Please note: This blog was originally posted in 2015 and this ride is no longer available, however we can happily direct you to cool paddling, awesome biking, and scenic hiking in the region! Check out our outdoor activities to learn more!
Living in Saranac Lake, I've paddled the ponds and hiked the trails and climbed the mountains. Now, we have a new way to experience the Adirondack wilderness.
We have rail bikes. The first ones in America.
Rail bikes were pioneered in Jeongseon County, Gangwon, South Korea, the invention of a local artist looking to revive the fortunes of this once thriving mining area. The rails that once carried coal and minerals now carry pedaling passengers. It was a huge hit, and is now copied throughout their country.
the first round trip
When I first heard of them, my mental image was of rail cars, those hand-pumped, flat-floored vehicles the Three Stooges would use to get away at the end of one of their comedy shorts. But rail bikes are more like recumbent bikes which ride on the railroad tracks. They are foot-powered.
One look at this snappy-looking vehicle and I want to leap in and take off. I am here to participate in the first test ride that will go all the way from Lake Clear Junction to the Saranac Lake depot, in order to duplicate the experience of the actual riders in this new attraction.
We are departing from the Lake Clear depot that is part of historic Charlie's Inn, offering rooms, dining, and a campground. Railroads used to be the way people got to the Adirondacks. Except for the Scenic Railroad route between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, this bit of our history has been dormant.
over the rails and through the woods
Rail Explorers USA is thrilled with the route we will be taking. I know this because the first leg of my ride is with half of the team who brought this attraction to the Adirondack Railroad, Mary-Joy. She has a similar project underway in Australia, and has visited the one in South Korea, but she says this is most scenic rail trail she has experienced.
I point out that most places let the railroads run through their least expensive land. Here in the Adirondacks, we have a shortage of flat places, but lots and lots of gorgeous scenery.
The trains stopped running in the 1980s as travel changed, but was a huge upgrade in 1891, a brainchild of Dr. William Seward Webb. He alone had the vision to extend trains into the entire Park, a great boon as tourism and the curing tradition expanded in the early twentieth century. In 1905, Adirondack guide and hotel developer Paul Smith built his own Electric Railway to transport his guests the 6.5 miles from Lake Clear Junction's depot to his famous hotel, an upgrade from the stagecoaches of previous years. He even created his own hydro-electric utility power grid to do so.
Innovation is no stranger to the Adirondacks.
We had a marvelous day happening around us. The generous rain had seemingly germinated every wildflower seed growing along the sunny tracks, and every butterfly was taking full advantage. The sky was that changeable kind that alternated deep blue with fluffy white and dark gray, but it never rained a drop.
I am pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to roll along. When getting started there's some resistance, and crossing roads (there are crossing guards waiting to stop the traffic and wave us across) increases the power needed, but once we are rolling again, there's very little effort required.
This is such an easy way to experience the forest in a way that is usually accomplished only by hiking for a while. I've seen some marvelous glacial boulders while hiking, the size of small houses, and while there is nothing that grand along this trail, there are plenty of granite outcroppings and glimpses of the birches growing around and over them to satisfy the "life-sized bonsai" fans such as myself.
We cross the first road shortly after leaving Lake Clear Junction, and go through an area of patchiness to the trees which let the wildflowers run riot in the sun. As the forest deepens, we can feel a hush fall over us. While the rail bikes are not soundless, the rolling of the tracks on the rails is a pleasant clickity-clack that does not interfere with normal conversation.
We are now in the wilderness. There are no distant houses, sounds of civilization, or whiffs of car exhaust. "I can actually smell the pine trees!" Mary-Joy exclaims, and I am happy to tell her that particular tang is balsam, beloved of pillow makers. It is a unique North Woods scent.
We are off the roads now, and away from the people who follow them. The trees get taller and taller. The earth smells richer because it has more layers of undisturbed leaves. The dark in the trees and light along the railway becomes more pronounced.
Delight in each curve of the track
The railway heritage is evident in the relatively straight lines and and level track. Railroads were designed with gradual grade changes and lack of sharp curves when at all possible. This works wonderfully for the rail bikes, too. Steady pedaling with little effort carries us along.
There is enough heavy forest and gradual curves that the scenery can reveal itself suddenly, like this meadow out of nowhere.
It's excellent for scenery watching and photography. No one has to watch the road, the bike steers itself, and I can safely turn in any direction to take a picture. Our ride is so smooth I can shoot most angles without blur.
The first body of water we come to is McCauley Pond. This is worthy of using the brake! The right-hand pedaler applies the handbrake. Now we can take our time with framing and composition. There are some camps on this remote pond, but none that can be seen from the railway.
We can't pedal backward to move the bike backward. In fact, there is only one gear. This makes it easy to set off again since we are on level ground as we pass the pond.
But soon, we will encounter some downhill.
Too fast for my hat
Fortunately there is a basket behind the seats to stow purses and other objects, because we hit a stretch where pedaling does nothing. We decide to just coast, and what a coast it turns out to be. I take off my hat and get it into the basket, because we are really rolling along.
Since we are being shadowed on this test ride by a railroad truck (running on wheels instead of tires to fit the rails) we find out later we were going twelve miles an hour. It was an exhilarating, thrilling, stretch.
We both started laughing simultaneously, it was so much fun. There are handles on the sides of the seats, and this was the first time we used them. There are also seat belts, so it was a mental comfort as much as a physical one.
What goes down will need to come up, and when we clacked to a slow walking pace again, we resumed pedaling. Once again, getting going was the hardest part. Once underway, we were perking along again.
While this was the most fun stretch, the most dramatic appears as we approach Saranac Lake -- through Lake Colby. The tracks run across the width of the lake, creating Little Lake Colby in the process. So we are pedaling across the lake, getting some fantastic views.
Though crossing 86 and waving to the people as we approach the depot in Saranac Lake was also a fun moment. Everyone made some gesture or expression of surprise, and many of them looked like they wanted to try it.
And you do. You do want to try it. And you will be the first ones!
Rail Explorers USA will be opening July 3rd. Ride one way or round trip. And there is a choice of two-seaters or four-seaters. Family fun for almost any age, and it hardly requires a skill level.