August 2016 - Bicycling
Adventures in Cycling – Essex Chain Lakes
By Dave Kraus
As you ride carefully through the forest, a breeze rustles through the trees towering over your bike and gently blows the wildflowers growing beside your slowly rolling wheels along the old road. Grass has retaken the tracks where truck wheels used to rumble here at Essex Chain Lakes, and you have to watch for concealed rocks and fallen branches. But in the bare dirt areas that remain it’s easy to follow the huge, heart shaped tracks of the moose that also wandered down this road recently.
It’s hard to believe today that for a century this area was a bustling logging operation and off limits to the public. The 18,300-acre Chain Lakes Tract helped supply the Finch, Pruyn paper mill in Glens Falls with pulp from untold thousands of sturdy Adirondack trees. The company sold over 161,000 acres of their Adirondack holdings to The Nature Conservancy in 2007, and they in turn sold them to New York State in 2012. The Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area, with its 11 lakes and ponds and access to the Hudson and Cedar Rivers, was opened to the public in 2014 with special rules in place to allow bike access to almost 20 miles of logging roads. It’s a perfect setting for adventure cyclists.
Logging has left the area with a patchwork of shaded, quiet forest roads and open clearings that play host to vistas of wildflowers where the trees have not yet returned. Occasionally you will catch a glimpse of a lake or the road will skirt a forest pond or marsh. Make sure you take a map. The signage is poor and after a while every intersection looks the same.
Make sure to ride slowly and quietly and you may see some of the wildlife in this designated primitive area. On one trip we saw a mother bear and cub disappearing into the trees, and on the next trip moose tracks littered the road to Deer Pond. Loons call from the lakes, and what was that rustling in the bushes when you rode past?
Two parking areas give access from the east (Hudson River) or west (Deer Pond). Leaving the Hudson River parking lot, a one-mile ride on the dirt Gooley Club Road brings you to an intersection where going left takes you 1.7 more miles through forest and downhill to the Hudson River, and the Polaris Bridge that provides access to camps on the east shore and to the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest. Bicycles are not allowed past the bridge, but the river itself is a worthy destination, flowing gently and disappearing to the south along a broad valley.
Head back to the first intersection, go around the barrier, and pedal into the heart of the Chain Lakes on this rough but serviceable road. Be careful of the large “baby head” rocks that lie half-buried in the dirt. Keep bearing left, and in four miles you will pass the turnoff for the (private) Gooley Club on Third Lake and then head downhill to the Cedar River, which flows gently eastward toward the Hudson. After a few more rolling hills through the forest, the road ends at the river bank where a proposed bridge would make it possible to continue on to Indian Lake. Head back the way you came and it’s just under eight miles back to your car, for a round trip of a bit over 19 miles.
From the west, the Deer Pond entrance offers abundant parking after a bouncy ride over rocks and dirt. If you don’t want to risk your car’s underside, you can park near the end of the pavement back on Woody’s Road, and add almost five miles each way to your ride on the unpaved, narrow access road.
Once you do get to the Deer Pond trailhead, it’s barely a quarter-mile past the barrier to the main intersection, where a right turn will take you on the Deer Pond Loop that eventually brings you back to the main road 2.7 miles later. It’s a peaceful, grassy forest ramble, but beware at the two-mile mark; a beaver dam and pond block the road and it’s a precarious balancing act to tiptoe across the dam with a bike.
Go left instead at the original Deer Pond intersection, and two more miles brings you to the bridge over the paddler’s tunnel, between Fourth Lake and Fifth Lake. The dirt causeway offers spectacular, open views of the two lakes and access to the east shore, where it’s only half-a-mile to the intersection with Gooley Road. This route will total just over 17 miles if you parked on Woody’s Road where the pavement ends.
Access to both main parking areas is from NY Route 28N in Newcomb. Turn south on Pine Tree Road by the Newcomb Bar & Grill, then south again on Goodnow Flow Road for 4.6 miles to the T intersection with Woody’s Road, where you must decide whether to start your ride from the east (Hudson River) or west (Deer Pond) parking areas.
To reach the Hudson River entrance, turn left on Woody’s Road, go 1.1 miles to the dam, then 0.3 miles beyond it and look for the dirt road on your left, where the only visible sign prohibits ATV use. Turn left and go 0.2 miles to a large gravel parking area.
To reach the Deer Pond entrance, turn right on Woody’s Road from the T intersection and go 1.6 miles to the intersection with Cornell Road, then bear left onto Cornell and continue 4.4 miles on the narrow, dirt road to the parking area. This road has many ruts and protruding rocks. Use caution and go slow if you are driving a low clearance vehicle.
When you go...
- Much of the land on your way to the Essex Chain Tract is private. Please respect the no trespassing and no parking signs.
- While many of the roads can be negotiated with a cyclocross or gravel bike, a mountain or fat bike offers the most flexibility to explore all the area has to offer.
- Learn before you go. A good site describing all the available activities including camping, paddling, hiking, hunting and more is at: dec.ny.gov/lands/91888.html.
- Make sure you have a map. Signage on the roads is poor. A bike route map can be downloaded at: dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/mapessexbike.pdf. The map shows the routes approved for bicycles, though there are many additional roads and forest tracks.
- Make sure your bike is in good repair and that you have spare tube, pump, and any other parts needed to get you out of unexpected trouble. Phone reception in the area is poor or non-existent.
- The same goes for food and water. The nearest store is in Newcomb.
- Take insect repellent. The black flies, mosquitoes, and deer flies just love visitors!
Dave Kraus (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Schenectady is a longtime area cyclist, photographer and writer. Visit his website at KrausGrafik.com.