TRAVEL 2023 – This spring a state contractor began constructing a scenic 34-mile rail trail in the Adirondacks that officials hope will become a major tourist draw. Though the trail won’t be finished for a few years, the tracks were removed in 2021 and the corridor already has been attracting cyclists.The good news is that work is proceeding quickly. The 10-mile section between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake is expected to be finished this fall. Work on the 15-mile section between Saranac Lake and Floodwood Road (Phase 2) is set to begin in June and will extend into next year.The bad news: because of the construction, most of the rail trail’s corridor will be closed to the public this summer.
When finished, the rail trail will extend from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake, penetrating wild forests and passing by numerous ponds and wetlands. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which manages the corridor, says most of it will be surfaced with packed stone dust suitable for most bikes. Only the section within the village of Saranac Lake will be paved.
In the original version of this article, I recommended a bike trip from Saranac Lake to Charlie’s Inn in Lake Clear. I rode this stretch as recently as late May. However, DEC announced on May 31 that this section of the rail corridor will be closed when work begins in June on Phase 2.
Consequently, the only part of the rail trail that will be open this summer is the nine-mile stretch between Tupper Lake and Floodwood Road. The Lake Placid-Saranac Lake stretch presumably will be re-opened in the fall. Following is an overview of each section of the rail trail, described from east to west.
Lake Placid to Saranac Lake
On Memorial Day weekend, I saw a number of cyclists pedaling along Route 86 between these two villages. I felt sorry for them as the shoulder is often narrow and the cars whiz by at 55 miles an hour. It’s a ride I have done many times, and I dread it.
Once the first phase of the rail trail is finished this fall, cyclists will be able to ride off road instead of on a busy highway. For locals and tourists, this should be a popular stretch of the rail trail–a trip of 10 miles, with shops, restaurants and other attractions at both ends.
Although not the wildest part of the rail trail, it doesn’t lack for scenery. From the former depot (now a museum) in Lake Placid, the trail soon crosses the Chubb River and enters the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest, skirting the northern flank of Scarface Mountain. DEC has authorized the construction of a mountain-bike trail around the mountain, but that likely won’t happen for years.
Meantime, mountain-bikers can ride the Scarface hiking trail (until it gets too steep) as well as unmarked trails off the main trail. The rail trail crosses the hiking trail near Ray Brook.
The rail trail reaches Route 86 at Fowler’s Crossing on the outskirts of Saranac Lake. The Barkeater Trails Alliance has built mountain-bike trails in the Forest Preserve near the crossing and has plans for more. Beyond Route 86, the rail trail passes a large beaver pond and North Country Community College and then and crosses several local streets before reaching a former depot.
Even though this part of the trail is temporarily closed, I have seen people walking and biking on it. DEC is warning people to stay off until the Phase 1 work is complete. “Public use near Fowler’s Crossing and Scarface Mountain is hindering construction progress and creating unsafe situations for the public and construction workers,” the department says on its website.
Saranac Lake to Floodwood Road
I regard this as the best part of the rail trail as it’s wild and remote, with plenty of views of lakes, ponds and wetlands. Once the Phase 2 work is complete, sometime next year, cyclists will be able to ride from Lake Placid to Floodwood–a distance of 25 miles. But the following description, intended for future reference, assumes your starting point is the depot in Saranac Lake.
From the depot, it’s a stone’s throw to Route 86 on the western outskirts of the village. After crossing the highway, you soon reach a causeway that divides Lake Colby, offering views of nearby peaks.
Once past the lake, you come to a junction with a snowmobile trail (7B) and then pedal through a grassy beaver meadow. Continuing beyond this wetland, be sure turn around for a peek at McKenzie Mountain, which falls just short of High Peak status. This stretch of trail lies within the “forever-wild” Forest Preserve. The modifier certainly seems apt as you glide through a leafy corridor filled with birdsong.
At five miles, the trail comes to a nice view of McCauley Pond, which is bordered largely by private land. Though you may spot a few inconspicuous structures, the pond has not lost its wild character. Shortly afterward, you reach rural McMaster Road, the first road crossing. In another 0.75 miles, you come to a busier road, Route 186. After crossing the highway, continue a very short distance and look for Charlie’s Inn on the right.
Soon after passing Charlie’s, the trail crosses Route 3. Over the next nine-plus miles to Floodwood, the trail crosses no other major roads. For much of the distance, it forms the southern boundary of the St. Regis Canoe Area. Bikes are not allowed in the Canoe Area except on the Fish Pond Truck Trail (suitable for mountain bikes). On the way to Floodwood, you’ll pass a number of waterways, among them Lake Clear, Rat Pond, Hoel Pond, Turtle Pond and Little Rainbow Pond. As soon as you reach Floodwood Road, a dirt thoroughfare, you’ll see the St. Regis Canoe Outfitters store. In paddling season, it sells drinks, energy bars and various outdoor supplies.
As mentioned, public use of this section of trail will be prohibited during construction this year and next.
Tupper Lake to Floodwood
This is the only piece of the rail trail currently open for recreation. It extends nine miles from the restored Tupper Lake depot on State Route 3 to Floodwood Road. The following description assumes the starting point is the depot.
How far you choose to ride from Tupper may depend on your bike. The first 6.5 miles or so feature a firm dirt surface that can be ridden on a gravel or hybrid bike. The final 2.5 miles are characterized by chunky gravel. You could push on with a gravel bike, but a mountain bike would be more appropriate.
For most of this trip, you pass through commercial timberlands that are protected from development by conservation easements. Logged lands grow plenty of browse for moose and deer, and when I first did this trip in spring a few years ago, I spied two moose in the woods just off the trail.
Heading north from the village, you come at 1.4 miles to the first of several wetlands. At 3.2 miles, the corridor crosses a dirt road and soon after passes through an extensive bog, one of the scenic highlights. Given the flat topography, you may be surprised to come to a rock cut about a mile north of the bog. A little farther on you can see Floodwood Mountain to the northwest.
About six miles from the village, you get your first view of Rollins Pond, a small cove on the right. You’ll come to a better view in less than a mile, where the surface changes to gravel. If you turn around here, the round trip will be about 13.5 miles. If you decide to continue, you’ll enjoy more views of ponds before reaching Floodwood Road at 9.25 miles. St. Regis Canoe Outfitters is on the right.
DEC has yet to hire a contractor to construct this section of the rail trail.
E-bikes, fat bikes & road bikes
Class 1 e-bikes are allowed on the rail trail. These bikes have motors that operate only when the rider is pedaling and that cut out at 20 miles an hour.
Fat bikes, with their wide tires, are a good choice if you want to ride both the dirt and gravel sections of the unfinished trail between Tupper Lake and Floodwood. If you have a fat bike with a pedal-assist motor, you should be able to cover a lot of ground with minimal effort.
Unless your road bike has super thin tires, you should be able to ride it on the finished rail trail, assuming the stone dust is properly compacted. The first test will come this fall.
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Categories: Life and Arts, Life and Arts, Travel 2023