Southern Hamilton County has a little bit of everything for those looking for a quick day trip or an extended stay on its many lakes.
Like many areas with plenty of outdoor recreational opportunities, the region actually benefited from last year’s pandemic because outdoor recreation was pretty much all that was available.
That resulted in an increase of visitors, according to Hamilton County Tourism Director Rachelle Martz, despite the cancellation of many annual events in communities that drew local and out-of-town visitors alike. The region already had to bounce back from a devastating flood in 2019 that severely damaged several areas.
But Martz said returning to normal seems to be the theme in many communities. Speculator plans to bring back its popular July 4 parade, and Wells is in the planning stages of once again hosting its Wells Old Home Days.
“Most communities plan to put on events they didn’t last year, but overall we weren’t affected too much by the pandemic,” Martz said. “We already have lots of outdoor activities and we’re all looking to get back to normal.”
Each lake area in southern Hamilton County is unique in its own way, and there is a wide variety of ways to enjoy them.
Located in Benson, Woods Lake is a little off the so-called beaten path as its primary access is at the end of a 0.3-mile hike, which just about anyone can handle. The trailhead and parking area is located on Benson Road.
The 132-mile Northville-Lake Placid Trail runs past Woods Lake, which serves as a rest stop for those heading into the final stretch of the trail leading to Northville or a break in the action for hiking the trail north.
Primitive camping is available, but only in six designated spots on the southern end of the lake. There are trails that lead around both sides of Woods Lake with tempting spots to set up a tent, but there are markers prohibiting camping. A word to the wise: State Department of Environmental Conservation officers do routine checks in the area, and they will crack down on illegal campsites.
The lake is also attractive to people who want a more quiet getaway than they’ll find in other areas of southern Hamilton County. No motorized watercraft are allowed on Woods Lake, making it a perfect spot for canoes and kayaks.
At the northern end of the body of water is the Lapland Lake Nordic Vacation Center. While it’s more popular in the winter due to its extensive network of cross-country ski trails, Lapland does have a beach, day-use area and kayak/canoe rentals. Summer boat rentals and other beach services at Lapland are available only to overnight guests.
Woods Lake is small, with only 2.1 miles of shoreline, but it’s teeming with all kinds of fish to attract anglers such as panfish, bass and pickerel.
Like its larger neighbor to the south, the Great Sacandaga Lake, Lake Algonquin was formed in Wells during the 1920s when the Sacandaga River was dammed in order to promote tourism in the area. The body of water is still owned and maintained by the town.
What makes the lake is a hydroelectric plant and dam visible from Route 30. The flow below the dam, where Lake Algonguin turns back into the river, is a popular trout fishing spot.
This 256-acre lake is at the heart of the hamlet of Wells and serves as the halfway point between the Great Sacandaga Lake and the Lake Pleasant/Speculator area.
Most of the lake’s 6.1 miles of shoreline is lined with year-round and seasonal homes and camps, but there are some home, cottage and cabin rentals. Most can be found with a simple Google search, and many are available through Airbnb.
The small size of the lake means there’s no room for camping, but there is a state campsite just south of Wells on Route 30.
Lake Algonquin has a full boat launch on the west side of the lake off Algonquin Drive. On the north end along Route 30, the town operates a public beach with space for canoes and kayaks. The area also has a spot with picnic tables.
Algonquin is ideal for those looking for a quiet place to settle in but one still close to areas with more activity, such as Speculator to the north and Northville to the south.
It’s also close to popular hiking spots such as Auger Falls, an easy 1.3-mile loop trail that features large waterfalls on the Sacandaga River. There’s enough clearance to get a good view of the falls, but the fast-moving water drops into a narrow and steep gorge, preventing anyone from getting to its base.
At its deepest, Lake Algonquin only drops 19 feet down, but the bass are very active, and there are some spots where anglers can get into some bullhead.
Wells has a few convenience/deli-type stores, a library, a couple of ice cream shops and a gift store. The community center is the central hub of the hamlet, playing host to the outdoor concerts and chicken dinners that happen frequently during the summer months.
The grounds are also home to the Wells Old Home Days, a weekend-long festival featuring a parade, games, vendors, lots of food and more. The event was called off last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but community leaders are in the planning stages of bringing it back this summer.
The Lake Pleasant-Speculator community is active from Memorial Day to Labor Day, although it rightly boasts itself as being a four-season vacation spot.
Speculator is the only incorporated village in Hamilton County and a part of the town of Lake Pleasant, which serves as the county seat.
The lake itself is ringed with a mix of year-round and seasonal homes, camps and some rentals.
The southern end of Lake Pleasant is dominated by Camp of the Woods, a full resort area filled with folks who move in for the summer, young people who attend camps and short-term rentals. There is also a day-use area. Camp of the Woods also hosts a series of internationally known speakers who not only draw those staying on the grounds, but also Christians from across the region.
Free public access to the lake is limited, although the Lake Pleasant Marina offers launch services. The town does own a boat launch off Route 8. There is also a launch at the town park, but it’s primarily intended for canoes, kayaks and smaller, car-top motorized boats. It’s literally too small for anything bigger, so there’s no use trying.
There is also a public beach across from the town park off Route 30.
Speculator’s location puts it where the Kunjamunk River, a branch of the Sacandaga River, lets out into Lake Pleasant. There’s a launch site for canoes and kayaks just south off Speculator on Route 30.
The village took advantage of a natural system of marshes and wetlands formed by the Kunjamunk and built a series of wooden walkways that provide views of all kinds of plants and wildlife. The pathways are lined with signs describing the natural sights along the way.
Speculator is filled with the kinds of businesses you’d expect to find in a quaint Adirondack town: ice cream stands and restaurants, gift shops, a local department store. A feature of the village is the Charlie John’s grocery store, which recently completed a major expansion that was the talk of the town for months.
Anglers can get after just about anything they want in Lake Pleasant. The state keeps it well stocked with nearly every species of trout you can find in the Adirondacks. Plenty of bass, walleye and pickerel are also around.
Near the town launch off Route 8, there’s an outlet waterway that leads to Sacandaga Lake. While public access to that is more limited, it winds up being a popular destination in its own right.
Yes, there are two Sacandaga lakes, but there is a significant difference between the two. The Great Sacandaga Lake to the south, while larger, is not a lake at all, but a reservoir. The Sacandaga Lake west of Speculator serves as the source of the Sacandaga River, which flows into the reservoir that shares the same name.
At more than 1,600 acres, the lake is bigger than its neighbor, Lake Pleasant. Enjoying it is simple: Everything is at the Moffitt Beach State Campground.
The site’s entrance is on Paige Road off Route 8.
The campground has 261 sites nestled among pines that are as high as 70 to 80 feet tall. Some of the sites are on the edge of the water. Local officials anticipate another busy season, so it’s best to reserve one as early as possible.
There is also a full boat launch, a beach with a lifeguarded swimming area, picnic tables and pavilions.
One feature of the campground is the Interactive Activity and Junior Naturalist programs for children ages 5 to 13, which are designed to teach youngsters about various ins and outs of camping and enjoying the nature around them.
While the lake is busy with all kinds of water sports, it’s also popular for fishing. Anglers will find walleye, rainbow trout, brown trout, smallmouth bass, brown bullhead, perch, rock bass and white fish. Sacandaga Lake has an average depth of 28 feet, although it drops to 62 feet at its deepest point.
The lake area offers plenty of access to hiking, as it’s bordered by the 47,000-plus acre Jessup River Wild Forest, which features miles of trails.
The vast majority of the Piseco/Arietta community is stretched around the more than 2,800 acres that make up Piseco Lake. Nearly the rest of the town — 95 percent of it — is covered in state forestland.
The lake has long been a favorite of ice fishermen and snowmobilers, but it’s proven more than popular as a summer destination spot.
The bulk of the public access is on the west side of the lake at the state Little Sand Point Campground and Day Use Area. The campground has 78 sites, a full boat launch and picnic areas. The nearby Poplar Point Campground has 76 sites. These are all reserve-ahead sites, and getting them as early as possible is a good idea.
There are rentals for those who aren’t into roughing it and the Irondequoit Inn is a popular destination spot for visitors to the area.
The Northville-Placid Trail runs alongside the lake and lets out in front of the post office. The facility happens to be across from a general store that saves people from making the 10-mile trek to Speculator.
There’s plenty of other hiking nearby. Panther Mountain is a short but very steep hike that lets out at Echo Cliffs, which offers a wide-open view of the Piseco Lake region. The trailhead is near Little Sand Point.
The T Lake Trail begins at Poplar Point and is a five-mile trail to the lake, which is at an elevation of 2,460 feet.
A feature of the Piseco Lake area is the Piseco Airport, which has a mile-long runway, airport fueling station and a helipad. It hosts fly-in breakfasts that in the past have brought in more than 700 people. The lake association also puts on fireworks every year.
A main draw of Piseco Lake is the fishing. While the big traffic happens in the winter, there’s enough action in the lake to draw fishermen from all over. Featured species in Piseco are lake and rainbow trout. There’s also landlocked salmon, walleye and plenty of bass.
Where to find it: Off Benson Road in the town of Benson, Hamilton County’s southernmost town. The lake is located at the end of a 0.3-mile easy hike, with the trailhead and parking area clearly marked.
Size: 71 acres, with 2.1 miles of shoreline. The average depth is 12 feet, but the deepest part of the lake is 41 feet.
Where to launch: Open shorelines make it easy to launch kayaks and canoes. No motorized boats are allowed.
Where to camp: There are four marked, primitive campsites on the south end of the lake and another two further up the east side of the lake, along the Northville-Lake Placid Trail. Sites are first-come, first served.
What it’s known for: A popular rest stop for hikers making the Northville to Lake Placid trek, kayakers and canoeists also take advantage of an easy paddle and great fishing, with all kinds of panfish, bass and pickerel.
What’s nearby: The Lapland Lake Nordic Vacation Center, which has a beachfront day-use area and launch.
Where to find it: Along Route 30 in the hamlet of Wells
Named for: The Algonquin Native American people
Size: 259 acres, with 6.1 miles of shoreline and a maximum depth of 19 feet
Where to launch: A public launch is located on Algonquin Drive. A car-top boat launch is at the public beach off Route 30.
Where to swim: The Wells Public Beach off Route 30. Summer hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. It offers off-street parking and a day-use area. The beach is staffed by Red Cross-certified lifeguards, and it even has a diving board.
What it’s known for: The dam along the Sacandaga River that created the lake, which also serves as a hydroelectric plant. It’s a popular spot for trout fishermen.
Where to find it: Along Route 30 in the village of Speculator and Route 8 in the hamlet and town of Lake Pleasant, which also serves as the Hamilton County seat
Size: 1,475 acres, four miles long and one mile wide. It has 9.6 miles of shoreline and an average depth of 29 feet. Its deepest point is 62 feet.
Where to launch: The town boat launch is located off Route 8 just outside the village of Speculator. There is also a small, unpaved launch (as in, don’t try to squeeze pontoons in there) in the Speculator public recreation area off Route 30. Lake Pleasant Marine also has a launch.
Where to swim: The public beach on the north end in Speculator.
What it’s known for: This is a popular, all-season lake with several public points of access at one end while being ringed with private homes on the other. Anglers find nearly every species of trout here, although bass, walleye and pickerel are around.
What’s nearby: Routes 30 and 8 are the main drags in the village of Speculator, which has a variety of eating and drinking establishments along with some commercial activity. It’s rare for the village to not be hopping in the summer evening hours.
What it’s named for: This isn’t that Great Sacandaga Lake, but this one was here first. The other one is a reservoir. It’s the source of the Sacandaga River. “Sacandaga this” and “Sacandaga that.” What in the blazes does that mean? It’s name comes from the Native American word Sa-chen-da’-ga, meaning “overflowed lands.” There. That’s a thing you know now.
Where to find it: Off Route 8, just west of the village of Speculator
Size: 1,608 acres with 13.2 miles of shoreline. The average depth is 28 feet, with a maximum depth of 60 feet.
Where to do, well, everything: Moffitt Beach State Campground, located on Paige Road off Route 8 headed west from Speculator. It’s got camping, swimming, a boat launch and a day-use area. The launch has parking for 30 trucks and trailers.
Word to the wise: This place is arguably more popular than Lake Pleasant because it has a wider variety of public access in one place. In other words, make reservations early, get there early, early, early, early.
What it’s named for: In the early 1800s, a surveyor named Joshua Brown named it for a Native American named Pezeeko, who lived on the lake.
Where to find it: Old Piseco Road, which is accessed off Route 8
Size: 2,849 acres, with an average depth of 58 feet. Its deepest point is 125 feet. There are also two islands on the lake.
Where to get at it: Just about all public access is at the Little Sand Point Campground and Day Use Area at 975 Old Piseco Road. There’s camping, a beach/picnic area and a boat launch. Big Bay is accessible from a parking area on Route 10.
What’s nearby: Piseco actually has an airport, and you drive by the one-mile airstrip on your way to Little Sand Point. There’s also two popular hiking spots nearby: Panther Mountain Echo Cliffs, a 0.75-mile uphill hike to 700-foot cliffs accessed near Little Sand Point; and the T Lake Trail, which begins at Poplar Point and his a five-mile trek to T Lake at an elevation of 2,460 feet.
What it’s known for: The lake is renowned for its fishing, with rainbow, brown and lake trout, walleye, smallmouth bass, perch, bullhead and whitefish.
Clarification 5/31/21: Clarified to note that Lapland’s boat rentals and beach services are only offered to overnight guests