An 18-mile bike ride through an underused part of the northern Adirondacks
By Tom French
Forgive me for leading with my Scottish heritage, but when Doug said he wanted to explore the Sable Highlands north of Loon Lake, my head filled with images of silky fur, mossy glens, picturesque lochs, and rugged heath. The 18-mile bike was definitely rugged at times, and the leaves were at peak, but alas, no sign of any sables. Perhaps the area was once home to an abundance of mustelids, carnivorous mammals such as ermines or pine martens, aka, the American sable.
I was excited by the rail history and the prospect of writing this article, but Doug announced I’d been scooped by former Explorer editor Phil Brown in 2020. Our path, like Phil’s, was along a “Limited” (sic) Recreation Corridor (LRC) loop highlighted in yellow on the DEC map (“Linear” in the fine print and 2009 Interim Recreation Management Plan (RMP)). The loop appears to traverse both the Debar Mountain and Chazy Highlands – areas without management plans as highlighted in a recent Adirondack Explorer feature by Gwendolyn Craig.
After some confusion finding the DEC Fishpole Pond Parking Area (the sign is missing from its post just east of the railroad abutment along Route 26/the Port Kent-Hopkinton Turnpike), we pedaled north along the D&H railbed (originally the narrow-gauged Chateaugay Railroad) from the vicinity of Tekene Junction, a station along the D&H with a spur to Tekene proper and an interesting history that includes William Rockefeller of Standard Oil and nearby Bay Pond.
Long story short – competition between the two railroads was stiff especially where they built parallel lines for almost 14 miles. Loon Lake sported two depots, yards apart, where passengers would transfer from one line to the other, and trains would race each other if running side by side. The Chateaugay owned charcoal kilns in Tekene, 1.75 miles west of the rail lines, but was denied permission to build a bridge over the New York Central for several years. After Rockefeller purchased the Debar Mountain Tract in 1899, the rivalry intensified to include middle-of-the-night (literally) gauge changes and court injunctions. It’s a convoluted story, but the bridge was built and the abutments are visible from a deteriorating accessible fishing platform along the D&H, 100 yards before the parking area.
I was eager to explore the abutments and take pictures from above the New York Central, now a snowmobile trail and utility right-of-way. I assumed some kind of path must still exist, if only tread by intrepid Explorers like myself, but as Doug and I pedaled down the road, the forest was thick with no sign of any former spur. We may have seen signs of the siding, but with 18 miles of biking in front of us, we decided to look more closely on another day.
More to Explore: Sable Highlands
More than a decade ago, New York State planned trails and other improvements for the conservation easement it bought on the Sable Highlands. Not much of it has materialized, though the land has strong recreation potential. Former Adirondack Explorer editor Phil Brown explored the lands in 2020 for a series of articles.
Two long straightaways dip into the horizon before the route runs along and crosses Plumadore Brook. The landscape opens after two miles as the New York Central and power line come into view on the left shortly before crossing the Plumadore again. A grassy road crosses the New York Central into the Sable Highlands Public Use Area (PUA). The 2009 Interim RMP is sketchy regarding the PUA.
We kept our eyes peeled for Plumadore Station, a passenger stop for 40 years around the turn of the 20th century and site of several beehive charcoal kilns. Unfortunately, the lands to the east of the railbed are off limits according to the DEC map. Author Michael Kudish explored the area on foot in 1978 and reported five circular brick foundations, evidence of which can still be found in LIDAR and Google Earth. Despite monitoring our progress with an odometer, we flew past Plumadore without realizing it.
At three miles, the railroads begin to swing right. A logging road to the left is another LRC spur with a potential bike loop explored by Phil Brown. Shortly after, the New York Central and D&H part ways as the D&H begins a noticeable descent compared to the New York Central.
Originally a narrow-gauge railroad from Plattsburgh to the prison at Dannemora, the Chateaugay/D&H was extended to Lyon Mountain in 1879 for the mining operation and later a blast furnace at Standish. Further extensions toward Loon Lake for charcoal operations provided fuel for the furnace. The final push to Saranac Lake was “for tourists and local freight.” When the D&H converted to standard gauge in the early 1900s, they straightened the tight turns of the narrow gauge. As we rolled down to Wolf Pond, we may have spotted signs of the original narrow gauge as indicated on Kudish’s maps.
Before the LRC connects with the Wolf Pond Road, the D&H turns east, but any signs have been erased by logging and beaver activity. Look to the right near Cold Brook and you can see where it crosses the Wolf Pond Road.
Any canoe trip with Doug involves a fishing rod. Apparently, any bike trip that crosses a river does too. He conducted a “biological survey” with a few casts into the Salmon River while we had lunch near Wolf Pond. We also pondered various maps to discern the correct path. The LRC is not well marked and the scale of the DEC map is difficult to read especially at this corner of the loop. Be sure to take the right after crossing the Salmon, Wolf Pond Mountain Road, which is also the snowmobile trail.
The road skirts the nascent Salmon River for three-quarter miles before beginning its ascent to the pass between Wolf Pond Mountain and the Elbow Range. No counting of contour lines can do justice to the 500-foot elevation gain in 1.5 miles.
Phil Brown says it varies “in quality from packed dirt to loose sand to rocks and ruts.” That’s an understatement! In addition to being steep, the road was strewn with rock gardens and long sandy sections that swallowed us whole like quicksand and tossed us to our feet. Too often, one track was boulders and the other appeared smooth only to become a sand trap, leaving us to make quick decisions regarding which challenge we preferred – chatter or wallowing in sand. We tried flanking the edges or riding the grassy medians when they appeared.
Because of the lack of trail markers, Doug and I stopped a couple of times to scrutinize our maps. We knew our path should eventually take a hard left. It was welcome relief when it did. Somehow, only two hours after beginning our ride, we reached the pass and our downhill around the Elbow Range began.
Or so we thought. Those pesky contour lines don’t line up with reality. It was mostly downhill to the snowmobile junction where we took a right onto Liberty Road, but the maps don’t do justice to the pass north of Lookout Mountain or around Catamount. Fishtailing down steep, recently deposited crushed stone was also a harrowing highlight of the day. We arrived back at the cars about four hours after leaving. All that said, I would recommend this trip for bikers looking for invigorating adventure. We saw well-defined moose tracks in the sand in two locations, and Phil encountered the real McCoy, to end with my Scottish theme. Alas, for us, the moose and sables remained elusive.