Upstate New York's Adirondack Park
At the northeast reaches of New York State there are 6.1 million acres of parkland known to the world as the Adirondacks. Established in 1892, the Park is a mix of public and private lands that span roughly the same acreage as the state of New Hampshire. Adirondack Park is nationally preeminent as a public recreational area. It is three times the size of Yellowstone and by far the largest parkland in the lower 48 United States.
Beyond the massive square mileage of this nature preserve, the term “Adirondack” has ascended into the common vernacular. Two Olympic winter games were held here and it is still one of the best winter sport destinations in the east. The park boasts unique topography and natural beauty. It is dotted with hundreds of mirror-clear northern lakes and it has more than a dozen of the highest mountain peaks in the east, including Mount Marcy, 5,344 feet high.
This article offers an overview of the Adirondacks, both in terms of the natural beauty, and the historical resonance that derives from all the camp life of the many magnates who used to hang out here. Through their well-funded attention to the region many things Adirondack have filtered into American culture. After some overview about visiting, and about Lake Placid, the main town, there are some notes on the Great Camps of a century ago, and some information about accommodation options available today.
The Heritage of Adirondack Park
More than a dozen presidents have visited the Adirondacks, most recently President Bush when he sought a fittingly pristine natural location to announce his “Clear Skies” initiative. Several presidents had get-away residences there. Although the Adirondacks are close to the Canadian border, they are accessible straight north from New York and the state capital of Albany via Interstate 87. Train service to eastern reaches of the Park is available on the Montreal-New York Amtrak line.
Adirondack Park is also the founding inspiration of a rustic architectural style that has spread from Maine to California. Adirondack culture owes much of its fame to the Great Camps built by in the Adirondack Park by the industrial and financial magnates three or four generations ago. The hallmarks of Adirondack culture are a woodsy outdoor living contrasted with genteel, well-catered camp life. Staples of Adirondack style include vaulted lodge construction using log beams, stone fireplaces, copious taxidermy, white birch bark used as wall paper or lamp shades and homespun lettering twisted from spruce twigs.
It’s not only in visual style, but also in historical substance that the Adirondacks have become a common expression of rustic American culture. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was in the Adirondacks climbing Mount Marcy when news reached him that President William McKinley had been mortally wounded by an assassin. Roosevelt learned he had become president while waiting for a train south.
When to Visit
The summer Adirondack season is short, like that of Maine. By the time the long winter ends in April or early May black fly season begins. Visitor accommodations newly opened for the season offer substantial discounts during early summer, and there’s a good reason. Battling ravenous clouds of black flies is no way to spend a vacation. But by July the insect invasion has usually died down and the short summer begins. But don’t blink, because by late August you may see the first rusty signs of the autumn leaf change. By Columbus Day, when most of New England is enjoying prime foliage season, the Adirondacks cut back their accommodations for the winter season.
Resources for Planning a Trip to the Adirondacks
If you want to read up on visiting the Adirondacks you may have a challenge on your hands finding good guidebooks and impartial Internet resources. There are a number of walking and hiking guides, but the principal guidebooks, including Fodors, address the Adirondacks in a by-the-way fashion, giving you a limited text block in their regional directories. Frommer's offers guidace on both the southern Adirondacks and the northern Adirondacks. A handful of dedicated guides are on the racks, including the “Adirondack Book” by Elizabeth Folwell, et. al. Ms. Folwell’s generously documented book covers most of the bases, including nearby Saratoga Springs, New York. With due respect to Ms. Folwell, she covers and knows lot more of the Adirondacks than this writer. But, like many guidebooks that have inspired cloudtravel, Ms. Folwell’s book is loaded down with undifferentiated information that makes it difficult to make sharp distinctions about accommodation and restaurant choices. The options are well represented, but the reader is left with too many equal-sounding choices and not enough discriminating recommendations.
The Internet offers a snowstorm of travel advertisements about Adirondack destination. Unfortunately, the Adirondacks seems to be one of those places well worth visiting, but not strong enough in its tourist market that it’s covered by overlapping travel references that you need to cross references the options. The voluble E-pinions has some web chatter about the best and worst of visiting Adirondack Park. Unfortunately, these varied resources leave visitors without much travel guidance in a land where good accommodation and restaurant options are hard to come by.
Adirondack Accommodations Generally
The best accommodation in the Adirondacks is on the water in sight of the mountains. You can accomplish this camping or through select accommodations that cater to the camp ethic while offering you a hot bath and cup of coffee.
If you’re a camper in the Adirondacks prepared for the weather possibilities, the world is your oyster. Cathedral forests, granite faced mountains and mirror lakes abound in this region and the recreational options are numerous and inviting. The Department of Environmental Conservation (518-457-2500; www.dec.state.ny.us/) operates more than three dozen campsites, many on the kind of sterling lakeside settings that campers dream about. Most of these campsites are open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Camping in the Adirondacks is allowed year round, but you need a permit to stay more than three days, or with groups of ten or more. Also, when staying in the High Peaks Wilderness area there are special requirements (best to check with the local forest rangers for permits and rules). Along the Northville-Lake Placid trail there are some traditional Adirondack lean-tos for camping convenience (these are classic three –sided log structures that are a staple of Adirondack camping culture). Here’s a great resource for details about campsites that also allows you to make online reservations: www.reservamerica.com. Camp sites are $10-$15 a night, plus a reservation fee of $8.50. Reserve America lets you put some focus on your camping plot and it provides some information about park resources.
For the so-called “soft camper” the Adirondack accommodation market is glutted with numerous roadside motels, best typified by the Lake George tourist region. There are so many of these, advertised so energetically, that some warning is merited here. Some of these accommodations are better than others, but almost all of them are modest and predictable. Only a few of them (like the tight-packed lakeside motels on Lake George) have premium access to the best natural resources in the area, which illustrates the value of traditional camping over motels. With the majority of Adirondack motels you drive in, check in, park in front of your room, inspect the sad state of the mattress, see what towels you have, and the kids run off to find the Coke machines and the pool. Highway traffic whines all night. Sometimes they are laid out in little 1930s-looking tourist cabins all clustered together on an average stretch of highway side real estate. With ample alternate options in the Park there’s no reason to recommend these kinds of accommodation choices.
For the healthiest selection of hotels in the region, think about repairing to Lake Placid. Otherwise, if you’re not a tentpole kind of person, consider the camp experience that takes its heritage from the Great Camps of a hundred years ago. These last two options are explored below.
In the midst of the peaks region of Essex County is Lake Placid, famous as the host city for both the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. Lake Placid is perhaps the most comprehensive, full-service town within the Adirondacks Park region. Unlike the more blue-collar feel of neighboring Saranac Lake, Lake Placid retains some of that sparkle of a world-known town. Much of the rest of Adirondack Park rests its laurels on the natural beauty. But Lake Placid can also boast five-star cuisine architectural preservation and some significant cultural heritage.
Set on Mirror Lake (Lake Placid itself is slightly west of town), Lake Placid has a main strip rich with stores, restaurants and hotels. The Olympic ski jump, a museum and the skating pavilion survive. Lake Placid also has the best selection of restaurants in the region.
If you want to visit the Adirondacks and sleep in a feather bed and eat gourmet, Lake Placid is the best chance you’ll get. The Mirror Lake Inn is a luxury property with a couple of nice restaurants, including “The Cottage” right on Mirror Lake. Mirror Lake is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group and charges $260 and up for a room in high season.
Besides a strip of privately owned hotels of more middling appeal, Lake Placid has a Hilton, a Holiday Inn, a Ramada, and a waterside Best Western. It isn’t necessary to describe what a standard room looks like at any of these properties and it isn’t worth trying to draw serious distinctions between them. The Best Western has the most and closest lake access, followed by the Hilton. The Holiday Inn is set high, but boasts good views of the lake. The Ramada, which doesn't even have a decent web site, is in last place among these chain hotels in terms of both lake access and views.
The best bet in town for a really nice hotel stay is the Interlaken Inn, just around the corner from the Mirror Lake Inn. Twenty lovingly adorned rooms start at $135 a night in high season. New owners at Interlaken have been pouring money into the property and they recently landed local celebrity chef Richard Brosseau for the Interlaken Restaurant, which is building clientele fast. Richard Brosseau was formerly of The Wawbeek (see below), and most recently the co-owner of Richard’s Freestyle Cuisine on Lake Placid’s main drag (Freestyle Cuisine still operates under the same name, but without Richard).
Another great option not within in walking distance of the downtown is the Lake Placid Lodge. The Lodge boasts a nice restaurant and thriving bar with a generous bar menu. In terms of accommodations, the Lodge is available for guests and they recently completed luxury renovations of a cluster of lakeside cabins that were spared from demolition. Although lacking in some of the woodsy appeal of other camping options, the cabins offer a great hybrid choice of near to town and right on the lake.
The Great Camps of the Adirondacks
What really beats in the heart of the Adirondacks accommodation wise is not the motor courts and chain hotels, but rather the spirit of the Great Camps. The history and concept deserve some explanation. Historically, the Great Camp is rustic by product of the Gilded Age of New York – an Adirondack playground for the super rich. In the last quarter of the 1900s New York’s Gilded Age reached up the Hudson Valley to satisfy recreational appetites. Transplanting the social venues of the city into wilderness settings because a pastime of the wealthy of that age. Camps were generally vast, self-sufficient single-family estates built lakeside. They were designed and constructed out of rustic, local materials and usually comprised several different buildings. The Camps were a marriage of huge wealth with a sentiment that favored outdoor self sufficiency. The central lodge served as a dining hall, meeting place and social common ground. Guests stayed in rooms within the lodge, or in private cabins. The community would unite for meals, socializing and for woodland recreation.
There were more than 40 Great Camps back in the day when the Adirondacks served as a playground of the affluent that reached the highest rungs of American power and influence. The Vanderbilt family had Pine Tree Point and Sagamore Lodge. Whitelaw Reid, publisher of the New York Herald Tribute, hired the famed architects McKim, Mead and White to design Camp Wild Air. President Calvin Coolidge entertained at White Pine on Osgood Pond. White Pine boasted a Japanese teahouse, a croquet lawn, a bowling alley and vast gardens of planted flowers.
Legacy of the Great Adirondack Camps Today
White Pine, Great Camp Sagamore and Camp Santanoni are the only surviving examples of the Great Camps (Sagamore and White Pine can be toured by appointment; Santanoni is an open preserve). Still, the Great Camps left a surviving legacy. You can still visit the Park and make your stay camp style in lakeside cabins like those shown at the right from "The Hedges" on Blue Mountain Lake. Adirondack camping that means that you and your family stay at a lakeside compound that generally include a Great Lodge, a building for use in group dining, and a cluster of accommodations, usually self-sufficient cabins.
The Wawbeek is a rustic, generations-old camp nestled in 40 acres of a particularly lush and rainforest-like corner of Upper Saranac Lake. The most likely access is through Lake Placid and Saranac Lake the most mountainous region of the Adirondacks. The setting is hilly and there are 1,400 feet of shoreline to explore. Lodging includes a six-bedroom/six bath lodge with a common area, a carriage house, and a constellation of guest cabins. There are also rustic, but well appointed common areas and a dining hall.
The Wawbeek is off the main road (Route 30) and feels truly remote. It is packed with all the makings for great family recreation, including boats, canoes, bikes, tennis courts, hiking trails and cross country skiing, all included in the base rate (along with breakfast). Dinner and lunch are the guest’s concern, but there is a dining hall that, at least at one point, had a celebrated local chef.
The Wawbeek deserves top marks for its dark, remote and cozy lakeside location and its attention to family recreation. The accent here is on rustic comfort. The cabins and common areas at the Wawbeek are comfortable, but they aren’t as prettied up as other camp listed here. The Wawbeek is also on the expensive side for camp accommodation in the region (say, $150 per person including the separate expense of dinner). There are a variety of weekly and seasonal pricing options and some dispensation for kids.
Where the Wawbeek is an outdoor activity center, The Hedges has more to offer in terms of personal comfort and an opportunity for calm and reflection. Dating back to 1880, The Hedges is on Blue Mountain Lake a little further from Interstate 87 and other civilian outposts than the other camps reviewed here. The eight main cabins, dining room, Main Lodge and Stone Lodge are all arrayed near the lake and the canoe dock is in many ways the center of attention. The Hedges probably has the nicest common areas and dining hall of any camp in the price range, and it is comfortably lower in the price category than the competitors (The Hedge common area shown at right). Lakefront cabins or comfortable accommodation in the Stone Lodge are nearer to the $90 to $120 per person range (with breakfast and dinner included and served family style in the dining hall).
The Hedges offers great value and nicer amenities. The common areas are not just comfortable, they are inviting and in keeping with the Adirondack aesthetic. The Hedges is a little further out than other camps reviewed here and the terrain and scenery do not enjoy as much hilliness. The nearby town is just a whistle stop and the mountains are further back on the skyline.
Elk Lodge (main lodge pictured at left) is a stunning site, located on a lake ringed by the highest mountains in the region. The setting offers one of those chest-grabbing vistas common to the Rocky Mountains. Diamond-clear Elk Lake is praised for its fishing and has been cited by National Geographic as the “jewel of the Adirondacks.” It takes a couple of miles of dirt road driving to get to the Lodge in the middle of 1,200 privately held acres, but the distance from Interstate 87 is closer than the other camps mentioned here.
Among its competitors, Elk Lodge is the all around champ. The lake, mountain and wilderness access is the best of the group. The camping plan includes meals, served in an inviting group setting. The dining room and common areas aren’t as nice as The Hedges, but they are more up-to-date than the Wawbeek. The guest cabins, meanwhile, are well appointed and set apart from each other so they boast family privacy that the other camps don’t offer. Prices at Elk Lodge rival the Wawbeek ($130 to $150 per person), but if you get clear weather and a look at the mountains reflected in the lake, you may agree that you get more for your money.
In a price class all by itself is The Point, which is so exclusive that they won’t even give you directions until you have a confirmed reservation. William Avery Rockefeller built this knock-out Great Camp on Upper Saranac Lake in the 1930s. Now run as a guest inn, The Point has been voted one of the 300 best hotels in the world. It’s not in everybody’s budget, and in fact is a dozen more expensive than the other camps listed here. The Point is included here because if there was ever a chance to experience the unadulterated feel of what it must have been like to be a guest at one of the Great Camps a hundred years ago, this may be the last opportunity.
The Point has eleven rooms in four different buildings. Guest rooms boast oriental rugs, fireplaces and copious taxidermy. The Great Hall has stone fireplaces in all directions. The bar is always open and the restaurant makes its own gourmet statement.
Growth and Development
In the spring of 2006 the Adirondack Park Agency is reviewing of an application by a group of Philadelphia investors to build a year-round luxury resort, the largest private development application the Park Agency has ever reviewed. The project is envisioned for 6,400 acres south of the village of Tupper Lake. The proposed 750-unit development is called the Adirondack Club and Resort.
While the beauty and history of Adirondack Park is available to all, the range of accommodations is pretty well polarized. Tent-pole campers at $10 a night and those who are willing to shell out for a family vacation in one of the Great Hall camps make out best. Those in the middle range don’t fare so well. The musty, moss-stuffed motor courts right on the side of the highway offer the worst of both worlds. Other rustic hostelries seem to take the term “comfortable” way too far, charging a pretty high price for modest accommodation. The key in each case is to hold out for access to lakefront and/or mountain scenery. If you aren’t getting either, don’t pay extra for Adirondack accommodations. If you hold out for accommodation that is staked to natural beauty of the region, the Adirondacks offers a unique east coast family camping adventure.
© Copyright 2006 Chris Cloud.
Last update: 9/5/2006; 8:36:51 PM.