Plenty of options for road biking along the backside of Whiteface
By Tim Rowland
Art galleries are acknowledged sources of home decor, but they are underappreciated as sources for outdoor-adventure ideas. When you think about it though, it only makes sense that local artists are going to know all the area’s best vistas.
This occurred to me at the Adirondack Artists Guild Gallery in Saranac Lake as I was admiring a painting of Whiteface Mountain by landscape artist Sandra Hildreth. Her chosen perspective was from Norman Ridge Road, a lesser known but equally captivating view of the “back” side of Whiteface, a couple of miles east of Vermontville. It looked, in all, like a good idea for a bike ride.
The classic Norman Ridge ride, if you could call it that, originates in Saranac Lake and spends much of its 34-mile run on the pleasant enough, but heavily traveled, Route 3. But Norman Ridge also pairs nicely with a ride along River Road from Franklin Falls Pond north of Wilmington into the hamlet of Bloomingdale, a reach that is prettier and far less-traveled.
There are multiple options to lengthen or shorten this route and treat it either as a loop or a modified out-and-back, which you will be able to easily discern by eyeballing a map.
And for you bicycling monsters out there, there is one more compelling option. There is a certain type of cycling, of which I am quite incapable, that relies on epic physical challenges and demonstrations of superhuman strength. If that’s you, you could park at the Visitor Center at Wilmington and take the Whiteface Memorial Highway up and over the pass that separates the Whiteface and Stephenson mountain ranges.
But if you want to save that torment for another day, simply drive up the highway from the Four Corners at Wilmington and follow the signs to Bloomingdale. In about nine miles you will come to the dam at Franklin Falls Road, where there is a small public parking spot on the lakeshore.
The view up Franklin Falls Pond is worth the trip in itself, and so it was with a whistle on my lips and a song in my heart that I straddled my bike — and rode off into the teeth of a zillion-mile-an-hour headwind.
The forest mitigated the breeze somewhat, as the backroad entered a coniferous cathedral, carpeted with ferns and white bunchberry flowers. The lake — a wide spot in the Saranac River, really — peeks through here and there, watched over by dramatic mountain ridges.
About three miles in, if you’re into hidden secrets, there is a two-car lot on the left that’s nestled back in the woods and easy to miss. From there, an improved trail leads down to a lovely point on a channel where river transitions into pond. It’s a great spot for lunch, and the bass fishing is pretty good there, too.
From this little lot onward, the Saranac becomes more river-like, and flows past some quintessential Adirondack wetlands where conical balsams pierce the sky like evergreen lances rising proudly above the freshly vanquished alder undergrowth (there will be no extra charge for that spot of poetic imagery. You’re welcome).
At six miles you arrive at Bloomingdale, where you will take a right on Route 3 and begin a long but not terribly taxing pull up the hill toward Vermontville. Norman Ridge Road appears on the right after another three miles. Being a ridge, it’s a bit of a climb, but not a serious one, to get to the top, where you will be ever-so-rewarded by a magical farmland plateau, with meadows studded with lavender lupins and chattering bobolinks.
Norman Ridge Farmstead has a self service stand if you wish to stash some agricultural product in your pack. The farming tradition is rich on these lands, which have transitioned from potatoes and other truck crops to lush green pastures supporting grass-fed Angus beef.
The main attraction, of course, is the brilliant constellation of mountains, Whiteface, to be sure, but also Catamount and Morgan to the left, the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness to the right, and distant High Peaks to the south.
The road down the back side of the ridge is currently gravel (the front side was freshly paved), but if your tires weren’t made for such abuse, the stretch is not so long that it couldn’t be walked.
If you want to treat this ride as a loop, turn left at the bottom of the hill on Fletcher Farm Road, then right on Franklin Falls Road to put you back at your starting point.
I decided to turn right and ride back to Route 3, since I wanted another leisurely dose of the incredibly scenic River Road. Also, by this time, a chocolate milkshake was becoming necessary, so a short detour (staying on Route 3) brought me to Teddy’s ice cream stand in Bloomingdale.
The remainder of the ride was gloriously wind-aided, and I sailed along past river and pond to conclude the outing, including a multiplicity of stops, in under three hours. It’s a ride with a lot to recommend it — relatively easy pedaling, sparse traffic, flexible as to distance and above all, pretty as a painting.
- Destination: Norman Ridge, from Franklin Falls Pond
- Distance: 22 miles (including small detour for chocolate milkshake)
- Elevation gain: 545 feet