Large portions of upstate New York feel like they are a world away from the hustle and bustle of New York City, and this is definitely true of the Adirondack Mountains in the northeastern part of the state. Tourists from the “Big Apple” and throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions have come to the Adirondacks for centuries, seeking to refresh and recharge amidst its majestic natural landscape. Nestled alongside mountains, forests, lakes, and streams, these small towns in the Adirondacks are shining examples of the scenic beauty found in abundance throughout the region.
Potsdam is a small town that becomes a slightly bigger town when its two colleges, SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson University, are in session. Yet Potsdam, located in north-central St. Lawrence County, is more than just a college town. As one of the oldest communities in the Adirondacks, the town has earned the slogan “All Roads Lead to Potsdam,” and it makes a great base of operations for exploring the entire region. During the summer months, events like the Ives Park Concert Series and Potsdam Farmers Market draw nice but manageable crowds. A fine collection of 19th and early 20th-century structures in the charming downtown area complements the surrounding natural beauty with 27 buildings in the Market Street Historic District.
Befitting its royal name, the town of Queensbury has a majestic location, with the Hudson River to its south and Lake George to its north. Generations of visitors have come seeking a getaway into nature, and four-season tourist draws have sprung up over the decades. In the summer, the Six Flags Great Escape amusement park is popular, while West Mountain Ski Area takes on the mantle in winter. It is still possible to get out into nature in Queensbury, though; the Warren County Bike path winds through the community and provides unmatched vistas of scenic Lake George. Queensbury’s downtown gets a lively jolt both from tourism and the student body of SUNY Adirondack, located in town.
The short but fast-flowing Lachute River connects two gems of the Adirondacks, Lake George, and Lake Champlain, and the town of Ticonderoga borders all three of these bodies of water. Fort Ticonderoga, controlled by France, Great Britain, and the United States over the years, sat at this location due to its strategic importance during the age of clashing empires. The fort draws history-minded tourists instead of battling armies these days, hosting walking tours, historical reenactments, and family-friendly educational programs. Be sure to check out the view from the lake on a boat tour, and take a walk over the charming Ticonderoga “Kissing Bridge.”
Oddly enough, the village of Saranac Lake is not located on (but is close to) the three Saranac Lakes — Upper, Middle, and Lower. Instead, it lies along Lake Flower and the Saranac River. Tourists, including famous names like Mark Twain and Albert Einstein, have made their way to this beautiful getaway for more than a century, seeking out its serenity. The opulent Hotel Saranac stands as a reminder of this grand tradition, as Saranac Lake is one of the prettiest towns found anywhere.
Saratoga Springs gained both its name and its reputation as a healthy escape from the city from the mineral springs located nearby. Most tourists came for the springs until the mid-1800s when horse racing took over as the main attraction. Saratoga Race Course, the oldest sports venue in the nation, still draws crowds today. The remaining “H” in the town’s motto, “Health, History, and Horses,” comes from the 1777 Battle of Saratoga. Saratoga Springs offers several opportunities for learning about this critical battle, as well as a lively arts and culture scene for those less enamored with history. The Saratoga Performing Arts Center regularly hosts great live events, and Skidmore College and Empire State University add to the town’s cultural vitality.
Au Sable Forks
The village of Au Sable Forks occupies the meeting point of the east and west branches of the Au Sable River, which empties into Lake Champlain by way of the Au Sable Chasm. The fast-running water made Au Sable Forks ideal for a large paper mill, but the former industrial town has long since transitioned into a postcard-pretty tourist destination. Wealth gained from the paper mill financed several beautiful homes and structures that remain to this day, most notably the Graves Mansion. Downton Au Sable Forks is a great spot for a walking tour, but nature is the real star, especially the breathtaking Au Sable Chasm. The chasm’s trails offer unmatched cliffside views, waterfalls, and an overall escape from the everyday.
The northern Adirondacks town of Canton, only about a 20-minute drive from New York’s border with Canada, is a wonderful starting point for outdoor exploration. The nearby Grasse River and Oswegatchie River are both great for boating, canoeing, and kayaking, with several trails leading into the surrounding and picturesque terrain. For visitors who prefer in-town walks to nature hikes, downtown Canton offers two historic districts that each include several charming examples of early 20th-century architecture. Downtown shopping options include Grasse River Outfitters, Nature’s Storehouse, and several businesses catering to Canton’s college community. Both St. Lawrence University (2,400 students) and SUNY Canton (3,200 students) are in town.
Paul Smith owned a wildly popular wilderness resort hotel over a century ago, and both the village and the local college (Paul Smith’s College) were named for him. The college took over the resort’s land when the hotel burned down in 1930, and it now has one of the largest college campuses in the world — 14,000 acres for only 1,000 students! Many of those acres are covered by forest land, and both the campus and village line the glassy waters of Lower St. Regis Lake. Nature lovers should head to the college’s Visitors Interpretive Center, which is the starting point for 25 miles of trails, an amphitheater, and a butterfly house.
Many people recognize the name Lake Placid because the community hosted the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. The latter winter games included the famous “Miracle on Ice” hockey gold medal, one of many pieces of sports history celebrated at Lake Placid’s Olympic Center. Lake Placid continues to have world-class ski slopes and winter sports venues, making it a big cold-weather tourist draw. That said, Lake Placid is truly a four-season destination due to its unbeatable location among the mountain slopes and the beautiful Mirror Lake.
The Adirondacks region is a delight no matter the season. Whether you prefer budding flowers, sun glistening off of clear water, colorful leaves, or snow-capped peaks, happiness awaits you in upstate New York. These towns are a great jumping-off point for your first (or next) visit, but be sure to explore the area on a scenic road trip as well. You will uncover many additional gems among the small towns in the Adirondacks!