Project SingleSpeed Racer- Part Seven: One Gear in the Kingdom

After spending most of a week bike and kayak packing around the Adirondack’s it was time for some more serious riding (Part 6). Starting from Middle Lake Saranac, it was a beautiful drive across Route 9W through the High Peaks area and over to Essex, where I picked up the ferry across Lake Champlain.  Crossing into Vermont was like flying from Philly to Portland, from gritty and worn down, to something so polished that it almost didn’t seem real. Suddenly there were organic farms, private academies and chain restaurants, rather than the Adirondack tourist businesses that had been declining for at least 20 years. I thought about driving through Winooski, where my father served in a VA Hospital as a conscientious objector during Vietnam, but the sudden exposure to 21st century America was a little much, so I pushed on into the Northern Kingdom. Just about 30 miles south of the Canadian border lies the small town of East Burke, VT., home of Burke Mt. Ski Area. Back in the early 90’s the owner of the ski area starting working with local landowners to provide access for mountain bike and cross country ski trails. That effort has blossomed into the Kingdom Trails Association, now run by Tim Tierney (a possible relative of Maurice?). Currently mountain bike specific trails, no horses or motorized vehicles, extend over three local areas, and require a paid permit to use.

sidewinder sign

The permit fees cover the trail center’s staff, trail building and maintenance, and compensation to the 40+ private landowners. I arrived in town after 5:00 p.m. on Thursday evening and the trail center was closed, so I headed across the street to East Burke Sports. There I was able to pick up a trail pass, a 29’er tube and some great local knowledge. I asked local wrench Adam about any good backcountry camping spots, and he pointed out three lean-to’s in the Darling State Forest, adjacent to the ski area, that are open to camping. After enjoying the CCC/WPA lean-to’s in the Adirondacks, I seized the opportunity. He showed me how I could ride from the lodge up to the CCC Road and across the slope to the lower lean-to, and then ride down the “J-Bar” trail in the morning. I immediately drove to the lodge and threw together my BikePacking gear and ground my way up the Toll Road, I had to walk a bit on the singlespeed, 18% grade, while Adam a his friends passed me on an end of day DH shuttle run.


The lean-to was great, and I awoke to another day of perfect weather. After breakfast and coffee I bombed down the “J-Bar” trail which was a little rough at the top on with the hardtail loaded down, but I got into a nice rhythm by the bottom. If the coffee didn’t wake me up this trail certainly did. The trails around the ski area are a mix of DH, Freeride, and technical XC. Of course all involve a climb or shuttle to start. I figured I would stick to this area for the day and started with a climb up “Camptown” trail and over to “Dead Moose Alley”, I got to the trail head and was disappointed to see a “closed” sign. This part of Vermont has had a really wet summer so I figured some trails must still be closed. I headed back down “Camptown”, which was reasonable consolation. Back at the car I used the excellent trail map to plan out a longer ride, looping out from the mountain and over to town and back. I started with a nice warmup on “Trillium” and “Magill Fields” then dropped into “Moose Alley” which has to be one of the best trails on the East Coast. A very fun mix of short downhills, tight corners, roots, and even a few rocks. From there I hopped on “White School” and made my way around the ponds and along the Passumpsic River’s East Branch and ended in town. All kitted up and dirty, I stopped in the River Garden Café and the wait staff didn’t even seem to notice. After a very good salmon sandwich and local brew, I headed over to the trail center and had a nice chat with Tim, who let me know the “closed” sign on “Dead Moose Alley” was still up by mistake. Not wanting to miss one of the most technical trails in the area, I offered to ride up and move the sign. I cruised up the road to the lodge, then up “Camptown” again and moved the “closed” sign. “DMA” was worth the effort, similar to “Moose Alley”, but with more rocks and a little less flow. I finished up the day’s riding by cutting over to “Enchanted Forest”, a really fun descent with pump track like sections and goofy plywood cutouts of animals. I can’t imagine riding this trail without a silly smile on your face. Friday night put me into a different, but equally nice, lean-to after a slightly shorter climb from Kirby Road. For my second day of riding I hit the trails closest to town, along the East Branch. First, I stopped in the Wildflower Inn for second breakfast, and had a nice conversation with owner,  Jim O’Reilly gave me some background on the area and how the trails came to be, along with some excellent blueberry pancakes and coffee. I started my days’ ride from the rapidly filling parking lot at the trail center, there were mostly Quebec plates and French was being spoken. Over the next 4 hours I was able to string together a route that had me riding every piece of single track in this section of the trail network. The trails varied from the bermed downhill of “Kitchel”, to the very challenging “Jaw”, the switchbacks and dips of “East Branch” and the scenic beauty of “Heaven’s Bench”.

heavens bench

All of the trails were perfectly maintained and had great flow. I rode a few “backwards”, like going up “Widow Maker”, and found the place perfectly suited to a singlespeed. I didn’t have to walk anything, although the big switchback on “East Branch” had me grunting, and only dabbed on a couple stream crossings on “Jaw”. I stopped in Bailey’s and Burke, which has about anything you could need, and had a tasty calzone for lunch. Feeling a bit hot, I took the suggestion of another PA rider I randomly ran into earlier in the day, and headed over to Lake Willoughb, which features a “clothing optional” beach. It was a little cool for more than a quick swim, but it was still a good place to relax for the afternoon. The view of the lake from the beach looks like the Delaware Water Gap, and the lake is more than 300 feet deep.

lake willoughby

Later in the afternoon I went back to town and decided to do an evening ride at the north end of Darling Hill. A nice loop out “Fence Line” put me on “Pastore Point” for some picturesque sundown views of the river.

pastore point

Then up “Coronary Bypass” and over to “Harp” which took me back to The Inn at Mountain View Farm. I shared a couple beers with a fellow rider in the parking lot, headed up to the ski lodge and made my way back to the first nights lean-to. After a peaceful, but cool night, I was hanging out making coffee, when I heard some noise in the bushes. The whole trip I had been a bit paranoid about black bears, which I couldn’t seem to shake, even though I had hiked solo in Montana, which is Grizzly country. I called out to warn him off, only to be greeted by an early morning endurance running scrabbling his way to the summit. A little sheepishly, I finished my breakfast and headed down “J-Bar” again. The past couple days I’d rarely seen another rider on the trail, but the full parking lot today suggested today might be more social. After a wet summer, the Kingdom was getting a record number of riders, more than 300 day passes were sold on Saturday. If I could put a good route together in the Drling Hill Section, I figured that I could ride all of the remaining singletrack trails in one long ride. I used “Herb’s” to climb up the hill and then used “River Run” to connect up to trails like “Tap and Die” “Tody’s Tour” “West Branch” and “Sidewinder”. This section certainly had more riders around and there was a clearing up by “Old Webs” that filled up around lunch time. The day’s highlights were “Tody’s Tour” and “Sidewinder”. “Tody’s” was similar to “Moose Alley”, a nice twisty downhill. “Sidewinder” starts a bit like “Tody’s” but then you start dropping into these huge bermed turns that crisscross a ravine.

sidewinder rider

It’s like a big dirt snowboard halfpipe, the G-forces actually compress you at the bottoms. An absolute blast. After my second time down, I stopped at the bottom to shoot some pictures, and you could hear the hoots of the riders coming down. Everyone rolled out the bottom with a huge grin. This was the perfect way to end an amazing trip. Kingdom Trails represents just how first class trails can be built in a relatively small area by utilizing private land. The town, and surrounding businesses, seems to be booming and no one objects to the very reasonable use fees. In many areas Kingdom Trails can serve as an example of how to create a vibrante future for mountain biking, and rural communities. Thanks to everyone that makes it possible, I’ll definitely be back.