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Destination Adirondacks: Hand-Built Trails and Good Times Await Mountain Bikers

Photo: Matt Miller

Chatting with people at barbecues and gatherings this summer, I get asked if I’ve been anywhere cool this summer.

“Well, I just got back from a mountain bike trip in New York,” I told them. Their responses ranged from, “there’s mountain biking there?,” to “I don’t think I’d want to go there.” To be fair, that person was thinking of the city.

“Yes, great mountain biking” and “Really? It was gorgeous,” I responded. Most readers won’t be shocked there is good mountain biking in the vast wild lands of upstate New York. There is good mountain biking in the majority of the United States these days, but the Adirondacks have their own style, laced in deep shades of green, with loamy and raw trails.

The advocacy group, Barkeaters Trail Alliance, has been busy making Adirondack trail riding as good as possible and I’m happy I got to experience it so I can share with anyone considering a trip.

Meet the Barkeaters

Photo: Matt Miller

Some of the trails around Lake Placid and the Adirondacks have been around for a long time, but they’ve since gained momentum with the advent of BETA, the Barkeaters Trail Alliance, the trail advocacy club for the Adirondacks. The group started in 2009 and it was formed by local riders who lived in the towns of Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, and Wilmington.

“It started as purely a grassroots effort,” says Josh Wilson, executive director for BETA. “From the beginning it was a regional approach where we literally have these three towns and then we just went from there.”

Trail building efforts began in Wilmington. One of the members was a trail builder and worked with another outdoors advocacy organization which helped them navigate the new waters and train trail workers on proper building technique.

The Lussi trails, butted up against the golf course in Lake Placid were an early project for BETA too and are now one of the two primary networks in the town.

BETA formed a fiscal sponsorship with the Adirondack Ski Touring Council a few years after their formation, but eventually the two merged into one organization. Wilson took over the executive director position a few years later and since then, they’ve added a paid, full-time trail crew and an outreach coordinator.

Much of the public land around the Adirondacks is under strict conservation efforts and the state constitution. Wilson says this was adopted in the 1800s after heavy logging and mining. These laws restrict some of the ways that BETA can maintain and develop trail because machine work is not permitted on state land. Thus, many of the trails like Loggers in Lake Placid, which dates back to the 1980s/90s, and Hardy Road in Wilmington, have a more natural feel with raw handcut trails. BETA still finds ways to spice up the trails — although there aren’t wooden features in some of these spots, the rock drops in Wilmington are enough to get your blood flowing.

BETA’s 2021 annual trail report shows that by the end of the year they closed in on 200 members, had 250 volunteers, and built four miles of new trails. An anonymous donor granted them a quarter-million dollars in 2021. For 2022, BETA is focused on improving trail signage and developing trail opportunities in Elizabethtown, Wilmington, Lake Placid, and Saranac Lake.

Where to ride

Photo: Matt Miller

I spent three days riding and split my time between Lake Placid, Wilmington, and Saranac Lake and averaged about 16-17 miles per day. The trails and scenery look and feel familiar from trail to trail, however there are differences in the style of trail building based on where the trails lie and their layout.

“It’s hard to say how each place is totally different, you just know that it’s unique,” says Wilson.

For those who are making a trip out of mountain biking in the Adirondacks, there are networks in Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, Wilmington, and Elizabethtown. Lake Placid felt like the most central place to stay though, right between Wilmington and Saranac Lake. Both were about a 25-minute drive. Elizabethtown is located about 45 minutes from Lake Placid.

Lake Placid

Photo: Jamie McGiver

There are a few places to ride within Lake Placid itself: There is a small network on the Placid peninsula with a few miles, and there are the Lussi trails, the Loggers trails, and the Craig Wood trails.

The riding in Lake Placid is more hilly than it is mountainous, so there aren’t many sustained climbs, but the bigger ascents and descents are at Craig Wood.

Lussi and Loggers (and Craig Wood) trails

Jamie McGiver carving down Blue Ribbon. Photo: Matt Miller

Lussi and Loggers may be flatter than other areas around the Adirondacks, but there are enough rocks and ledges and features that take a degree of physicality to ride. The singletrack is skinny and you have to pay attention to where your front tire is pointed. Some of the roots make for shelf-like climbing and there are plenty of features to keep you guessing.

“It’s kind of rolling, like classic cross-country style trails,” says Wilson.

These trails are perfect for a modern 120mm mountain bike. I rode with two locals, Justin and Jamie McGiver. Jamie is the outreach coordinator for BETA. We linked trails from the Lussi and Loggers side over to Craig Wood for about 16 miles and 1,600 feet of climbing.

A little more travel doesn’t hurt here. Justin flying through one of the features at Craig Wood. Photo: Jamie McGiver

Since we started on the Lussi/Loggers side, I was warmed up before we got to some of the steeper and more sustained climbs at Craig Wood. At the summit of Scott’s Cobble, there is a bench and a small rest area to recover before descending Blue Ribbon, a sweet flow and jump trail with surprise side hits and kickers on the way down. Take this over to Air and Stone for some wooden features and drops.

Loggers is reminiscent of BC riding with skinny, brown singletrack engulfed by green ferns and leafy trees. These are some of the earliest trails built in the area and they’re still a blast if you’re into natural riding. Loggers Loops 1, 2, and 3 get progressively more challenging.

Wilmington

Jim tackling some tech. Wilmington has its share of flow and rock.

Wilmington is just up the road from Lake Placid. The drive took me about 25 minutes and the picturesque road winds through the forest and parallels the Ausable River.

I joined Jim and Amanda, two other locals and BETA members who live in the area, for a tour of Wilmington’s best, including Noreen’s, Three Sisters, Twisted Pine, Ante Up, All in, and Good Luck.

Good Luck is full of natural rocks and slabby climbs where you’ll need some of the trail’s namesake. Jim and Amanda showed me some of the trail’s most fun challenges and the best drops.

Steep slabby climbs in Wilmington. Photo: Matt Miller

Au natural doesn’t mean less fun — there are six-foot natural drops followed by some speed through Adirondack chunk.

There are bigger climbs and longer descents on this side too. Wilson from BETA says that Hardy Road has about 800 feet of vert and Poorman’s Downhill has 1,200 feet of vert.

Saranac Lake

Saranac Lake is another small community with some great trails just twenty minutes northwest of Lake Placid. The two most notable mountain bike trails in Saranac are Dewey, a network just outside of town and Mt. Pisgah, a ski hill that turns into an awesome mountain bike trail network in the summer. The connectivity of the two systems isn’t as good as Wilmington or Lake Placid, but the two are certainly worth a trip.

Dewey Mountain

Josh Wilson of BETA with an up-and-over on a boulder at Dewey Mountain. Photo: Matt Miller

I rode Dewey Mountain with Wilson of BETA for a 5-mile ride with close to 600ft of elevation gain. The mountain of course converts to a cross-country ski network with almost eight miles of trail in the winter. There is about 450ft of vertical from base to summit.

Since Dewey Mountain is town land, BETA has been able to carve out plenty of bike-optimized trail, leading up and over boulders, down rock slabs, and around berms.

I rode it on a late-June day and the dirt was damp and sticky and about as good as it could be. BETA notes that this is one of the last systems in the area to dry out, so there’s a good window to get some hero dirt here.

Mt. Pisgah

Wilson on the way down Mt. Pisgah. Photo: Matt Miller

Mt. Pisgah is a pretty unique option for mountain biking in the Adirondacks. Picture a small bike park without lift service but with a nice climbing trail, and varied descents.

BETA approached the owners of the small ski hill in 2011, asking if they could build mountain bike trails there, and the town gave them permission to start building on both sides of the lift.

From the big parking lot at the base to the summit of Mt. Pisgah, there is about 300ft of climbing, give or take. Looking for steep, brake-eating tech? Senduro is roughly a quarter-mile long with smooth catch berms and it’s progressive and short enough for intermediate riders to give it a try.

The Cure is the region’s only machine-built flow trails and it starts off with a fast stretch across Mt. Pisgah’s flowery face before jumping over tabletops through the woods.

Iron Lung is a natural climbing trail and IPW and Natski are natural trails with rock and root, reminiscent of typical East Coast riding.

Elizabethtown

Unfortunately, I didn’t ride in Elizabethtown, but locals rave about it. Wilson says the BETA trail crew has been spending a lot of time there lately working on trails. BETA started working in Elizabethtown in 2018 and now oversees Otis Mountain and Blueberry Hill. Elizabethtown is about a 45-minute drive from Lake Placid.

Otis Mountain Recreation Area is “unapologetically rustic,” says Wilson, but there is as much flow as there is tech. Recreation on the mountain began in the 1940s as a ski hill. There are over 600 acres of private land, and plenty of views to take advantage of on a break.

Need to find some peace on a Sunday morning? Group rides start at 9a from the bottom of the first ski hill.

Blueberry Hill is a multi-use network with trails for both motorized and non-motorized users. There are about 12 miles of trail with views of the Giant Mountain Wilderness, Lake Champlain, and Vermont.

Advanced riders might enjoy Joel’s Trail, the Blueberry Lean-to Trail, and Upper Liberty. Need someone to ride with? There is a group ride every Thursday at 6p starting from the Bronson parking area.

Where to Stay

Like any mountain bike destination, there is no shortage of hotels in Lake Placid, and there are options in Wilmington and Saranac Lake too. I stayed at the Placid Bay Hotel, which was newly renovated. The hotel has waterfront access and adirondack chairs (naturally) to sit and enjoy pristine views of the lake.

The hotel was pretty standard — air conditioning, comfy beds, and Netflix and Hulu on a big TV. The thing I liked most about the hotel was that it’s in walking distance to downtown and there are several restaurants and stores that are hikeable too. Placid Planet Bicycles is just a five minute walk or 1-minute ride from this hotel, and they likely have anything a traveling mountain biker might need.

Where to Eat

The second most important thing to mountain bikers is where to refuel afterward. From bagels, pizza, and beer to roasted duck and handcrafted cocktails, there are plenty of options around town.

Breakfast

The Green Goddess goods.

I had two favorites for breakfast: Saranac Sourdough and the Green Goddess. The Green Goddess is more ala carte/cafe style and built into a health-food store. I had a soft/crispy/crunchy bagel with fresh cream cheese, coffee, and a power smoothie with cocoa, peanut butter, coconut, and banana. It was the perfect amount to satiate me, without being too heavy.

Saranac Sourdough has fresh baked goods and cooks up everything from bagels to pancakes to muffulettas on their homemade bread. It’s a great spot for breakfast or lunch although they close by 2p on most days.

Lunch

Part convenience store, part deli, the Adirondack Corner Store is the perfect joint to grab a meaty sandwich and a side of pasta salad right after a big ride. Fill out your idea of a perfect sandwich on a piece of paper or take one of their suggestions.

Bazzi’s pizza is another good option if you’re after something greasier and saltier. I’ve never been to New York City, so Bazzi’s is geographically the closest thing I’ve ever had to a big city slice and I was satisfied. The garlic knots with marinara is a perfect side order, and they have several options for slices and for whole pizzas.

Dinner

Duck breast and smoked lavender cocktails at Top of the Park.

If you asked most mountain bikers who reside around Lake Placid where they would go for dinner, they would say Lisa G’s. There are casual menu items like sandwiches and pizza and entrees like gumbo and trout. Unfortunately I didn’t get to try it, but it came highly recommended.

The Dack Shack was down the street from the Placid Bay Hotel so I walked there one night and had a lobster roll and an old fashioned. The decor says Uncle Bill’s hunting cabin but the food says “more please.”

Top of the Park is a good spot for craft cocktails with a dinner. The Maple Mole with syrup and bourbon is fine as an after-dinner drink, but if you’re not concerned with following the rules, have it as an appetizer like I did.

Nightlife

On the Wednesday evening I was in town after I rode the Lussi and Craig Wood trails, I headed downtown to meet up for the weekly Booze Cruise, an awesome social ride on the Lake Placid trails. The route changes every week and sometimes it’s longer and sometimes it’s shorter, depending on how many people show up.

There were 30ish people when I rode and it was equal amounts of riding and socializing. I picked up some tall boys at the gas station, shoved them in my pack, and we’d ride for a few miles and stop for a drink. The group welcomes everyone — you can pack a soda water without judgement — and it’s clearly centered around riding with other people who love to ride bikes too. Everyone starts to gather by the lake at 6p.

As mentioned above, there are group rides in Elizabethtown on Thursday evenings too. The Lake Placid Booze Cruise was a bright highlight of my trip and I recommend riding with some of the great people around town who make it a great place to visit.

Visit LakePlacid.com for more information on planning your mountain biking trip to the Adirondacks.