Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ellicottville: A Little Magic In Western New York

Make sure to get wide right of that tree.
It was 1999 and the beginning of the playoffs for Lord Stanley's Cup.  I was a marginal Bruins fan, and they were facing my girlfriend's Buffalo Sabres in the early rounds.  We were headed to meet her family for the first time, and I commented on how I could tease her father about the series if Boston played well.

With the most serious of looks on her face, my future wife looked at me and said, "That wouldn't be funny.  Don't do that.  Really.  Don't."

For the most part, Western New York has a decidedly mid-western friendly feel.  So much so that years later when my wife and I were married in Buffalo, my best man (a Vermonter) was stunned that every single person said hello to him on his Saturday morning jog.

The folks there may be friendly, but they get pretty serious about a few things including food and sports.  With regard to the latter, it has been a love-hate relationship. That is to say: they love their sports, and the sports gods hate them right back.   Later that summer, the Sabres lost the Stanley Cup on an illegal goal in overtime.  That one hurt, but the Buffalo Bills are "Exhibit A" for the divine abusive relationship that torments the nice folks west of Albany.  The extent of the Bills futility wasn't clear to me until I was in my future father-in-law's office staring at a framed display of Superbowl tickets.  There were four.  As I looked at the years I realized they were four years in a row.  Each one ended in a loss.  Now THAT is disappointment.  When you couple that sports futility with a city that has bled jobs, young talent and influence like no other over the last thirty years, you begin to understand the frustration felt by western New Yorkers.

But the folks there are also hard workers and believers.  Despite the odds, they feel an immense sense of pride and resolve.  The proverbial underdog, it's hard not to root for them.  And despite all the heartache and bad bounces, the lands east of Lake Erie have been blessed with more than above average snowfall.  As you drive south from Buffalo, the rolling hills become long deep valleys.  Not truly mountainous, the hills rise 500-1000 feet above broad valleys below.  These long ridges are the key ingredients for a mountain biker paradise.

Despite having visited the Buffalo area for over a decade, I never managed to get onto my mountain bike and explore the local trails.  It seemed there was always a Sabres game, Bills game, or round of golf with the in-laws to keep me busy.  That all changed this past May.

I did some online research and every source pointed me to a little town about an hour south of Buffalo.

 Ellicottville, NY sits below the convergence of a group of large ridges just north of the border with Pennsylvania.  Known primarily as the "go-to" ski destination for Western New York, it houses two ski areas within a stone's throw of the main village.

A tree lined boulevard escorts you into the center of town which consists of a couple of blocks of shops and businesses including a bike shop, brewery, winery, and coffee shop.

I drove over to Holiday Valley ski area and headed a short ways up the mountain to the training center.  I asked a worker driving around in his golf cart where I could park and he announced, "There's nothing going on here, park anywhere you want!." And he was right.  For a sunny weekend morning there was only one other car in the lot.

I hopped on my bike and after nosing around a bit I stumbled across a doubletrack road that cut up the mountain.  I skirted across the main face of the mountain at an angle then turned and climbed straight up following the cat track under one of the silent chairlifts.  With some hard earned elevation behind me, I caught my breath at the top and poured over the map trying to figure out where to find the best entrance to the singletrack.  After about fifteen minutes of wandering in circles I came across a trail that headed into the woods in the general direction that I wanted.  Still unsure that I was on the right track, I dove in.

It didn't take long to figure out I was in the right place.  I was on the Race Loop trail, which was well worn and mostly buff with a few expansive root gardens to keep things interesting.  I wound around the front side of the mountain and finally crossed one of the roads where I came across a sign announcing that I had found the famed "Big Merlin".

Easily the highlight of my ride, the ridge hugging singletrack alternated between swooping downhill sections and gradual climbs as it worked its way across the mountain.  Like Merlin's broad hand gestures, it wove its flowy spell between the trees of the dense forest. Big Merlin flowed seamlessly into Dead Dog and then Sidewinder.  These trails were easy to intermediate with an emphasis on flow.  The comparisons to Kingdom Trails in Vermont are unavoidable.  Of all the trail systems I've visited, these were the closest to matching the atmosphere at Kingdom.

Far too soon I found myself on Rain heading back toward the Race Loop where I had started.  What had seemed like mere minutes had in fact been a couple hours.  I was in "the zone": that magic only the best of trails deliver.

My Sunday morning meditation complete, I wandered back to the top of the doubletrack.   There, I happened  upon a local rider who pointed me to a singletrack descent back to the training center.  The descent was fast and rough: the trail seemed to be a mere afterthought.  For all the hard work to get to the top, the trail back down was somewhat lacking.  No matter, all the flow I had found up high had me still smiling from ear to ear.

Unlike Kingdom, Ellicottville was virtually empty.  I had seen only four other riders that morning, which was amazing considering it was a perfect May Sunday.  And Ellicotttville is by no means a well kept secret. IMBA has rated it an "Epic Trail" with a full 28 mile loop and 2500 feet of climbing.

I had also only sampled a small portion of what Ellicottville had to offer.  In addition to the intermediate singletrack, techie rock gardens and arduous climbs through dense forest await in the western edges of the park.  It is clear that the locals have worked hard to build and maintain a top notch trail system.  In the end, for all the magic that has been lacking in their sports endeavors, the folks in Western New York have managed to conjure up pure gold.

If you're a visitor to the area or just passing through, don't be an idiot like me and wait ten years to check this place out.  It will have you looking for excuses to visit Buffalo again and again.  Just remember to avoid teasing the locals about "no goals" or "wide rights".  At least until those locals officially become your in-laws.  And even then it's probably not a good idea.

Maps are available online but make sure to pick up a printed map at the Ellicottville Bike Shop, where the $10 fee will help support trail maintenance.


  1. My brother lived in Ellicottville for a few years so I got to know the place a bit with him. Most of the locals are rolling on bigwheel hardtails but my buddies and I did not regret our 6" trail bikes with 26" hoops.

    For our route we parked at the bottom of Eagle Trail out by the school. Ride into town, grab a trail map from Dennis at Ellicottville Bike Shop (Now Ellicottville Bike and Bean) then head out to Holimont. Climb Holimont and take the FLT over to Holiday Valley, do part of the HV race loop, then bust into the techy stuff (Porcupine, Rim, Bent Rim, Rock City) then finish with using whatever energy we had left to race each other down Eagle at Mach Chicken. Since we parked the car at the bottom of Eagle then we could end the ride still high on adrenaline from the 2 miles of pure goodness that is the Eagle Trail descent.

    I love the riding at Oneonta where I live, work, ride, and build. But Ellicottville is one of the places I've been trying to emulate in my trail building because it is just that rad.

  2. Thanks so much for the comments. I didn't get a chance to ride Eagle, so I'll definitely give it a go next time.

  3. Enjoyed the report, even though the likelihood of me being in Buffalo is a snowball's chance in hell. Glad to see you guys back.