A few years ago, I was talking with Adirondack Explorer publisher Dick Beamish when he asked me, “What do you think about the railroad? Should we have a train or a trail?” I thought for a second and responded, “I think we deserve both.” His response was simple. “We can’t have both. I think we should remove the rails and build a recreation trail.”
I didn’t think much about it for a year or so until I started reading about Adirondack Recreation Trail Advocates’ (ARTA) efforts to create “a contiguous recreation trail from Lake Placid to Old Forge.” I recalled my original perspective on the issue, and it had not changed. We deserve both a railroad and a recreational trail. This triggered a blog post on the topic in September of 2011 in which I argued that there are many more foolish wastes of money than supporting a railroad line and that the residents of and visitors to the Adirondack Park are deserving of both. Although ARTA argues that maintaining the rail line is a boondoggle I am reminded of the proverb, “One man’s waste is another man’s treasure.”
Since then I have maintained the position that there are more important things we can do than ripping up the rails to create a flat Lake Placid to Old Forge trail. What I believe we need, in every community in the Adirondack Park that wants it, is a connecting trail network accessible from the front doors of community members’ homes or motels. Note the two key elements in my perspective: “connecting trail” and “accessible from people’s front doors.”
There are three dimensions of connectivity for a well-designed community trail network:
- You can get from one trail to another without having to get into your car.
- You can travel from one trailhead to another rather than just traveling in to an interior location and then hiking back out.
- You can travel a loop trail and don’t have to retrace your steps
Accessibility means that you hike or ski (or bike where permitted) from your doorstep to many, if not most, points within the park.
ARTA’s concept of a recreation trail from Lake Placid to Old Forge on its surface sounds appealing. ARTA however has created the classic story line in that every good story has to have a protagonist, in this case ARTA, the good guys, and an antagonist, the bad guys, in this case the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. Of course if you are the Adirondack Scenic Railroad you may see it the other way around. History usually determines which is which. The winners end up being the protagonist and the losers the antagonist.
I prefer to look at it differently. I have an affliction called rationality. As one friend once wrote, “It’s Jack’s most honored virtue.” I like to find win-win solutions to problems. I’ve always preached to my students to use the rational decision-making/problem-
As a recreation professional with over 40 years of experience I see the problem a little differently. The problem, as I see it, is that most Adirondack communities lack easy to access, inter-connected trails that people can reach from their homes or motel rooms. How can we remedy this? I’m continually amazed as I travel around the world how much easier it frequently is to find beautiful terrain to walk through in urban areas than it is in my hometown of Saranac Lake. That needs to change here in Saranac Lake as well as other Adirondack towns and villages.
The solution is much simpler than what the anti-train people advocate. The solution is a series of interconnected trails accessible from numerous access points in every Adirondack Park community that desires such a network. As a model I’ve suggested 10 trails for Saranac Lake. The list I created is just a first attempt. It could be replicated in virtually every community within the park. The list is about multi-use trails but not all of the trails I proposed are designed to be used by all modes of transportation. Some are possible to be used by all modes of travel but most will be limited to two or three. My effort was not to replicate the proposed multi-purpose recreational trail but to show that there are lots of trail development opportunities that the people of Saranac Lake should consider. Others need to do similar research in their communities. I’m calling this community trails concept “50 in 2.” Every community within the Adirondack Park should be able to have at least fifty miles of trails with trailheads within two miles from the center of the community. A concept like this would make the Adirondack Park an interconnected Mecca for trail activities.
My list has been criticized and I’m sure will continue to be criticized because of the many challenges to building some of these trails. Some say that there are too many regulatory obstacles. Others, that there are too many environmental obstacles. Or that the cost is too high. You could say the same about the rails to trails project. Creative problem solving and good leadership can build all of my suggested trails as well as a park-wide network. My guess is that if you built all of these trails I have proposed for Saranac Lake and replicated the process throughout the park then you will gain more economic benefits from tourism than ARTA’s plan would. In addition, you will improve the quality of life for all Adirondack residents. There are no losers in such an effort.
One final point: if you want to use a travel corridor for trails I think there is a much more readily available travel corridor, our automobile highway system. Imagine every major highway in the Park having a motorized corridor on one side of the road for snowmobiles, motorcycles and ATVS and a non-motorized corridor on the other side for hiking, biking, x-country skiing, and snowshoeing. It would be the ultimate travel corridor. It would be a much more functional multi-use trail system than what ARTA has proposed. I realize there would be many more obstacles to overcome to build such travel corridors but they would be much more functional and easier to access for construction and maintenance.
The trail/rail debate will in all likelihood continue for too long. Hopefully rational minds will prevail and a win-win option will triumph.
In the meantime, here is a list of the 10 trails for Saranac Lake, along with links to the trail maps, mileage and difficulty ratings, and some notes:
1. Saranac River/Pine Pond Trail – Three Miles, from the Route 3 State Bridge boat launch parking lot to the Averyville trail at Pine Pond.
Notes: The parking lot already exists. It would make a fine trailhead. A bridge across Cold Brook and that fact that it is a Wilderness Area are two issues. This trail would provide access to the existing trail to Averyville. It is safe to say that the DEC is concerned about using the Route 3 State Bridge Boat Launch as a trailhead. There are many issues with that site and adding a new use just complicates things further. Having said that this is a natural location for a trail head and at least two trails could start from there. (This one and #9) Given that the trail I proposed here runs through the High Peaks Wilderness it turns out there are at least two other options for this trail that might make more sense. Evidently there is a route north of the bridge that DEC employees use to access the lower locks in the winter to check the water level. There is also the old abandoned trail from route 3 north of the river that went into the lean-to on Lake Kiwassa. From there it wouldn’t be too hard to get to the locks. The challenge is to find a route from the locks to the trail from Averyville. Finding a way to get from Averyville to route 3 just makes too much sense not to do it. Difficulty: From state bridge to Pine Pond – easy. From Averyville to state bridge – moderate.
2. Saranac River/Moose Pond – Four miles from the Route 3 trailhead north of the village of Saranac Lake to Moose Pond and then around Moose Pond.
Notes: The trail from Route 3 to the pond exists. The trail in the McKenzie Wilderness should be made accessible (by regulatory change) to bicycles. The UMP for the McKenzie Wilderness will probably not be completed for a long time yet. The fact that this is a wilderness area seemed to raise red flags, but all the trails I have proposed for the McKenzie Wilderness have close proximity to Route 3. This trail has great connectivity to the Village of Saranac Lake. Difficulty: Most activities – Easy. Mountain Biking – Moderate.
3. McKenzie Wilderness Trail – Five miles from the Jackrabbit Trail trailhead on the McKenzie Pond road to the Waste Water Treatment Plant.
Notes: From McKenzie pond to the Water Treatment Plan would be a new trail through a Wilderness Area. It should be made accessible (by regulatory change) to bicycles. Difficulty: For most uses I would consider that a moderate trail. DEC appears to support the trail proposed in the Village of Saranac Lake Trails Plan from the summit of Baker Mt. The trail I have proposed here would complement that trail and combining this with #2 and #5 make for a nice trail network on the east side of the Saranac River.
4. Scarface to Pine Pond – Five and a three-quarter miles from the Scarface mountain trail head on the Ray Brook Road following an access road to private property with a new trail over to Pine Pond.
Notes: Much of this trail already exists. This trail and #1 would provide access to the existing trail to Averyville. It could be a multi-use year around trail. It require only 1.6 miles of new trail. The rest already exists. The SLWFUMP proposes a trail around the south side of Scarface Mt but does not, at this time, connect to Pine Pond. By this time you know my mantra, “Connectivity.” Connect trails around Scarface to Pine Pond, which will connect to Route 3 and Averyville. Difficulty: This is hard to determine. The trip from Ray Brook all the way to route 3 is relatively long but mostly downhill. The terrain is easy but the distance makes it more challenging.
5. Saranac Lake / Moose Pond Trail – Five and a half miles, from the Waste Water Treatment Plant to Moose Pond.
Notes: This would be an all new trail through the McKenzie Wilderness. It should be made accessible by all but snowmobiles. (would need regulatory change to get bicycles). A loop trail around Moose Pond makes a lot of sense because it would meet all three of my connectivity points when combined with trail #4. Ditto the comments for #2. Difficulty: Easy – This would be gentle terrain
6. Saranac Lake to Mt. View – Twenty-eight miles from the Harrietstown Road north of Saranac Lake to Mountain View via the old railroad bed / power line right of way.
Notes: It already exists as a snowmobile trail and could readily be turned into a multi-purpose year around trail. Conceptually the state seems to support this although, if I understand it correctly, they don’t have ownership of the entire roadbed. The DEC has some excellent ideas for this region which is in the DeBar Wild Forest. They are trying to link the VIC, the Slush Pond Trail, and the Hayes Brook trail and other areas. This would be excellent. Great connectivity! Difficulty: Easy
7. Turtle Pond Trails (Fowler’s Crossing) – About six miles, from the parking lot by the railroad tracks on route 86 this is a network of trails between Turtle Pond and Oseetah Lake. There are trails on both sides route 86.
Notes: This network exists. It just needs to be formalized. It could be a multi-purposed year around trail although probably would not be of interest to snowmobiles due to its short length. This would include a new spur to intersect with the Scarface Mt. trail. The proposed UMP supports the development of this area but a trail linking to the Scarface trail is challenging due to wetlands. We need to find a way to make this connecting trail work. The trails south of Turtle Pond are nice but connecting them to the Scarface trail opens up numerous additional opportunities. There may be some options to run the trail through private property. The DEC has proposed some good connectivity on the east side of the tracks north of route 86 to Ray Brook. Difficulty: Easy – perfect for novices of all kinds.
8. Scarface Mountain Loop – Six and a half miles, from the existing trail on the summit of Scarface Mt. around the eastern ridge down to Ray Brook across the tracks out the access road on the NE side of Scarface to Route 86.
Notes: I’ve bushwacked this route and variations of it numerous times on foot, snowshoes, and skis. This could be used as a year round trail. After reviewing the proposed UMP I learned that it has some very interesting trails proposed around Scarface Mountain. I support their proposals and suggest that my proposal be left as a bushwhack and not developed as a trail in light of the other trails they are proposing. Difficulty: Challenging.
9. Lower Saranac Lake Trail – About nine miles, from the Route 3 State Bridge boat launch parking lot around the south end of Lower Saranac Lake crossing the river at the upper locks then proceeding around and eventually heading north to the Forest Home Road.
Notes: This is Wild Forest so could be multipurpose year around trail although for a number of reasons it might not be practical for snowmobiles. It follows a number of existing hunting trails and even a portion of an old snowmobile trail. The main challenge would be building a bridge across the Saranac River near the upper locks. The State Bridge on Route 3 has great potential as a trailhead since a parking lot already exists. There is a desire at DEC to keep this large parcel of land more primitive with few trails, but there may be options that allow for that, such as keeping the trail close to the lake and then running it closer to private land up to the Forest Home Road. I really feel that this trail has lots of potential especially if it is continued on to Lake Colby as I propose.
10. Black Pond Trial – About four miles from the Forest Home Road to Black Pond and then intersecting with the Lower Saranac Lake Trail.
Notes: This is Wild Forest so could be a multipurpose year around trail although for a number of reasons it wouldn’t be practical for snowmobiles. A hunter/fisherman’s trail already exists to Black Pond. I’ll gladly sacrifice this trail for #9, the Lower Saranac Lake Trail, in order to preserve a larger trail-less area in this region. Difficulty: Hiking is moderate. Skiing is challenging. Mt. Biking is challenging.