Most visitors to the Adirondacks may not think of doing it on two wheels. Although their well-known hiking and canoeing attractions have attracted millions, cycling in the land of the High Peaks remains a “largely undiscovered” recreation option, says Sharon O’Brien, scenic byways coordinator at Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA).
A sleek new website, bikethebyways.org, aims to put pedaling on a par with paddling and trekking. Maps, detailed descriptions and nearly 500 links to other biking resources make it easy for visitors to get acquainted with 15 cycling routes in upstate New York that range in length from 17 to 190 miles.
O’Brien says the routes have been designated by the New York State Department of Transportation because of their natural, historical and cultural features. The byways were originally promoted primarily with motorists in mind, but O’Brien insists they can comfortably accommodate two-wheelers, as well. Unlike many roads in Vermont, she says, most stretches of the New York byways include wide shoulders that help protect bikers from cars and trucks. And some parts of the network have so little vehicular traffic, “It feels like you’re on a bike path,” O’Brien adds.
For Burlington-area cyclists, she recommends two routes in particular: the Lake to Locks Passage and the Olympic Byway. The latter, accessible via the ferry from Burlington to Port Kent, runs all the way to Lake Ontario, starting with a 45-mile workout from Keeseville to Saranac Lake. The Lake to Locks Passage extends from Rouses Point to a spot near Albany where the Hudson and Mohawk rivers converge. It ranks as New York’s only federally designated “All-American Road” because of its nationally significant features, such as the continent’s first interconnected waterway, linking the Hudson River to Lake Champlain.
Seven Days took a test spin on the 50-mile portion of this byway between Port Kent and Crown Point. ANCA’s promotional claims proved generally valid, but the ride also confirmed a warning offered by bikethebyways.org site designer Tim Holmes: “Some of the roads are in terrible shape.”
An early five-mile part of the route along Mace Chasm Road in Keeseville truly does resemble a bike path. With few cars traveling in either direction, it rolls past apple orchards, pastures, paddocks and fields of black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace turned toward a blazing Saturday noontime sun. The Adirondacks’ libertarian strain is also on display here. A barn that’s part of Paradise Stables’ horse farm bears the painted plaint: “Born Free, Taxed to Death.”
The sights along this stretch of newly spread asphalt look a lot like those of rural Vermont, including a wayside café selling organic cheese and Klinger’s bread.
Carolyn Campbell, who’s working behind the counter at this Clover Mead Farm outlet, says she likes living in “so mellow” an area, even though “it’s hard to get paid what you deserve around here.” The 24-year-old New Jersey native and SUNY Plattsburgh graduate adds that she enjoys visiting Burlington, where she has friends “on the seven- or eight-year plan at UVM.” Campbell laments that the last ferry back to Port Kent leaves Perkins Pier at 6:30 p.m.
O’Brien touts the byways’ broad shoulders, and that’s warranted as the Lake to Locks route joins US Route 9. There’s more car traffic along this leg, which closely parallels Interstate 87 for a couple of miles, but bikers probably won’t feel endangered.
Anyone on skinny tires may well feel terrified, however, on parts of Route 22 north of Willsboro and again toward the end of the ride after leaving Port Henry. These rutted and bumpy sections of the road have only a thin edge separating the car lane from the drainage ditch. It’s smart to squeeze the brake levers on steep descents where cyclists might ordinarily want to cruise at full speed.
Willsboro does offer the sort of historical interest that O’Brien flags as a key feature of the byways. The heritage center, open on weekends, includes a miniature diorama of the little town in the 19th century. Charlie Lustig, a Plattsburgh High School history teacher, is on hand to explain the display and talk about the local economic importance of wollastonite, a mineral still mined and processed in the Adirondacks and used in ceramics.
Next stop is the elegant town of Essex, which includes some of the loveliest residential architecture in the Champlain Valley. Then it’s a hilly, sweaty 10-mile ride to Westport, overlooking a bay opposite Vermont’s Basin Harbor.
After pedaling through a series of seemingly prosperous town centers, it’s a shock to huff up a killer hill into Port Henry’s commercial district. Most storefronts sit vacant; there are no pedestrians in sight at 4 p.m. A subsequent Internet search reveals that almost 20 percent of Port Henry’s 1150 residents subsist below the poverty line.
The last segment of the route juts east and north onto the lake’s Crown Point peninsula, where a free ferry will float a tired cyclist back to Vermont. It’s a dramatic finale, with the sun starting to sink behind the new Champlain Bridge scheduled to be completed in mid-October. There are still 40 miles to go from Chimney Point to Burlington, however, so wise cyclists will arrange to be picked up by someone with a bike rack on the car.