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Doing the ’dacks — minus the hikes: With trails full, we gave this trip a reboot

After five hours of driving, we weren’t heading home despite the mass of hikers. Instead, we’d immerse ourselves in all the fun stuff that happens off trail.

The colorful foliage of hardwood tress is mixed in with evergreens near the shore of Lower Ausable Lake in the Adirondacks, on Sept. 27.
The colorful foliage of hardwood tress is mixed in with evergreens near the shore of Lower Ausable Lake in the Adirondacks, on Sept. 27.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Heading west to the Adirondacks, we were getting into road-trippy mode, exclaiming at the vivid fall color and stopping for fat sandwiches at a cute, homespun-looking bakery. We treat ourselves to this trip every few years, to conquer new hiking territory amid the best display of crazy color we’ve ever witnessed. Sorry, northern New England, but the ’dacks are the ones to beat.

Then we noticed something peculiar — cars lined up on State Road 73 near the trailheads, alongside signs that read: “Hiker Parking Limited," in bright orange letters, flashing, “Seek Other Hikes.” Uh oh. This particular orange was not the fall color we expected.

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The Adirondacks are no secret. Some 12.4 million visitors a year enter Adirondack Park, a 6-million-acre outdoor paradise. The big draw for many: the High Peaks, 46 of the state’s tallest mountains. These challenging hikes boast killer views, especially in gold-drenched autumn. But this year has been off the charts. “With everyone wanting to be outdoors, the popular High Peaks trailheads have been drawing record numbers [of hikers],” said Savannah Doviak of ROOST (Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism.) Add peak fall color to the mix, and buh-bye, trailside solitude. Certainly there are some obscure trails that savvy locals know about, but that’s not us.

Time for a reboot — or, frankly, an un-boot! Were we keen to lace up our hiking boots and share the trail with hordes of hikers, including Croc-wearing newbies? No. We were not. But after five hours of driving, we weren’t heading home. We’d immerse ourselves in the glories of the ’dacks that we’ve overlooked in the past — all the fun stuff that happens off trail.

Gorkan Telci, of Southborough, Mass., pauses to consider where to aim his camera while photographing fall foliage on the eastern slope of Lower Wolfjaw Mountain in the Adirondacks,
Gorkan Telci, of Southborough, Mass., pauses to consider where to aim his camera while photographing fall foliage on the eastern slope of Lower Wolfjaw Mountain in the Adirondacks,Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

No hiking? No problem

Happily, we were headed to the right place, Lake Placid. The former home of the Winter Olympics (1932 and 1980) has a rollicking Main Street that hugs Mirror Lake. It’s the Adirondacks’ answer to Bar Harbor, Maine. We counted a bookstore, two places that sold assorted types of jerky, a popcorn store, a chocolate shop, and three brewpubs. In short, it has all the necessities. And it has a mere 2,500 full-time residents. Plus, there’s awesome fall color — at every elevation, as it turns out.

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We checked into the Lake House at High Peaks Resort (www.highpeaksresort.com), and were cheered to discover it was a low-slung midcentury modern building with only 44 rooms, just across the street from Mirror Lake. The price was right — just $149 per night — and the rate includes use of paddleboards, paddleboats, kayaks, and a rowboat. Throwing our bags into the room, we made a beeline for the kayaks. Let the games begin!

In the warm glow of an autumn afternoon, the lake was lovely — and busy. Ducks bobbed alongside a platoon of paddle-boarders, and even a few hardy late-season swimmers. One guy was riding a fat-tired water bike. Surrounding us were hillsides dappled in russet hues.

Dinner in Lake Placid is always a treat. The quality is fairly high, the dress code is casual, and the prices are moderate. There was only one problem on this particular Saturday night: crowds. People were queued up down Main Street to get into socially distanced dinner spots. For the second time that day, we muttered, “Uh oh.”

Of course, overloaded trails mean that local businesses are slammed too. “We just came off our busiest summer ever — everyone wants to be here,” said Steve Castelhano, a concierge at the Lake House. Hotels are full, but restaurants operate at reduced capacity, and outdoor seating is limited. That adds up to long waits for a table — two hours some nights, Castelhano said. Undaunted, we ordered take out at the resort’s Dancing Bears restaurant, and slipped inside the gate at the outdoor pool. Lakeside dining! After dinner, we took a walk around the lake, stopping to sniff the popcorn shop and feeling slightly superior to the folks who were still waiting for a table.

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Day two: Brews and views

Sunday dawned sparkly and warm — a great day for hiking! But not for crowd-averse us. So we did the next best thing: We made a 43-minute trek to Big Slide Brewery (www.bigslidebrewery.com) for brunch. They’re known for their elevated pub grub and tasty, seasonal beverages (maple pumpkin brown ale = perfect for right now). We snagged an outdoor table, alongside a white tent with more seating; they also have indoor tables (spaced apart) and stools alongside shiny beer tanks. We didn’t overdo it, though; we had a long walk back, and a day of fall-color outdoors immersion. There would be no boozy napping!

We decided to ride the Cloudsplitter Gondola (www.whiteface.com) up Little Whiteface Mountain in nearby Wilmington for an overview of Foliage Central. In wintertime, this is a functioning skier-transporter for Whiteface Mountain; now it draws foliage fans, to ride up the peak with their own parties in the eight-person contraption. We walked right up, no waiting, and took the sky-high ride to the summit, transfixed by the views of distant mountains — even Lake Champlain — awash in scarlet and crimson. There were a few people at the top taking selfies, and a group of fleece-vested picnickers, but plenty of space to take in the (way colorful) scene.

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Now in full-tourist mode, we decided to risk fall color overload with a trip up Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway. This twisty toll road up to 4,867-foot Whiteface Mountain is famous for scenic overlooks of valleys and mountains, currently adorned in Mom Nature’s finest. There’s a stone castle at the top (closed because of COVID-19), with an observation tower. Even here, there wasn’t much traffic, because everyone else was scaling mountains on foot.

About 10,000 iPhone pics later, we were ready for lunch. We zipped into Fratelli Pizza II (www.fratellipizzarestaurant2.com) for a prosciutto-arugula white pizza with a balsamic glaze drizzle — a happy marriage of pizza and salad. Its crunchy/crispy dough was perfection, because of a secret ingredient, according to owner Alma Domazet. The small restaurant has a take-out window (the interior is currently closed) and four outdoor tables. Pizza with a view of the mountains — not bad, Wilmington, N.Y.!

In the town of Wilmington, there are a couple of keys spots for food: Adirondack Chocolates and Fratelli Pizza II. What’s better than pizza with a view?
In the town of Wilmington, there are a couple of keys spots for food: Adirondack Chocolates and Fratelli Pizza II. What’s better than pizza with a view?Diane Bair

Heading back to Lake Placid, we couldn’t resist one baby hike at High Falls Gorge (www.highfallsgorge.com). A half-mile loop with stairs and a bridge leads to waterfalls on the Ausable River. If you’ve got kids in your party, this is a must; how often can you hike to an actual waterfall with small fry?

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The rest of the day went by in a happy blur of candy (from purveyor Adirondack Chocolates) and sunshine, followed by a late-ish dinner at Generations, at the Golden Arrow Resort (www.golden-arrow.com). It occurred to us, as we dug into our seared salmon, that this might be our last outdoor dining experience of the season. Would Generations keep the outdoor tables open aN while? “Not likely!” our server responded. “It was 20-something degrees overnight last week. We know what’s coming!” There aren’t enough space heaters in the world to make that bearable.

It was a major day for eating, not hiking, but we did manage to knock off 18,000 steps and see enough fall color to last us a year. And we still had a shot at those trails — the next day was Monday, so the weekend crowds would be gone. We fell asleep, dreaming of lofty peaks under a swirl of falling leaves.

Two visitors photograph Lower Ausable Lake in the Adirondacks.
Two visitors photograph Lower Ausable Lake in the Adirondacks.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Alas, the rain gods had other plans. But, all things considered, our hike-free hiking trip had been fun, colorful, and un-crowded. We’ll give the High Peaks another go, next year. Until then, 46-footer-club!

For information on the Lake House at High Peaks Resort in Lake Placid, visit www.HighPeaksResort.com. For information about Lake Placid, visit www.LakePlacid.com.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com