Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Better Rail Trail?
Biking The Plattsburgh to Saranac Lake RR

route near StandishThis was not the bike trip I had hoped for. It seemed like a good idea, until I saw my girlfriend Liz dragging her bicycle up and over slippery rocks in a rushing stream. After a push and pull to gain some ground and a quick break to study the best way to rock hop with a bike in hand, she stumbled and fell. While dropping her beloved Surly bicycle into the water in an attempt to gain her balance she just groaned with exasperation.  Now, with the bike partially submerged and her feet wet, we were both starting to question our reasoning.  Not only were we fording streams, we found ourselves dragging bicycles over downed trees, ducking and weaving around overhanging branches, pushing through thick brush only to find the path strangled by even more vegetation and debris.

Our plan was pretty simple; retrace the route of the abandoned D and H Railroad from Plattsburgh to Saranac Lake. The maps all showed it, locals talked about its existence and one bike shop mechanic told us he traveled the whole thing by dirt bike years ago. “Although, “he said, “the right of way seems to be lost in places.”  After some roadside scouting of the railroad grade via our little Toyota, we concluded that the best place to begin was outside of Cadyville where there were no houses or any no trespassing signs blocking our way.

For many years I had been daydreaming of exploring this route. Recently inspired by a bike tour on Quebec’s Route Verte (a world class bicycle network and the largest in the Americas) that links Mt. Tremblant to Montreal, Sherbrook, and Quebec City to the Gaspe’ Peninsula and the Atlantic Coast, I thought there was not any reason why we should not at least try to explore a way to link a bike path from Plattsburgh to Saranac Lake and maybe even North to Malone and Chateaugay on the Northern Tier of the old railroad networks. The Route Verte seemed to be a perfect model for what could be a huge incentive for people to explore the Adirondacks.

Old railroad grade on National Geographic MapWhile in Quebec, we passed through small towns using the long abandoned rail lines to lure tourists and to give the local folks a means to stay healthy and connected to the community and beyond. Young and old were out and about in town squares where the Route Verte passed by.  Not only were people getting a little exercise, they were spending their money in the restaurants and bike shops along the way.

Anyway, I had been skiing over the long abandoned D and H railroad bed for years as I went up Lyon Mountain, and saw the snowmobilers zip by and fade into the distance. The railroad path seemed so mysterious (probably because I don’t own a snowmobile). “We can be pioneers, just think of the possibilities,” I told Liz in a half joking half serious discussion about the bike trip over dinner one evening. “Uhhh yeah, right….pioneers” she said rolling her eyes.

“The railroad bed has got to be up on that hillside. We have to go back and make that right turn into the field. That must have been the original route,” Liz said as she dragged the bike to the stream side.  Liz and I retraced our steps. We descended up and down two different sixty foot, near vertical, washouts and proceeded to encounter wetlands that all but consumed our route. We finally dragged our bikes up an overgrown embankment in Dannemora and into someone’s back yard. As we quietly made our way through to a side street, we hoped to not infuriate some random property owner with our ignorance. “Uhm, this is a little more than I expected,” Liz said as she pointed out her heavily scratched legs and arms.  “Yeah,” I said sheepishly. “We traveled three miles in three hours.” We stopped for a while to recover and to eat to eat lunch on steps of St. Joseph’s church while I seriously contemplated ditching the remaining trip for the paved road over the mountain to our waiting truck in Lyon Mountain.

blowdowns on old railroad bedPerhaps it was the lunch that lifted our spirits or the knowledge that many a snowmobilers used the route we were about to ride, nevertheless we clipped into our pedals and pushed on.  What we encountered was a delight.  The old Railroad bed was nicely maintained by snowmobilers (a sign lets you know as you head west out of Dannemora).  Grateful for the upkeep, we headed west towards the Chazy Lake Road. As the path meandered westward it seemed as if it was a park all unto itself, a sort of linear park that was only interrupted by the occasional view of the High Peaks or by a side road entrance that transformed the rail bed, for a short distance, into a dirt road that allowed access to a home or camp.

All was well as we continued on. There were no streams to cross, no branches to dodge and zero chasms to scale. Periodically, there were small washouts that we maneuvered around. Unfortunately, much of the times we had to be cautious of loose sand that grabbed your front tire like an angry demon wanting to throw you to the trailside or cause your back tire to spin hopelessly in what seemed to be quicksand.

These first encounters with the sand were a sign of things to come. Once passed the Chazy Lake Road, this infuriating road base made bicycling the corridor a fool’s endeavor. The railroad bed would be a just right for cruising along then out of nowhere there would be long stretches of sand that drained any glee that you had just experienced.  At one point I looked on in jealous contempt as a teenager cruised by in a golf cart. I wondered if he chuckled at the thought of pedal power as he bounced along.

After passing some gorgeous wetlands and small streams we continued our sandy slog past the road that serves the Lyon Mountain Trailhead.  It was about this point that my legs started to feel like two lead weights and my brain started whispering things like “take the paved road when you get to it.” We opted to keep going. Liz, somewhat dispirited by the sand said, “We came this far we might as well keep going for the last few miles. It could be pretty.”

And it was pretty. There were plenty of wetlands and no development in sight. We skirted around two small mountains on the railroad’s gentle grade, plunged into a trail wide sixty foot long puddle then finished out our day with an iced tea from the convenience store in Lyon Mountain.

The next day we decided to explore the route from Lyon to Standish. Starting at the remodeled train station in Lyon Mountain, that now houses a railroad museum; we headed off and quickly plunged onto the rail lines that skirt the yards of a few residences. It wasn’t long before the path passed a hunting club and left the little town of Lyon Mountain and became a full-fledged woodland route.

The Lyon Mountain Standish connection was, at least to me, my favorite part of the trip. As we rode, mountains occasionally came into view, bogs appeared on our left and right and the path seemed to gently curve around the forest’s features.  Eventually, towards this sections end, we came upon a stream and waterfalls that cascaded through a huge old cement arch and into a calm deep pool where a child’s sandal sat stream side in weathered abandonment.

As we pushed on from the cascading stream, we came to a crossroads. Here we faced a choice that we knew would influence the trips course-turn right onto what was once the old railroad bed or make a left for Standish and what we knew was the somewhat maintained Wolf Pond Road. “Let’s go left,” I said. “We can head down the Wolf Pond Road and see what the Railroad grade looks like when it crosses the road.” Liz nodded in agreement and we pushed off for the short ride down a dirt road towards the town of Standish.

snowmobile bridge near lyon mtnAs we approached the Wolf Pond Road, a road closed sign that blocked the way made it apparent that things may not go as planned and a sign tacked to a tree let us know that this was a seasonal road and perhaps bicycles were not the preferred mode of travel around these parts. “What do you want to do,” Liz asked as she slowly meandered around the road closed sign, following a set of truck tracks in the dusty road surface. “Let’s go ahead… at least until the next stream,” I said. “I bet the road is washed out there and we can at least see where the railroad grade joins the road,”  I added quickly as we pedaled.

The road started out as something that cured the blues of the sandy railroad bed and filled us with the hope that the road would continue to be as solid and well maintained as we were finding it to be. As we drifted along with barely a pedal push to accelerate our bikes things changed quickly as the road steepened. Little rocks that made the up the surface of the road became bigger and bigger until fist sized cobbles occupied the majority of the road and threatened to pinch out the air of our tires via the sidewalls or send us toppling with any misguided maneuver. “The stream isn’t far.” I shouted to Liz while chattering over the rocks.

We made it to the stream and to where the road had recently been impassable due to a culvert washout. We also found the side road used for logging that eventually led to the old railroad path but decided to not push past due to the logging activity and overgrowth. Instead we sat down for a long lunch and a surprisingly long but interesting conversation with a forester out scouting the land for one of the logging companies. “Oh, the railroad path…. yeah that’s long gone, it’s so overgrown that you can barely see it,” she said. The old telegraph wires are still there though, which looks pretty cool,” she added.  Not only was the path now consumed by the forests growth she said; it was also privately owned and not a public right of way.  “You would be trespassing,” she said politely.

At this point of the trip we knew that a rail to trails path was more than possible from Dannemora to Lyon Mountain and Standish.  It would need to be surfaced with a durable surface, side slopes properly graded again, drainage repaired and cleaned out regularly and right of ways hashed out. Not cheap by any measure, but worth the cost if it funneled bicyclists, more snowmobilers, cross country skiers, and walkers to this part of the Adirondacks.

I would like to say we continued on – that we linked the Wolf Pond Road to the existing railroad beds – but we didn’t. Instead, we headed home over the chunky rocks and dusty road to our car. Dispirited but content to look into the possibility of helping create a world class bicycle network on the old railroad (or some other route) from Plattsburgh, Standish, Loon Lake, Malone, Chateaugay, Saranac Lake and beyond to the Route Verte.

Photos by Dan Robinson: From above, the route near Standish; the old railroad grade between Lyon Mountain and Standish; blowdown blocking the path; and the snowmobile bridge near Lyon Mountain.


Related Stories

The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

2 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    I believe Bikewhacking (a unique form of bushwhacking, where you happen to be carrying a bike, which happens to be legal in Wilderness areas, so long as you don’t actually ride the bike and make use of those gears to your advantage) is becoming a lost art-form. I believe it was perfected in the early 90s when all we could ride were swampy old snowmobile trails, erosion-disaster 4-wheeler trenches,erosion-disaster hiking trails, or barely-there game paths on full-rigid frames with terrible geometry. The truly committed bikewhacker had one of those funny little frame-bag attachments that happened to double as a place to put the bike on your shoulder and walk after the fifth or sixth endo. Of course, one of the best parts of bikewhacking was watching your friends crash, and getting a good chuckle when it happened. Fortunately that particular tradition seems to hold true to this day with mountain bikers everywhere.

    Thanks for an enjoyable article.

  2. Kristen M says:

    You two make a good team! Sounds like quite an adventure!

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox