The Adirondacks: Extravagant Isolation, Forever Wild

The largest park in the continental U.S.—larger than Yosemite or the entire state of Massachusetts—the 6-million-acre Adirondack State Park is legally protected to remain “forever wild,” a debt owed to the tireless efforts of 19th-century lawyer-turned-surveyor Verplanck Colvin.

The park isn’t completely wild, but rather a patchwork of public and private lands covering 12,000 square miles in northeastern New York state. The mountains it’s named after are among the world’s oldest peaks, made of billion-year-old Precambrian rocks. An 1830s geologist, Ebenezer Emmons, gave them the moniker after a tribe of Indians who hunted here. (A more common legend has it the Mohawk scornfully dubbed the Montagnais, an Algonquian tribe that lived nearby, adiron-dack, or “bark-eaters.”)

A whiff of aristocratic cachet remains from when 19th-century masters of the universe with names like Whitney, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller chose this roadless wilderness to build their “Great Camps,” with armies of servants in tow. Surrounded by primeval forests, mountains, and more than 2,500 lakes and ponds, the lakefront compounds blended luxury and rustic charm, using minimally worked logs, twisted branches, and decorative twigwork in what has become known as the Adirondack style.

Less than two dozen of these great camps have survived. And precious few operate as hotels, the most magnificent being The Point, a nine-building compound built in 1932 by William Avery Rockefeller on 8-mile-long Upper Saranac Lake. With its lavish guest rooms, the atmosphere of a house party prevails, with candlelit meals and an exceptional wine list. Forced into extravagant isolation happy campers spend idyllic days canoeing, fishing, or exploring the hiking trails that extend into the parkland.

A bit more budget-friendly, Lake Placid Lodge on the western shore of the lake is operated by the owners of the Point. Destroyed by fire in 2005, the 1882 camp is being reconstructed to resemble the original as closely as possible. The I920s-era lakeside cabins are perfect for two, with stone fireplaces and antler furniture alongside modern comforts like feather beds and huge soaking tubs.

The village of Lake Placid, site of the 1932 and 1.980 Winter Olympics, maintains its role as “Winter Sports Capital of the World” and includes an Olympic Museum. International athletes still train at its world-class skating rinks, ski jumps, and the world’s fastest bobsled run. Whiteface Mountain, scene of the downhill competitions, has the steepest vertical drop in the East as well as a trail system popular with families and beginners.

Mirror Lake Inn, a 128-room white clapboard, green-shuttered resort with one of the best locations in the country, is tucked away on 7 acres overlooking Mirror Lake. The mahogany and marble inn is more clubby than rustic, with private lakefront beaches to complement the region’s compelling winter sports (including dogsled rides). Famous for its signature Adirondack flapjacks, the inn offers the sanctuary of a plush spa.

Lake Placid and Saranac Lake are reached by way of High Peaks Scenic Byway (Route 73), a 48-mile stretch that winds through the Adirondack Park’s tallest mountains, including Big Slide, in the north. The Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake holds more than 2,500 works of art, including Adirondack scenes by major American artists Thomas Cole and Winslow Homer, and dioramas that bring to life a vanished world of logging camps, Victorian hotels, and hermit cabins.