy it’s going to be,” he said.
From what we saw of the trail, I have to agree. Despite all its present challenges, the Adirondack Rail Trail is shaping up to be a gem.
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