Length: About 190 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Ferries: Call 802-864-9804 for information on Lake Champlain ferries.
Nearby attractions: City of Montreal, Quebec. University of Vermont Dairy Farm, South Burlington, VT. Vermont Wildflower Farm, Charlotte, VT. Kingsland Bay State Park, Ferrisburg, VT.
Not to be missed: Ferry ride across Lake Champlain to New York, departing from Charlotte, Burlington, or Grand Isle.
Further information: Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, 60 Main St., Suite 100, Burlington, VT 05401; tel. 802-863-3489, www.vermont.org.
Though it lies not far from some of the East Coast’s largest cities, Lake Champlain remains truly unspoiled—one of America’s lovelier repositories of natural beauty. Doubly blessed, this long, island-dotted jewel is set in the expansive valley between New York’s Adirondacks to the west and the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east. Drivers on this loop tour may feel as though transported to faraway places: the peaks that loom above Champlain bring Switzerland to mind, and the juniper-topped bluffs along its shores recall the rugged seascapes of coastal Maine. For those who live beside it, however, this always enchanting, ever-changing blend of water, wind, and light is reason to stay right at home.
Lake Champlain is 120 miles long and flows from Whitehall, New York, to its outlet at the Richelieu River in the Province of Quebec, Canada. The lake’s unusual shape is drastically tapered at its southern tip, where it shrinks to the width of a weedy stream, and at Ticonderoga, the site of one of the lake’s three ferry crossings, it seems as if anyone with a strong arm and a tailwind could hurl a baseball right across its quarter-mile-wide span. Just a few miles north, though, the lake broadens to truly impressive dimensions, reaching a maximum width of 12 miles near the Vermont town of Burlington.
From Ticonderoga, follow Rte. 9N/22 north along the western shore through Crown Point, Port Henry (not far from the Champlain Bridge, which will be crossed later in the drive when you return to New York from Vermont), and the lakeside town of Westport. The main street, perched above Westport’s busy marina, offers sweeping panoramic views of the lake in all of its moods.
If you’re especially patient—who knows?—you might manage to catch a glimpse of Champ, Lake Champlain’s own version of the Loch Ness Monster. Samuel de Champlain, exploring these waters in 1609, was the first to note something of the sort, writing of a 20-foot-long serpentlike creature with a horse’s head. Since then, Champ sightings have become a regular feature of life along Champlain, though somewhat ironically, this elusive creature has a knack for appearing only at those moments when no camera is available.
Among the prettier villages on the New York side, tiny Essex is a slice of rural Americana that can becalm the most jangled city nerves. The town’s tidy main street, which parallels the lakeshore, is lined with stately shade trees and Federal-style houses. Two small marinas occupy the snug natural harbor, which also serves as the landing for the Essex–Charlotte ferry. For a relaxing hour-long break from driving, take the round-trip cruise across the lake (you can take your car to explore the other side, or leave it in the Essex ferry lot). Spend a restful evening at one of the harbor’s charming cafés, where you can watch the gilded glow of the Green Mountains as they catch the last rays of the setting sun. In the hour before darkness, the lake grows still as granite, and if the nearby commotion permits, the tiniest of sounds—the soft ping of a halyard, the cry of a gull—travels for miles across the surface.
3. Willsboro Point
For much of the journey north to Plattsburgh, the drive skirts the eastern slopes of the Adirondack Mountains, a region that embraces one of the East Coast’s grandest tracts of wilderness. Taller and more rugged than their cousins across the lake, the Adirondacks amass in a great, brooding jumble near the lake’s western shore. The mountains are so immense and densely forested that it’s not always easy to get a clear view of them when one is in their midst. Be assured that they are all around you, and hold your breath for a better look at these stony giants when you reach the Vermont side of the lake.
Beyond Essex the highway follows the lakeshore for a stretch before veering inland to Willsboro, where New York State’s first fish ladder affords migrating salmon the chance to overleap Willsboro Dam en route to their fall spawning grounds upstream—and enables visitors to witness this ageless, often repeated struggle.
Farther on, take the turnoff to Willsboro Point, a fingerlike peninsula that shelters one of Champlain’s largest and perhaps most scenic inlets. Reminiscent of a Nordic fjord, four-mile-long Willsboro Bay is walled on the west by sheer cliffs that tumble to the water’s edge. To sample accommodations as they existed here some 200 years ago, visit the Adsit Cabin, a modest log structure built in the 1790s.
4. Ausable Chasm
This deep, tortuous gorge was one of America’s first tourist attractions, and its grandeur has hardly paled over the years. Come early in the day to avoid the crowds, and take a leisurely stroll along the path below the chasm’s beautifully textured, sheer sandstone walls—sculpted over millennia through Cambrian rock formed over 500 million years ago by the Ausable River on its way into Lake Champlain. In places these magnificent walls—between 100 and 200 feet high—stand as close together as 20 feet. On bright autumn days flaming foliage ignites the chasm’s clifftops as well as patches along its walls, making for an especially breathtaking spectacle.
The largest town on the New York side, Plattsburgh was the site of the lake’s last major naval battle during the War of 1812—not only a victory for the American fleet, but a tribute to the imagination of its commander, Commodore Thomas Macdonough. Using a cat’s cradle of anchors and winches, Macdonough was able to swing his ships around and deliver double broadsides to the British fleet, which soon withered under his hammering assault. A limestone obelisk across from city hall commemorates the scene and the battle.
From Plattsburgh the drive continues north on Rte. 9 through Ingraham and Chazy (home to what locals say is the largest McIntosh apple orchard in the world), and follows Rte. 9B to Rouses Point (near the Canadian border) before veering east to Vermont on Rte. 2. From the Korean Veterans Memorial Bridge (still known by many as the Rouses Point Bridge), look northward to catch a glimpse of the stone ruins of Fort Montgomery. Aptly nicknamed Fort Blunder, it was inadvertently constructed north of the 45th parallel, on unquestionably Canadian soil.
Here Vermont’s Alburg Peninsula and Champlain’s islands segment the lake into a patchwork of bays. Remote and lovely, this area contains some of the Champlain Valley’s richest farmland. On lingering summer days no lakeside tour would be complete without stopping to sample the fresh produce that is abundant in the many roadside stands.