From paddling impossibly blue lakes to hiking up to jaw-dropping overlooks, Adirondack Park, in Upstate New York, offers an array of outdoor adventures.
“We’re still in New York?”
That was my interior monologue as my family and I made our escape from the NYC suburbs, up Highway 87 into Upstate New York’s massive Adirondack Park.
In the midst of more than 6 million acres of mountains, lakes, and rivers, not to mention the pine-scented air, I had to keep reminding myself that I was not in Montana or Wyoming or California, but only a few hours’ drive from the hustle-bustle that I call home. And if 6 million acres sounds like an awful lot, well, yes, as a matter of fact, it is: Adirondack Park is bigger than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Parks put together, offering 46 peaks taller than 4,000 feet, 2,000 miles of hiking and cycling trails, and more than 3,000 lakes and ponds perfect for kayaking and canoeing.
Adirondack Park, unlike most national and state parks, is also home to several decidedly cool towns - with stylish lodging and great food - that belong on your must-see list. What’s it like to live and work in America’s biggest state park? James McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST) notes that the immense popularity of the Adirondacks requires guidance and management. “Last year, more than 12.4 million people visited the Adirondacks,” says McKenna. “The task in all communities is to engineer tourism in ways that benefit residents and their quality of life while preserving the culture. We work to manage growth in established tourism bases, such as Lake Placid and Lake George, and to help other communities attract their share of potential visitors.”
In July, my family and I were some of those visitors. Here, your itinerary for discovering the Adirondack region like we did.
We happened to arrive in Saranac Lake during its Art Walk, which gave us a chance to soak up a lot of the small town’s charm, meet plenty of locals, and get a real sense of what makes the place tick. Spots like Art at the Pink House, where Cris Winters sells artwork and original clothing (some of it creatively repurposed from gently used clothing); Small Fortune Studio, where painter Tim Fortune sells original oils and watercolors of the region; and the Community Store, where you can find a little bit of just about everything, gave me an immediate sense of a vibrant community that comes together to celebrates its unique culture.
Hotel Saranac (hotelsaranac.com) is an inspiring base of operations for visitors to Saranac Lake. The hotel, now part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, is right on Main Street. It dates back more than a century, and a recent reimagining and renovation have created a property that feels at once vintage and freshly modern, with original fixtures paying homage to an Art Deco past while amenities and infrastructure are decidedly contemporary. A meal at the hotel’s CampFire restaurant is widely regarded as one of the best in town, and we loved the food and friendly service. Other excellent options for hungry hikers, paddlers, and cyclists in town include Blue Line Brewery, Casa del Sol, Tail of the Pup, Blue Moon Cafe, and Origins Coffee.
Among many highlights, we loved our half-day guided kayak tour with Adirondack Trails & Lakes Outfitters (adirondackoutfitters.com), where local Tyler Merriam taught us some basic kayaking techniques, guided us down a river and into the lake, then up onto shore for a short climb to a bluff overlooking the lake where we ate a picnic lunch and (of course) shot plenty of pics and video (check out my Adirondacks video, above). As we looked out over the nearby peaks, Merriam told us all about Saranac’s 6’er hiking challenge, in which hikers attempt to summit each of the six local mountains (some try to do it all in one day). We asked if there was a relatively easy mountain among the six. “Baker Mountain,” he replied. “It is relatively easy distance-wise and a nice proximity to downtown Saranac Lake. The trail is 0.9 miles from beginning to end, and gains about 900 feet to reach its 2,452-foot summit. Though short, it still offers a challenge to the average hiker as the upper portion of the trail is quite steep. However, the challenge is worth the reward, as the summit has fantastic views.” Locals also heartily recommend Paul Smith College’s Visitor Interpretive Center for a thorough education in the area’s natural history.
On the other end of the adventure spectrum, young ones (and young-at-heart ones) will love closing their day in Saranac Lake at the Adirondack Carousel, where every animal on the carousel is an Adirondack native, including bears, deer, loons, and beavers. The carousel is also across the street from a Stewart’s ice cream shop, so what’s not to love?
The town of Tupper Lake plays host to one of the most memorable stops in the Adirondack region: The Wild Center (wildcenter.org) is an unparalleled immersive experience in which guests can spend the day enjoying well-groomed and signed hiking trails in the woods (it feels a little bit like a park experience and a little bit like a wild walk, and you’ll appreciate knowing no matter how far you wander, the paths will always bring you back to the center); take to the treetops on the Wild Walk elevated walkway for spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, and climb into an “eagle’s nest” along the way; embark on a kayaking, canoeing, or stand-up paddleboard adventure; and enjoy excellent indoor natural history exhibits devoted to the science and wildlife of the Adirondacks.
We loved Raquette River Outfitters (raquetteriveroutfitters.com) in Tupper Lake for a guided stand-up paddleboard tour including lessons on safety, gear, and paddling technique from our guide, Trevor, a seasoned paddler and all-around outdoorsman and avid skier who gave us some insight into what a visit to Tupper Lake might look and feel like in, say, January. (Although we’ve all tried skiing, we were very glad it wasn’t January.)
The town offers an array of dining options, ranging from grabbing a picnic at Shaheen’s IGA and heading over to the Municipal Waterfront to ogle the sun sinking behind the lake to a splendid sit-down dinner at Amado, where upscale American comfort food like gourmet burgers and steaks rub elbows with Brazilian favorites such as feijoada, accompanied by a variety of local craft beers on tap.
A short drive north from the Saranac-Tupper Lake area brings you to Lake Placid, one of the most storied towns in the history of the Winter Olympics and the site of the U.S. hockey victory in 1980 that’s been dubbed the “miracle on ice.” In summer, the town’s trails, lakes, and charming downtown welcome swarms of visitors from all over - you’ll hear an international potpourri of languages, not just the English, French Canadian, and Spanish you might expect.
The Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort (golden-arrow.com) offers everything a visitor to Lake Placid could want, with easy access to Mirror Lake for kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddleboarding free to hotel guests. Truth is, if it hadn’t rained a bit during our stay, we might have spent all day every day out on the lake, where in late July three loons were nesting on the quiet side of the water, their uncanny wails turning one of my foggy morning strolls into something utterly unforgettable.
While in Lake Placid, you may enjoy reliving some of the Olympics glory at the Olympics Museum, Whiteface Mountain, the ski jumps, and the Olympics Sports complex for a (safe, supervised) bobsled ride. You’ll definitely want to spend some time shopping on Main Street, where upscale boutiques mingle with candy shops and great eateries like Delta Blue for friendly service even on busy nights plus great po’boys, local beers on tap, and live music. For great barbecue, hit up Smoke Signals, also on Main. And to truly dive into the local craft beer scene, head to Big Slide Brewery, where I tried a flight of local favorites ranging from a rich, chocolatey porter to a refreshingly fruity IPA, and tucked into a fantastic steak.
But as fun as Lake Placid’s semi-urban environment can be, you must head out of town as well to savor the natural beauty at Ausable Chasm, which enjoys the billing, “The Grand Canyon of the Adirondacks,” and pay a visit to the denizens of the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge, which include bears, moose, and wolves.
GREAT CAMP SAGAMORE & BLUE MOUNTAIN LAKE
Ready to unplug for real? Great Camp Sagamore (greatcampsagamore.org), with a grand history of welcoming city folks to the mountains for more than a century, is the place to leave your smartphone in your room (there’s no reception expect near the main office anyway), take a walk on one of the properties forest trails, hop in a canoe and paddle across the picture-perfect lake, and meet other guests who are there to do exactly the same thing and are welcoming and friendly to all newbies. Dinner is served precisely at 6pm each evening (you’re called to eat with an old-fashioned dinner bell), with clean-up around 6:45, so you’ll get used to staying on schedule unless you want to go hungry.
After enjoying the quiet, back-to-nature vibe at Camp Sagamore, head up the road about a half hour to the town of Blue Mountain Lake, where the Adirondack Experience (theadkx.org) awaits. As the name suggests, the museum and its grounds are dedicated to all things Adirondack, from the natural world to history and culture, with incredible hands-on exhibits that are truly state-of-the-art and guaranteed to please kids and adults alike. Plan to spend the day for the multimedia presentations, activities, guided tours, exceptional cafeteria (exquisite salads and beef stew like your grandma made), and a gift shop that will send you home with numerous high-quality keepsakes (I picked up a T-shirt that I’m actually wearing right now).
Anywhere we went in the Adirondacks, whenever we mentioned that we had reservations at the Hoot Owl Lodge (thehootowllodge.com), in Newcomb, the response was the same: “Oh, that place is fantastic.” And, yes, it is. A classic bed-and-breakfast complete with homemade chocolate chip cookies to welcome guests, gorgeous bedrooms, and owners who make you feel at home, the Hoot Owl Lodge (and the cottage down the road, which can also be booked), is your base of operations in the Newcomb area, where upscale style meets down-home comfort. (Coming this fall, the Hoot Owl’s owners will be opening at Italian-American eatery and glamping property not far from the lodge.)
Ready to explore the Newcomb area’s charms? Head to Cloud-Splitter Outfitters (cloudsplitteroutfitters.com) to book a bike ride to Camp Santanoni, or ask about guided activities that’ll get you out on the water. (Local tip: Cloud-Splitter also doubles as a small grocery store, offering local cheeses and other staples, and the reason this tip is vital is because the nearest market is a good 20-minute drive away.)
The Hoot Owl Lodge is also a good base for exploring the wider region, which includes portions of Lake George and Lake Champlain. Head to Westport, about an hour away, for a first-rate live production at the Depot Theater (depottheatre.org). Fort Ticonderoga (fortticonderoga.org), where the top of Lake George and the bottom of Lake Champlain almost meet, is also about an hour’s drive from Newcomb, and its knowledgeable staff, sizable gift shop, and excellent restaurant (with a view of a portion of Lake Champlain) will immerse you in the Revolutionary War-era fort and its history. And a half-hour’s drive will bring you to Sticks and Stones Wood-Fired Bistro for a hearty meal in Schroon Lake.
We can’t leave the Newcomb area without also mentioning that Long Lake, just 14 miles away, is a fun pit-stop at an intersection from which you can easily reach either Blue Mountain Lake, Tupper Lake, or Newcomb. You’ll know it when you see it: Hoss’s Country Store, ADK Growl and Grub, and Custard’s Last Stand (try a scoop of black forest ice cream) are local standbys.