Filed away in the basement of the Saranac Lake Free Library in upstate New York is an old photo of a group posing in front of an exquisite log building. The lodge, a series of gables and overhanging porches stretching toward Lake Kora, is the centerpiece of Kill Kare, one of the most extravagant of the Adirondack "great camps." But it's not the lodge's pine intricacies that hold your attention, nor is it the collection of well-dressed Victorian vacationers. It's the dancing black bear in the foreground.
Kill Kare was a place of exotic entertainment, even by Adirondack standards. For a number of years the baseball teams of both Harvard and Yale were invited every August so guests could watch some games. A gondola was imported from Venice for trips around the private lake, while spiritual needs were taken care of at the chapel, a replica of a Norman church.
At Sagamore, the nearby camp of Alfred Vanderbilt, vacation meant competition. In winter, toboggans were roped to a team of horses that raced in circles around Sagamore Lake. The trophy went to the guest—Sagamore could house 100 at a time—best able to hang on.
Private rail cars, tuxedo dinners, dance floors over the water, fanciful boathouses full of the loveliest wooden motor launches ever built—it was all part of the scene in the Adirondacks from the turn of the century to the Depression. Many of the largest of the camps are now conference centers, hotels, children's camps, or simply gone; others quietly survive, no longer the center of attention.
The story of the great camps, however, is just one episode, albeit the most baroque, in a long and colorful history of people at play in these woods. More than anyplace else, the Adirondacks is where America discovered that untamed places are not necessarily the enemy that early settlers perceived them to be. When Ralph Waldo Emerson and fellow luminaries set up their Philosophers' Camp here at Follensby Pond in 1858, they were by no means the first visitors to feel so liberated from their cares as to be, in Emerson's words, "associates of the sylvan gods."
Six years later, the New York Times described the northeast corner of the Empire State as "a tract of country fitted to make a Central Park for the world." The comment was remarkably prescient. Though it wasn't until the 1890's that the state decided to protect land in the area, today the Adirondack Park is bigger than Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Glacier National Parks combined. With the exception of the new California Desert National Park, it is the largest park in the lower 48 states.
It's an odd park, though, for less than half the land within its boundaries is actually owned by the government. Since 1894, that portion, nearly 2.6 million acres, has been set aside as "forever wild." No tree in the preserve can be cut without a vote of the people. But the rest of the park, including Lake Placid, Keene Valley, and the 100-plus other Adirondack towns and hamlets, is on private land.
The Adirondack Park Agency regulates large-scale clear-cutting, and must sign off on big subdivisions. But whether more should be done to oversee future development is a controversy that never cools to below a simmer. The fight will go on. The presence of pristine landscape, after all, is what has always drawn people to the Adirondacks. It's extraordinary to find open and untrammeled spaces of the magnitude found here, with New York, Boston, and Montreal only a half-day's drive away.
Each place you discover contends for your affections. With 2,800 lakes and ponds to explore, how do you decide if the open waters and mountain views of Long Lake are preferable to the intimacy of deep-woods kettle holes like Nellie Pond and her sister, Bessie?With 30,000 miles of flowing water to ponder, who's to say the thrill of the Fox Den rapids on the upper Hudson is more satisfying than the lazy meandering of the Moose River through its plains?
Last, and perhaps most important, there are the Adirondack Mountains themselves. "It makes a man feel what it is to have all creation under his feet," said the legendary guide John Cheney, after the first recorded ascent of Mount Marcy, tallest of the peaks, in 1837. And John Cheney, tradition has it, was a master of understatement.
Here the notion of escape ensures. It's defined by cool morning air, deep vistas, and silence broken only by the trickle of an oar cutting through a mirror lake, the snap of a twig, the hoot of an owl. This is the modern cure, and the Adirondacks in summer is the place to take it. Head to the heart of the Adirondack Park—the High Peaks area and neighboring lakes to the south and west. Then jump in.
—Heather Smith Macisaac
WHERE TO STAY
In the Rockies, you go to a ranch; in the Adirondacks, you go to a camp. Offerings range from standard-issue cots to craftsman-made birch canopy beds, from trail mix to cocktail nuts. Here, our pick of the most inviting. Rates in most cases include two meals a day.
Greatest of the Great Camps
Upper Saranac Lake
800/255-3530 or 518/891-5674, fax 518/891-1152
doubles from $850 all-inclusive
open year-round except mid-March to mid-April.
There's a reason why 9 out of 10 glowing comments in the guest book at the Point, a great camp built for the Rockefellers, are penned by anniversary celebrants. They get to sleep late on handsome beds with fine linens; wake up over breakfast in their room; picnic at a private spot to which they have biked, hiked, or paddled; help themselves to champagne; sparkle in their finery at dinner; and stoke a fire long into the night.
The 11 guest rooms in four buildings, all with views of Upper Saranac Lake, are splendidly rustic; the grounds strike the perfect balance between tidy and wild. At a resort loaded with treats, the biggest thrill of all is going out for a spin on the lake in the HackerCraft or the ELCO launch and savoring the feeling of cruising home to your own great camp.
Sagamore Rd., off Rte. 28
doubles from $250
open May 1-November 1
The Vanderbilts were jet-setters—shuttling from house to house—long before the age of jets. They simply moved at a slower pace. Spring found them at the Breakers in Newport; in summer they rode the rails in their private coach up to Sagamore, near Raquette Lake. Bright red trim picks out the tiny-paned windows of the Swiss-chalet-style main lodge (built by noted great-camp architect W. W. Durant).
You can see the lodge on a tour of the compound; guests stay there and in several restored outbuildings, with bathrooms down the hall. Better yet, sign up for one of the week- or weekend-long programs run by the nonprofit Sagamore Institute. Set off in a canoe before breakfast, dine modestly beneath magnificent wrought-iron chandeliers, go for strikes at the two-lane open-air bowling alley, and take classes in subjects such as blacksmithing, woodcarving, and the history of this and other great camps.
Year-Round, All-Around Resorts
LAKE PLACID LODGE
Whiteface Inn Rd.
518/523-2700, fax 518/523-1124
doubles from $200.
Many pine for the Point; few can afford it. The Lake Placid Lodge may not have a setting as remote or romantic as that of its richer sister, but it does have beams and bedposts every bit as birchy, and foie gras parfait just as smooth—at more approachable rates. From the reception area, follow the stairs leading down to a broad porch overlooking the lake; you'll pass through public rooms with vintage camp signs, modern-day rustic furniture by local masters, and fireplaces set ablaze the second there's a chill.
The 22 guest rooms and suites in the original 1882 lodge and three newer buildings vary in atmosphere (some cabin-y, some cottage-y), but are all loaded with comfort (deep tubs, dreamy beds, cedar closets). Recently, the lodge joined hands with the Whiteface Club, whose golf course, tennis courts, and marina are just next door. At the end of the day, if you can tear yourself away from the view, belly up to the bar and ask retired bobsledder Forrest Morgan for a scotch and a story.
MIRROR LAKE INN
5 Mirror Lake Dr.
doubles from $95
Staying at Mirror Lake Inn won't give you a feel for camp life. But what the rambling, white-clapboard resort has that you won't find in most other Adirondack hotels are certain comforts: a spa and salon, indoor and outdoor pools, Colonial-style rooms with views of Whiteface Mountain, and a coat-and-tie dining room with the option of ordering from a health-conscious menu. Plus, it's a short walk to downtown Lake Placid.
Summer Camp For Families
Maple Lodge Rd.
Blue Mountain Lake
doubles from $92
Open Memorial Day to mid-October
Hidden in a forest of hemlock, birch, balsam, and pine just below the Adirondack Museum is this compound dating from the turn of the century. The main house, the dining room, a motel unit, and a fenced playground are at the top of the hill, but the action is at the bottom. Along the way, you pass 10 popular two- and three-bedroom cabins. Books and sand buckets in hand, families migrate to the small beach and plant themselves in the sand or water for the day, until hunger lures them back up the hill.
Blue Mountain Lake; 518/352-7325 or 518/352-7672
doubles from $138
Open mid-June to mid-October
That's been the name since 1920, but the place might more appropriately be called the Porches. The resort, on 12 1/2 level acres, offers all of the usual activities (boating, fishing, tennis, swimming from a small beach), but its Adirondack chairs and rockers may be the most vied-for equipment. Whether you stay in the wooden lodge or the stone house, both built in the 1880's by industrialist Colonel Hiram Duryea, or in one of the 14 cottages, you'll find yourself on the lodge's wide porch as sunset turns Blue Mountain Lake gold. Afterward, catch a performance down the road at the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts (518/352-7715). Just be sure to return directly: the gate to Hedges Road closes at midnight.