Words by Anthony Duncan, photos by Jesse Cheers
I’ve always been vaguely aware of bear protocol when out in the wild. I say “vaguely” because my bear knowledge has never really been tested … until recently. Here’s the scenario: It’s roughly 3 a.m. and I’m wide awake in a hammock after a nearly 50-mile day in the saddle on the 42nd Parallel ride with the Western New York Mountain Bike Association (WNYMBA). We’re at the Tracy Ridge Campground in the Allegheny National Forest, and I’m listening to the commotion of a bear ravaging the coolers and tubs of food that our volunteer guides brought along for the three-day trip. Surprisingly, the bear made only slightly less noise than “Bluntman” Phil after falling out of his hammock a few hours earlier and was much less of a nuisance than the raccoon that a guy named Barry battled during our first night of camping. Welcome to my first multi-day supported mountain biking trip.
What is the 42nd Parallel? It’s two things, actually. It’s a ride, as I’ve mentioned, but also a big straight line (for you geography nerds, that’s 42 degrees north latitude) that defines the border of New York and Pennsylvania. It also happens to run through some of the most beautiful forested hills you’ll find anywhere. Much of it crosses public land, including Allegany State Park in New York and the Allegheny National Forest (ANF) in Pennsylvania.
Joseph Ellicott surveyed this border just after the Revolutionary War, extending New York westward toward Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Much of the work he produced is still used for engineering and surveying today. However, most maps of both the state park and the national forest tend to stop at this latitudinal marker, which means you have to keep multiple maps on hand in order to connect anything crossing the state line.
Jon Sundquist, a founder of WNYMBA and a cartographer by avocation, compiled all of the trail and forest data in this bi-state area and envisioned a contiguous natural-surface route from Ellicottville, New York, to the ANF near Warren, Pennsylvania. The vision came to fruition this summer when 15 mountain bikers set off to make the three-day, 120-mile journey. The route consisted of three areas: Allegany State Park, the Allegheny National Recreation Area and the new Jakes Rocks trail system in the ANF. In essence, Sundquist wanted to field verify (map-geek speak) the route to see how the two regions tied together by riding the maximum amount of dirt. The ultimate goal would be to build support for replacing the few stretches of pavement with singletrack and to promote the area as a mountain biking destination for riders from the East Coast to the Midwest and beyond.
The morning of day one, riders were poring over maps to look at the route Sundquist had put together as others bustled to get their gear and food in order. The true heroes of this ride — the shuttle drivers — loaded up our camping gear to drive it to our public-campground destinations. A short pavement ride out of Ellicottville led us up to McCarty Hill State Forest just south of Holiday Valley Resort. We were greeted with seemingly endless miles of buttery singletrack trails surrounded by a soft blanket of fern and moss. It was exactly what you would expect from traditional hand-built East Coast trail riding as we followed a thin brown ribbon of elation and fell into the rhythm of the trail. These trails are the result of years of proactive advocacy work by WNYMBA and their dedicated volunteers, many of them along for this ride. Their bold approach to land-manager engagement has resulted in dozens of miles of new trails in Ellicottville, routes that exhibit great flow with enough technical features to keep the most seasoned rider on his or her toes. Many of these trails make up the Ellicottville Epic, a 30-mile ride that includes the trails at Holiday Valley Resort and the McCarty Hill and Rock City state forests. For this endeavor, we left most of the riding for another day to head south toward the evening’s destination.
Singletrack soon turned to dirt and gravel roads and then to pavement as we made our way into Salamanca, New York, where we then quickly ascended back onto dirt entering Allegany State Park. At the top of the climb, we rested at the future trailhead of a shovel-ready 8 mile trail called the Stone Tower Trail. WNYMBA is currently raising funds for the construction and expects to break ground soon.
Up to mile 41, we had ridden almost entirely on dirt, aside from crossing the Allegheny River in Salamanca. At this point, we were at the high point of the ridge with extravagant views of Cain Hollow, where another planned 8 mile section of mostly downhill trail will flow directly into the Cain Hollow Campground. Since the trail is only planned at this point, we had to pedal the longest paved section of the day to the campground. Once at the campground, we talked trails and Chiavetta’s (a Buffalo, New York, tradition) and fantasized about the day we would blissfully descend on the new trail directly into our tents.
After breakfast, coffee and more coffee, we set off on a nearly 50 mile day made up of mostly oil service roads, some pavement and a small bit of singletrack peppered in for good measure. Our first big landmark of day two was the 42nd parallel, where New York turns into Pennsylvania. Ten minutes of riding and we saw the sign, “Allegheny National Forest,” which meant we were on the 42nd Parallel ride.
We stayed on dirt until we descended almost directly into the backyard of Pete Dzirkalis, owner of a local Bradford, Pennsylvania, bike shop called Just Riding Along. Dzirkalis’ wife, Krista, served us a delicious lunch as we lounged in the yard, trying to forget we were only halfway into the day’s ride. Replenished, we hopped back onto our bikes to pedal just a few miles of pavement out of town before ducking back into the woods and making our way up the long climb on the beautiful Marilla Springs Trail. At the top, a few short miles on dirt Forest Service roads brought us to the Willow Creek ATV trail. Don’t let the name fool you: You seldom see ATVs on it, and it can best be described as two parallel singletracks through the woods. This trail is fast, flowy and provided a satisfying departure from the oil and gas roads we pedaled for most of the day. Staying on dirt, we dropped down to Sugar Bay of the Allegheny Reservoir, which marked the end of the day two route.
While day two’s route lacked in singletrack, its significance was defined by our destination. We set up camp at the Tracy Ridge Recreation Area Campground in the Allegheny National Forest. To make it to the campground, the group pounded pavement for several miles. In the future, WNYMBA and their Warren, Pennsylvania, counterpart, the Northern Allegheny Mountain Bike Association (NAMBA), are working together to create more than 12 miles of mellow trail riding to get to the campground. In 1994, mountain bikers were banned from the trails at Tracy Ridge, and at the time, there wasn’t an organized mountain biking group in that region of Pennsylvania to help fight the battle. The need to have a unified voice was recognized by Andy Georgakis of Warren. Georgakis and several others formed NAMBA in response to these closures to better represent mountain bikers in the region. Since then they have adopted the same proactive approach to advocacy as WNYMBA because they’ve felt the sting of having to be reactive. The organizations formed an alliance to propose to amend the Forest Service plan and open 12 miles of trails to shared use. There are currently over 150 miles of trails in the Allegheny National Forest, and to date, mountain bikers have largely been left with gravel roads and doubletrack sections. However, new Forest Service management recognizes the social and economic impacts that mountain biking can have on the region and has witnessed the dedicated stewardship that the two IMBA chapters bring to the table.
After gathering what was left of our food after the bear smorgasbord at Tracy Ridge, day three’s excitement was two-fold. It marked the last day of our ride and the first time many in our group would get to experience the new trails at Jakes Rocks in the ANF.
The group headed back toward Sugar Bay, trading the tall grass of the forest road for a route just above waterline littered with rugged rocks of the bare shoreline. The rocks made for some amusing and challenging terrain. It was entertaining to see everyone clean, stumble and cheer on others’ line choices as we headed toward the Morrison Trail System. It turned out to be a good warm-up, as sections of Morrison were very demanding with many unique rock features, creek crossings and onerous rooty sections. Some opted to stay on the upper trails near the trailhead, which provided a very fast rolling route to the paved road that would lead us to Jakes Rocks, just across Kinzua Bay from the Morrison trails.
The trails at Jakes Rocks have been seven years in the making and are the result of extremely successful public and private partnerships. Almost entirely privately funded, the trails were described as “heaven” by some in the group. The planned 46-mile system, designed by IMBA Trail Solutions and constructed by a myriad of builders with different building styles, provides the region with a purpose-built playground of dirt. The trails meander through enormous rock formations and provide alternate line choices offering both flow and challenging textures. We were able to ride only a portion of the system, as just 10 miles have been built to date, but if those few miles are any indication, Jakes Rocks will be a remarkable destination. It was even more noteworthy that we chose to ride our bikes 120 sensational and memorable miles to get there.
The 42nd Parallel ride will only get better as WNYMBA and NAMBA continue to work with their partners for new access and increased funding opportunities for approved trails. With increased traffic to Jakes Rocks and mapped bikepacking routes for the region, there is no doubt that Western New York and Western Pennsylvania will be toward the top of your list for your next adventure.
This Access piece originally appeared in Dirt Rag 195. Subscribe now so that you never miss an issue and sign up for our weekly email newsletter to get fresh content delivered to your inbox every Tuesday!