As a kid in coastal Massachusetts, scarcely a month went by without my Upstate-native parents whisking us away to a place where the trees got taller and the mountaintops grew higher. The Adirondacks have always felt like a second home, but in a state that’s way bigger than most realize, the region remains criminally underexplored, even as throngs of city-dwellers flock to Upstate en masse.
This expansive, quiet corner of one of the most populous states nurtured my deep respect for true natural beauty from an early age. The innate, lifelong connection I feel to this place seems to spread to anyone I bring to visit. After all, I learned how to bait a hook and caught my first fish in the waters of Lake George, and made one of my first ski runs on the slopes of Gore Mountain. I took my first hike at Pilot Knob and learned to ice skate on the same frozen ponds my grandmother did as a child in Lake Placid. Whether it’s summer or winter, the first hit I get of the uniquely fresh air makes me feel like I’ve gone home to a place where I’ve never held an address.
But the best thing about this part of the state is that what feels like a remote wilderness is actually a relatively short drive from New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston. You can access so much of the state’s beauty just by heading up the Northway (what the locals call I-87 above the capital) and choosing where to stop along the way to the Canadian border. If you need to feel an abundance of nature but can’t board a flight right now, you can still get your fill just by heading due north from all these cities and letting yourself take it all in. Here’s where to start.
It’s hard to talk about Saratoga Springs without making it sound like a made-up village where Gilmore Girls could’ve been set. But this town of 28,000 has been thriving since long before the conflict between Team Jesse and Team Logan started in earnest: It was the site of a seminal Revolutionary War battle as well as a 19th century health and wellness destination.
The latter put the place on the map, as thousands flocked from the cities to drink from the dozens of mineral springs (you’ll still spot the drinking fountains around town) and relax at the famous European-style spa. More recently, the city’s mega-famous horse rack gained pop-culture immortality when Carly Simon sang about it in “You’re So Vain,” which kept visitors coming through the early 20th century.
Today, downtown Saratoga Springs’ centerpiece is a postcard-perfect main street lined with well-preserved historic buildings and homes, consistently great restaurants, and small shops. Caroline Street is home to the densest strip of nightlife options this side of Montreal, perpetually thronged with nature-seekers and racetrack visitors in the summertime before giving way to a more laid-back locals crowd in the fall. Most of the relatively non-descript bars make it easy enough to sit down and have a beer, but if you’re having just one, consider the divey Tin & Lint, if only to hear the bartender’s version of the local myth of Don McLean writing “American Pie” in one of the bar’s wooden booths (which is still marked with a plaque). Never doubt the undeniable draw of Boomer musical nostalgia.
There’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard of this 31-mile-long beauty thanks to its destination status among families. The kitschy main village may not have the same draw of Saratoga, but you’re not here exclusively for the small-town feels. You’re here to let the majesty of a massive body of water hugged by verdant mountains completely transfix you. If Lake Como had an adventurous American cousin, this would be it.
In the warmer months, park yourself on “Million Dollar Beach” on the south shore of Lake George and take a dip. While this public strip of sand can get crowded, it’s also well situated to take in some incredible scenery with a long view that makes the water in front of you seem endless. If you want to get out on the water, rent a boat and explore some of the lake’s many bays, or buy your way onto one of the many ships that set sail for sightseeing. To get an aerial view, all you need to do is head up one of the lake’s surrounding mountains for a quick hike: Pilot Knob and Prospect Mountain are both popular for being relatively accessible, with sweeping views as a mid-trail reward.
Got a little cash to drop and looking to live it up? Keep driving north of Lake George Village to Bolton’s Landing and hit up The Sagamore. The luxury resort will cost you, but it’s set on a tranquil section of the lake that provides outrageous panoramic views and a relaxed waterfront -- except here it’s combined with access to a spa, a pool, and drinking water with little cucumber slices in it.
If you head southwest from Lake George, you’ll soon come across a body of water that might make you feel like you’re seeing double. The Great Sacandaga Lake is a stunning 29-mile-long body of water surrounded by dense forest that seems to come out of nowhere. It may not have the same colonial history to it as its nearby cousin, but that’s only because it didn’t even exist until the 1930s when the Sacandaga River was dammed to mitigate flooding. Now, the submerged valley provides the same access to boating, swimming, and fishing of nearby Lake George, but with a fraction of the boat traffic and crowds.
The sheer length of the lake makes getting from one end to the other a longer trek by boat, but as you head south the narrow body of water expands, becoming five miles wide -- more than two and a half times Lake George’s widest point. It’s a great way to feel like you’ve got the place all to yourself. Some of the best hikes in the area are also relatively accessible for all ability levels, and a leaf-peeping trek to higher ground for a sweeping view of the valley is a good enough reason in itself for a fall Adirondack weekend trip.
Once you hop back on I-87 and head north of Lake George, you’ll enter the most remote section of the Adirondacks. The area is dotted by small lakes and is densely forested straight through until Canada. But don’t miss the turn off the highway for Lake Placid, which is tucked up in the mountains west of the interstate: It’s one of the best places for year-round nature in the state.
The funny thing about this incredibly tiny village is that its name often precedes it, and not just because of the ‘90s horror movie in which Betty White befriends a murder gator. An ideal mountain lake town, the area has hosted the Winter Olympic Games twice -- first in 1932 and again in 1980. If that’s ringing any bells, it’s probably because the town was also the venue for the “Miracle on Ice” victory of the underdog Americans over the Soviet hockey team for the gold medal. Today, training facilities throughout the area still host athletes training for the Winter Games, complete with a ski jump, luge track, and a functioning bobsled course that you can ride down if you’re looking to fulfill childhood dreams created by Cool Runnings.
But there’s a reason why they double-dipped on Lake Placid to host the biggest event in winter sports: The access to nature here is outstanding. Whiteface Mountain, home to legendary downhill skiing events, is still operational and popular as ever with local skiers and snowboarders. All winter long, you can either opt to slap on a pair of skates and head for one of the many arenas or go al fresco with a session on Mirror Lake. Nearby Ausable Chasm and High Falls Gorge make for great nature walks, on top of the insane amount of hiking and mountain biking that’s available nearby. And did we mention the treetop ziplines? Because of course there’s zipline, which is made even better if it’s preceded by a bloody at the popular Breakfast Club.