We reach the ridge's high point in the rain shadow of 4,865-foot Whiteface Mountain, one of the Adirondack High Peaks, just before sunset. The rocky knob reveals a sweeping view of the largest publicly protected area in the country, where Canada's boreal zone merges with the northern reaches of the New York's sugar maples, hemlocks and white pines. Some 3,000 lakes and ponds, and more than 30,000 miles of rivers and streams percolate the dense forest. Some 100 peaks form a unique circular range, independent from the better-known Appalachians, that is still growing as fast as a millimeter a year.
After an 800-foot climb at the end of the week, everyone is quick to open their packs and crack open a beer. Hardy Hour lures 20 to 45 riders here every Friday evening from early spring–the area's well-drained sandy loam dries out before other trails–until the snow falls. Most riders warm up on the network's west side, where you can progress from smooth singletrack winding through tangled black spruce to tighter, hand-built flow trails, to a technical loop with a 200-vertical-foot climb on slick slab and craggy rock. Every Hardy Hour ends with a climb up All In, a 3-mile lollipop loop on the east side of the dirt parking lot that separates the two sides of the Hardy Road network. As the light fades, cans are packed up; headlamps switched on. Our group of 15 descends into the dark canopy, picking up speed on the playful, handmade trail. With 2- to 6-foot drops spicing up the alternate switchback lines, it's an ideal mix of tech, flow, speed and airtime.
Back at the parking lot, the duration of the tailgate party depends on the number of black flies circling the area. Lucky for us thin-skinned visitors, they're gone by fall. The after-after-party brings 30 of us to a backyard tiki bar behind the house of a Hardy Hour regular. The host pours cold, sweet Painkillers – a tropical rum drink – from a plastic jug and we pile our plates with mouthwatering ribs from the potluck spread. The white steeple of the Wilmington Church of the Nazarene across the street illuminates the backdrop as the bonfire and tiki torches cast light on the faces of a cheerful group who appreciates bikes, booze and community.
Referred to as the North Country, this part of northeast New York feels more rugged and wild than bucolic New England; a strong regional identity bonds 'Adirondackers.' Maybe it's the lower population density; maybe the harsh weather. The summit of Whiteface Mountain dropped to minus 114 Fahrenheit last February, and the community of Saranac Lake is recognized as the coldest place in the country on many winter days. Regardless, it's rare to ride alone in this neck of the woods, where casual group rides gather more than 20 riders multiple times a week. With Hardy Hour and Poor Man's Downhill shuttle days in Wilmington, Wednesday Night Booze Cruises meeting in Lake Placid or Saranac Lake every week and events like the annual Poker Ride, mountain biking in the Adirondacks is always a social gathering.
The group mentality extends to trail development and maintenance. The local trail advocacy group works tirelessly to create new trails on perhaps the strictest managed public lands in the country. Adirondack Park, though touted as one of the outdoor capitals of the east, has never been a mountain bike destination. But in last six years, Barkeater Trails Alliance (BETA) has effectively communicated and collaborated with state land management agencies, municipalities and private landowners to create more than 20 miles of new singletrack in the communities of Lake Placid, Wilmington and Saranac Lake.
"There is a real feeling of building a mountain bike community from the ground up," says Matt McNamara, BETA founder and an environmental program specialist at Adirondack Park Agency, who has been building trails for 15 years. "At best, mountain biking has been deeply misunderstood in the past, and at worst, it's been proactively dismissed from consideration at the highest levels. The response to this reality has been a bit of a guerilla-warfare approach. Dig in and make it happen no matter what. Every trail counts. The volunteer enthusiasm is off the charts, and it shows in the trails."
To those living west of the Mississippi, New York state might seem the antithesis of frontier–it wasn't until 30 years after the Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Pacific Ocean that 5,344-foot Mount Marcy, the Adirondack's highest mountain, was identified and climbed. While the Catskills were thought to be New York's highest mountains, the Adirondacks to the north remained unknown and unmapped. Even today, the unique parcel of land remains something of an enigma to outsiders.
Adirondack Park encompasses almost 6 million acres and covers one-fifth of New York. The area is equal in size to the entire state of Vermont. Unlike a national park, half of Adirondack Park is privately owned, with about 150,000 year-round residents living within what locals call the 'blue line,' or the perimeter of the park. Its many Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) designated land classifications–Wilderness, Primitive and Wild Forest–epitomize the behemoth bureaucracy of New York government (a local government employee likened it to English Parliament). Mountain biking is banned within its six Wilderness areas and three Primitive areas–the latter includes roads, fire towers and private inholdings–but is permitted on designated trails on state Wild Forest lands, along with motorized vehicles and snowmobiles. The DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) determine the trails on which to allow mountain biking through the state land management planning process. Building new trails on Wild Forest lands must be done in accordance with an approved Unit Management Plan (UMP). It's an acronym-filled, tedious process that would discourage all but the most tenacious mountain bike advocates.
Fortunately, tenacity is a prevalent character trait of Adirondackers. Trails days bring a surplus of volunteers, and die-hard riders spend much of their free time building features in the woods and improving trails on their own.
A few days later we meet the core local crew at Bill and Mel Frazer's house in a woodsy neighborhood in Lake Placid. Hometown sweethearts from western New York (who at the time we visited were expecting their first child), the Frazers help maintain Lake Placid's reputation for breeding elite athletes. On top of teaching, they coach high-school cross-country and track and field, and Bill coaches high-school Nordic skiing. Mel has finished five Ironmans, while Bill is a Class V kayaker. A Cat 1 mountain bike racer as a junior, Bill got back into mountain biking a decade ago and became president of BETA in 2008. He rides every local trail network each week.
"What I like here is the diversity of it," says Frazer. "I can ride trails that I still dab on–I never get bored."
A dozen of us take off for a half-day tour of Lake Placid's trails: Craig Wood, Lussi and Loggers. On Back Nine at Craig Wood, Frazer leads us off trail and we come up on Steam Roller, a 15-foot drop with an 18-foot gap from the takeoff to the landing. Reggae music is playing, cold beer awaits and 24-year-old Alex Goff, who works trail crew operations for the DEC, and Matt Schmidt, a 30-year-old carpenter, are sessioning the feature they finished two months ago. Goff was born and raised in Lake Placid, and got into mountain biking four years ago when Frazier, his Nordic ski coach, convinced him to get a bike. Goff cut his teeth (literally–Goff has a reputation for injuring himself on his bike) on the renegade features Frazier and another local rider and carpenter, Adrian Cieri, built. "They were these old drop-to-flat rock drops and I'd just do somersault after somersault and beat my face in," says Goff.
To finish Steam Roller, Cieri loaned Goff and Schmidt the tools to drill rebar into the rock face and Frazier chipped in to rent a machine to build the landing. Goff and Schmidt spent $500 of their own money on materials, gas, tools and beer. "Every year, Matt and I like to build something that will scare the crap out of us," says Goff.
The next day we drive 100 miles to the south, where 24-year-old Eli Glessman helped turn a small family ski hill into a downhill destination. When new owners took over Oak Mountain in 2012, Glessman, who grew up skiing at the one-chairlift ski area, approached the couple about lift-accessed mountain biking. Glessman was appointed trail manager and set out hand building trails with a few volunteers. Just like Glessman, it's a low-key operation, but the trails offer legitimate pitch, flow and scenery. We ride Lupine to Smoothie, trails Glessman finished three months ago, and watch Glessman effortlessly fly 18 feet off Acid Drop, a wood ramp with a machine-built landing and a pit of doom between. We head into the modest day lodge for lunch, where we're expecting mediocre nachos. Instead, we're served crispy haddock with a red Thai curry sauce, spicy tuna rolls and fresh spring rolls prepared by 'Chef Lou,' an unassuming culinary star from "Hell’s Kitchen" who moved to this sleepy pocket of the state for its slower pace.
The Adirondack mountain bike community might be an extreme minority compared to the area's hikers and paddlers, but the group's passion and competence belies its size. In addition to the 20 miles of new trail, BETA has performed extensive rehabilitation on another 20 miles to improve trail sustainability and suitability for mountain bike use, and has adopted close to 15 miles of existing trails to maintain.
The Wilmington Wild Forest UMP, approved in 2005, was the first to include mountain bike-specific multi-use trails and created the Hardy Road Trails, the 7-mile network that hosts the Friday Hardy Hour, and expanded trails on the nearby Flume network.
The plan also helped spur the creation of BETA, which began in 2010 to advocate for and develop an interconnected mountain bike trail system in the region. Its first two projects, Hardy Road and the Lussi trails in Lake Placid, drastically changed the Adirondack mountain bike scene for the better. Wilmington remains in the spotlight, as the Adirondack Park Agency recently advanced a plan to add 7 miles of new trail to the Hardy Road and Flume networks, which consist of smooth, intermediate singletrack down low, and rugged, rocky, technical riding higher on the mountain. A re-route will repair a 9-mile trail called Copper Kiln that reaches 3,500 feet above sea level and was washed out during Hurricane Irene.
Although Lake Placid gets all the name recognition, its Olympic-venue ski area, Whiteface Mountain, is actually in Wilmington. The rider-owned Whiteface Mountain Bike Park offers 2,426-foot-long runs, the biggest vertical drop in the East and some of the gnarliest, techiest lift-accessed trails in the country. The Wilmington Dirt Jump Park, built and designed by Kyle Ebbett, is the only one of its kind in the region. The Wilmington Whiteface 100k Mountain Bike Race is the only east coast qualifier for the Leadville Race series (participation has soared to 550 racers last year). Its annual Bike Week now draws more people to the town than any other single event. And Wilmington is home to the Poor Man's Downhill shuttle every other Sunday during the summer, which has become a mainstay of the Adirondack riding scene.
We score the last Poor Man's shuttle day of the season. More than 40 downhillers, families, casual cyclists, reps, BETA members and newbies congregate behind Up A Creek Restaurant and LeepOff Cycles on Route 86 to barbecue, socialize and shuttle halfway up Whiteface Mountain. We pay $5, load our bikes on a trailer and hop in the van, where we meet riders from all over the ADK. The former snowmobile route starts with a technical rock section, then gets flowier as it weaves through hardwoods, hemlock stands and diverse terrain, dropping 1,200 feet over 3 miles.
"It always has a bit of a raw and rugged edge to it, and never gets boring," says BETA's McNamara. "The lines have formed kind of organically without a lot of terrain manipulation or highly involved trail engineering."
That ruggedness is part of what sets the Adirondacks apart from the more manicured, predictable East coast mountain bike destinations like Vermont's Kingdom Trails.
Tim Tierney, now the Kingdom Trails executive director, advocated for mountain bike trails in the Wilmington, Lake Placid and Saranac Lake region in the 1980s when he served as trails director for the Adirondack Mountain Club. He eventually left due to the lack of stakeholder and state support at the time. Without an organized advocacy group to lobby the state for permission to build and the subsequent lack of dedicated state resources, mountain biking was long overshadowed by snowmobiling, whose lobby groups dominated the state land planning process. When Tierney later presented to the APA Economic Affairs Committee in 2009 on the economic impacts of mountain biking to the Burke region in Vermont, the presentation educated the agencies.
"It was catalyst for the present buildup of trails and partnerships created by BETA in this region," says Keith P. McKeever, an officer at the Adirondack Park Agency and one of the area's most passionate mountain bikers.
As the DEC slowly warms to the idea of mountain biking, private landowners hold the key to connecting all three communities via trail, as was the case with the Kingdom Trails. Teirney's presentation (and a New York State law that gives private landowners a measure of protection from lawsuits) motivated Park Agency board member and Crowne Plaza Resort & Golf Club President and landowner Art Lussi to allow BETA to build trails in the woods adjacent to his private golf course in Lake Placid seven years ago.
Lussi meets us one morning at the Craig Wood Golf Club parking lot, where he hops out of a dusty, decade-old Dodge Caravan and unloads an '80s-era Bianchi with U brakes.
We figure-eight Craig Wood, then connect to the Lussi and Loggers trails via Jackrabbit trail, a cross-country ski trail. The four Loggers Loops satisfy any pining for old-school mountain bike trails by offering almost 7 miles of difficult, rooted, rocky trails with a smattering of ladders, bridges and log rides. After a rain, the glistening roots and wet leaves amplify the challenge. A punchy climb accesses Loop 2, then the trail gets more challenging as maples give way to pine. Frazier calls Loop 2 and Loop 3 the "Focus Loops." Within the network, there are still sections he's never cleaned.
Without many clearings or vantage points, the Loops grow confusing, but locals are quick to welcome newbies. "Anytime we bump into someone out here, we're eager to show them a good time," says Frazier. "We want to share this. Nobody knows about it and there is so much here. It's not going to get crowded for a long time. The momentum has just begun."
Last summer at Craig Wood, construction began on a new machine-built flow trail and an access trail, funded by a DEC grant and set to be completed by late summer 2017. The two trails will double the size of the existing 3-mile network. In the winter, the access trail will double as a ski trail, providing access to 400 vertical feet of glade skiing at a decrepit ski area from the 1960s.
One afternoon, as we're heading back to a lakeside resort on Lower Saranac Lake, we detour for a sunset ride at Mt. Pisgah, a small ski area and one of Saranac Lake's two trail networks. Josh Wilson, executive director of BETA and owner of Origin Coffee, Saranac Lake's hippest coffee shop, usually rides Pisgah after work. Covering every inch of trail on the 100-acre property, only takes about an hour-and-a-half, he tells me. We don't have time for Wilson's usual Pisgah program–three to four top-to-bottom laps–but we climb to the top of The Cure, Pisgah's flow trail, built so well you could have fun on a rigid cruiser. Or, you can mach, like our guides do, making them as difficult as you want with all the berms, tabletops and drops BETA has scattered throughout.
The Saranac Lakes Wild Forest contains the greatest potential for trail expansion and the opportunity to link Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, two of Adirondack Park’s biggest communities. BETA has worked with DEC planners on mountain bike proposals that would formalize the use of the existing Loggers Loops in Lake Placid and create 15 miles of additional trails spanning Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.
"Yet the planning process has dragged on for over 15 years with no end in sight," says Wilson. "This is especially frustrating when we can clearly see that the trails BETA has already built on state land in the Wilmington Wild Forest have become very popular and made a noticeable impact on the local economy."
Another long-standing BETA goal is to connecting Pisgah and Dewey and the Village of Saranac Lake, says Wilson. "But it's a complicated connection, with many mandatory road sections and road crossings, multiple parcels of private, residential lands, and a small chunk of state land to deal with."
McNamara, BETA's founder, says that regardless of whether or not BETA is able to connect the networks, he's satisfied with improving the riding along the way.
"Building trails is fun," says McNamara. "As long as no one is getting burned out, what's the rush? I'm not a big proponent of building the shit out of it and marketing it to the world. Trails are more permanent than that. They’re a part of the community."