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Exploring New York’s Adirondacks

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

Long before Europeans settled this region, Native Americans inhabited the Adirondacks, finding sustenance from the area’s wildlife, plants, and other resources. The term “Adirondack” is from an Iroquois word meaning “bark eater.” This label was insultingly flung by the Iroquois in the direction of the Algonquin tribes who inhabited the Adirondacks. Though a nasty nickname, the moniker stuck and eventually came to refer to the region and its inhabitants.

Mineral extraction and logging lured Europeans into this region of northern New York during the mid-to-late-1700s. Roughly a century later, conservation-minded individuals became concerned about excessive logging and unchecked development. In 1892 forward-thinking members of the New York legislature created the Adirondack Park, designating portions of it as “forever wild,” legally buffered from logging, mining, and human abuse. When the United States Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964, portions of it were modeled after the wilderness concepts governing the Adirondack Park.

Although designated as a state park, the boundaries of the Adirondack Park encompass a patchwork of public and private lands. Development and land use are regulated on both state and private lands by the Adirondack Park Agency, creating a vast area where human impacts on the landscape are limited. Visitors to the Adirondacks find all the amenities available elsewhere in the country, along with vast sections of beautiful, untamed lands beckoning hikers, fishermen, canoeists, birdwatchers and individuals who simply love to soak up scenic views. Here are just some of the hundreds of potential places to visit in the Adirondacks.

Lake Placid — The host city of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, the Olympic infrastructure still fascinates visitors today. The ski jumps and bobsled runs attract thousands of people each summer who ride an elevator to the top of the ski jumps to see what an Olympian faced in his or her breathtaking launch or to ride one of the bobsleds. Boating on Lake Placid is an unforgettable experience. Hiking trails abound within an hour’s drive of the village.

Exploring the Olympic heritage of Lake Placid best begins with a visit to the Olympic Center and Lake Placid Olympic Museum located on Main Street. The museum is flush with Olympic memorabilia, including fascinating video highlights and artifacts from the fabled “Miracle on Ice” hockey game in 1980 in which the underdog United States defeated the powerful favorite, the Soviet Union. Along with the museum exhibits, the Olympic Center hosts a variety of concerts, hockey games, and figure skating exhibitions and competitions.

Whiteface Mountain, the fifth-highest peak in the Adirondacks, can be accessed from the Veterans Memorial Highway, which leads to its summit, the only major peak in the Adirondacks accessible by vehicle. From the observatory at the top of the mountain’s 4,867-foot summit, visitors behold an expansive view of the region, including a peek at one-half of the peaks in the heralded High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. On a clear day, it’s also possible to see Mount Mansfield, the highest point in Vermont, and the city
of Montreal.

Saranac Lake Area — Just a short distance from Lake Placid is the village of Saranac Lake. It’s a picturesque hamlet situated along the Saranac River that borders, ironically, Lake Flower — not Saranac Lake. However, it is near the midpoint of the Saranac River drainage, a wandering system of rivers and lakes that runs from the high country to Lake Champlain.

The Saranac River finds its headwaters in the wild country of the Long Pond area in the shadows of Long Pond Mountain. More than 35 lakes and ponds comprise its source. Once the river gurgles into Upper Saranac Lake it passes through more than a half-dozen major lakes on its long, winding journey to Cumberland Bay on Lake Champlain at Plattsburgh. A plethora of fish species inhabits the Saranac River watershed, from tiny, speckled brook trout to gaping-mouthed northern pike. There’s more water in the Saranac system than one could fish in a lifetime. In addition to the fishing, there’s also world-class canoeing and kayaking on the lakes and the river.

For those wishing to sample the fishing and canoeing in the Saranac Lake area, an easy paddle along the Saranac River is the perfect place to start. On a sunny afternoon in early autumn, I hit the river at a put-in right in the village of Saranac Lake, across the street from St. Regis Canoe Outfitters where I’d rented an Old Town canoe for myself and my sweetheart. Aiming for a take-out just a few miles downstream, we idled through the village and then left civilization behind to float along the lazy river. In the space of a few hours, we spied a bald eagle perched in a maple tree, caught several husky smallmouth bass, and passed beneath a flock of honking Canada geese.

Whether it’s paddling along another stretch of the Saranac River or exploring one of the many area lakes, a visit to Saranac Lake ranks high on my list of activities on my next Adirondack adventure.

Blue Mountain Area — Located smack dab in the center of the Adirondack Park, the Blue Mountain area is home to numerous lakes, scenic forest byways, and an intriguing history that is singularly Adirondack. Two of the pet attractions in this area are Blue Mountain and the Adirondack Museum, located in the winsome village of Blue Mountain Lake.

The history of the Blue Mountain Lake area, artistically captured in various exhibits at the Adirondack Museum, includes visits by at least two U.S. presidents. Grover Cleveland toured the area with an esteemed local guide in 1892 after his first term expired as president. Theodore Roosevelt was enjoying the Blue Mountain area in 1901 when he received word of William McKinley’s death, making him president of the United States. Famous inventor Thomas Edison also frequented the area in the summers. A local Blue Mountain Lake hotel known as the Prospect House was wired by Edison for electricity, making it the first hotel in the world to sport electric lights.

The Adirondack Museum hosts special exhibits and events, but its permanent exhibits form the core of the museum experience with fascinating glimpses into area history. From historic buildings to art exhibits, to displays showcasing the importance of logging and railroads, to the local economy in the early days of the Adirondacks, the museum has an expansive, airy feel. Among the permanent exhibits, my favorites are those dedicated to boats and boating as early forms of leisure and transportation and an eclectic collection of Adirondack rustic furniture. Furniture in the Adirondacks developed many unique styles artfully blending birch bark; slender, unpeeled branches, and local materials into functional, rustic furniture, a tradition that persists with local present-day furniture makers.

Across the highway from the Adirondack Museum lies the trailhead to Blue Mountain. One of the most popular hikes in the Adirondack Park, the ascent to the summit of Blue Mountain spans a distance of 2 miles on a route suitable for families with children or any reasonably fit person desiring a panoramic view. Although the climb to the top of the mountain involves an elevation gain of just over 1,500 feet, the hike is not particularly difficult, providing you take your time and bring along some snacks and water to fuel your body along the way.

Two features combine to make Blue Mountain such a heralded hike. First, the route includes a 14-point nature trail showcasing interpretive tidbits related to local geography and botany along the way. At the summit, hikers encounter another treat. Atop Blue Mountain perches a functional fire tower. Retired from its original purpose for aiding in the sighting of forest fires, the tower now opens its steps to visitors who encounter a breathtaking view from the enclosed platform at its apex.

For outdoor enthusiasts from New York City and other urban areas along the Eastern Seaboard in the late 19th century, the Adirondacks became a favored destination to hike, fish, canoe, or simply escape from the business and bustle of city life. Although the modes of travel and accommodations have changed dramatically in the last 150 years, the rural feel and natural wonders of the region are as captivating today as they were to the likes of Thomas Edison and Theodore Roosevelt. Like the pioneering souls of old, modern-day explorers will find perhaps no finer outdoor playground than New York’s Adirondack Park.

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