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Start the rails-to-trail now

August 14, 2012
By Naj Wikoff

I have biked the 35-mile Elroy-to-Sparta bike path installed on a former railroad bed in Wisconsin. It was a delightful experience. As a consequence, I am in favor of creating similar opportunities in the Adirondacks.

To me, the route that makes the most sense is the one that can be created from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake, along the railside trail that is already in the works, and then on to Onchiota and beyond to Loon Lake, Malone and Canada. What the route from Saranac Lake north has going for it is no tracks. They are already gone; thus, upgrading that route for bikes could be done within a couple of years. Another advantage is that it provides a marvelous wildness experience with delightful views, will be a boon to some small hamlets and villages along the way that could use an economic shot in the arm, and leads to Canada (the original route went all the way to Montreal), which has a far larger potential audience then, say, Utica.

The section to Onchiota is already bikeable, though a bit sandy and thus tricky in a few spots - but what a great experience! My message to all those clamoring to bike to Old Forge is to try the route from Saranac Lake through Onchiota. Yes, it needs work to be made a truly enjoyable experience for all, but the cost of doing so would be far, far less than the cost of tearing up the tracks to Old Forge, which would encounter lawsuits and require all the towns along the way to agree, a new state Department of Transportation management plan, millions of dollars and years of hassle before any foot can be put to pedal along that route.

Article Photos

This map shows past Adirondack railroads, with the ones that still exist highlighted (dotted between Saranac Lake and Big Moose, since that line is only used a couple of times per year). The author of this commentary suggests establishing a recreational trail on the bed of the former railroad from Saranac Lake north to Canada, through Loon Lake and Malone.

(Map from Michael Kurdish’s book, “Mountain Railroads of New York State, Volume Two: Where Did the Tracks Go in the Central Adirondacks?”)

The question comes down to, what's the goal, and what's the purpose of wanting to rip up the tracks to Old Forge, when another track through the wilderness already exists sans train tracks? I think the 90-mile Old Forge-Saranac Lake Canoe Classic has created some pixie dust that implies that that is the best of all possible routes, and let's not forget that Old Forge is now the terminus for the paddle route to Maine - but how many have made that trek? Lots of people are crazed to hike Marcy, but I do not find that the most enjoyable hiking experience in reality.

If our goal is a trek through the wilderness, the Onchiota route has it. If it is spurring economic development, Onchiota, Loon Lake and Malone could use it, as could Standish and Lyon Mountain if one takes a fork and follows the bed over to Plattsburgh (another potential end-point and gateway to Canadian bike enthusiasts). If the goal is to find a cooperative, non-confrontational solution (a goal of the Common Ground meeting), then the Onchiota route has that as well. And the cost to taxpayers would be far, far less. And it is also the route that could be made available the quickest.

The Onchiota route also provides an opportunity, at a reasonable cost, to test out this idea of seeing if there would be a sustained and growing audience for such an activity. If so, it turns out there are quite a number of other abandoned railway beds to consider all throughout the North Country. A great map of all the many possibilities can be found in Michael Kurdish's book "Mountain Railroads of New York State, Volume Two: Where Did the Tracks Go in the Central Adirondacks?"

Instead of staying at loggerheads, I encourage all those on both sides of the proposed Utica route to work together on the Onchiota route and test out the idea so we can have a chance of using it while we are still young and healthy enough to enjoy the benefits.


Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley.



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