Adirondack Amble: Carving Curves in Upstate New York

Winding roads through dense forests spell fun for sport-touring riders. (Photos by the author)
Winding roads through dense forests spell fun for sport-touring riders. (Photos by the author)

Fog drapes over the High Peaks surrounding the village of Lake Placid. My sidestand is up before 5:00 a.m., and it’s already past first light. Soon the sun pokes through, burning off the fog and easing the chill of a cool June morning.

Lake Placid, site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympic Games, is a perfect base camp for exploring the winding roads in New York’s Adirondack Park. A few dozen members of the New England Riders know this and have assembled here for a long weekend to savor some twisties. Leveraging advice and inspiration from route guru Ed Conde, I’m here to ride the Adirondacks.

Small and tidy, Saint Mary’s Church is in Irishtown.
Small and tidy, Saint Mary’s Church is in Irishtown.

The twisties get underway quickly on River Road, which hugs the west branch of the Ausable River. I downshift for a tight turn and spook a raven from its perch atop a dead tree. It swoops down and reveals how much larger ravens are than their crow cousins. Farther along the same river, now paralleling New York State Route 86, I come upon a great blue heron whose steady, majestic wingbeats complement the thrumming cadence of my BMW R 1200 RT’s boxer motor.

Pitkin’s Restaurant in Schroon Lake is open for breakfast. Tomorrow.
Pitkin’s Restaurant in Schroon Lake is open for breakfast. Tomorrow.

Beyond Wilmington, I turn left onto Haselton Road to continue following the river. Where the east and west branches of the Ausable merge, I cut south to follow the east branch. State Route 9N is pleasant to ride in some stretches, but beyond the town of Au Sable Forks, Sheldrake Road and Stickney Bridge Road provide curvier entertainment. Eventually I pick up Route 9N again for the run into Keene. There, a left onto Hurricane Road delivers tight, technical turns and elevation changes. The roller-coaster ride continues on Lincoln Pond Road and then Ensign Pond Road. There’s still no traffic, but sight distances are short through the dense forest and some turns are littered with sprays of gravel. I continually balance my need for speed with my desire for self-preservation.

Ausable Chasm as viewed from the bridge on U.S. Route 9.
Ausable Chasm as viewed from the bridge on U.S. Route 9.

While today’s early start still finds me mostly alone, on Blue Ridge Road I get company: a turtle. When I was a kid, my father always stopped to help turtles cross Tinkham Road, which had wetlands on either side. “Always take turtles in the direction they’re going,” he taught me. But this morning’s turtle is in the middle of the road, right on the yellow line. Make up your mind, reptile! It may just be warming itself, but I don’t want it to get squashed by a passing car or truck, so I pull over to help my new friend.

Slow and steady wins the race.
Slow and steady wins the race.

The telltale beak confirms it’s a snapping turtle and it’s BIG—about two feet long including the tail. Snappers are deceptively fast and I’m not about to risk my fingers attempting to move it. There’s nothing on my agenda today except riding twisties, so I wait for the turtle to make its move. A 10-wheel dump truck approaches and I signal the driver to slow down. He lets off the throttle and as the massive vehicle rumbles past, the turtle springs into action. With surprising alacrity, it crosses the road onto the shoulder, and then slips into the grassy swamp. Slow and steady wins the race.

Breakfast pulled from a pannier tastes better beside Schroon Lake.
Breakfast pulled from a pannier tastes better beside Schroon Lake.

Having done my good deed for the day, I resume carving curves. Beyond a curve in Irishtown, I come upon a tiny white church surrounded by a graveyard. As a kid I spent many weekends following my college professor father around old graveyards, an area of academic interest for him. That turtle put Dad on my mind, so I stop for a look around the graveyard. As I explore, another 10-wheel dump truck rumbles by and cuts off that nearby curve, throwing a bit of gravel onto the road. I bet that explains the gravel I encountered earlier.

This bobsled sits right on a village sidewalk…hop in!
This bobsled sits right on a village sidewalk…hop in!

I roll into Schroon Lake as my stomach is signaling breakfast. A friend recommended Pitkin’s Restaurant for a Texas-style barbecue lunch, but I see on the door they serve breakfast, too. As I’m about to walk in, I notice an announcement in the window: they open for breakfast for the season on June 4th. Today is June 3rd. I ride on, stop by a lake and eat an energy bar, which tastes rather good somehow.

Early morning light creates long shadows along River Road.
Early morning light creates long shadows along River Road.

A satisfying stretch of State Route 74 runs along Paradox Lake and Eagle Lake, but a well-placed left after that keeps me east of main roads in favor of winding Corduroy Road and Amy Hill Road. In Crown Point, I arrive at the junction of Middle Road, Creek Road and White Church Road. It’s confounding: three roads, five intersections, six yield signs and no stop signs. No other vehicles are approaching, so I follow the rules of the road as best I can figure and pull over to examine this curiosity of civil engineering. A man walks down his driveway and asks, “Are you lost, son?” No sir, I’m amazed! There are accidents here frequently, he says. His advice for safely navigating through? “I just let the other guy go first.”

The Lake Placid Olympic ski jumps are easily viewed from River Road. An elevator to the observation deck of the 120-meter jump affords a panoramic view of the Adirondack High Peaks.
The Lake Placid Olympic ski jumps are easily viewed from River Road. An elevator to the observation deck of the 120-meter jump affords a panoramic view of the Adirondack High Peaks.

I continue past Moriah to one of the day’s highlights. Sometimes you find a road that’s so much fun, when you reach the end you turn around to ride it again. That’s Tracy Road. The curves are continuous, the pavement smooth and the sight lines longer than many of the forest roads I rode earlier today. I’m grinning inside my helmet. At the end I make a U-turn for another run. At the other end, still grinning, I turn around again. Third time’s the charm and I’m back on my route.

Since I started early and was only delayed by an indecisive turtle, I reach the end of my planned route by early afternoon. I’m eager for more. Last time I was in these parts, the road up Whiteface Mountain was closed due to hazardous conditions. Today is warm with crystal blue skies, so I turn my RT onto State Route 431, leave $15 with the toll taker and ride up the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway.

There are several lay-bys on  Whiteface Mountain Memorial Veterans Highway where you can  safely pull over to enjoy the view.
There are several lay-bys on Whiteface Mountain Memorial Veterans Highway where you can safely pull over to enjoy the view.

The original road, conceived in 1929 and opened in 1935, was a Depression-era New Deal project that gave engineers, construction workers and stonemasons meaningful jobs. More than 80 years later, their efforts still benefit visitors. During 2014 and 2015, the road was completely rebuilt and it’s all smooth curves and spectacular views along the eight-mile climb to Whiteface Castle. From there, an inside-the-mountain elevator rises 27 stories to the summit, but I opt for the nature trail and “earn” my way to the top. The view includes that wonderful curvy road I get to ride back down the mountain.

Hockey goal, goalie equipment and Old Glory from the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid
Hockey goal, goalie equipment and Old Glory from the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid.

I pull into Lake Placid with just enough time to tour the Olympic Museum. At one display, video of the 1980 USA/USSR hockey game runs continuously. It’s the third period with the Soviets up 3-2 so I sit down and relive some history. I know the outcome, it never gets old and yes, I believe in miracles. Having savored the upset victory anew, I return to the hotel as other riders are pulling in. Friends old and new make plans to connect for dinner, ice cream and some beers, which are all within easy walking distance in Lake Placid.

Sign from the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Sign from the 1980 Winter Olympics.

Next morning, another early start finds all manner of critters crossing my path. A bendy-back weasel scurries across the road with its quarry…looks like there’s mouse for breakfast. A groundhog trundles across and under the guardrail. A turkey struts confidently to the other side. Farther along, a giant porcupine waddles across the blacktop and up a dirt driveway, then two squirrels swerve impulsively but both get across. Strangely, each of these critters has crossed my path from left to right.

Around a rising bend, a large whitetail deer is standing in the road. I find deer most appealing as an entrée, but this doe is beautiful in silhouette against the strong, low sun. I slow to a crawl. We stare at each other for a moment before she disappears into the woods.

Gold medal from the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Gold medal from the 1980 Winter Olympics.

My progress is easterly, more or less, toward the western shore of Lake Champlain. I arrive in Essex as the Pink Pig & Café is opening for breakfast and score their best table: outside next to my bike. Lake Champlain is totally fogged over this morning but on the shore it’s sunny. After breakfast, as I ride north along the lakeshore, I can see wisps of fog waft off the lake then dissipate instantly as they reach warm air rising off the road. This area near the lake includes some of the day’s best twisties. Turning off State Route 22, Highland Road is briefly dirt and then hard pack, but suddenly it’s flawless new tar with curve after undulating curve. Yeah!

OK, so I rode up to the Castle, but I hiked the last 276 vertical feet to the top.
OK, so I rode up to the Castle, but I hiked the last 276 vertical feet to the top.

Along Mace Chasm Road I stop to admire the view at Rainbow Falls. The falls once provided power for mills alongside the Ausable River. Today they generate hydroelectric power. Just downstream, Ausable Chasm generates oohs and ahhs from visiting tourists, your humble scribe included. I cross the Ausable River Bridge on U.S. Route 9 and pull into the parking area, then walk out onto the bridge for stunning views of the chasm from above.

Huh…must have ridden farther north than I realized.
Huh…must have ridden farther north than I realized.

Just as I’m about to resume my ride alone, several friends pull into the parking area. We trade tales of our morning rides, including the joy of Highland Road. It’s been a while since I rode in a group and I ask if I can join them to bring up the rear. They’re skilled riders, all riding their own ride, and I find myself enjoying road company other than critters. In the village of Saranac Lake, we all grab deli sandwiches, picnic next to Lake Flower and stage an unauthorized photo op of Honda ST1300s on the boat pier.

Even at its lower elevations, Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway serves up stunning views of Adirondack peaks and lakes.
Even at its lower elevations, Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway serves up stunning views of Adirondack peaks and lakes.

After lunch, we ride north on State Route 86, then east along Rainbow Lake to another asphalt gem, County Road 26 (the Port Kent-Hopkinton Turnpike). This smooth, narrow ribbon slices through mostly undeveloped Adirondack parklands. There’s no center line and no edge lines, so riders must keep to the right while constantly setting up for sharp curves with short sightlines. It’s a hoot! At the end, Ed dismounts and does a happy dance. Everyone else waves and honks approval of that awesome road and Ed’s spontaneous performance.

ST1300s mug for the camera on the boat pier by Lake Flower
ST1300s mug for the camera on the boat pier by Lake Flower.

We need to take a stretch of two-lane highway south toward Brighton, but it gets curvier as we head back through Saranac Lake to complete a loop. Forest Home Road and Route 86 return us to Lake Placid, where another incredible ride concludes. Sidestands down for the day, riders begin making plans for another evening out in this engaging, historic and walkable village. Over pub grub and beers, everyone agrees that there are plenty more roads to ride—and many we can’t wait to ride again—up here in the Adirondacks.

Map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.
Map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

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