Road Trip: Adirondack Adventure in Upstate New York

Route Details Length: About 270 miles, plus side trips. When to go: Fine scenery year-round, with drastic and dramatic seasonal

Wilmington Flume Preserve in Adirondack Park
The 16,000-acre Wilmington Flume Preserve on Rte. 86 is part of Adirondack Park.

Route Details

Length: About 270 miles, plus side trips.

When to go: Fine scenery year-round, with drastic and dramatic seasonal changes.

Nearby attractions: Lake George Beach State Park, with swimming and picnicking, east of Fort William Henry. Six Nations Indian Museum, with displays of native crafts, Rte. 30, north of Saranac Lake.

Words to the wise: Blackflies and other insect pests can be numerous, especially in early summer.

Visitor centers: Paul Smiths Visitor Information Center, Rte. 30, north of Saranac Lake. Newcomb Visitor Information Center, Rte. 28N, 14 miles east of Long Lake.

Further information: Adirondack Regional Tourism Council, P.O. Box 51, West Chazy, NY 12992; tel. 518-846-8016, www.adk.com.

Encompassing both public and private land, the Adirondack Park is shaped a bit like a giant oval, and it bounds an astounding 6 million acres — a tapestry of woodlands, meadows, high-shouldered peaks, and thousands of streams and lakes. Tiny villages are nestled across the countryside, and campgrounds and trails abound. It is no wonder, then, that visitors who come here tend to stay a while in order to savor the stunning scenery, protected since 1892 by a state law decreeing that the park shall remain ”forever wild.”

1. Prospect Mountain
For a good overview of the region, begin your Adirondack adventure with a drive to the lofty summit of Prospect Mountain, which crests at 2,030 feet. The highway, a toll road that is open in the warmer months, switches back and forth as it maneuvers up the slopes. It has many overlooks along the way to allow visitors to pause and enjoy the vistas. Below lies Lake George, a glistening 32-mile-long expanse of blue wedged amid steep, forested ridges. Sparkling clean, the lake is a swimmer’s delight, and its shores and myriad islands are virtually unbeatable when it comes to exploring and relaxing. Anglers too will find a piece of paradise here as they try their luck for bass, trout, perch, and other fish.

The Lake George area was not always so idyllic. In the 1700s the British and French waged battles for control of the territory, but of course neither country was destined to possess it in the end. The English erected Fort William Henry, which has been reconstructed just east of the village of Lake George, the touristy hub for the region. Visitors come to the reconstructed fort not only to learn about its history but also to take in the stunning views to be seen from the nearby water’s edge.

2. Bolton Landing
Hugging Lake George’s western shore, Rte. 9N passes waterfront homes, resorts, and rocky slopes softened by thick, fragrant stands of evergreens intermixed with broadleaf trees. Before long it arrives at Bolton Landing, a village complete with souvenir shopping, summer homes, a boat launch, and sweeping views of the lake. A narrow bridge connects the town to an island where the spacious Sagamore Hotel has been catering to guests for more than a century. A white clapboard structure with striking green trim, the resort first opened for business in 1883. The original structure burned down, was rebuilt, then caught fire again. The hotel standing today was erected in 1922.

3. Fort Ticonderoga
Nearly every sign of commercialism quickly fades from view as the drive continues northward, offering excellent views of Lake George and its mountainous surroundings. Pulloffs here and there provide motorists with opportunities to pause and enjoy the scenery. Deer’s Leap, at the base of steep-sided Tongue Mountain, commands a vista back toward the lake’s southern end. Farther along, the community of Hague, snugly situated on the water’s edge, has a park that is just right for picnics.

At its northern end Lake George flows through the narrow channel of the La Chute River into Lake Champlain — a location so valuable in the past that it became known as the Key to the Continent. The French staked their claim on the area by building a fort on Champlain’s shores in 1755, but a few years later the British captured the citadel, which they named Fort Ticonderoga. Years later, in one of the Revolutionaries’ first victories, a force of independence-minded Americans — led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold — took the fort in a surprise attack in 1775.

Their victory was destined to be famous, but it was short-lived: the British regained the fort in 1777. Exhibits at Ticonderoga’s museum tell the story of its past. (Come summer, a part of that past is reenacted with demonstrations of early soldiering that include cannon firings and fife-and-drum marching bands in period costumes.) As an added bonus, the views from the fort are splendid, looking out across the water to the Vermont shore and the distant peaks and ridges of the Green Mountains.

4. Paradox Lake
Changing direction, the drive next swings toward the west as it follows Rte. 74 to Paradox Lake. (The “paradox” lies in the fact that, in times of high water caused by floods, the lake’s outlet, overwhelmed by the Schroon River, becomes an inlet.) Many other lakes, though smaller, are spotted throughout the surrounding countryside, a woodland crisscrossed by hiking trails.

5. High Peaks
Rte. 9 guides motorists northward beside the Schroon River to Rte. 73, a serpentine drive that leads into the heart of the high-climbing Adirondack Mountains. Elevations often exceed 4,000 feet in this area, where the rounded dome of Mt. Marcy — nicknamed the Cloud — Splitter-reigns as the tallest of all the state’s peaks. Its peak tops off at 5,344 feet. Embellishing the undulating beauty of the High Peaks region are its many waterways. The narrowest of brooks and the swiftest of streams splash down the slopes in all directions. They collect in lakes and ponds, many of which are situated in glacier-carved basins and U-shaped valleys that have become gathering places for wildlife.

Pine trees hem in Rte. 73 as it continues to twist and turn to idyllic Chapel Pond, where you’ll drive through the mighty jaws of a deep gorge. Rock climbers come to scale the high cliffs, which also happen to be an important nesting ground for the endangered peregrine falcon. (To ensure that the birds are not disturbed, climbers are not permitted on certain cliffs during the birds’ nesting season.)

Farther on, after dipping into a broad valley, the drive heads into the town of Keene. A side detour from there diverts to the west to the High Peaks Wilderness, where travelers can park and then head out on foot to sample some of the scenery afforded by the 238 miles of hiking trails that lace the area.

The trail to the summit of nearby Mt. Jo, a round-trip of less than two miles, is a fairly easy hike that culminates with a panoramic view of the sculpted summits. Lofty Mt. Marcy can also be climbed by trail, a trek — very difficult in places — that ascends amid maples, birches, alders, and spruces on its way to the treeless summit. Looking down, hikers can see tiny Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds, the extreme headwater of the Hudson River.

6. Lake Placid
Alpine skiing was introduced near the sleepy village of Lake Placid nearly 100 years ago. As the sport has grown, so too has the community, which hosted the Winter Olympics in both 1932 and 1980. The cheers and thrills that characterized the athletic events have long since subsided, but today Lake Placid — no matter what its name may suggest — remains the vibrant hub for the High Peaks region. Visitors to its downtown area can browse in art galleries, take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage, or simply enjoy the views of the lake.

Sightseers can also spend their time taking in the many signs of the past Olympics. Luge and bobsled runs slash down the hillsides at the Mt. Van Hoevenburg Recreation Area; two massive ski jumps, set atop a prominent knoll, tower high into the sky; and the Olympic Center houses ice-skating rinks. These areas are not just showpieces, either; many American athletes aspiring to one day win a gold medal come to train here and perfect their skills year-round.

A dreamer of a different sort, abolitionist John Brown, lived and farmed in the Lake Placid area more than 100 years ago — his 244-acre homestead lies to the southeast of town. Visitors are welcome to explore its woods and fields and to learn about the man who was tried and executed for leading an attempted raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

7. Whiteface Mountain
For many visitors to the Adirondack Park, the drive up the slopes of Whiteface Mountain, whose bold summit stands at 4,867 feet, is the superlative experience. The winding eight-mile Veterans Memorial Highway, opened to traffic by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, ends just 500 feet below the summit, which visitors can reach by means of a stone walkway or by an elevator that ascends through a shaft carved deep within the mountain’s granite core.

An observation deck crowns the mountaintop, where the assault of winter weather is quite apparent. Only a few hardy lichens are able to survive — quite a contrast to the views of the forests that stretch all the way to the horizon in every direction. On clear days you also see Lake Champlain and the Saint Lawrence River.

Backtracking to Lake Placid, take the time to stop at High Falls Gorge, situated near the base of the Whiteface Mountain Ski Area. The deep cleft was sliced into a mass of layered rock by the West Branch of the Ausable River. A thundering waterfall shoots between the walls, dropping 100 feet, then another 600 feet over three downriver ledges. Bridges and pathways — wooden boardwalks that cling to the cliffsides — make for unforgettable views of the river, which rushes and roars below.

You should also keep an eye out for unusual vegetation. One plant, the rare Lapland rosebay, resembles a rhododendron and manages a toehold in the merest of crevices.

8. Saranac Lake
The thermometer’s ”mercury … curls up into the bulb like a hibernating bear,” lamented the noted author Robert Louis Stevenson, who spent six months at Saranac Lake in 1887-88. He had come hoping that the crisp air would check his tuberculosis, which was being treated at a sanatorium established by Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau. Stevenson’s onetime cottage, preserved as a museum, displays memorabilia recalling his life. The village of Saranac Lake, settled in 1819, provides travelers with yet another entryway to the wilds. Camping, hiking, canoeing, and fishing await among the inter connected lakes and streams, parts of which are designated as the St. Regis Canoe Area. Popular too is the town’s Winter Carnival, an annual festival highlighted by the creation of an elaborate castle built of ice.

10. Long Lake
After traversing through a mixed forest consisting of pine, maple, beech, and birch trees, the drive toward the town of Long Lake skims across miles of wetlands — vast stretches that close in on both sides of the road. In Long Lake itself, nature lovers can glimpse — and hear — an amazing array of bird life. The cantankerous chatter of ducks plays a counterpoint among the varied tunes of many species of songbirds. In the tamarack-fringed marshes, long-legged great blue herons stand out amid the carpeting of sedges, reeds, and wildflowers.

11. Blue Mountain Lake
Nestled at the base of Blue Mountain, Blue Mountain Lake is regarded by some as one of the most beautiful of the 2,800 lakes in the Adirondack Park. Indeed, the setting has long been an inspiration to writers, artists, and musicians, who make summertime pilgrimages to come to the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts.

Some highly regarded artwork can be seen at the acclaimed Adirondack Museum, which overlooks the lake and boasts an exhaustive collection of exhibits. Not surprisingly, the emphasis here is on Adirondack life, and more than 20 buildings — each dedicated to a particular subject — are spread across 30 acres. Visitors can spend days delighting in everything from boats, furniture, handicrafts, and railroad cars to paintings by such American masters as Frederic Remington, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Cole.

12. Raquette Lake
Raquette Lake — a name that applies to both the lake and to this quaint and quiet village that stands beside it — consists of little more than a couple of dwellings, churches, and a general store. Golden Beach, situated four miles east of the hamlet, was named for the color of its soft sand. Families with small children favor swimming here since the water remains shallow for dozens of yards offshore.

In the late 1800s the glory of the Adirondacks began to lure some of America’s wealthiest families. Buying large parcels of land, they built spacious summer homes — getaways that, perhaps a bit tongue in cheek, they referred to as ”camps.” Sagamore Road, an unpaved drive, leads to one of the grandest of these lodges, known today as Great Camp Sagamore.

Built by architect William West Durant in 1897, then sold to Alfred Vanderbilt, Sagamore contains numerous buildings set among the pine woods. But it is the main house, a chalet-style mansion constructed of logs, that commands center stage. Every detail of the place was supervised by Durant, who even ordered the huge fireplace to be rebuilt: one or two stones, it seems, were not set exactly as they were supposed to be. Traditional Adirondack chairs and lamps, a bowling alley, and wall coverings made of bark are among the many touches that make the mansion so endearing.

Recently the camp has gained a new lease on life as the Sagamore Institute, a center that conducts craft workshops and outdoor programs. Summer visitors can watch a slide show on the great camp era and take a two-hour tour.

13. Fulton Chain Lakes
Hoping to map a water route all the way to Canada, Robert Fulton, best known as the inventor of the steamboat, surveyed these lakes in about 1811. No such waterway could be found, but the lakes are part of a 125-mile canoe route — some short portages are required at impassible spots — between Saranac Lake and Old Forge.

The eight Fulton Chain Lakes are known simply by number — perhaps explorers just ran out of other names. On the eastern end of Fourth Lake sits the village of Inlet, a rustic place where the cooling shade of sky-high pine trees is never far away. You can rent a boat to explore the lake or continue on Rte. 28 to Old Forge, a forest-girt town that was first settled by one Charles Herreshoff.

Herreshoff dreamed of making a fortune by mining iron ore. Those who came with him, however, found the work as brutal as the winter weather; many packed up and departed. Adding to his disappointment, the mines frequently flooded, and Herreshoff ended as a broken man. Despite its bleak beginnings, Old Forge today is a haven where visitors can ski, hike, and perhaps glimpse a black bear wandering its way down Main Street.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest