Best of the Adirondacks
Published: June 2011
By Heather Smith MacIsaac, Paul Schneider
Here, top camps and classic mountain experiences
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.
White Pine Rd.
doubles from $145, including breakfast and dinner; no credit cards
Open mid-June to mid-September
From Osgood Pond all you can see of Northbrook Lodge is the boathouse. The rest of the resort, a collection of low wood-and-stone cottages built as a great camp in the 1920's, recedes into the shade of tall pines. The carpet of needles muffles an already quiet place where informality and "no organized activities,'' as the brochure puts it, are the order of the day. A game of Ping-Pong on the screened porch amounts to frenzied action here. Feeling more ambitious?White Pine Camp (White Pine Rd., Paul Smiths; 518/327-3030), Calvin Coolidge's recently restored summer White House compound, now a museum, is just strokes away by canoe. And up the road in the town of Paul Smiths, you can flit with butterflies and participate in talks and walks at the Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Center (Rte. 30; 518/327-3000).
doubles from $170, including three meals daily
Open June 1-September 20
When you call to make a reservation, Timberlock's owners, the Catlin family, will tell you to expect neither electricity nor car access to cabins, and warn you of intimate encounters with harmless critters, such as mice. All that the disclaimers do is attract more guests. This 21-cabin resort on Indian Lake captures summer as it used to be, complete with a rope swing over the water, horseback riding, archery, farm-style meals on a rustic porch, marshmallow roasts, and songs around the campfire. What does everyone, young and old, bring home?His or her very own canoe paddle, made in the woodshop under the guidance of the cheerful and patient Nelson Lewis.
Panther Mountain Rd., off Rte. 30
800/953-2656 or 518/359-2656
doubles from $100, including breakfast
Open year-round, except November and April
Having a boat at your disposal for touring Upper Saranac Lake, site of dozens of surviving great camps, is reason enough to stay at this relaxed resort. Climbing up to the second floor of the dining room on a staircase that wraps around and between the main lodge's stone chimneys is pretty swell, too, as is the view when you get to the top. The 11 cabins are comfortable, though the six rooms in the Mountain House Lodge have more personality. A steep path leads down to the beach and the boathouse, where you sign out canoes, rowboats, or outboard runabouts, and pick up life preservers and candy bars. Another trail below the lodge traces the shoreline, widening here and there to accommodate a pair of Adirondack chairs that invite a spell of daydreaming.
Back To Nature
Adirondack Loj Rd.
doubles from $80, including breakfast
At this 1920's lodge on the shore of Heart Lake, you bunk down in log beds stacked four or six to a room. Bathrooms are dormitory-style, meals family-style, the schedule Mother Nature-style. A popular base camp for hikers, Adirondack Loj is run by the Adirondack Mountain Club, which also operates nearby Johns Brook Lodge, Camp Peggy O'Brien, and Grace Camp, each a several-mile trek into the woods (only the first serves meals).
ELK LAKE LODGE
Blue Ridge Rd.
doubles from $200, including three meals daily; no credit cards
Open May 3-October 27
Ringed by the High Peaks, Elk Lake Lodge is a place lost in space and time. The plus is a setting that has no rival. Guests in the seven cottages and six-room main lodge have pristine, speedboat-free Elk Lake entirely to themselves. Birders and hikers can take to 40 miles of trails on 12,000 acres of private forest preserve. The minus is menus from the fifties: expect hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. And expect to be in the dining room on time: meal hours are early and brief.
WHERE TO EAT
When it comes to dining in the Adirondacks, the term "high peaks," with a few noteworthy exceptions, does not apply. An ice cream shop that touts its admittedly tasty two-tone cone as "unique'' is your cue to keep it simple. Take yourself back to when you were seven, and you'll be thrilled with the offerings.
At the intersection of Rtes. 86 and 186
no credit cards
Ice cream made on the spot; open weekends in June, and daily July and August.
LAKE PLACID LODGE
Whiteface Inn Rd.
518/523-2700, ext. 227
dinner for two $75
Sophisticated porch dining from a menu specializing in the area's best fish and game, plus breads and pastries from the lodge's ovens.
NICOLA'S OVER MAIN
90 Main St.
dinner for two $40
Pizzas and pastas that bring the Mediterranean to the mountains.
MR. MIKE'S PIZZA & PASTA
332 Main St.
dinner for four $40
Traditional Italian family fare: hearth-baked pizza, pasta, homemade manicotti, ravioli..
NOON MARK DINER
breakfast for two $7
The spot for blackberry or strawberry-rhubarb pie, homemade donuts, local gossip, and breakfast all day.
Rtes. 30 and 28N
Blue Mountain Lake
dinner for two $30
A lakeside landmark, with food as old-fashioned (but not as uplifting) as the lofty log room watched over by animal heads.
TAIL O' THE PUP
lunch for two $14; no credit cards
Hickory-smoked ribs and chicken, weekend lobster/clambakes, waffle fries, Saranac beer on tap, and picnic tables or car service (honk twice).
Upper Saranac Lake
dinner for two $60
Pest-free dining on a two-story screened porch with an owl's-nest lake view. Order the greens from the garden and Jamaican-style jerk prawns.
Lake Placid is the best town for browsing, but throughout the Adirondacks you'll find memorable north-woods souvenirs, old and new, made by masterly craftsmen.
The Adirondack Look
109 Saranac Ave.
A trove of rustic furniture, camp blankets, reproduction Lake Placid Club pinecone china, and everything birch bark can be applied to.
THE BIRCH STORE
For small landscape paintings, balsam pillows made of vintage fabrics, stylish Polarfleece robes, silver charms shaped like pack baskets, and several versions of the Adirondack chair.
GEORGE JAQUES ANTIQUES
Antique settees, fishing creels, lanterns, and canoes, plus new birch and hickory furniture made by an expert--shop owner George Jaques.
Worth A Pass-Through
ADIRONDACK BALSAM SHOPPE
Rte. 86, between Saranac Lake and Paul Smiths
Scented souvenirs that instantly transport you to the woods.
HOSS'S COUNTRY CORNER
Suede moccasins and speckled tin coffee mugs, embossed copper postcards and rubber tomahawks.
TERRY ROBARDS' WINE & SPIRITS
243 Main St.
Wines chosen by a former columnist for Wine Spectator and the New York Times.
WITH PIPE & BOOK
91 Main St.
The literature and lore of the Adirondacks is enough to fill this outstanding bookshop and print gallery, which is also a tobacco supplier.
Between hikes, canoe trips, and fishing expeditions, try some of the following--but don't save your choices for rainy days, like everyone else.
- get an overview of the adirondacks
For a 15-minute swoop over the treetops, Helms Aero Service (Rte. 30, Long Lake; 518/624-3931; $15 adults, $8 children, $40 minimum) has pontoon-equipped Cessnas that take off regularly from the dock next to the Long Lake town beach.
- be an olympian for a day
A Lake Placid Olympic Site Tour pass (518/523-1655; $16 for the summer; extra fees for many activities) is good for all Olympic sites in and around Lake Placid. Skate at the Lussi Rink (Olympic Center, 216 Main St., Lake Placid; 518/523-1655). Ice shows are a cool Saturday night special in the nearby 1932 Olympic Arena, where Sonja Henie took the gold. Hunker down behind the pilot of Thunder, Lightning, or Cyclone, bobsleds equipped with wheels in summer, to experience one of the most challenging runs in the world (Mt. Van Hoevenberg, Rte. 73, Lake Placid; 518/523-4436; open Wednesday-Sunday, June 29-September 2). Ride the chairlift to the base of the 120-meter Olympic ski jump (Olympic Jumping Complex, Rte. 73, Lake Placid; 518/523-1655), then rise by elevator 26 stories to the top--and catch your breath.
- climb through the high falls gorge
Eight miles from Lake Placid, the west branch of the Ausable River, famous for trout, tumbles down High Falls Gorge (Rte. 86; for information, 518/ 946-2278). Just as awe-inspiring as the flumes and whirlpools is the stand of virgin forest, one of the few remaining in the park. Even the steel bridges and walkways clinging to the billion-year-old granite are impressive.
- explore the adirondack museum
This compound of 20 buildings (Rtes. 28 and 30, Blue Mountain Lake; 518/352-7311) showcases how man has acted as both friend and foe to nature. Don't miss the novel "photo belt'' of 160 vintage views of park life, the 1890 private rail car, and the exquisite examples of twig-mosaic furniture. In the fall, the museum hosts a rustic furniture fair and an antiques show.
Like sugar cones plunged upside down into a mound of ice cream, the Adirondack Park is spread across a dome of bedrock out of which erupt 42 distinct mountains more than 4,000 feet high. The tallest are concentrated in an area known as the High Peaks. In the Appalachians, you walk along ridges, but here hiking is an up, up, up, then down experience, especially if you aspire to membership in the Adirondack Forty-Sixers. Still, there are plenty of easy trails to hiker heaven.
Two Ways To Get To The Top
At 5,344 feet, Mount Marcy is king of the peaks--the one most symbolic of the Adirondacks, and most subject to crowds hiking the two 7 1/2-mile trails to the summit. On one side of the mountain, runoff waters make their way to the Atlantic via the St. Lawrence; on the other, the Hudson River begins as a trickle from Lake Tear of the Clouds.
Want to zoom to the top?Then drive up Whiteface ($8 for car and driver, $4 per passenger), the fifth-highest peak in the park. Veterans Memorial Highway, built in the thirties, climbs eight miles, starting at a stone gatehouse and ending at a granite castle. From there, it's a short hike (or elevator ride) past balsam firs, known as flag trees for their wind-whipped branches, to the alpine summit. On good days the panorama extends 125 miles, taking in a sweep of plush- and shag-carpeted hills that surround silvery ponds.
The Essential Guides
ADIRONDACK MOUNTAIN CLUB
Before you strike out on foot, spend some time with the club's Adirondack Mountain Forest Preserve Guide to the High Peaks. For weather conditions, call its hot line (518/523-3518). Or stop in at its High Peaks Information Center (on Adirondack Loj grounds, Adirondack Loj Rd., Lake Placid; 518/523-3441), nine miles south of Lake Placid, where you can buy equipment, trail grub, maps, and guides, and sign up for courses on glacial geology and the proper use of a map and compass.
MAPS BY ADIRONDACK MAPS INC.
Even non-hikers appreciate these topographical maps, as beautiful as they are informative. Available at Eastern Mountain Sports, nationwide.
LAKES AND STREAMS
In the Adirondacks, if you're not headed up, you're headed out—across the water. The same dome that elevates the mountains spawns streams that run into some 2,800 ponds and lakes. Taking to the water is easy: most resorts put a variety of boats at guests' disposal. Nearly every kind of vessel can be rented, including ultralight Kevlar canoes and the region's own Adirondack wooden guide boats (a cross between a canoe and a rowboat).
Five Ways To Get On The Water
Don't miss boarding one of the boats evocative of a time in the Adirondacks when the best transportation byways were liquid:
- Nothing compares to cutting a fluid swath in a sexy mahogany runabout, such as a reproduction 1929 HackerCraft. Given the opportunity, seize it. Hint: The Point has a fine fleet of antique vessels (skippers available, too).
- Tour Raquette Lake on the William West Durant, a double-deck cruiser (Raquette Lake Navigation, Pier 1, Raquette Lake; 315/354-5532; tickets from $5.00). Or get an even closer view of the camps and cottages by accompanying the Mail Boat (Bird's Boat Livery, Rte. 28, Raquette Lake; tours from July 1 to Labor Day; 315/ 354-4441; $8 adults, $4 children) on its two-hour morning rounds.
- For a one-hour tour of Lake Placid, make a date with Doris, a mahogany cruiser, departing from Lake Placid Marina (Mirror Lake Dr., Lake Placid; 518/523-9704; $6 adults, $4 children).
- The St. Regis Canoe Area is the largest wilderness region in the Northeast open only to motorless boats. You can paddle from pond to lake for weeks without crossing your own wake. For rentals, try St. Regis Outfitters (Floodwood Rd., Lake Clear; 518/891-1838).
HUNGRY TROUT FLY SHOP
Rte. 86, Wilmington, 518/946-2217; and Francis Betters Adirondack Sport Shop Rte. 86, Wilmington, 518/946-2605. Check in with these outfitters, just two sources among hundreds for guides, to find out what's biting where.
THE MOUNTAINEER SCHOOL OF FLY FISHING
Rte. 73, Keene Valley; 518/576-2281. In addition to offering fishing instruction, the Mountaineer is a good place to equip yourself. Rock-climbing gear and guidance are available as well.
NORTHERN REGION FLY-FISHING HOTLINE
For a daily report on weather conditions, which fish are where, and upcoming courses, call the DEC Region 5 Fishery Staff's hot line (518/891-5413). The message ends with a "Good luck, sportsmen!"
"The Adirondack Book" by Elizabeth Folwell (Berkshire House)—The only guide you'll need.
"The Adirondack Reader," edited by Paul Jamieson (Adirondack Mountain Club)—A literary anthology with entries by everyone from James Fenimore Cooper to E.L. Doctorow.
"Great Camps Of The Adirondacks" by Harvey Kaiser (David R. Godine)—An inside look at rarefied camping.
On the web
Online Travel Guide for Upstate New York (http://www.roundthebend.com)—An overview of attractions in the Adirondacks and other upstate regions, along with listings of places to stay.
I Love New York (http://www.iloveny.state.ny.us)—The state's official tourism site is a little skimpy on hard facts, but has links to good local tourism pages.
Adirondack Mountain Club (http://www.global1.net/adk/)—Information on hiking, camping, lodges, and backcountry guidebooks.