Lake Placid, NY – What makes a perfect family ski vacation? Is it a mountain large and diverse enough to satisfy all abilities, preferences and choices? Or, is it a quaint village with historical values, a feeling of remote tranquility, invariably warm and hospitable locals, and a festive atmosphere? Perhaps it’s an ample choice of non-ski diversions, to satisfy both the non-sliders in the group and even the skiers and riders in the clan on an “off-day”?
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s all of the above. Maybe it’s Lake Placid, New York.
Nestled amongst the High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains of northeastern New York, Lake Placid was home to both the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympic Games, and today carries with it all of the historical significance and winter sports heritage associated with such a lofty designation. Synonymous with the town, the Alpine ski and snowboard venue of Whiteface Mountain is a mere 10 miles northeast of the village along State Route 86.
All of this lies within the boundaries of the Adirondack Park, the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States. Created by the State of New York in 1892 in response to concern for the preservation of the region’s natural beauty, in the face of threats to its timber and water resources, the Adirondack Park’s six million acres are a unique patchwork of public and private land, each representing roughly 50% of the total acreage. Approximately three million of its acres are therefore designated “forever wild,” fostering a unique sense of rural isolation within the otherwise populated northeastern United States.
No fewer than 46 Adirondack peaks tower above 4,000 feet of elevation, and topping out at a lofty 4,867 feet, Whiteface’s summit ranks number five amongst them. Even though the ski resort’s lifts stop nearly five hundred feet shy of the true summit, the mountain’s vertical drop of 3,430 thigh-burning feet is ranked as the tallest in eastern North America. That’s continuous, top-to-bottom vertical, too. No matter how you slice it, Whiteface is a big’un.
Take a mountain of that size, and by nature you’ll find something for everyone. Runs dropping from the summit like Cloudspin and Skyward, portions of the Olympic downhill runs, deliver steep carving thrills. Bumps on Empire and Lower Wilderness will get your quads screaming. Barkeaters will take pleasure in the perfectly spaced trees of the Cloudsplitter and 10th Mountain Division Glades. Never-evers have their own Bunny Hutch Triple chair and Carpet Cruiser set apart from the speeding crowds at their own base area, the Kids Kampus. Fear not, parents, for although the Kampus is delightfully set apart from the rest of the area, everything is still interconnected for a quick and easy ski between the two to check in on your little Kampers.
Truly, you’ll find something for everyone.
INTO THE BIG LEAGUES
Whiteface Mountain summit.
The Village of Lake Placid
Lake Placid’s Main Street – Small Town USA
The comfortable, warm living room at Mirror Lake Inn.
A few short years ago, Whiteface was lagging behind the progress enjoyed by their neighboring resorts in Vermont, New Hampshire and Québec. Whiteface is operated by a state-run independent agency, the Olympic Regional Development Authority, as is Gore Mountain in the southern Adirondacks, created after the 1980 Winter Games to manage, operate and promote the Olympic facilities. As such, through ORDA the mountain relies upon a budget set by the state legislature. Couple that with environmental restrictions imposed upon it by the Adirondack Park Agency, and you had a situation capable of stifling development on the mountain.
Thankfully, that situation exists no longer. The state now recognizes the value of Whiteface in supporting a struggling rural Adirondack economy, and has seen fit to invest no less than $20 million in improvements to the ski area since 1999. If you haven’t visited Whiteface in over five years, you’ll arrive to find a totally different mountain. The Cloudsplitter gondola now rises nearly 2,500 vertical feet from the base lodge to the top of Little Whiteface. The high-speed Face Lift quad chair now covers what used to be a nearly interminable ride from the base lodge to the base of the summit chair. Trails have been widened, glades and terrain parks added, and snowmaking improved. This is not your father’s Whiteface anymore.
A LAKE BY ANY OTHER NAME
Stroll down the village’s Main Street, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting of Small Town USA, and you’ll be corrected immediately if you refer to that small body of water behind the shops and restaurants as Lake Placid. Nope, that’s Mirror Lake. Lake Placid itself is a short canoe portage away, to the west of Mirror Lake. At the western edge of town, overlooking the shores of this tranquil pond, is the crown jewel of the region’s lodging offerings, the Mirror Lake Inn Resort & Spa.
The Mirror Lake Inn redefines service. It had been a long night, flying first into Burlington, Vermont and heading north to Montréal for another obligation before returning south back across the border to Lake Placid. White lights adorning the white birches and conifers in front of the hotel twinkled in the crisp winter chill. We stepped inside to find the glow of the sitting room’s fireplace reflecting upon mahogany walls. The staff at the reception desk was as warm and cozy as the fireplace.
This may be the ultimate in Lake Placid’s upscale offerings, but the staff is by no means stuffy. We had a pre-teen in tow, and therefore weren’t prepared for a tux-and-tails atmosphere. Mirror Lake Inn offers a unique blend of sophistication and comfort.
As if you need another reason to relax, the Mirror Lake Inn also offers a full spa center featuring such specialties as the Adirondack Maple Sugar Body Scrub, stone therapy or deep tissue massage, and more typical salon services as well. Spa sanctuaries include plush seating areas, whirlpools, steam rooms and grooming areas. Whether or not you take advantage of the spa, the resort offers such kid-friendly amenities as an indoor pool and hot tub as well.
We settled into a generously sized and richly appointed room for the night. Hesitant to block the moonlit view of the frozen lake with the High Peak summits of Mt. Marcy and Algonquin as a backdrop, we left the curtains open as we dozed off to a peaceful sleep. A person could get used to this.
LET ‘EM ROLL
The next morning dawned seasonable, but clear. After dressing for the day, we wandered down Main Street and into the Coffee Cup Café and Bakery for an energizing sausage, egg and muffin breakfast and a hot cup of joe before continuing on to the mountain.
Thanks to the unfortunate location of the Ausable River, visitors planning to depart from Whiteface’s main base lodge are relegated to a series of parking lots on the wrong side of the river. Many in the know, however, cross the bridge and hang a right to drive another half mile to park at the Easy Acres Family Center at the Kids Kampus. We hadn’t yet been blessed with such knowledge, and found a spot in the main lot before trudging across bridge over the Ausable and into Whiteface’s colossal base lodge. Skip breakfast in town, and you’ll find dining options here in an efficient food-court format unique in the ski biz.
After booting up, the Cloudsplitter Gondola seems the obvious first choice. Carrying 1,800 skiers and riders per hour up 2,432 vertical feet, this lift alone would create one of the tallest ski areas in the east. Exiting the lift atop Little Whiteface, elevation 3,676 feet, the masses were drawn to the easy blue cruising of Excelsior. As much fun as it was to straight-line the winding turns of Lower Excelsior, it wasn’t worth the elbow jostling for space on the upper part, and we soon graduated to the gentle black terrain of Essex, Upper Northway and Approach, all groomed to perfection.
There’s a serious amount of terrain just off this gondola, and much of it carries a low-grade black diamond designation just begging for speed. Parkway, Thruway, Draper’s Drop and Mackenzie are all perfectly suited for letting it roll. Although the patrol left the rope up on Cloudsplitter Glades and 10th Mountain Division Glades throughout our visit, we made a frequent habit of diverting our course across On Ramp and dropping into High Country Glades for some thoughtful tree skiing. It provided the perfect opportunity to let our eyes recover from the drying effect of pure adrenaline-driven speed.
A TALL ORDER
It’s not necessary to descend all the way to the base lodge and gondola to ski Little Whiteface, however. When the mid-morning liftlines on the gondi grow, graduate to the Little Whiteface double chair. Starting at mid-mountain, the double carries skiers and riders to the very same point as the top terminus of the gondola. Advanced skiers will appreciate the elimination of the flats below mid-mountain, anyway, and telemarkers and snowboarders will be thankful for not having to remove their gear for each ascent.
Another lovely secret of skiing Whiteface is to avoid the base area during the lunch crush, and opt instead for Boule’s Bistro or the cafeteria at mid-mountain. Right at the base of the Little Whiteface double, and nearly underneath the cables of the Face Lift, it’s perfectly situated for a rendezvous with family members of varying skill levels who had perhaps gone their separate ways after the morning’s warm-up run.
After lunch, it was time to head upward further still. When you’ve got over 3,400 vertical feet of terrain to enjoy, there comes a time when you have to take advantage of it in one big gulp. To do so at Whiteface requires a succession of only two lifts: the Face Lift high-speed quad (or the gondola, for that matter), and the Summit fixed-grip quad.
Little Whiteface from the Whiteface summit.
Lake Placid’s Olympic ski jumps.
The Face Lift speeds over gentle intermediate slopes that follow a streambed as it tumbles down from Whiteface’s summit. The Summit Quad, on the other hand, has got to have one of the steepest rise-to-length ratios of any chair in the east, climbing 1,830 vertical feet with only 4,706 feet of lateral travel. The top bullwheel is set into a precariously tiny ledge just below Whiteface’s summit. Gaze east, and the summits of Vermont’s Green Mountains lie across the expanse of the Lake Champlain Valley. Turn south, and you’ll see the Adirondack High Peaks beyond the tranquility of Lake Placid, below. To the north lie Whiteface’s infamously steep Slides, a series of avalanche paths opened for skiing by Whiteface’s ski patrol only when a delicate balance of conditions exists. They’re about as close to a lift-served backcountry experience as you’re likely to find in the east, accessed via a half-mile long, slightly uphill traverse.
Turn the other way, however, and you have four basic options. Closest to the lift is Upper Skyward, and next out is Upper Cloudspin, both widened significantly over the years to accommodate increasing numbers of Whiteface guests and to meet minimum FIS requirements. Venturing further still, Paron’s Run is a wide blue cruiser that drops back to the saddle between Whiteface Mountain and Little Whiteface. Finally, wander as far as the resort’s southern boundary and you’ll find The Follies, a switchback mountain road that marks the easiest descent from the topmost lift at Whiteface.
Then, of course, it’s possible that you’ll create your own runs off the map. The top of the Summit Quad is nearly at treeline, and we delighted in the widely spaced trees between Skyward and Cloudspin before descending to an elevation where the growth thickened to where it forced us to exit to a marked trail. We found other, less obvious routes up here as well, clearly pruned by some posse of local woodsmen who even left their unique calling cards on display for new arrivals to admire. Out of respect for their handiwork we won’t pinpoint their location here, but suffice it to say that they exist for those willing to find them.
YOU CALL THIS AN “OFF-DAY”?
The following morning dawned unseasonably cold and windy, about as uncomfortable a condition as you’re likely to find around these parts. The mercury struggled to rise to minus 20°F, and the wind atop the mountain howled at 60 mph.
It was perfectly understandable that the lifts weren’t turning. At most other resorts, this would present a difficult quandary: what to do?? In Lake Placid, however, it’s a totally different problem: what to do amongst the multitude of choices?
When you’re 11, I guess that you can handle the cold with a bit more aplomb than those of use whose hair is rapidly graying. Son Michael donned his skates, grabbed his hockey stick, and joined a pick-up game to practice his passion on a prepared rink on the ice of Mirror Lake. The staff of the Mirror Lake Inn had thoughtfully placed a steel-drum fireplace next to the rink to provide much-needed warmth. After wife Patricia and I enjoyed a satisfying lunch in their cozy lakeshore tavern, simply and aptly named The Cottage, she joined friends to boutique-hop their way down Main Street, while Michael packed up his skates so that he and I could venture off to visit the Olympic venues.
We had a diverse selection of attractions from which to choose. At the Verizon Sports Complex at Mt. Van Hovenberg, home to Lake Placid’s premiere cross-country ski center, you can take a bobsled ride down the Olympic course with a professional driver and brakeman. Enjoy public skating on the Olympic speed skating oval outside of the old Lake Placid High School, or marvel at the exhibits of the 1932 and 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Museum in the two connected ice arenas, where you can sometimes catch a national headlining act performing in concert. Visit at the right time, and you can watch World Cup aerialists flip at the Kodak Sports Park, or witness World Cup bobsled or skeleton competitions. ORDA markets a “Winter Passport” offering one-price admission to many of the venues.
Tempting as each of these options was, however, we opted instead to visit the 1980 Winter Olympic 90m and 120m Ski Jump Towers at the Kodak Sports Park. Jumping here dates back to 1920, when the Lake Placid Club first built a 35-meter ramp. After a short chairlift ride up the runout slope to the base of the tower, only a tall glass elevator ride separated us from a remarkable view spanning the entire valley, from Whiteface in the distance to Lake Placid closer in, and Mt. Marcy, Algonquin Peak, and the entire Great Range to the south. Standing atop that dizzying tower and gazing down the inslope to the jump, we developed a whole new appreciation at just how dedicated (nuts?) those World Cup ski jumpers are.
Not all of Lake Placid’s winter offerings are of an Olympic nature, though. Ice skate or play hockey on Mirror Lake as Michael did, or drop down a wooden toboggan chute before speeding to a stop across the frozen water. Go snowmobiling, or take a snowbound horseback or sleigh ride. Marvel at the marksmanship of biathlon. Take a scenic flight in a single-engine plane across the Adirondacks. Head into the Adirondacks for a bit of hiking, snowshoeing or winter camping, or simply relax in front of the fireplace with a hot toddy, a down comforter, and a good book. The choices are nearly limitless.
When contemplating a ski and snowboard vacation, it’s easy to focus on northern New England and therefore overlook upstate New York as a destination. When it comes to a complete winter family vacation, however, no resort needs to take a back seat to Lake Placid. There’s a reason that they claim for themselves the title “Winter Sports Capital of the World”.
The Averil Conwell Dining Room at Mirror Lake Inn.
Lake Placid is home to a virtual plethora of dining options, from haute cuisine to a Big Mac. It’s tough to go wrong in Mirror Lake Inn’s Averil Conwell Dining Room (www.mirrorlakeinn.com, 518-523-2544), but bring someone else’s wallet, especially if you sample the extensive wine list. The Cottage at Mirror Lake Inn, practically sitting in the lake itself, offers more casual and affordable fare.
Elsewhere in town, Jimmy’s 21 on Main Street (www.jimmys21.com, 518-523-2353) offers fine Italian fare that prompted a second meal during our visit, but Cameron’s Restaurant (518-523-7872), serving everything from steak & seafood staples to burgers, was a disappointment. Mr. Mike’s Pizza (518-523-9770) is a longtime local’s favorite, and the Coffee Cup Cafe and Bakery (518-523-1150) is a can’t miss for a hearty breakfast and invigorating cup of caffeine.
Likewise, every manner of lodging is available in Lake Placid. One thing that you won’t find, however, is anything slopeside, due to Adirondack Park Agency development restrictions. While there are a couple of motels nearby to the lifts, such as the Ledge Rock (www.ledgerockatwhiteface.com, 518-946-2379), the Hungry Trout Motor Inn (www.hungrytrout.com, 518-946-2217) and the Inn at Whiteface (518-946-2232), you’ll find all modes, tastes and prices in Lake Placid itself, and you’d miss out on the town’s festivity if you stay out near the mountain. The Mirror Lake Inn (www.mirrorlakeinn.com, 518-523-2544) is generally regarded as the most plush in town, but other popular choices include The Lake Placid Resort Holiday Inn (www.lakeplacidresort.com, 518-523-2556), the Hilton Lake Placid Resort (www.lphilton.com, 518-523-4411), and the Adirondack Inn (www.adirondack-inn.com, 518-523-2424). Various vacation home and cottage rentals are available, too. Central reservations for all properties are available at www.lakeplacid.com or by calling 800-447-5224.
Climb the Saranac Avenue hill from the northern end of Main Street to reach Aroma Round (518-523-3818), where you can sip a latté or tea beside a freestanding fireplace in a uniquely round building.
Lake Placid is home to not one, but two microbreweries: the Great Adirondack Brewing Company on Main Street (www.adirondackbrewing.com, 518-523-0233) and the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery at 14 Shore Drive, at the east end of Mirror Lake (518-523-3813).