Horse Trail Fairy Tale

This weekend, Meg and I headed out to the Finger Lakes for a biking day trip to New York State's only national forest: Finger Lakes National Forest. In this post, you'll find out about:

  • where to find the best a la carte cucumbers and pickled eggs in New York
  • how hilly it is in the Finger Lakes (hint: there's more incline than most of our Colorado bike rides)
  • why horse trails are awful, awful places to ride your bicycle on the East Coast

As a bonus, I'll also drop a couple of recommendations for a coffee shop and taproom we enjoyed in Ithaca.

Coffee and FLX Dirt Road Riding

Our journey started early Saturday morning in Central NY. We got up (sort of) early, loaded up the bikes, and headed down to Ithaca for breakfast and coffee. Our ride mostly took us down NY-13 through Cortland, and was almost as lumpy as Vermont. But with fewer cute farm stands and maple creamies.

Our first stop brought us to Ithaca Coffee Company for coffee and breakfast sandwiches. My latte was good, though $1.25 is an obscenely steep markup for soy milk in a 12oz drink, and Meg's Kyoto-style cold brew was excellent. The sandwiches didn't disappoint either, even though Meg's took a bold stance on combining cream cheese, egg, and bacon on a single sandwich. Since I haven't found a good source for coffee beans in CNY yet other than Wegmans, I took the opportunity to pick up a couple of single origin coffees as well, which I can now report are as excellent as I'd hoped. Though it is unusual that Ithaca Coffee Company doesn't seem to stamp a roast date on their bags of coffee (or boxes, because for some reason all coffee from them comes in a bag within a box?). For what it's worth, mine tastes fresh, but the lack of a roast date sows doubt in my mind about what ICC is hiding.

After breakfast, it was a short drive from Ithaca to Finger Lakes National Forest, where we parked near Blueberry Patch Campground. We loaded up the bikes with some minimal supplies for the ride (with pannier space for Finger Lakes wine, or course) and started the ride on some well packed dirt roads over gradual, rolling hills. The first few miles whizzed by, though taking pictures was a little difficult since there are a LOT of bugs in the Finger Lakes, and they swarm you the minute that you stop your bike. But the weather was a very comfy 65-70 degrees, there was a mild breeze in the air, and the views, when we weren't surrounded by forest, were spectacular.

leaving clem leaving clem in the forest

meg bugs meg starting to battle the mosquitos

nate and view nate and the finger lakes views

We eventually reached a steep-ish hill up a paved road, which fortunately wasn't very busy, which led us to yet another pleasant dirt road ride. Which ended in a dead end, which actually evolved into an ungroomed, unmaintained, dirt horse trail. There were some large rocks and roots, some mud, some weeds in our way, and some steep hills, but overall the terrain was good enough to ride on 95% of the time.

meg creek and the hike-a-bike begins

nate creek and nate perseveres

horse path horse path hike-a-bike begins

Then we came to a corner where our horse trail met another road, and turned into yet another horse trail to the east. The horse trail looked pretty muddy and overgrown... but the only other option was a ride down a busy highway for a good length of time. Plus, the horse trail was only a couple miles, long, so we figured "how bad can it be?"

We didn't bet correctly. Introducing...

The Horse Grinder

Miles of pure muddy slog, massively overgrown weeds (many of them thorny), multiple inch-deep muddy water pools, and horses every couple of minutes that we politely yielded to, because it's a dick move to scare horses by whizzing by on your bicycle. Which, on a narrow, overgrown path, meant forcing your bike and self into weeds that are taller than you on the path's edge and standing in the mud while you wait for the horses to go by.

There was also a lot of horse poop. I mean... a lot of horse poop. Think about how much horse poop you've seen in an entire 10 acre field of horses. Then spread that over a couple of miles of foot-wide path. You think you can avoid it for the first half mile or so, then you step in your first pile. And by the end of the second mile, you're not even bothering to look any more.

The mud was so thick and so wet, I had to stop multiple times just to scrape mud off of my tires, rack, frame, and brakes. Because so much accumulated that I could no longer turn the tire at all. I don't even know how many times I tried to power through a muddy section of trail, only to get stuck halfway through because my tires were either jammed by mud or the mud was so slick the tires couldn't push the bike forward any more, no matter how much I spun them.

You could say that I regretted wearing my chacos with no socks. Though I guess my feet were easy enough to clean later on.

Anyway, it wasn't the best time. I wouldn't recommend riding on horse trails on the East Coast ever. Horse shoes really tear up the dirt, and then that dirt turns into mud super easily even if it hasn't rained recently. And guess what? Tall weeds, water, and mud aren't really that fun to ride your bike on and through. Stick to gravel and dirt roads, folks. Take it from me: you only have to stand ankle deep in horse poop water while wearing sandals for so long before you learn your lesson. Let me teach you this lesson without you personally standing in the horse poop water.

The Paddock

After covering ourselves in bugs, mud, sweat, and horse feces, the next logical step was obviously heading to a fancy (for the Finger Lakes) winery. We took a route down a number of huge hills, which had the lovely side effect of flinging more and more accumulated mud off of our tires as we picked up speed. After one hill, I learned my lesson and used some of my precious water to clean the mud off of my brakes and make them functional again. Meg's disc brakes, as always, had no issues whatsoever.

It was around this time that I noticed yet another casualty of the horse trail: my supposedly indestructable Ortlieb panniers. Somehow the weeds managed to extricate one of the screws that holds them together, which both made them hang off of my rack at an awkward angle. And ruining the waterproofing. Thankfully they come with a 5 year warrantee, so hopefully I'll get a replacement soon.

About halfway to the winery, we reached a closed (but not locked) gate that the trail passed right through. Unusual though it may be, we passed through the gate, waved hello to the cows that were grazing nearby (they responded with an approving "moo"), and proceeded through the paddock, dodging cow pies all the way.

cows COWS!

post cows cow pasture cruisin

Our final descent to the winery took us down a mile at least of steep downhill overlooking Seneca Lake. We cut through a winery's vineyard, locked up the bikes, and then went to a different winery across the street when it turned out that the first, very fancy winery "didn't have any reservations available" for walk-ins. But I suspect they also had a problem with the sweat, mud, and horse poop that caked our bodies at that point. We settled down for a nice refreshing tasting of wine from a woman who claims that her favorite wine is "Coors Light" and soon we were on our way with a bottle of bubbly for the road.

The Broken Bridge

no bridge never trust g-maps to be up to date

Fortunately for our legs, our return journey didn't take us up that same mile+ long hill we came down on our way to the winery. Instead, we headed up a half mile or so of the hill, took a side road, and almost immediately realized that the next road we were supposed to turn onto was just... gone. Turns out, the bridge on that road collapsed at some point in the last few years, but a lot of mapping software still lists the road. We rerouted yet again, and managed to dodge riding on the main road by cutting through an almost-road through yet another vineyard. We only heard long banging noises in the distance once, so I assume that if we were trespassing it wasn't egregious enough to get us shot.

Ice Cream Sandwiches and Cucumbers

meg ice cream ice cream sammies for the win

stand cucumbers also for the win

The rest of our route took us down mostly-paved roads on our way back to the national forest with a mix up uphills and downhills that mostly spared our legs from severe punishment. On one of those roads was an adorable farm stand that claimed to have ice cream sandwiches. Naturally, we had to stop and purchase some. Even though they were very run-of-the-mill sandwiches, they absolutely hit the spot at that point in our long bike ride, and paired surprisingly well with the home-grown cucumber that Meg and I took bites out of just like a banana. Special thanks to the very friendly, very reasonably priced farm stand we stopped at -- after our experience at the snooty wineries, the woman running the stand didn't seem offended at all by our mud and sweat. Faith in humanity restored. I'd definitely stop by again for some pickled eggs or dill cucumbers, or the $5 flat-priced pumpkins.

Just after the farm stand, a herd of cows decided to run alongside us as we biked down the road. It's the little things in life that make you appreciate the world around you.

stampede STAMPEDE!

From the farm stand, it was only a few more miles of mostly quiet, mostly paved roads back to the car. Once we were back in the national forest, we passed some of the same horse riders we saw back during The Horse Grinder -- they seemed very surprised that we made it out alive.

Beers and Bruhs

We finished off the day (after a much-needed change of clothes) with a stop at Ithaca's Brewer's Cafe and Taproom, which had an mindblowing draft selection, a gobsmacking can selection, and a flabbergastingly good Kimchi Tater Tot plate (with bulgogi beef!). Sandwiches weren't bad either. We would highly recommend it as a place to meet up with some old friends, and they've got a huge beer garden yard space out back, too.


The Finger Lakes are pretty buggy, but full of nice people. Don't bike on horse trails, ever. Ithaca has good coffee and good beer.


vinny Vinny, Nate, and Meg at Smith Mountain Lake

This post is dedicated in memory of Vincent Ostermeier, my grandfather, who very recently passed away. May you find good books, fast boats, fine wine, and good company wherever you are now. Special thanks to Meg for giving me the push I needed to include a stop at Smith Mountain Lake on our drive from Colorado to the East Coast. It wasn't exactly on the way, but I'm so very glad we spent a weekend there with Vinny.