Many years ago, while on a post-college cross-country sojourn and staying with my traveling companion’s extended family in Oklahoma, I was asked what it’s like “back East.”
“Aren’t there a lot of lakes there?”
I’d never stopped to think about it. But there in the middle of the nearly riverless Great Prairie, I realized the answer was yes.
One of the great benefits of living in the Northeast is the ready access to the kinds of freshwater bodies that inspire mystics and poets, rustic campers who slip crackers to chipmunks, sellers of everything from popcorn to T-shirts, kayakers and outboard motor enthusiasts, and people who just want to laze for a few days.
Some of the lakes within an hour or two’s drive are world-famous; all, on any given day, can provide visitors with world-class experiences.
So as Capital Region residents consider steps toward post-pandemic normalcy such as vacations — or at least day trips — The Gazette today offers a guide to dozens of lakes across New York and into Vermont. Informative boxes on most lakes are included.
These are where people can have fun exploring the water, take a cool dip on a humid day or camp out. At any lake in the state’s Adirondack Forest Preserve, there are going to be hiking trails to explore, ones that might lead to a secluded cove or a spectacular mountaintop view.
But with so many lakes to choose from, where should the reader dive in? (No puns, I told myself. Nothing splashy. Oh well.)
The section delves into the world-famous in our own backyards. Among them:
- Lake George: Where else can you dine on gourmet street pizza, catch a passing motorcycle tour and hike to colorful views across the Southern Basin, all within an hour’s time? It’s one of the handful of lakes where you can take an excursion cruise.
- Lake Placid: The High Peaks views are spectacular, and Olympic history is never far away.
- The Finger Lakes: No, you don’t go there for the waters, it’s true. It’s where the slopes are lined with grapevines and the views only get better with each sampling of wine.
We also profile Lake Ontario, less than three hours’ drive. It offers an ocean-like Great Lakes experience for those who wish to set forth on the watery part of the world. There are fine restaurants and rooming places in human-scale waterfront towns such as Sackets Harbor. (For history, a War of 1812 battle was fought at Sackets Harbor; an unheralded young Army officer named Ulysses S. Grant served at the barracks circa 1849.)
Also on Lake Ontario, I’ve eaten a decent meal and absorbed quirky American history in uncelebrated Oswego, once a canal and railroad hub and now best-known as a college town. (During World War II, it was site of the only refugee camp in the United States for Eastern Europeans, most of them Jews who might have perished in the Holocaust; the few refugees the U.S. accepted were brought there.)
Obviously, we’re not going to be able to write about all the celebrated lakes within a short drive, but dozens are profiled here to whet your appetite.
Rest assured that as the pandemic recedes, you’ll be welcomed at any lake you visit. Restaurants and motels suffered during a 2020 in which thousands of the usual water-drawn tourists hunkered down at home. Interestingly, though, boat sales boomed — it’s kind of like your own floating castle, right?
The New York Tourism Industry Association is urging New Yorkers to vacation in-state this summer, saying visitor spending will help the devastated tourism industry recover some of the tens of thousands of jobs that were lost last year.
A lot of those job losses were in the Adirondacks. The Adirondacks are almost easier to image without mountains than without water. Indian Lake, Blue Mountain Lake and Raquette Lake are all in this section, and readers will learn that Sacandaga Lake and Great Sacandaga Lake are two entirely different places, and why.
Great Sacandaga Lake, a saxophone-shaped giant straddling Fulton and Saratoga counties, has the size of Lake George with only a fraction of the tourist and boat traffic. At Speculator, Lake Pleasant pretty much describes itself.
Another magnetic draw for boaters and campers is Indian Lake in the heart of Hamilton County. People of a certain age may have The Cowsills song from 1968 stuck in their heads. But with a little effort, you can still find a secluded beach. (Personal favorite: Climb Watch Hill off Route 30, then scramble down the lake side. I’ve always had the shoreline to myself; the climb back up, though, will test you, though it’s short.)
To the west, there’s Otsego Lake, with the Glimmerglass Opera and Cooperstown. (It’s not all baseball there. It’s a pretty cool place, in my opinion.)
Closer to the Capital Region, Saratoga Lake has a state boat launch, public swimming at Brown’s Beach in Stillwater and a half-dozen places to enjoy a brew with a view. Staying in Saratoga County, Round Lake has a state boat launch on Route 9, and its wilder eastern end offers a canoe and kayak launch.
Grafton Lakes State Park outside Troy and Thompson’s Lake near Thatcher Park in New Scotland are probably closer than you think.
Remember, any lake you care to visit will offer fishing. Summer bonus: No need to cut through ice and shiver in a shanty to get to the perch and bass.
While we certainly want readers to visit New York lakes and patronize local businesses, we don’t respect state lines any more than the weather does, and can strongly recommend Vermont as a place for lakes, hiking and fishing.
Burlington offers Lake Champlain access, views across the lake to the Adirondacks and arguably the best small-city combination of shopping, eating and intellectual life in the Northeast.
Whether you seek out local lakes for motorized speed, quiet reflection in hidden cover, to cast a line or climb to a view, we trust readers will find reasons here for a day trip, mini-vacation or even a splurge.
And if you go to Lake Champlain and see Champ, send us a picture!