The Adirondacks are rightly known for high peaks, hidden lakes and impenetrable forests. Come wintertime, nature casts a snowy veil over the trees and mountains and everything is transformed. Summertime visitors wouldn’t recognize the place. Fortunately, the 9375 sq miles of protected parklands and forest preserves are cut through by roads and sprinkled with quaint towns and icy sights, all reachable if not by car, then by ski.
In some locales, when a lake freezes over it’s time to head indoors. Not so at Lake Placid, upstate New York’s classic small-town mountain village. The Olympic games were held here long ago, in 1932 and 1980, but their legacy is very much alive. Kiddies, amateurs and pros hit the town ice on skates, along with dogs and sleds in a gloriously retro scene. Meanwhile, World Cup Nordic sport athletes and tourists looking for thrills head to nearby Mount Van Hoevenberg, where you can be a backseat driver in a careening bobsled or head off into the woods on miles of cross country ski trails. The town’s Olympic Center museum displays all of the style-challenging uniforms from games gone by, along with the antique equipment for eras before plastic and Gor-Tex. To get away from this getaway, head to Heart Lake’s alpine trails for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing with nary another soul in sight.
Two mile-long Ausable Chasm, a strikingly picturesque slot gorge northeast of Lake Placid near the shores of Lake Champlain, looks like a piece of the American southwest misplaced in upstate New York. They call it ‘the Grand Canyon of the Adirondacks’ and that’s not too far off, albeit on a miniaturized scale. In the summertime, there’s rafting trips. In the winter, icicle tours. Slip on microspikes and pick your way along the cliffside pathway, in places 200 ft above the river. Weirdly shaped icicles hang from rocky outcroppings, creating their own sculptural formations, some seen annually and given their own catchy monikers.
The Wild Center
Even if most people don’t usually associate the Adirondacks with museums, the Wild Center would be noteworthy. Downstaters might not want to hear it, but there’s nothing like it in New York City. Tupper Lake’s Wild Center is one of the finer ecology and conservation-minded institutions in the country. The fact that it’s dedicated strictly to the study of the Adirondacks only amplifies its message. In a nutshell, everything is interconnected in this sprawling, 54,000 sq ft exhibit space. Back-of-the-house tours let you see some of the animals and how they’re cared for and fed. Snowshoes are provided so visitors can trek down to the Raquette River and experience wintertime in the wild.
Paul Smith's College
Only a few miles away from Saranac Lake is Paul Smith’s College and the Visitors Interpretive Center (VIC). Unsurprisingly, forestry and wildlife management are popular majors at this mountain college. Surprisingly, so is culinary arts. Put them together and you have a place where visitors can enjoy an afternoon of snow shoeing or cross-country skiing on the VIC’s 55km of well-maintained wilderness trails, followed by a budget three-course farm-to-table meal prepared and served by students at the college’s St Regis Café. Fine dining this deep in the winter woods is a welcome surprise.
Ski the ADKs
For those seeking more thrills than snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, the Adirondacks alpine mountains should make the list. We’ll start with the highest vertical drop in the East – Whiteface Mountain. Known for hosting the alpine portion of the 1980 Winter Olympics, is only seven miles from Lake Placid. The mountain is a mix of challenging, steep vertical plunges and gentle, beginner-friendly terrain. Non-skiers can ride the gondola to the top for panoramic views of endless lakes and mountains, some days stretching all the way to Montreal.
For a more remote feel, swing through the Schroon Lake Region as you head to Gore Mountain. If you’re north of Lake Placid, be sure to try night skiing at Malone’s Titus Mountain. Take a little ride through the Heart of the Adirondacks and you can try out Oak Mountain’s skiing and riding terrain. Or, if you’re looking for a smaller mountain to test out your skills, Saranac Lake’s Mt. Pisgah is just a short drive from Lake Placid and is perfect for all ages.
The small town of Saranac Lake, somewhat confusingly situated on Flower Lake, has been hosting this ten-day festival in early February since 1897. It was once a logging town, hosting a treatment center for tuberculosis patients and serving as a supplier of ice before refrigeration. Hence, residents developed outdoors skills, needed a morale boost for the sick during tough winters and had plenty of ice to do it with. The Winter Carnival ice palace was born. The festival’s centerpiece, a collection of elaborately designed full-scale ice structures, are festooned with lights, making them even more magical come nighttime.