Adirondack hiking is rightly famous for its millions of acres of rugged wilderness. Isn't hiking about getting out into nature? Isn't luxury hiking a contradiction in terms?
Not when we are hiking at the Paul Smith's Visitor Interpretive Center, a short drive from Saranac Lake. It's hiking in ways the whole family can appreciate.
Known locally as "the VIC," this project was developed in 1989 as a way to provide information, education, and exhibits to visitors and residents alike. Since one of the goals was to explore the different eco-systems in the Adirondack Park, Paul Smiths was chosen. It has, in a small space, a unique mix of water bodies, forest, and mountains which represented the diverse ecology found in the six-million acres of the Park.
Once funded by the State of New York, the VIC is now operated by Paul Smith’s College, which owns the land. As part of the VIC's four guiding principles, it connects the VIC with the College’s mission, maintains public access to the trails, supports the arts, and finds ways for the facility to generate revenue so it can sustain itself.
With this in mind, please consider dropping a contribution into the container just inside the building entrance.
a trailhead fit for royalty
Were I appointed Queen of the World, I would receive a butterfly house. Until that happy day comes, I will visit the one at the VIC.
It is right next to the playground. Best enjoyed on sunny, warm days, of course. That's what gets the butterflies active.
Once we enter the VIC building, we find a charming little natural history museum. It explains how the Adirondacks became the unique geological setting we enjoy today. There's the extraordinary deck that leads to the trails, and a marvelous great room with floor-to-ceiling windows to watch the birds at the feeders.
The VIC is also an art gallery. Every month, new paintings go up, most with Adirondack themes many from local artists.
And... there's bathrooms. A great accessory for any trailhead. Sure, it's easy to linger, but now it's time to hit the trails.
gem of the outdoors
As seen on the VIC trail map, there's an amazing mix of different terrains to choose from. Bogs, ponds, streams, scatterings of birch, deep evergreen forest, even a mountain. These are trails that tend to be wide and flat and mostly level. This is especially true of the paths near the complex, because they are cross-country skiing trails in the winter.
Barnum Brook Trail is an excellent choice for those walking with small children, seniors, or others who might have minor mobility challenges. This surfaced trail, a one mile loop, is designated by light blue trail markers. There are only a few slight grades, and there are many benches to rest upon along the way, yet the trail has a fine mix of views and places of interest.
Only slightly higher in difficulty is the Heron Marsh Trail. It is three miles long, mixing wetlands with forest. There's the Shingle Mill Falls dam and a 900-foot boardwalk, with two viewing platforms and an elevated tower to observe the teeming flora and fauna of the marsh.
All the trails are clearly marked with discs and signs at the intersections. This makes it easy to assemble hiking loops of varying sizes.
I also love the more civilized touches along the trail. There are many Leopold benches, offering a nice place to sit if there isn't a handy boulder nearby. These are named after the famed conservationist, Aldo Leopold, who is credited with their simple design.
I love standing at the apex of one of the wooden bridges over the many streams, laughing along with the chuckle of the water flowing around the rocks below. The sunlight on the rippling water also has an effect. Peacefulness and tranquility surround all, even those who are not practicing yoga or meditation. Aldo Leopld encouraged us to treasure our natural resources, because by experiencing them, we can become one with nature. Effortlessly.
Additional wooden items to keep watch for are the many privies along the trail. Women and child hikers will especially appreciate this touch of luxury along the trail.
At the other end of the VIC difficulty spectrum are the Long Pond or Jenkins Mountain Trails. The Long Pond trail is a backcountry path that encourages the use of hiking boots more than most of the other VIC trails, because it's backcountry and because it ends at the Jenkins Mountain trail.
Since we have our boots on, we might want to continue on to the summit of Jenkins Mountain. This nine-mile round-trip (from the VIC building), is considered a moderate hike, and includes a nice view from the summit, 2513 feet high.
The diverse ecosystem is one of the appeals of this 25-mile trail system. From a mountain to a bog, a boardwalk to an observation tower, we can choose from a wide variety of trails collected in one place. This means we can choose from a delightful variety of different types of terrain, scenery, and biology, all without covering a lot of mileage.
but wait, there's more
The VIC delights in being a great place for races. It's a field for the winter games of the Empire State Games in February, while there are fun runs in the summer.
Mushroomers will enjoy the Mushroom Walks that are offered many times during the summer and fall. With the abundant water features throughout the complex, spotting is easy, and the interpretive guides make identification much easier, too.
There's an interpretive walk every day at 1 pm. Other tours, from a canoe paddle to a trip to New York's oldest grove of trees, are offered throughout the different seasons. Owl walks in the fall, snowshoe treks in the winter, and maple sugaring in the spring are just some of the many delights of this complex.
The VIC is also a sought after birding destination. The Teddy Roosevelt Bird Walks are offered weekly in the summer and fall, concentrating on finding and hearing many of the bird species identified by a young Teddy Roosevelt during his visits to Paul Smiths in the 1870s. It was this early exposure to nature that turned him into the ardent conservationist he is revered for today.
If that only makes us want more, there's the three-day Great Adirondack Birding Celebration held every year, in early June. All three thousand acres are an eBird Birding Hotspot. Since it contains every habitat type found in the Adirondack Park (except for high alpine) it is the place to find almost any Adirondack bird. Fun festivities, guided walks, all day birding field trips, and the opportunity to hang out with "birds of a feather" make this a highly sought-after event.
I don't think enough people are aware of this unique outdoor delight. In a place that has so many famous hiking trails, summits, and variety of trails, the Paul Smith's Visitor Interpretive Center remains a unique attraction that people should visit, support, and enjoy.
Check our events calendar for the next Paul Smiths event. Tame that appetite with our variety of dining. And nestle into that pillow at your lodging of choice, knowing it's been another fine day in the Adirondacks.
Check out these lesser-known, waiting-to-be-discovered, ADK activities: