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Adirondack Park: Forever Wild

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

We are home now but every time we glance out at the Adirondack chairs on our patio we are reminded of the autumn trip we made through New York’s magnificent Adirondack Park. With more than 6 million acres this park is larger than the state of Vermont.

Loved and cherished by all who visit, there are endless opportunities for recreation: camping, hiking, fishing, canoeing, theme parks, museums and much more. With so many choices we found it difficult to limit our activities to fit our time frame.

Photographing autumn color was the focus of our trip and the best color, we’d been told, was around Lake Placid. Be there no later than mid-September, fellow photographers had admonished, or we might miss the prime color.

It was Sept. 20 by the time we entered New York from the southwest on Interstate 90. Traffic was light and it didn’t take long to reach Syracuse, where we turned north on Highway 81 to Watertown. The countryside was bleak and gray and obviously we were too late for fall color along this route or there hadn’t been any.

After a stop in Watertown for groceries we traveled east on Scenic Highway 3 and soon entered the park. The road wound through tiny Victorian towns that were mere ghosts of a long-ago time. Small farms dotted shaded valleys and curls of wood smoke spiraled through the air, adding to the prevailing autumn haze.

Unlike other state or federal parks that are composed entirely of public lands, the Adirondacks are a mix of 2.5 million acres of public land and 3.5 million acres of private property. More than 130,000 people live in the park year-round and there are at least 100 small towns here.

We began to climb into the mountains and for miles the autumn color was sparse. Then, as we reached Tupper Lake, the landscape took a dramatic turn and our fears of missing the fall color evaporated. All around us the hills exploded in saturated shades of crimson and gold.

Deep emerald conifers punctuated the warm colors of the hardwoods, creating a brilliant autumn tapestry. We’d never seen fall color on such a grand scale and we stopped frequently to photograph the dazzling views. Even though we were within a day’s drive of 60 million people, counting nearby cities in both the U.S. and Canada, the crowds we’d expected to find clogging the roads and trampling the countryside were nonexistent.

Just past Tupper Lake we turned north on Highway 30, along upper Saranac Lake, to the little town of Paul Smiths for a stop at the visitor center there. With good displays and well-highlighted walking trails we learned a bit more about the Adirondacks, where for centuries the Algonquins and Iroquois hunted game, paddling the lakes and rivers in canoes made of bark from birch, elm or spruce.

More than 2,500 lakes and 30,000 miles of rivers and streams sparkle like gemstones in this lush mosaic and until the late 1800s these waterways were the primary mode of transportation through the Adirondacks. The Algonquins survived the winters here by eating tree bark so the Iroquois called them “Adirondacks,” meaning “bark eaters.” Your best bet for camping near Tupper Lake is just to the north at Meacham Lake.

After a couple of days exploring the backroads and lakeshores, we moved closer to Lake Placid, right in the heart of the Adirondacks. Our choice of North Pole Campground Resort, a few miles north of town and listed in the Trailer Life Directory under Wilmington, was a good one.

Lake Placid is also known as The Olympic Village since the winter games were hosted here in 1932 and again in 1980. At the village, still known for its outstanding training facilities, we watched beginning and world-class athletes in practice. Not only did we watch but we could also participate in some of the actvities. Even in summer it’s possible to ride the luge and bobsled, reaching speeds up to 50 mph.

Lake Placid is a busy resort town – art, antiques, fine chocolate, restaurants – they’re all tempting. At Candy Man we found handmade Adirondack chocolates, probably the best we’ve ever tasted. Licking our fingers, we decided to skip dinner and finish our day with a stroll around Mirror Lake, a 2.7-mile trail that is right downtown. For a modest fee you can also tour the lake by boat from the marina.

If the focus of your visit to Lake Placid is photographing the fall color you can’t go wrong taking the same loop tours we made. Frost sparkled in the brush along the road the next morning as we drove east just a few miles to Scenic Highway 9N. An old covered bridge had just been restored in the town of Jay where we turned south on 9N toward Keene, a little town filled with historic buildings and quaint shops.

Our campground host had suggested we see the North Country Taxidermy & Trading Post, so we stopped for a look. The shop is a great place to poke around but if you’re squeamish about these types of stuffed animals, it’s not the place for you.

Outside of town intriguing signs for Ausable Club led us to a beautiful private golf course with an elegant old clubhouse. Adirondack chairs lined a veranda running along one side of the building and all we needed to complete the picture was a few women dressed in long, white dresses and broad, feathered hats.

By late morning the sun was warm and we continued south on Highway 73 through the picturesque Keene Valley surrounded by mountainsides blazing in color. This area is popular with hikers and there are plenty of places where you can park and log in as many miles as you wish. Crisp leaves crunched deliciously beneath our feet as we meandered through the colorful forests. We wouldn’t have believed the vastness and intensity of the color if we hadn’t seen it for ourselves.

Highway 73 runs along the Ausable River, where we saw a number of fishermen angling for trout. At Highway 9 we turned north toward Elizabethtown where we stopped at the Adirondack Center Museum. Learning the story of famed abolitionist John Brown, we decided to return to Lake Placid by traveling west on Highway 73 so we could see his historic home site just outside of town. The house has been restored and furnished with period pieces. After we expressed surprise at the tiny size of the beds, a docent told us that, in addition to being smaller, people in the 1800s had many lung diseases and were afraid to sleep in a prone position. Since they slept practically sitting up, the beds didn’t have to be very long.

Another day’s drive took us north on Highway 9N along the Ausable River where we stopped at Ausable Chasm to photograph the waterfalls. This is a popular place and if you like river rafting, professionally guided rides are available. Roadside stands sell apples and homemade cider and people here love to share information on sights “not to be missed.”

There was a time during the 19th century when mining, logging and manufacturing boomed and grand hotels and hunting lodges brought economic prosperity to the Adirondack region, but those industries had a downside – they devastated the forests, killed the wildlife and depleted the watershed woodlands, creating conditions for vast areas of flooding. Fortunately the people of New York eventually put a stop to that with the creation of Adirondack Park in 1892 and subsequent constitutional protection assuring that about 3 million acres of the park would remain “forever wild” for everyone to enjoy.

The magnificent mountains were saved from destruction but the protection was a mixed blessing. Economic hardship has lingered for decades and jobs have been scarce. But the Adirondacks are being rediscovered now as people find they can live a very appealing lifestyle in this beautiful mountain environment.

The sun was out the next morning and we could see the sparkle of snow on the tip of Whiteface Mountain, New York’s fifth-highest peak. This is one of the East Coast’s premier skiing areas and site of the alpine skiing events for the 1980 Winter Olympics. We made it our destination for the day. If you have children with you, you will want to stop on the way at Santa’s Workshop, known as the oldest theme park in the country.

Just a few miles up Highway 431 we entered Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway, where a five-mile drive took us up the mountain to the “castle” just below the summit. The castle is a building made from granite excavated during highway construction and houses a gift shop and lunch counter. Leave your motor­home in camp, as parking is limited on the mountain. You’ll also want to get an early start because once the lot is full you have to wait for someone to come down before you go up.

After parking you can either hike the steep trail just under a quarter of a mile to the top or take the elevator, which is located in a tunnel deep inside the mountain. By all means take the elevator. It’s an amazing experience.

Once on the mountaintop the 360-degree panorama shows a sparkling view of the frozen snow of winter blending with the brilliant color of fall. You will truly appreciate the vastness of the Adirondacks as you look down over Lake Placid with its three islands and then mile upon mile of red and green and gold. On a clear day you can see from Vermont to Canada. Dress warmly for this outing as it is cold up there.

Our last day at Lake Placid we took Highway 431 toward Whiteface Mountain but turned off to the right on Highway 18. This backroad wound through more gorgeous fall color and past shimmering blue lakes, vacation homes and abandoned farmhouses – eventually coming out on Highway 3 and turning south to the lovely village of Saranac Lake. At the Twin Crystal Rock Shop on Broadway we learned that the Adirondack Mountains are a billion-plus years old. A volcanic beginning means these mountains are a rockhound’s paradise with quartz, quartzite, garnet, graphite, iron and pyrite widely found.

It wasn’t easy finding room in our motor­home for those Adirondack chairs, and a bit of disassembly was required, but every day we enjoy them as well as the memories they evoke of our trip through a wonderland that will remain “forever wild.”

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