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Saranac Lake -- a great Adirondack escape without the big crowds

Road Trip

Saranac Lake -- a great Adirondack escape without the big crowds

Plenty to do in Lake Placid's blue-collar cousin just 10 miles up the road
Saranac Lake -- a great Adirondack escape without the big crowds
The Heron Marsh Trail at the Paul Smith's College VIC outside Saranac Lake.
Photographer: Paul Smith's College VIC

I lived in Albany for six years, so I know the running joke is that the Capital Region is great because it’s so easy to leave – it’s just a few hours from Boston, New York City and Montreal, and even closer to the Adirondacks.

Now that I’ve lived in Saranac Lake (the “Capital of the Adirondacks,” as our marketing-minded mayor would like me to say) for 12 years, I can say one of the best parts about being here is that it feels so far away.

The Blue Line, the border surrounding this 6-million-acre expanse, seems to dissolve Type-A tendencies. I know more than one office that has a powder rule - when enough snow falls, staffers get dispensation to ski first and go in late. A true small-town story: A couple of years ago, I lost my keys while taking a walk and posted a note on Facebook. Five minutes later, I got a response. Turns out my mailman found the key ring on his rounds, brought them to the post office and posted something on his Facebook page.

Woodstock-Icon.jpgWe’ve been in love with the community-minded, can-do attitude of the people here for a long time. There’s a skate park, carousel, miles upon miles of mountain biking trails and community store that exist, among others, just because volunteers thought they’d be good ideas. And being surrounded by some of the country’s most beautiful scenery makes the 30-below January mornings worth it. But Saranac Lake is also enjoying a revival. There’s more life in the village now than any time since we moved here. There are ambitious new restaurants. You can get a great latté. We have a book store again. The historic Hotel Saranac -– the heart of the village -– has been restored to its past glory (and then some) after a very long wait. We’re still the same, big-box-free community, with an actual, working downtown, as always. Just better.

So, this summer, take advantage of your neighbor-to-the-south status and visit Saranac Lake. It’s just 2.5 hours from Schenectady, an easy shot up the Northway to Exit 30. And while most visitors tend to stop once getting to the Olympic village of Lake Placid, on this trip, you’ll drive clear through, leaving it to the tourists that pack its sidewalks in the summer and heading to its blue-collar cousin 10 miles away.

I want to see some outdoors

When many people think of the Adirondacks, they think of the High Peaks. Originally designated as the 46 mountains higher than 4,000 feet, in reality, four of the 46ers fall short of that mark.

Regardless of elevation, a lot of those peaks are getting crowded. On a busy weekend, Cascade, one of the easiest and most popular High Peaks, can draw more than 500 people a day. Solitude it ain’t.

So pick one of dozens of less-crowded hikes, then. Try one of the Saranac Lake 6ers – Mt. Baker, Ampersand, St. Regis, Scarface, Haystack and McKenzie. Baker (Forest Hill Ave., Saranac Lake), at 1.8 miles round trip, is not only easy enough for a pre-schooler, but also offers one of the best view-to-effort ratios anywhere – depending on which summit ledge you sit upon, you’ll get sweeping views of the High Peaks, the village and the Saranac Lake chain beyond. You’re likely to run into others on top, but it won’t feel like there’s a convention going on.

St. Regis (Keese Mills Rd., Paul Smiths) is more of a workout, covering 6.6 miles round trip. It’s a gentle trek except for the last mile or so, which is a fairly steep climb. The view from the top is expansive, covering 30 lakes and ponds, but the highlight is the restored fire tower. Clamber up the tower’s ladders to the small cabin on top, 35 feet above the summit, and imagine a watchful observer looking for forest fires. The tower, erected in 1918 and in use until 1990, was slated to be torn down under the Adirondacks’ stringent regulations covering structures on public land. But a non-profit group succeeded in a campaign to spare it.

My personal favorite of the six is Ampersand (State Route 3, about 8 miles outside Saranac Lake). At 5.4 miles, it’s shorter than St. Regis, but a bit tougher, and offers a nearly 360-degree view from its rocky summit. And once you’re done, you can cross Route 3, walk through the parking area and make the extra half-mile walk to the shores of Middle Saranac Lake for a quick dip. My kids call the sandy strand “secret beach,” and it does feel like you’ve been let in on something when you emerge from the woods to the curving shore and shallow waters. On a weekend, though, you’re likely to run into more than a few others who know the secret, too.

I said I wanted to go outside, not haul myself up a mountain

You don’t have to have trail mix running through your veins to get a taste for the outdoors. The 25 miles of trails at the Paul Smith’s College VIC (State Route 30, Paul Smiths) are gentle, well manicured and include a huge variety of forest habitats. Depending on the route you take, you can traverse a bog, cross a floating bridge and walk through miles of towering pines – and barely break a sweat. Keep an eye out for otters, heron and other wildlife.

One of the best ways to see the region is by water. Rent a canoe or kayak from one of the region’s gear outfitters, pack a lunch, and head to an island or another deserted shore. From the state boat launch on Route 3, you can access island upon island on Lower Saranac Lake; while many of these sites require camping reservations, there are five free day-use sites. Rather not paddle? Rent a pontoon boat at Ampersand Bay Resort (31 Bayside Drive, Saranac Lake).

At some point, get to Donnelly’s (1564 State Route 86) for ice cream. Warning: It’s addictive. We’ve sat in our cars in snow on opening day to revel in the super-creamy soft-serve. There’s just one flavor a day, typically twisted with vanilla – your only job is to pick the size. I always stick with the kiddie size. This stuff is rich enough that any more seems like overkill.

(Photo courtesy of SaranacLake.com: Downtown Saranac Lake.)

I just want to relax

In January, following a four-year, $35 million renovation, the historic Hotel Saranac re-opened. Paul Smith’s College had used it as a training ground for hospitality and culinary students since the 1960s but sold it in 2006, when it started a precipitous slide. Then, in 2013, a New Hampshire hotel company whose owners have local ties vowed to revive it.

Getting it back was like winning back a missing limb. Downtown businesses that had limped along without the hotel traffic suddenly had fresh wind. Six months after it opened, you can still see people walking through, wide-eyed, examining the HotSara like a jewel.

Many of the details that had faded over time, such as the chandeliers and hand-decorated beams in the second-floor Great Hall, have been fully restored. That room, which you can access by a marble staircase rounded over by thousands of footprints, was originally designed to evoke the Davanzati Palace, a 14th-century Florentine masterpiece. While you’re there, take a peek inside the wood-framed phone booths next to the bar; locals have left hand-written memories of the weddings, proms and other rites of passage they’ve celebrated there over the years. (For more on the area’s history, walk around the block to the Saranac Laboratory Museum (89 Church St., Saranac Lake) Located in the first lab established for the study of tuberculosis, the museum is run by Historic Saranac Lake and offers a compact, well curated tour of the village’s history.)

Then sit at the new bar in that hall and enjoy a cocktail, or just take a seat on the second-floor patio beneath an umbrella or near a fire pit, watching pedestrians walk downtown.

If you’re craving caffeine, head a few doors down to Origin Coffee and have a cup and one of the fresh-baked goods. For dinner, try the Fiddlehead Bistro or Left Bank Café, both of which are right on the Saranac River; for something more casual, stop in to Bitters and Bones, and have a beer and wings.

I want the kids to put down their screens

Start the day at the Adirondack Carousel in Saranac Lake, where your kids (or you, go ahead) can ride a creature found around here, like a bobcat, eagle or black fly. Of course. Local artisans carved and painted each of the mounts. See if you can find the ladybug hidden on each.

For years, whenever we had summer guests and it rained, we’d go to The Wild Center in Tupper Lake (45 Museum Drive, Tupper Lake). The “Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks” had otters, fish, and other critters to watch, as well as several well-crafted exhibits explaining the geologic and biological history of the region and other hands-on activities. Our kids loved it, and so did adults.

Then, a few years back, The Wild Center opened a treetop walkway called Wild Walk and became one of our sunny-summer-day go-to destinations, also. This 30-foot-tall boardwalk through the trees includes a spider web-like trampoline suspended over the ground, a humansized eagle’s nest that gazes out over the High Peaks, and a pair of bouncy suspension bridges leading to a hollowed-out model of a tree that you can climb inside and see how even dead wood is teeming with life. This year, The Wild Center is working with representatives from the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota, the Akwesasne Cultural Center and other Native groups on an exhibit called “Ways of Knowing.” It’s actually several exhibits illustrating different perspective on understanding the Adirondacks, and it’s a valuable reminder that the region’s history didn’t start when colonial settlers arrived – people have lived here for thousands of years.

If you’re in Tupper on a Friday night (the only time it’s open) and the skies are clear, head over to the Adirondack Public Observatory (178 Big Wolf Road, Tupper Lake) for a chance to take in the wild spaces above the Adirondacks. It’s hard to convey just how dark the skies over the Adirondacks get, compared to the light-smudged skies you find most other places. Carl Sagan may never have uttered the phrase “billions and billions of stars,” but it’s amazing how much more you see in the Adirondacks. The Observatory, which features a roll-off roof, features several different telescopes and has volunteers on hand who can explain what you’re seeing.

And even if you have the kids with you, stop into Raquette River Brewing (11 Balsam St., Tupper Lake) for a top-notch local craft brew and something to eat from one of the two food trucks parked in front. (Thursday nights are beer and burger or pizza for $10.) Open four years, the brewery has been growing non-stop; what started with just a small tasting bar and a small-scale kit has grown and grown. On a hot day, try the mango wheat. I know, you don’t like fruity beers and neither do I, but I’m telling you, it’s good stuff.

The other day I sat at the fire pit with an Irish guy living in Toronto and visiting for the weekend; like most conversations with visitors, the discussion eventually turned to, “How can you make aliving here?” It’s true: Living in the Adirondacks full time can be tough and takes some agility.

Lots of people juggle multiple jobs. I’m a partner in a small business and sing for my supper every day. It’s all worth it.

That was fun. See you next summer?

Great! But, you know, you really should consider coming back for the Winter Carnival parade. It’s the second Saturday in February. The first time you come, you’ll probably wonder who in their right mind would line the streets on a 0-degree day to watch the bands, and floats, and the Lawn Chair Ladies with their synchronized lawn chairs.

Then you’ll stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a few thousand people and get hooked. It’s the best day of the year.

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