In 1872 Verplanck Colvin, a lawyer, topographical engineer and recently appointed superintendent of the Adirondack Survey from Albany, stood on the slopes of the High Peaks area peering through primitive survey equipment, some of his own design. With a crew of assistants that sometimes numbered nearly 100, Colvin sought to quantify the vast wilderness in an effort to get the state to recognize the need for management and preservation.
Colvin’s continuing efforts eventually led to the establishment of the Adirondack Park by the New York State Legislature in 1882. A unique combination of lakes, rivers and mountains, the Adirondack Park, at 6 million acres, is the largest wild reserve in the contiguous 48 states. The park is larger than the state of Vermont and could contain Yellowstone Park, the Smokey Mountains, the Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park and Yosemite Park within the Blue Line, the park’s boundary.
A patchwork of public and private land, the park includes 2,000 miles of trails, 2,500 miles of navigable lakes and rivers, 3,000 lakes and ponds, and 46 mountains higher than 4,000 feet. The park also offers fine dining and accommodations, two theme parks, the Olympic village at Lake Placid and some of the finest cultural institutions in the nation. With about 130,000 permanent residents, the park thrives on tourism year-round, attracting 10 million visitors a year.
Continuing efforts by New York state to preserve the forest while providing for multiple uses include conservation easements, whereby recreational use of private lands is permitted. Recent easements include the 7,000- acre Adirondack Mountain Reserve, owned by the Ausable Club in the High Peaks region, and the 7,700-acre reserve owned by Paul Smith’s College. Both areas are now accessible to the public for recreational trail use. Information is available at dec.ny.gov.
Two villages at opposite ends of the Adirondack Park offer special amenities to the woodland visitor. Old Forge on Route 28, about two and a half hours from Syracuse, offers easy access to the wilderness, with everything from backwoods paddling and hiking adventures to fine dining, entertainment, art, summer ski lift service at McCauly Mountain, and the Enchanted Forest Water Safari, New York’s largest theme park.
Two more hours up the road, the village of Lake Placid hosted two Olympics (1932 and 1980) and now offers four-star accommodations, and tours of the Olympic facilities, including the daunting ski jump towers. Try a summer bobsled run, a ride up Whiteface Mountain on the Cloudsplitter Gondola or a hike in the surrounding High Peaks wilderness.
Museums, Nature and Culture
Two outstanding regional museums capture and preserve the cultural, historical and natural history of the Adirondacks. The Adirondack Experience, Route 30, Blue Mountain Lake, aka the Museum on Blue Mountain Lake, formerly known as the Adirondack Museum, is widely regarded as the finest regional museum in the nation. Established in 1957, this 22-acre campus features 22 exhibit spaces with concentrations on every aspect of Adirondack life as well as special events, workshops, demonstrations, symposia, school programs and interactive events. The museum’s display of wooden boats, including the iconic Adirondack guide boat, is renowned, as is the fine arts collection. Now celebrating its 61st anniversary, the museum will again feature the special updated 19,000-square-foot interactive exhibition Life in the Adirondacks.
In Tupper Lake, the Wild Center, the nationally recognized regional natural history museum, occupies a 115-acre site on the Raquette River and offers a unique understanding of the natural environment of the Adirondacks. Open since 2006, this combination of zoo, aquarium, science and nature center offers interpretative and interactive exhibits and activities on the flora and fauna of the region, school programs and the high-tech Flammer Theater. Outside, a 2 1/2-acre pond is adjacent to the 54,000-square-foot rustic main building. The Wild Walk, an elevated walkway built at treetop level, offers a perspective seldom seen by humans. Special events and exhibits are scheduled throughout the season.
The Visitors Interpretative Centers at Paul Smith’s and Newcomb also introduce the public to the nature of the mountain environment through workshops, exhibits and backcountry excursions. The 2,885-acre facility at Paul Smiths on Route 30 near Saranac Lake hosts interpretative canoe paddles, art and music, children’s activities and many other events throughout the summer season, and features 25 miles of trails and a 150-seat theater.
The smaller center on Route 28N in Newcomb includes a mile-long forested peninsula on Rich Lake and a 6,000-square-foot multipurpose main building used for exhibits, lectures and demonstrations. A hike up nearby Mount Goodnow off Route 28N offers a panoramic view of the area. Both centers host a full schedule of seasonal activities for park visitors of all ages.
Another Adirondack icon is the Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake. The American-Adirondack style summer home of the Vanderbilts was designed to mimic a Swiss chalet by William West Durant in 1897. It’s now a national historic landmark, and offers lodging, tours and many special activities for all ages. With 27 buildings including a rustic bowling alley, this complex offers a fascinating glimpse into the Adirondacks’ gilded age.
Nearby, the W.W. Durant double-decked tour boat offers narrated tours of historic Raquette Lake with many dining and entertainment options.
The Adirondack Scenic Railroad, built by industrialist William Seward Webb in 1878, offers service and tours from Utica and Thendara to Carter Station north of Old Forge. Service on the 34-mile section between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake has been suspended as part of the state’s plan to replace the rails with a multi-use trail. The matter is in litigation.
Scenic excursions from the headquarters at Thendara come in many varieties, featuring rail and boat trips, canoe and bicycle journeys, and many forms of entertainment, including a “beer and wine” train. With the resumption of service that began in 1992, the line now serves more than 74,000 passengers a year.
The arts also thrive in the mountains. View, formerly the Arts Center of Old Forge on Route 28, attracts more than 45,000 visitors each year and features a 28,000-square-foot building opened in 2011. The state-of-the-art Gould Hall performance auditorium caters to artistic, theatrical, musical, educational, ecological and civic programming.
The Adirondacks Lakes Center for the Arts on Route 28 in Blue Mountain Lake is a smaller but equally vibrant facility. It presents live theater, music, dance and film throughout the summer season as well as classes and workshops in a variety of disciplines.
Camping, Hiking and the Outdoors
With an area larger than Vermont (9,000 square miles) to choose from, the Adirondacks are a camper’s dream. For car campers, New York state operates 42 sites within the Blue Line, with campsite fees from $15 to $36. Reservations — always a good idea — can be made at (800) 456-CAMP or online. Comprehensive information about these wonderful car camping sites is available at nysparks.com and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation website.
For backcountry hikers, camping is generally permitted on state land. In some areas, bear-proof food canisters are required, and camping is prohibited above 4,000 feet, due to fragile alpine flora. The DEC’s website has more information. And the Adirondack Mountain Club offers maps, gear and lots of specific advice on everything from necessary equipment to trail conditions.
For canoeists and kayakers, the Adirondacks’ unique combination of mountains, lakes and rivers and more shoreline than Vermont and New Hampshire combined, offers opportunities found nowhere else. Canoe reserves (no motors) including the St. Regis Ponds Area, Lake Lila, Lowes Lake and others offer primitive camping for those willing to get themselves there.
The Adirondack Mountain Club offers canoe guides and trail maps online, while St. Regis Canoe Outfitters or Raquette River Outfitters can provide everything necessary for a wilderness experience. For personal licensed backpacking, canoeing and fishing guide services, try adirondack-adventures.com. In Old Forge, Mountain Man Outdoor Supply Co. both rents and sells boats and equipment.
In Inlet, Frisky Otter Tours offers personalized instruction, guided excursions and sales. Or try Macs Canoe Livery for rentals, guide services and outfitting. For a fast, wet trip down the upper Hudson River in a raft, try the Adirondac (sic) Rafting Co. or White Water Challengers or North Creek Rafting. The website Visit Adirondacks website offers a comprehensive listing of these and other wilderness opportunities.
Beginning in Old Forge, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a patchwork of rivers, lakes and portages, winds its way through the Adirondacks, northern Vermont, a bit of Quebec, and northern New Hampshire before terminating at Fort Kent in northern Maine. For a compelling day-by-day account of the 740-mile (125 miles of portages, 150 miles upstream) journey, check out Upwards (Maine Authors Publishing) by Laurie Apgar Chandler, the first woman to thru-paddle the route solo.
Forts and History
Echoes of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution resound along the eastern edge of the Adirondacks, the 18th century’s “great warpath.” Fort William Henry, built in 1755 by Sir William Johnson, the British and their Mohawk allies at the foot of Lake George, was cannonaded into submission two years later by the Marquis de Montcalm and his French army. The fort’s museum offers special events and a peek into area history. Further north at the southern tip of Lake Champlain, Fort Ticonderoga (nee Carillon) served in both wars and now offers tours and re-enactments of those conflicts.
The Saratoga Battlefield, south of Lake George, commemorates the pivotal fight of the American Revolution, where Benedict Arnold (then a patriot) and his colonials defeated Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne and his British Army to turn the tide of the American Revolution in 1777. The site now offers tours, reenactments, and other special events throughout the summer.
June 22-24. Craft Brewers Weekend. Great Camp Sagamore, Raquette Lake. Craft brewing in America from 1965 to the present; an all-inclusive weekend that’s all about beer.
June 27. Guided Trip from Middle to Lower Saranac Lake. Part of the many events during Celebrate Paddling month in Saranac Lake. (518) 891-1838.
June 27-Aug. 31. Guided Canoe Paddle. Visitor Interpretative Center, Paul Smith’s. paulsmiths.edu/vic. Instructive trip through local backwaters. Not available Mondays or Tuesdays.
June 29. Laurie Apgar Chandler. Photos from the author’s epic 740-mile solo paddle of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, 5 p.m. at St. Regis Canoe Outfitters, 73 Dorsey St., Saranac Lake.
June 30. More Chandler. Book signing of Upwards, Chandler’s account of that trip, 3 to 5 p.m., at The Bookstore Plus, 2491 Main St., Lake Placid.
July 6. Koehler and Kelly. Adirondacks Lakes Center for the Arts, Blue Mountain Lake. adirondackarts.org. Acclaimed fiddler Gretchen Koehler and jazz pianist Daniel Kelly put a new spin on traditional jigs and reels.
July 6-8. I Love BBQ and Music Festival. Lake Placid. lakeplacid.com, ilbbqf.com. The 13th annual event features smoky meat, children’s activities, live entertainment.
July 21-22. Battle of Defiance and Independence. fortticonderoga.org. Re-enactment of 1777 siege by British forces of Fort Ticonderoga.
July 26. Grasse River Waterfalls and Full Moon Photo Tour. The Wild Center, Tupper Lake.
Aug. 3. Durant Days. At Raquette Lake. raquettelakenavigation. com. Cruise to historic Great Camp Pine Knot.
Aug. 4-Sept. 30. Adirondacks National Exhibition of American Watercolors. At the View, Route 28, Old Forge.
Aug. 10-11. American Mountain Men Rendezvous. At the Adirondack Experience, Route 30, Blue Mountain Lake. Re-enactment of 18th-century backwoods lifestyles.
Sept. 7-9. Adirondack Classic. macscanoe.com. The annual 90-mile canoe stage race from Old Forge to Saranac Lake. Entry deadline: July 20.