Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Sacandaga Area Trails: The Pine Orchard Odyssey

Brian points home  "Why can't we go that way?"
At some point in your mountain biking career you're going to learn a lesson about snowmobile trails.  Hopefully that lesson won't be in a classroom full of muddy, poison ivy infested swamp ruts with mosquitoes and deer flies.

The logic is simple and irresistible:  snowmobile trails run through vast expanses of wilderness, are regularly cleared of debris, and abandoned during the summer months.  Many a mountain biker has been lured by this sound reasoning into learning a very important lesson:  snowmobile trails are different in the summer.

Marshes, ponds and streams freeze in the winter, and snowfall turns cratered landscapes into airport runways.  And unless someone drives a mower through the woods, the grasses, flowers and yes- even our old friend poison ivy- quickly fill every open space in their search for warm sunshine.

So when someone tells me that there might be some decent riding on a snowmobile trail, I'm skeptical.  Unless that someone is a virtual stranger I've met on an internet message board.
Stream crossing with a functioning bridge.  Hallelujah!

It was June and Brian and I were flying high from our sampling of Mike from Sacandaga's private trails the day before, and ready for some adventure.

Although Brian had been biking since before he carried a Star Wars lunch box, and can easily drop me on a road ride, Mike's trails were his first foray onto singletrack.  Saucer-like eyes betrayed Brian's thoughts: "So THIS is mountain biking?!!".  When Brian asked how Mike's trails compared to other singletrack I had ridden, I told him they were easily and 8 out of 10.  It was only fair that we got to put that buttery smooth flow into perspective.

Mike explained to us that a trail ran from Pumpkin Hollow road near Hope, NY, all the way over to Pine Orchard.  It was a snowmobile trail, but Mike promised he had ridden it (albeit in the winter and on his fat tire bike).  He made a point to mention that it was not a typical snowmobile trail.

So the next day we loaded the bikes into the car and parked at the Pumpkin Hollow trailhead.

I knew we were in for a struggle after the first mile.  We wound our way through a section of pine forest where the trail consisted of a few smooth spots between endless roots.  What would have been baby-butt smooth with only a foot of snow was bone jarringly rough.  The full suspension on my bike dampened the shock as Brian rattled along on a hardtail.

Low morale moment on the climb.
The first two stream crossings were nearly un-ridable but passable.  Forced to choose between mossy rocks and bottomless mud, we both opted to dismount and carry.

And then we started climbing. And climbing.  As we suffered upward in the heat, surrounded by mosquitoes and horseflies, our only consolation was the promise of a long descent back to the car.

Eventually we crossed a rickety bridge and picked our way through weed covered rocks to another very steep climb.  It topped out above a quarry where we sat on a lichen covered rock and rested.  A little breeze drove the bugs away while we munched on one of the donuts I had thrown in my pack for lunch.

After our brief respite we descended for a little bit and eventually arrived at a crossroads, both physically and metaphorically. The sign that would have pointed to our destination among the four intersecting trails was lying on the ground, taunting us.  We were both exhausted from fighting roots and from the long steep climb behind us.  The lack of signage gave us an out.  We could have honorably thrown in the towel and turned around simply chalking it up to "We weren't sure which way to go".  We were both weary and the threat of thunderstorms had us strongly considering a retreat.

I made my best attempt at a motivational speech- something about "we've come this far"- which must have been enough as Brian reluctantly agreed to keep pushing on.

Big smiles and a thin dirt line.
Almost immediately we were rewarded with an nearly impassible swampy section with thick mud and an even thicker cloud of mosquitoes.

I gave my second motivational speech in five minutes, but before Brian could make eye contact and tell me how irrational and stubborn I had become, I put my head down and rumbled through the brush to the other side.  I didn't look back and hoped Brian was following me.

And then, sure enough, just after a quick descent we came to another crossroads with a well defined singletrack carved into the hard packed trail.  We flew along the wide open trail, covering the same distance we had just crawled along on the snowmobile trail in half the time.  We eventually crossed a large brook before making one last climb to our destination.

We rolled up to the Pine Grove sign and collapsed on the rocks between the giant trees to scarf down our last doughnut.  After some obligatory glamour shots among biggest pine trees I've ever seen, we turned around and headed back to the car.

We flirted with the idea of taking another of the trails at the first crossroads back down the mountain, but decided the devil we knew was better than the one that might be waiting on the other trail.

It was, after all, a snowmobile trail.


  1. Snomo trails. The only thing worse is 4-wheeler trails, which of course many of the snomo trails become in summer. So on that 1-10 scale, how did this one rate?

    1. Despite my belly-aching, if you throw in the fast singletrack and the long descent back to the car they WERE fairly decent as snowmobile trails go. I'd have to give them a 5 out of 10. Bring your full-suspension rig or some Bengay though.

  2. Ha, this is all so true. I ride a lot of snowmo trails as they are the closest ride to the house. Some are excellent, others are death traps. Seek and ye shall find.

  3. I have ridden the first part of this trail, but didn't make it to the good bit - it was just relentless roots all the way.

    My wife was riding her hardtail and I was riding full suspension, so we just couldn't get that far. I would like to try some of the other sections up there as there are plenty of other options in Wilcox Lake.

    1. Yeah, I remember that first section being extremely rooty as well. Right after that it gets better--- then a little worse when you cross a bridge-- but after climbing up the next hill it is fantastic. Keep at it. I hear there are plenty of hidden gems in there.