Hilltops, hogbacks & HollowsFall 2006
by Todd Minor
Mark Schrader has chicken pox. Brown chicken pox, black chicken pox! His florescent orange jersey is covered in chicken pox, and it is impossible to tell what color his socks once were. Parts of bright green leaves are caught in his biking shoes. He is soaking wet. He wipes his face and the brown “pox” smear into the mud that formed them.
Despite his bedraggled appearance, he sports a huge smile and dancing eyes. “It was a sucker hole,” he said. “After the last few days of rain we needed to get out. We saw a little bit of blue sky and decided to go for it.” Mark ruefully looks up at the pouring rain and laughs. “I guess that’s why they call ’em sucker holes. Oh well, the only ones who mind getting wet are those that are dry. What trail should we do next?”
The Finger Lakes region has many secrets and hidden gems. Because mountain biking takes place in out of the way places – backwoods, ridge tops, hills and hollows – it is one of the best-kept secrets, tending to stay under the radar. Even many locals don’t realize what they have in their own backyard. However, the word is getting out. A 2002 article in Bike Magazine identified Ithaca as one of the top five biking towns in America. The magazine followed up by naming Letchworth State Park and surrounding Finger Lakes trails as one of the top 10 mountain biking areas in the country. Bikemag.com kept things rolling by christening the Finger Lakes area’s Hammond Hill and Shindagin Hollow as one of America’s top 10 places to ride.
Why is Mountain Biking in the Finger Lakes special?
Of course “top five” or “top 10” lists are at best arbitrary, and no doubt other regions claim similar superlatives. But there is no doubt the Finger Lakes region does boast outstanding mountain biking. The reasons for such superb biking are both many and varied.
Most of the special nature of Finger Lakes mountain biking is due to the underlying geology and land-use patterns. Combine significant elevation differences (up to almost 2,000 feet), rolling hills and hollows, beautiful deciduous forests, abandoned farmland and significant acreage in public lands, and the result is outstanding and accessible terrain for biking, and lots of it. This terrain is found particularly in the southern half of the Finger Lakes on and at the edge of the Allegheny Plateau.
According to longtime local rider Nathan Hunter, you won’t find exotic or grand viewpoints riding in the Finger Lakes. “We don’t need to be a big tourist attraction, we don’t have many breathtaking vistas, just plain, fun riding experiences. It’s simple: rolling terrain through great wooded forests.”
Mark Schrader, who returned to upstate New York after a long stint in the West, is obviously glad to be home when he soulfully describes “single track riding through deciduous forests and their deep greens of spring and summer and bright colors of fall.”
Laura Robert, a librarian who teaches mountain biking at Cornell, raves about how accessible the Finger Lakes area trails are. “There are five to seven viable venues at any particular time.”
Hunter adds, “There are four really good riding locations within 30 minutes of my house, and another six within a couple hours drive.”
Not only are the trails accessible, they are almost all free. Hunter notes that this is at least partially due to a “great community of outdoor enthusiasts who work hard to maintain public trail systems.”
Schrader also credits strong support from State Forests and the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation, the land management agency responsible for many of the trail) and multi-use recreationalists, who “all share the trail unselfishly and pitch in to maintain the trails, too.”
Finally, there is the variety of the trails. Laura Robert notes that, “Every area is a different kind of riding, different challenges. One can ride year-round if you are willing to accept all conditions, even packed snow.”
There are old tow paths and still-in-use dirt roads, great for beginners and for warming up. There are old logging roads, a bit rougher, with rocks, mud and steeper sections. Then there are single tracks – narrow, fun ribbons through the forest – that can range from quite easy to very technical. Single track is the ultimate riding for most experienced mountain bikers.
At the extreme end of riding, the Finger Lakes region also boasts areas where artificial obstacles and challenges, like log piles, horizontal ladders and ramps, are created to add a bit of extra spice to a ride. From novice to expert, the Finger Lakes region has trails for everyone.
One of the nice things about mountain biking is that it can be as easy as, well, riding a bike! While a high-tech bike is nice, and it can make steep or extremely rough trails a bit easier, your old Schwinn or just about any sturdy kids’ bike will do fine for most of the beginner trails. In particular, if you are only going to be doing occasional off road or back road cycling, a “hybrid” bike—part touring bike and part mountain bike—might be perfect.
Mountain bikes are different than regular bikes in that their frame is a bit stronger, the rider sits more upright to better absorb shocks, they are geared lower (to allow going up steep backcountry hills), and they often have at least a front shock absorber to deal with rough trail conditions.
If you are going to go out and purchase a new bike, don’t get a cheap “big box store” version and expect it to last long. You are much better off investing a bit more money and getting a quality brand purchased from a reputable dealer, where you can get some expert advice about the purchase and where to ride locally.
Renting mountain bikes is increasingly difficult due mainly to liability concerns. The Outdoor Store (607-273-3891) in Ithaca rents mountain bikes, as does the Geneva Biycle Center (315-789-5922). Cayuga Ski and Cyclery in Ithaca (607-277-6821) offer free clinics and rides in the local area. Check out your local bicycle shop for availability of purchasing and renting mountain bikes.
Ride Safe and Follow the Rules
There are a few rules of the road (and trail!) that will make mountain biking safer for you, others and the environment. The International Mountain Biking Association (www.IMBA.com) has created a list of six rules to bike by.
• Ride on open trails only, avoiding trails on which bikes are not allowed.
• Leave no trace, stay on trails and be sensitive to trail conditions.
• Control your bicycle, keeping a reasonable speed, especially around others.
• Always yield the trail, let others know you’re coming with a friendly greeting.
• Never scare animals, whether domestic (dogs, horses, farm animals) or wild.
• Plan ahead and know your equipment, ability and area in which you are riding.
In addition, be able to fix your bike or walk it out. Always wear a helmet and make sure it fits properly. Ride with a buddy. Be aware of hunting season and consider staying off single track or other areas in which you could be mistaken for game. During early spring (mud season) or after heavy rains, stay on graveled backroads, avoiding low-lying and muddy areas that can be damaged by heavy riding. Following these principles and using a little bit of common sense will allow you to safely enjoy the beauty and adventure of the Finger Lakes without harming the environment or others’ experiences.
Mountain biking can open up whole new areas of the Finger Lakes region. Whether it is an old tow path, a dirt road, a sinuous single track or an artificial ramp or jump, there is a huge variety of riding terrain. As Ernest Hemingway said, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” Let a mountain bike help you learn the beautiful contours of Finger Lakes country.
Todd Miner is the executive director of Cornell University Outdoor Education
Where to Go
As noted, the Finger Lakes region boasts scores – maybe hundreds – of trails encompassing thousands of miles. Choosing a trail, whether it’s your first time mountain biking or your one hundred and first, can thus be confusing, even daunting. Below are some good places to start.
Western Finger Lakes: Conesus to Keuka Lakes
Harriet Hollistor Spencer Park
16 miles of trails. Wide variety of terrain. Located just south of Honeyoye Lake and has numerous scenic overlooks.
Dryer Road Park
One of the newest mountain biking areas around with terrain for beginner to advanced riders. Located in Victor.
Letchworth State Park
Rated by Bike Magazine as one of the top 10 trails in the United States! Great views of the “Grand Canyon of the East” and huge variety of trails. Open June through October for mountain biking. Located southwest of Geneseo.
Central Finger Lakes Keuka to Cayuga Lakes
Keuka Lake Outlet
A great family ride for kids of all ages on a “rail-to-trail” route, following a pretty little creek. Lots of canal and mill history. Seven miles one way. Start in Penn Yan or Dresden.
Finger Lakes National Forest
Mostly old dirt roads, but some trail riding. Scenic views of Seneca Lake. Between (and a bit north of) Watkins Glen and Ithaca.
Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area
Many miles of old dirt roads and trails. Located southwest of Ithaca.
Eastern Finger Lakes: Cayuga to Otisco Lakes
Bear Swamp State Forest
Stream crossings, single track, mud, a few steep climbs and descents, for a small area Bear Swamp offers a lot! Located south of Skaneateles Lake.
Hewitt State Forest
A 9-mile loop on mostly gravel roads possible. Also old jeep trails. Just south of Skaneateles Lake.
Shindagin Hollow State Forest
Along with Hammond Hill, one of the premier mountain biking areas in the region, and according to Bikemag.com, the country. Great single track and the infamous “Area 51” with all kinds of man-made obstacles and challenges (jumps, bridges, raised platforms, etc). Southeast of Ithaca.
Hammond Hill State Forest
Great variety of single track and dirt road, along with scenic vistas. Located five miles east of Ithaca.
Jenksville State Forest
Eleven miles of trails. Quiet with a wide variety of trails. Not a good place in wet weather. Located southeast of Ithaca.
For links to information about these parks go to www.lifeinthefingerlakes.com.
An interview with Finger Lakes mountain biking enthusiast Nathan Hunter.
Q. What is your favorite trail in the Finger Lakes?
A. Locally, my favorite ride is an un-marked trail that includes “the kicker” at Shindagin Hollow. It’s a great flowing single track leading to a serious rocky downhill that takes you directly down to the “creek trail,” more miles of sweet flowing single track. To keep it simple though, I love the Blue/North trails at Oakley Corners State Forest. And B3 on a dry day at Jenksville – I’ll ride that in both directions, please. If I’m traveling a bit, the Finger Lakes Trail along the gorge near Letchworth State Park is a nice epic.
Q. What’s your recommendation for a first ride in the Finger Lakes (for beginners)?
A. If you’ve only been on a mountain bike a few times and want a good taste of dirt, I would recommend the trails at Hammond Hill. Maps are available at the trailhead, and most of the marked trails are well-groomed, though quite hilly. Oakley Corners also offers some good beginner riding if you stay on the Yellow/South trails immediately surrounding the two ponds.
Q. Why do you think mountain biking is special or different in the Finger Lakes?
A. There’s a great community of outdoor enthusiasts who work hard to maintain public trail systems. Nearly all riding locations are free. Its simple – rolling terrain through great wooded forests. We don’t need to be a big tourist attraction, we don’t have many breathtaking vistas, just simple, fun riding experiences.