A New York summer is hardly complete without the Adirondack experience. Whether you like to relax, play or explore, the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park is one of New York State’s most distinctive destinations. Gobs of outdoor recreational opportunities are connected with every stream, mountain, and lake, while cabins, resorts and spas cater to those looking to bask in a peaceful mountain getaway.
“It’s the outstanding wilderness that draws me to the Adirondacks,” says Pete Baillargeon, an avid outdoorsman who teaches at the Rochester School of the Arts. In a span of three years (2002-2005), Pete became a “46er,” the label reserved for the prestigious group of hikers who scaled each of the Adirondack’s 46 highest peaks (each 3,800 ft and higher). Pete initiated his High Peaks pursuit on Mt. Marcy, which towers over the others at an impressive 5,344 ft.
The 46 High Peaks aren’t for everyone, of course. Things like small children and bad knees sometimes get in the way. But don’t let that stop you from a summer mountain climbing experience. There are plenty of ways to approximate high-peaks rapture with less effort.
Our list of five family hikes covers a range of difficulty while celebrating what is uniquely Adirondack: marvelous panoramic views of alpine summits, old-growth forests, meandering streams, and clear-water lakes.
From the handicap-accessible Whiteface to toddler-friendly “starter-mountains” to challenging half-day climbs, there’s a peak for everyone. All are located in the mountainous area that stretches from Tupper Lake eastward to Lake Placid and Keene Valley. This is an area whose popularity with tourists is balanced by its outstanding scenery and sense of place.
Easy 5 mi by car (one-way) in Wilmington
At 4,867 feet, Whiteface is the 5th highest peak in the park and can be reached in air-conditioned comfort via a steep toll road that winds five miles to its bald-face, alpine summit. The summit proper can be reached via short hike or an elevator located in the mountaintop weather station.
This easy access makes Whiteface a good choice for “the very young, very old, incapacitated, or the downright lazy, ” says Pete Fish, a retired forest ranger and volunteer trail steward. Whiteface ensures that awe-inspiring mountaintop views can be enjoyed by anyone with a tank of gas. The more adventurous can hike to the top via one of two trails.
Once you reach the top, 360° views of the surrounding wilderness are mighty impressive. On a clear day, you may see to Canada, Lake Champlain, or Vermont, and can count the High Peaks in the distance. Keep your ears tuned: Whiteface is also an important stronghold for Bicknell’s Thrush, a secretive, high-elevation songbird rarely seen but easily identified by its flute-like call.
Cool Fact: Practice your cliff-jumping skills at The Wilmington Flume, a nostalgic roadside swimming hole found just off of Rt. 86.
Getting there: From Lake Placid, travel north on NYS Route 86 and turn left onto the Veterans Memorial Highway. Follow New York Department of Conservation (DEC) trailhead signs to the summit. Toll = $9 for driver plus vehicle, $5 for each additional (6 and under, free). Toll road is open daily 9 am to 4 pm.
Short and sweet
Easy 2.3-mile roundtrip (RT) climb in Lake Placid
Assuming you can lure your toddler out of the car with a bag of Skittles, Mt. Jo is an excellent starter mountain. Great views of Heart Lake and the High Peaks (the MacIntyre Range, specifically) can be seen from its 2,876 ft summit. The climb is short but steep with an 800-ft elevation gain, so be prepared to sweat. Like most Adirondack trails, the trail has a few “rocky ledges and exposed roots, but well-attended kids manage just fine,” says Fish. Several rewards along the trail, including open vistas with views in three directions, keep kids interested and moving along.
Access Mt. Jo from the Adirondack Loj parking area. Loj naturalists lead guided hikes up Mt. Jo Wednesdays through Mondays at 9 am. The great Adirondack camp also features lectures, campfire stories, stargazing, and the Heart Lake Nature Museum.
Cool Fact: Mt. Jo is a monument to broken hearts and lost love. Legend has it young man Henry proposed to his love Josephine atop Mt. Marcy as they gazed upon the heart-shaped lake below. She accepted, and together they dreamed of building a wilderness lodge and lakeside domecile. Jo’s parents, however, yanked her back to the Big Apple, and while Henry fulfilled their dream, he forever lost his love.
Getting there: Park at the Adirondak Loj ($9 fee) off of Route 73. Spillover parking at South Meadow Parking area is 1.5 miles away. Camping is available on site and nearby, but fills up fast. Inquire with the Adirondack Loj at (518) 523-3441.
Short, sweet, and off-the-beaten path
Easy 2.0-mile RT climb near Keene Valley
Somewhat less-traveled, Baxter Mountain (2,425 ft) is equally recommended for young kids and offers stellar views of the High Peaks, including the famous giant, Mt. Marcy. Enormous boulders, remnants of the last glacial age, provide convenient photo opps and resting posts the way.
Getting there: The parking lot is located at the top of a hill on 9N about 2 miles east of its intersection with NY 73. Look for the trail about 60 feet east of Hurricane Road.
Easiest of the 46 Peaks to climb
Easy 4.8-mi RT hike in Keene
Don’t let Cascade Mountain’s designation as a top 46 Peak deter you from scaling its summit. The trail is a relatively easy climb for most ages; even ambitious 3 and 4 year olds have been known to scramble up its face. The mountain rises 1,940 ft in 2.4 mi and the well-maintained trail winds through magnificent beech-maple and birch forests. At “only” 4,098 ft, Cascade does not have a true alpine summit, but it does have a bald crest owing to a history of forest fires. The summit offers commanding views of Whiteface and the Champlain Valley.
To extend your hike by 1.5 miles (round trip), take the yellow-blazed trail to Porter Mountain just south of Cascade’s summit. “This is an easy way to bag two 4,000-footers in one day,” says Pete Fish. Also, “look for the beautiful waterfall that flows at the foot of Cascade in between two lakes.” Views are best from the roadside.
Getting there: The trailhead is located on Rt. 73 about 6.8 mi west of Keene. Look for the New York DEC sign at the trailhead on the south side of the road. Parking space is limited.
Rewarding half-day climb with expansive views
Moderate 5.6-mi RT ascent near Tupper/Saranac Lake
At 3,352 ft, Ampersand is the 116th tallest Adirondack peak and is “near enough to the thoroughfare of travel for thousands of people to see it every year, and … far enough from the beaten track to be unvisited except by a very few of the wise ones,” said Henry Van Dyke in Little Rivers: A Book of Essays in Profitable Idleness.
Ampersand is surrounded by fantastic old-growth forests and takes at least four hours to complete. While the trail is not difficult, it may be better suited for adventurous souls who won’t object to a full morning’s outing. The trail winds through a fertile understory which anchors lovely hemlock groves and birch-maples forests. Near the top, manmade steps help scale the most vertically challenging segments and marvelous rock formations conceal “refrigerated” caves. Expansive panoramic views can be observed from its bald crest.
Be sure to retrace your exact path on the way down. Lure your subjects along with the promise of a refreshing dip at journey’s end: a gorgeous bay with small swimming beach is located at the end of a wooded, half-mile trail that leads from the parking lot.
COOL FACT: A bronze plaque at the summit is dedicated to Walter Channing Rice, a hermit who kept vigil from this peak from 1915-1923.
Getting there: The parking lot is located on the north side of NY 3 east of Tupper Lake, 7 miles east of its intersection with NY 30/NY3. Cross the road to find the trailhead.
Pack the car and go!
We hope you can find time for an Adirondack experience this summer. Think about it: in a mere five hours you could be surrounded by alpine summits in one of our state’s most beautiful areas. What are you waiting for? Pack the car and go!
Be hike-wise: search the Web and resources below to find more detailed information on each hike. And if so indicated, fill out a “Trip Ticket” at the trailhead and show it to park rangers upon request.
The Golden Rule:
Dress in layers of clothing for mountain treks because weather is highly changeable. Importantly, AVOID COTTON and blue jeans. Wool and synthetics are best. Also bring along:
- Bug Spray
- Ankle Boots
- Moleskin for blisters
- Garbage bag
- Topo Maps (so you can play “Name that peak!”)
- Altimeter, just for fun.
Search for lodging options at VisitAdirondacks.com. Most Adirondacks accommodations fill up quickly, but the economy may have left more hotel/motel and B&B openings than usual. Call and ask for a deal.
A few selections:
- White Pine Camp in Paul Smiths: (518) 327-3030. Steeped in history, this authentic lakeside “Great Camp” is as remote and tranquil as it gets.
- Bark Eater Inn in Keene. (866) 603-3245. Rustic country charm (with horseback riding!)
- High Peaks Resort in Lake Placid: (518) 523.4411. Casual elegance.
- Econo-Lodge Lake Placid: (518) 523.2817
- Campgrounds: ReserveAmerica.com, or try Whispering Pines private Campground in Lake Placid (518) 523-9322.