"We like camping better!" --Raymond Alexander Kukkee

view of the north shore Critter Pond, KOA Canandaigua NY [c] 2009 jcb

Consider trying our whirlwind tour of New York's Adirondack Park

by Jim Bessey editor

We took a weekend Adirondack cruise through Old Forge, Inlet, Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, and Lake Placid -- a very nice route for upcoming Leaf Peeping!
Adirondack Scenic Train arrives at Thendara Station, near Old Forge
We spent a gorgeous, if chilly, fall weekend on a whirlwind tour of New York State's Adirondack Park. Up in those mountains the leaves have already begun to change, and will likely peak during the next two weeks. You might enjoy retracing our route. The views along the way are spectacular as you pass a seemingly endless series of lakes and peaks.

We had Old Forge in mind as a way-point before we began our tour. The quick route there, still scenic, is to head northeast from Utica (Thruway Exit 31) via state routes 8 and 28. 28 enters the southwest corner of the Park in Lewis County and quickly passes into Herkimer County. It's a good road, well-traveled.

We found Thendara first, just west of Old Forge, and stopped there to check into the scenic train tours offered (we'll be going back!). Behind the station/train museum lies a beautiful white plantation-style mansion offering food and lodging. We grabbed brochures and pushed on to Old Forge, a short distance up the road.

No question Old Forge, which marks the western start of the Fulton Chain of Lakes,  is a destination. This once-quaint town, now home to Enchanted Forest and Water Safari, bustled with activities when we arrived around lunchtime. We'd just missed a tour boat departure, and were too early for a big parade. The local restaurants were mobbed, so we kept going.

we found original 1950's decor ... and two very tasty fresh-haddock sandwiches

We followed Route 28 along the northern shores of the first three Chain lakes, thru Eagle Bay (pretty quiet) and descended into Inlet, on the eastern edge of Fourth Lake. This was Fall Festival weekend, so Inlet was hopping, too. We parked in a very crowded village lot and found one restaurant that was about to close and another that wasn't open yet. One of the locals pointed us uphill a mile or two, to Drake's Inn.

Onward or Backward?

At Drake's we found original 1950's decor, college football on two TVs, a nice waitress, and two very tasty fresh-haddock sandwiches. Bellies full, we had to decide between returning to Old Forge or pressing deeper into the Adirondack Park. It was still early on a lovely day, so we pointed the truck toward Blue Mountain Lake. Along the way, still on 28, we passed the 6th through 8th lakes in the Chain. I pointed out the state campground where I had stayed twice, more than 25 years ago.

Route 28 wanders past Raquette Lake, then skirts along the southern shore of Blue Mountain Lake. Both are very pretty, offer some rustic accommodations, plus plenty of boating and camping opportunities. We stopped briefly to read about the State-owned islands there, then continued on in search of something a bit more touristy, like a motel-on-the-lake or something.

We passed by two good motels:

We followed 28N (north) through Long Lake and onward to Route 30. Long Lake actually seemed quite nice, but we hadn't heard of it before and weren't prepared to stop at that point. We saw at least two good lake-motels that probably would've been fine, had it been later in the day. I had, however, heard of Tupper Lake (skiing? yes); so we set that as our next way-point.

Alas, Tupper Lake proved a bit disappointing. We didn't see much of the lake there, the town wasn't aging well, and it was way too early in the year for skiing. Up the road a fair pace (about 20 miles) was Saranac Lake, which we suspected might offer more in the way of weekend-tourist attractions. With the day quickly shortening, we hopped onto Route 3 for the journey to Saranac Lake.

The drive there feels longer than it looks on the map, with plenty of ups and downs among the twists and turns. The distant peaks were sharper, the trees taller, and more lakes or ponds appeared along the way. The lake itself is well-hidden in the valleys west of Route 3. It's a good-size lake with dozens of islands and bays; but the "little city" of Saranac Lake would be described more correctly as sitting atop Lake Flower. 

Should we stay in Lake Placid?

Although we were less than 10 miles from Lake Placid (certainly a much larger tourist attraction), we saw enough potential in Saranac that we decided to stay. Business was brisk at the many motels along Lake Flower Avenue (Route 86), but we found a nice room close to town at the Lake Flower Motel. There we booked a clean and comfy room for about $100. The decor there dated from the early 50s (pink and black tile, cast-iron tub) and was perfectly maintained.

We left the truck there, and took a long walking tour of Saranac Lake. It's a college town (North Country Community College) that dates back to before the turn of the century. Historic downtown buildings mix with newer construction and quite a few small pubs. It was nearly six pm, and many of the stores we passed were closed. We found another scenic railway station/museum (pretty impressive building), located on Depot Street. The timing was all wrong, or we might have considered a railway sojourn.

Back at the motel, we sat for a bit on the grassy beach and relaxed in the atmosphere of small boats and big lakeside houses. Saranac doesn't seem to offer any lake tours, or we might have booked a cruise. Well-rested after our downtown hike, we decided to zoom down to Lake Placid, just to have a look.

Now, make no mistake, Lake Placid is one boomin' tourist town. As a former Winter Olympics host (1932 and 1980), the town is filled with wonderful sights, expensive hotel rooms, and alluring steakhouses. Not to mention people and cars, everywhere. We oohed and ahhed, but the sun was setting and we were reluctant to make the winding drive on Route 86 back to Saranac Lake in the dark.

We hunt for dinner:

The pickin's were slim for dinner in Saranac Lake. We passed a very popular BBQ joint along Lake Flower (not what we had in mind), and passed-up a couple of other establishments closer to town. Judging by the number of cars in the lot, we decided to have dinner at The Nona Fina Pasta Grill just across the road from our motel. I'm no gourmet, but I'd give this old-world Italian restaurant five stars for both food and service (Google shows 4 ½, actually!). Prices were quite reasonable, too.

We were warm and cozy in our vintage motel room that night, while the clear mountain night air dropped down to about 30 degrees (much colder than we've had here in Fairport). Morning on Lake Flower dawned crisp and foggy, with wisps of vapor rising off the mirror-finish water. I sat on the dock with a hot cup of coffee to warm me, and found a friend in one lone duck that raced over to keep me company. She was probably hoping for food, which I didn't have yet, but she stayed next to me by the dock for at least 15 minutes, close enough to touch.

...and then, breakfast:

We didn't notice any good spots for breakfast in Saranac Lake (though I'm sure there must have been some, somewhere), so we backtracked to Tupper Lake hoping for a diner there. At first, we found nothing. Giving in to hunger, we dared to ask for recommendations from a nice lady at the gas station there. Once again, we hit the jackpot. Turns out we'd driven past the Swiss Kitchen right there on Main Street more than once. There we discovered the 1960s unchanged, with delicious food and excellent service at decidedly non-tourist prices. Ask for Amanda, or is it Amber? (inside joke)

       We chose a different route home, using Route 3 west. It's the main east/west passage up there, with smooth pavement and wide shoulders. We passed a few more lakes and peaks, and quickly enough left The Park west of Cranberry and Star Lakes. If you long for a restroom or gasoline up there, be sure to stop at any place you see on Route 3; there isn't much until you get closer to Watertown.

In the end, I'd prefer to have booked an extra day for hiking or a train ride or lake cruise. For those who love camping, fishing, or boating the possibilities are nearly endless. Realistically, we had only a glimpse of what the Adirondack Park offers. That's how whirl wind tours go, of course. If you plan a "leaf peeping" trip during the next few weeks, be sure to check ahead for accommodations. The No Vacancy signs will be lit up everywhere.
For information on Saranac Lake, ranked #1 Best Small Town in NY State, call their Chamber of Commerce weekdays at (800) 347-1992. Several excellent print publications covering the entire region are also available to supplement whatever you might find on the Internet.
Read all about our return trip via the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. I highly recommend the ride!
(PS: We didn't take the camper because, with gas at nearly $4 per gallon, the motel was cheaper!)

If you do go, and find any good lakeside motels or more good restaurants, please stop back and let me know.