Ridden & Written by
The Empire State Trail is a multi-use trail and according to wikipedia it is the longest of its kind in the United States. The trail runs north from Manhattan to the Canadian border in Rouses Point near the northern tip of Lake Champlain, with an option to head to Albany from Buffalo. 750 miles / 1210 km of tarmac and hard packed gravel connect multiple other (pre-existing) trails into one long path for biking, hiking and, depending on the area, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Announced in 2017 the Empire State Trail (EST) was completed December 2020.
Similar to the EST in its entirety, I was relatively new to this country too.
I had just relocated to New York City in December 2020 from Hong Kong, and was excited to finally get into more semi- and self supported bikepacking. It is right to assume that Hong Kong does not provide a big bikepacking playground. Especially with travel restrictions in place..
Another growing frustration: My beloved Canyon Grail AL ( ‘Tractor’), and a whole set of gears I had purchased at the end of 2019, never were put to the intended use – a six month canceled-by-covid bike sabbatical through South East Asia.
With the EST open, I thought what better way to explore this new place as well as finally getting in a bigger ride after the relocation circus. With its 750 miles, the EST offers quite some riding ground to cover. While this length marks the route from NYC to Buffalo, my route was shorter to 630 miles as I wanted to end my ride at Niagara Falls.
My preparations got underway roughly 3-4 weeks before the intended starting date with laying out where to camp or book an AirBnb ahead of time. The result was a combination of 5 campsites, 2 AirBnb’s and 1 Hotel. Food wise I carried breakfast (to be independent at the beginning of day) and light dinners to which I would add fruits and vegetables bought along the way or dinner when crossing a town.
Generally my thinking was to travel light and to try out a few things that could come in handy on future longer and more remote trips.
For this trip I had planned to ride between 75-85 miles a day. The terrain has little to no elevation but tends to challenge with strong headwinds especially on the route towards west. My planning counted for 9 days which became 8.
My rather meticulous preparations had accounted for most one could account for when preparing a bikepacking trip. Except for a tropical storm riding up the East Coast and hitting NYC the day I was supposed to start my journey. I decided to start a day later and ride the first two days in one – from NYC to Kingston – 135 miles. Knowing that a destination has an Italian restaurant for carb-recharge, is motivating and satisfactory at the same time…
Riding up through the Bronx and out of the city north bound, I got to see some of the full impact Ida had on the city. The trail was flooded and unrideable in parts, so were parkways and other major roads. Entire areas north of NYC had collapsed infrastructure and towns that had a ditch, now also had a lake.
With re-planning the route on the go and navigating through flooded towns the term ‘adventure riding’ got a somewhat unexpected meaning…
Once leaving the flooded areas behind, the untouched trail was unfolding with its nearly perfect tarmac and a few patches of hard packed gravel. It is impressive how well the EST is signposted, to the extent that it could be ridden without any GPS assistance.
The great surface condition allows for fast riding and even when crossing towns – the trail is primarily car free.
While this trip was mainly planned and intended to be a solo trip, I did get company for a short part of the journey. A familiar face in the NYC cycling and bikepacking scene joined: friend and riding buddy Dwayne Burgess from Manual Pedal decided to tag along for a few days to test out a new setup he had been experimenting with. Having met on one of his Hudson Gravel Rides we quickly figured out our common itch to ‘get out there’. Perhaps a common side effect when living in ultra-urban environments.
Some weeks earlier we had finished another overnighter at the Delaware water gap and worked quite well together during this mission. After dealing with the only mechanical issues on this trip (nail through tire = new tire) we took off. In perfect weather we got to ride through gorgeous parts of upstate New York along the Hudson Valley. Over the next three days we worked northwards, through Albany and onto the west route of the trail along the Erie Canal.
Up until Albany the trail is mainly tarmac which is in excellent condition. On the west route the Erie Canal Trail offers surprisingly more mixed terrain: tarmac and increasingly hard packed gravel. Even some long streaks of single trail are in the mix. The trail is 95% car free. When we were on the road with cars, the trail lead us through towns on a marked route and often on a dedicated shoulder.
The Erie Canal has 37 lock stations. Most of these stations have a small park, or at least a grass patch that can be used for free camping. The lockmaster office, at the respective stations, can offer drinking water, bathroom and in some cases a shower. On our journey we made use of this combination at Lock 8.
One of the great side effects of bikepacking are the folks you meet on the road. Either with an equal (or more) amount of bags strapped to their bikes (bikes and bags are usually good conversation opener).
While traveling on a bike through a new region is incredibly rewarding, it gets full circle when talking to locals and learning details about the environment. Again the bicycle offers the right scale to zoom out while pedaling but also zoom in while stopping for a chat.
Most of the other fellow bike packers we met along the way were actually tandem riders.
The last 5 days of this trip turned back into solo riding. In its far west parts the EST is almost entirely hard packed gravel. Great to ride when dry but parts of it turned into a mud battle during rainy days. Despite the impeccable mid September weather, I got two days of riding in the rain. My bag setup is almost entirely from Apidura and more specifically the water proof Expedition line. On all my tours these bags have never disappointed. From riding through pouring rain to being left outside of the tent in torrential rain overnight.
I am running the 14L saddle bag and the 14L handlebar pack with the 4.5L accessory pocket. As for the frame bag, I took for the first time the 7.5 L full frame back including bladder with me. Smaller bags are the 0.8 L food pouch and a 0.5 L top tube bag that carries my toolkit. The front roll packs my sleep system, which is a Nemo Dragonfly, Sea to Summit air pad and a quilt from Enlightened equipment.
The entire setup when riding out of NYC was around 44 lbs, which includes 4 litres of water and 9.39 lbs of bike.
The bike is a Canyon Grail AL 7.0 2019. While I love the geometry and feeling of this bike, it does come with a rather compact frame for bike packing. A relatively short wheelbase forces the downtube mounts to be relocated ( → Wolf Tooth B-Rad mounting base) further down in order to carry bigger bottles. Another shortcoming out of the box is the fork with missing mounting points for additional cages. Upgrading the fork would be a consideration if future trips would demand it.
Reaching almost the end of my journey, I left the Erie Canal Trail which is the majority of the EST on its western part to ride up to Niagara Falls. On the last two days strong western winds had picked up driving another storm towards the east. Riding up to Niagra Falls meant also being back on roads and (wide) shoulders with traffic. Very quickly I missed the tranquil atmosphere of riding alone for hours along the Erie Canal.
Ending my journey at the falls was certainly a good decision.
The falls are huge and with over 3000 tons of water per second… a madly impressive spectacle of our planet to watch.
However, as I was admiring the water running over the edge, I could not take my mind off the past few days. So many distinctive and good memories had been created on the trail in the past 8 days.
From riding through flooded towns, zipping through apple orchards, crossing impressive footbridges across the Hudson, stopping by breweries & great restaurants, finding the best coffee and cooking at camp with lots of laughter and 1,000 mosquitos.
I was hosted by fantastic AirBnB hosts, campsite owners and met fellow bikepackers riding the Millenium Falcon and other space ships. New roads have been ridden and new friends where made.
In the end the AmTrack train took me back to NYC in 8 hours. Each hour standing for one of the past riding days and almost exactly along the bike route.