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New York’s Lake Placid and Whiteface Mountain: winter’s chill, with many thrills

Whiteface Mountain at Lake Placid, N.Y., site of two Winter Olympics, has the greatest vertical drop from the top of lift-served skiing to the base of any area east of the Rockies.

DAVE SCHMIDT/ORDA

Whiteface Mountain at Lake Placid, N.Y., site of two Winter Olympics, has the greatest vertical drop from the top of lift-served skiing to the base of any area east of the Rockies.

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Looking out across Mirror Lake in downtown Lake Placid, we watched the snow-capped Mount Marcy, New York State’s highest peak, turn pink and then purple in the late-afternoon alpenglow.

We smiled at each other, my wife, daughter, son, and I, knowing it would become one of many highlights of a visit last January to ski Whiteface Mountain.

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Of the two dozen or so best US winter mountain destinations, only in the Park City, Utah, area can skiers and snowboarders personally experience or watch as many Olympic sports as they can in and around Lake Placid. Not only did the Adirondack Mountain site play host to the 1932 and 1980 Winter Games, but all of its most recent Olympic venues are intact, open to the public, and used every winter for world championship events.

Tucked into the 6-million-acre Adirondack State Park, Lake Placid is a vibrant, postcard-perfect village roughly a five-hour drive from metro Boston.

Half of the surrounding park, the largest in the continental United States, is protected as “forever wild” by New York State’s constitution. It is a land of dense hardwood and pine forest, towering mountains, 2,000 miles of trails, 30,000 miles of rivers and streams, and 3,000 ponds and lakes — one of which, Lake Tear of the Clouds, provides the headwaters of the Hudson River. Mount Marcy, at 5,344 feet, crowns the park’s 46 “High Peaks” of 4,000 feet or higher.

The region has been a summer tourist destination since the mid-19th century, when Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and other wealthy industrialists built elaborate “Great Camps.” 

Main Street is lined with restaurants, cafes, shops, boutiques, sporting goods and outlet stores, hotels and motels. Lodging options are numerous, ranging from in-town and affordable to secluded and sophisticated. We stayed four nights minutes from downtown in a rented condo managed by the Crowne Plaza Resort & Golf Club. Our two best dinners were at the Great Adirondack Steak & Seafood Co. , serving the ales and lagers of the Great Adirondack Brewing Co., and at The Interlaken Inn and Restaurant.

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Eight miles from Lake Placed, in Wilmington, Whiteface Mountain offers spectacular views, wonderfully varied terrain for all levels of skiers and snowboarders, uncrowded slopes, and the greatest vertical drop (3,430 feet) of any ski area east of the Rockies.

Surrounded by rugged wilderness, with no lodging or commercial development allowed at its base, state-owned Whiteface is a purist’s delight: a big hill with no distractions. Its annual average of 200 inches of snowfall is supplemented by 98 percent snowmaking coverage. Whiteface offers skiing and snowboarding on 86 trails (283 acres), with 20 percent rated beginner, 43 percent intermediate, and 37 percent expert. There are six named glade (tree) skiing sections, totaling 53 acres, and two terrain parks. Beginners should respect the intermediate trails, many of which would be rated expert at other Eastern mountains.

Whiteface is served by 11 lifts, including the eight-passenger Cloudsplitter Gondola, one high-speed detachable quad, one fixed-grip quad, and two triples. When the gondola stops at the 3,676-foot summit of Little Whiteface, there are views over the backside toward Lake Placid and east to Lake Champlain and Vermont’s Mount Mansfield, with the trails of Stowe, Camel’s Hump, and Sugarbush.

At Little Whiteface, skiers and snowboarders are still 1,200 feet below the mountain’s true summit (4,867 feet) and 1,000 feet below the top of lift-served terrain, which is reached by skiing down to and then riding up the Summit Quad lift. From there, you can descend on long, scenic, intermediate trails like Riva Ridge, The Follies, and Paron’s Run. Or you can mimic Olympic racers on the men’s and women’s downhill, giant slalom, and slalom courses.

If you’re an expert skier or snowboarder, you can hike up another 200 feet to The Slides (at 4,650 feet), which are open only with adequate natural snow cover and then only when the ski patrol deems them safe. A series of steep, narrow double-black diamond avalanche chutes, The Slides offer 35 acres of inbounds, off-piste wilderness skiing and riding spiced with rocks, tree stumps, and frozen waterfalls.

Whiteface’s longest run, from the top of Lookout Mountain (a recent terrain expansion, topping out at 4,000 feet, on the ski area’s northern boundary), is The Wilmington Trail. Rated intermediate and 2.1 miles long, it provides great wilderness views.

In the heart of downtown, there’s ice skating outdoors on the 400-meter oval where Eric Heiden won five speed skating gold medals in the ’80 Olympics, and indoors, too, in the adjacent arena where the “Miracle on Ice” US men’s hockey team upset the mighty Soviets on the way to winning the gold medal.

A mile outside the village is the Olympic Jumping Complex, with the 90- and 120-meter ski jumps. A glass-enclosed elevator takes visitors to the top of the 26-story structure, where an observation deck leaves you feet from the top of the jump runway. Competitors descend by soaring a hundred yards down the landing hill.

A little farther down the road is the Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg, with cross-country skiing on 50 kilometers of trails used in the ’80 Games and two banked, iced tracks for Olympic and World Cup bobsled, luge, and skeleton events. On winter weekends, visitors thrill to a 50-mile-per-hour plummet down the lower portion of the bobsled track in a sled piloted by a professional driver and brakeman.

For a more, well, placid Olympic experience, spend a few hours in the Olympic Museum, in town at the Olympic Center. We strolled through the town’s Olympic history, informed by displays, photos, memorabilia, films, and video clips about the ’32 and ’80 Games.

And then there are the non-Olympic ways to play in the snow and ice: pickup hockey games and dogsled and toboggan rides on frozen Mirror Lake. (The village sits on the shores of Mirror Lake; larger Lake Placid is just north of downtown, across a narrow strip of land.) The toboggans launch from the ’32 Olympics converted ski jump trestle perched on the edge of Mirror Lake. Screaming riders are flung across the ice at 40 miles an hour for several 360-degree spins on the long wooden sleds.

All of these diversions have helped Whiteface-Lake Placid earn recognition from the readers of Ski magazine as the number one destination in the East for off-hill activities for the 20th consecutive year. The magazine’s 23d annual reader survey, announced in the October issue, also ranked the region highly in scenery (third), resort dining (third), après-ski (third), challenging terrain (seventh), mountain character (eighth), family programs (11th) and overall satisfaction (11th).

With the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, little more than a year away, several countries will soon begin the process of selecting their Olympians. Some athletes may even earn Olympic berths when they compete this winter at Lake Placid. The village and Whiteface hosted bobsled and skeleton racing in November and have two more World Cup events coming up in freestyle skiing (Jan. 14-19) and luge (Feb. 3-9).

Irwin Curtin can be reached at irwin_curtin@yahoo.com.

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