New York’s Lake Placid and Whiteface Mountain region offers abundant fall color, fun special events and plenty of recreational opportunities
In the late 1800s, wealthy families from New York City and Albany traveled to the unspoiled wilderness of upstate New York to escape the gritty overcrowded cities. In 1892, Adirondack Park was created and a “Forever Wild” clause was added to the state constitution in 1895. Today, Adirondack Park is within a day’s drive of 84 million people (including about 18 million Canadians), according to New York’s Adirondack Park User’s Guide. My husband, Victor, and I are two of those 84 million people who live within a five-hour drive of Adirondack Park.
The cool, crisp air of late September, the promise of fall color and Victor’s photography itch prompted us to load up our Class B and drive to the Lake Placid/Whiteface Mountain region of the Adirondacks. Our destination was determined by the weekly fall foliage report at www.foliagenetwork.com, which indicated peak color would be the last week of September in the higher elevations and the first two weeks of October in the lower elevations.
Our first night out we camped at the Lake Placid/Whiteface Mountain KOA in Wilmington, New York. The campground offers full hookups, pull-through sites, Wi-Fi, picnic tables, fire rings, a heated pool, a mini golf course and a dog walk. The following morning, we hiked to the Ausable River inhaling the scent of dried leaves and balsam sap. At the river’s edge we watched water surge through a gorge, rush over rocks and cascade down a waterfall.
Mount Jo Hike
After our campground walk, it was time for a hike. Our guidebook, “Adirondack Great Walks & Day Hikes,” lists Mount Jo as a moderate 2.3-mile loop. We drove from the campground on Route 86 west, to Route 73 east. After traveling 4.6 miles we turned right onto Adirondack Loj Road, a winding country road lined with bright orange, yellow and fiery scarlet leaves. At the parking lot for the Adirondack Mountain Club, we paid a $5 fee and received a trail map for Mount Jo and Heart Lake.
We signed the trail registry and continued up the path to a junction with a sign directing us to the long path, (1.1.miles) or the short path (.09 mile). We chose the short path. Our mountain-trekking Chihuahua followed. The short trail was a moderate climb until we neared the summit, where it became rocky and steep. I climbed over tree roots and large boulders, often gripping a rock to secure stable footing, as Victor followed me carrying our dog in his backpack. For casual hikers and families with children, I recommend the long path, which circles the mountainside and is an easier ascent.
When we reached the summit, slightly winded at 2,876 feet above sea level, our eyes focused on a majestic view in three directions. The distant mountains of Mount Marcy (the tallest), Cascade Mountain, Algonquin Peak and Mount Colden were bursting with russet, gold and flaming red color. Directly below us was Heart Lake.
For our descent, we opted for the long trail. On the way down, a large brown snowshoe hare scurried across the path. At the bottom of the trail, we signed out in the trail registry and made our way to the parking lot, promising to return for a hike around Heart Lake.
Whiteface Mountain/Veterans’ Memorial Highway
The next day we drove the short distance from our campsite to Whiteface Mountain, a ski resort that hosted the 1980 Winter Olympics. From April to October, visitors can enjoy a gondola ride to Little Whiteface Peak or drive up to the summit on the Veterans’ Memorial Highway.
Since we had ridden the gondola on a previous visit, we opted for a drive up the Veterans’ Memorial Highway. At the alpine-style gatehouse, we paid $17 ($10 for car and driver, $7 per passenger) and followed the 5-mile narrow winding road to the summit, stopping at several vista points. At the top, a parking attendant directed us to the area reserved for RVs.
To reach the summit, we had a choice of climbing the Stairway Ridge Trail or using the elevator inside the mountain. We chose the elevator and walked through a chilly 426-foot stone tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, the elevator whisked us up 27 stories to the summit building. The building has enormous windows and informational plaques. In addition to the summit building, there is a three-story observatory maintained by the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center from the University of Albany.
We stepped out onto the viewing deck, to a 360-degree view of the Adirondacks. To the north is Canada and to the south are views of Lake Placid and the High Peaks. For a “cliffhanger” view, we wandered around the rocky summit. Unfortunately our view was soon obstructed by a low cloud cover and fog accompanied by a cold wind. If you visit the summit, be sure to bring a jacket and check the weather on top of the mountain.
High Falls Gorge
The following morning, we drove west on the Olympic Trail State Scenic Byway, Route 86, stopping at High Falls Gorge. After paying a fee of $13.95 per adult, which helps maintain the privately owned park, we walked across a footbridge and followed a short path to the river. The 30-minute walk on steel catwalks along the gorge, high above the raging Ausable River, is breathtaking. At the bottom of the gorge, we crossed the river on a steel bridge and enjoyed a view of the four linking waterfalls. In addition to the nature walk, visitors can pan for gemstones and fossils in the mining sluice.
Lake Placid Village
We continued our drive on Route 86 to Lake Placid Village, home of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. After parking our motorhome in the public lot, we stopped at the visitors center and then walked down the hill to the 1980 arena entrance. A sense of pride stirred within me as I gazed at the steel-and-glass entrance and watched the flags of 37 participating nations fly proudly in the wind.
Just below the flying flags is the 400-meter outdoor speed-skating rink, which looks more like a running track than an ice rink. From December through March, the rink is open for competitive training, special events and recreational skating. Lake Placid High School is situated overlooking the rink and was used as a private bar during the 1980 Olympics. It is the only high school in the United States to be issued a liquor license.
It was time to go inside and see the Herb Brooks Arena, where the 1980 USA ice hockey team upset the heavily favored Soviet National team and won the gold medal. We climbed the stairs to the top of the stadium, and as I stood in the bleachers watching a skater circle the ice, I visualized a clamoring crowd cheering the USA on to the “Miracle on Ice.”
In search of a late-morning snack, we walked north on Main Street. At the Blueberry Bakery we enjoyed a scrumptious apple strudel and a cup of pumpkin spice coffee. We continued our walk and stopped at the Adirondack North Country Craft Center, which features local artisan crafts and specialty items.
Before returning to our campsite, we walked to the shore of Mirror Lake, located across from the public parking lot. The lake is known for its clear, clean water, which mirrors the surrounding peaks on its surface. During the summer months, swimming and fishing are favorite activities; in winter, visitors can ride a dog sled across the ice or enjoy a toboggan ride launched from a chute.
Our last stop for the day was the Olympic Jumping Complex on Cascade Road, site of the ‘80 Winter Olympic ski jumping and freestyle competitions. From Lake Placid Village, we drove south to Sentinel Road, which merges into Cascade Road. As we approached the complex, we gazed up at two giant towers of steel attached to sloping slides. A short walk from the parking lot brought us to the bottom of the 90-meter ski jump where we watched skiers launch themselves into the air and land on a plastic mat sprayed with water to simulate snow. We rode a chair lift to the base of the 90-meter tower and then rode a 26-story elevator to the top of the 120-meter tower. From the observation deck, you can look down the ski jump track, view the high peaks in the distance and enjoy the forests bursting with autumn color.
Fish Creek Pond State Park
Since it was late afternoon, it was time to find our next campground. We drove west on the Olympic Trail Byway and exited to Route 30 north stopping at Fish Creek Pond State Park. After securing one of the campground’s 305 lakefront sites, we grabbed our camp chairs and basked in the lingering sun. As the sun set, the gray velvet sky glowed with bright orange and pale yellow clouds. The lake’s surface was a dazzling watercolor, reflecting the luminous sky. Dark silhouettes of tall pine trees framed nature’s painting.
The next morning, Victor awoke at 5:30, grabbed his camera and hiked around the lake capturing the sunrise. After breakfast, we rode our bikes on the main park road following the shoreline around Fish Creek Pond and Square Pond. At the beach area, we watched a kayak glide across the water and a loon drifting on the surface. To complete the 4.7-mile loop, we rode on a paved path past the Trading Post, along Route 30.
While the rustic campground provides only dry camping, with coin-operated showers, the sites can accommodate RVs up to 40 feet. The campground is quiet and well kept. It makes a good base camp for fishing, kayaking, hiking, biking and venturing to nearby attractions such as the Wild Center in Tupper Lake and the Adirondack Interpretive Center.
Our trip home included a stop at the farmers market in Saranac Lake Village where we purchased apples and fresh cider. We picnicked on the shore of nearby Lake Flower surrounded by Victorian homes mirrored on the lake’s surface.
Autumn in this part of the Adirondacks is also festival time. Whiteface Mountain Oktoberfest (Oct. 4-5) is a weekend celebration of Bavarian culture with music, dancing, food and beer. The Olympic Jumping Complex hosts the Flaming Leaves Festival (Oct. 11-12) and Lake Placid Olympic Center hosts the Lake Placid Brewfest (Oct. 11) with 23 microbrewers processing 70 varieties of beer.
Though often overshadowed by our national parks, Adirondack Park with its 6.1 million acres of pristine, rugged grandeur, offers a variety of camping and recreational opportunities for everyone.
For More Information
Adirondack North Country Association
518-891-6200 | www.adirondackscenicbyways.org
High Falls Gorge
518-946-2278 | www.highfallsgorge.com
Lake Placid CVB
518-523-2445 | www.lakeplacid.com
Whiteface Lake Placid
Whiteface Mountain Regional Visitors Bureau
518-946-2255 | www.whitefaceregion.com