Lake Placid is one of the original classic American winter getaway towns, full of snowy sporting traditions and world-class events. When the air turns crisp, locals dress up Main Street in impeccable small-town style with winter decorations and twinkling lights and cozy interiors beckoning with the warm glow of crackling fires, while epic snowy adventures await in the mountains beyond.
Of course it’s home to the winter Olympics, which were held here not once but twice, in 1932 and 1980. While unabashedly proud of its heritage, it’s a contemporary destination, too, offering craft breweries, cozy coffee shops, farm-to-table restaurants and fine dining. And you can’t beat the wintry vibes throughout the village and beyond, where you’ll find every manner of icy and snowy activities.
Cozy lakeside nooks
Lake Placid’s Main Street runs along the western shore of Mirror Lake (the town’s namesake lake is just to the north), which freezes solid in the winter. The scene on a typical day looks conjured from a Norman Rockwell painting. Little kids stumble on skates, lacing up for the first time.
Here, tobogganers ride a 30-foot high slide down to the lake, while cross country skiers hover over the ice. Pick-up hockey games are played. Teams of dogs pull sleds. Even if you didn’t experience anything like this as a child, you might be overcome with nostalgia for a certain small-town America winter ideal, and you can grab a bench to bask in the feeling all afternoon.
For a more contemplative experience, Heart Lake, eight miles due south of Lake Placid is the place. It’s next to the rustic log cabin Adirondack Loj, a historic lodge where hikers can overnight in bunks and is surrounded by a network of trails, many of which are easily traversed with snowshoes or cross-country skis in the winter. The solitude and quiet, broken only by sounds of branches and twigs snapping under the weight of scurrying animals, can be mesmerizing.
For a guided wilderness experience, there’s High Falls Gorge, just northeast of Lake Placid. The canyon runs along Route 86, and footpaths make it an easy hike to a series of dramatic waterfalls. Or you can take a snowshoe trail off into the woods, then gather around a fire pit for warmth and heat up s’mores for a snack. The attraction’s main lodge, classic Adirondack decorations to its soda-fountain-style cafe, has a charming vibe.
The Olympic Center, a short walk from Main Street, is far removed from the billion-dollar architectural showpieces built by Olympic host cities in more recent years. Its understated design might bring to mind a big-city high school gym, but that human scale actually makes the excitement of bygone competitions echoing through these walls that much more accessible. You’ll likely see aspiring pros, from tot to teen-aged size, gather for inspiration before hitting the ice themselves. The lower level houses a museum exhibiting artifacts, photographs and winter sports equipment from the two Lake Placid Olympics, as well as more whimsical displays, like that of opening ceremony uniforms and odd line-up of official Olympic mascots over the years. Visitors can relive the glory and watch the tear-inducing video of the US hockey team’s 1980 David-and-Goliath victory over the USSR (better known as ‘The Miracle on Ice’) runs on a loop on a TV near the rink.
For another rare perspective on another obscure Olympic sport, head to the Olympic Jumping Complex two miles south of town. An elevator whisks you to the top of the 20 story-tall structure with its nearly vertical ramp descending like a monstrous tongue. Peak over the edge for a vertiginous thrill and contemplate the bravery, nay insanity, of what drives someone to this sport and not, say . . . golf. You can hop up onto the medal stand for photos – maybe a series, so everyone gets a chance for their imaginary gold.
Only nine miles southeast of town is Mount Van Hoevenberg, known as ‘Van Ho’ to locals and US Olympians in training. The massive tube on the site, resembling a giant water park slide or Hadron collider (if you’re a physicist), is a bobsled and luge track. Highly trained athletes can be glimpsed hurling themselves down its icy curves, at top speeds of 80 to 90mph. Blink and you missed them. Even the half-second roar as they near and pass is a rush. Brave souls can go for rides here with an experienced driver and brakeman, though be warned – it’s not like sledding down your local hill on a Radio Flyer sled.
Van Ho is also a Nordic training center and has 50km of cross-country trails for those interested in more aerobic exercise. These are the same trails that host World Cup biathlon and Nordic combined competitions. As of last winter, it also is the only ski center in the country to have a TechnoAlpin Snowfactory, essentially a machine that makes snow inside a shipping container and then blows it out through a chute to coat the ground when Mother Nature needs a hand.