For the love of Saranac Lake
I fell in love with Saranac Lake several years ago. I was doing a species inventory project in a complex of forests and wetlands near Long Lake with an ecologist named Steve. I lived in Plattsburgh, so we'd meet at his house in Saranac Lake every Monday morning, then load up his truck with everything we needed for the week before setting off. The preparations usually included stopping in town for a couple of things before hitting the road.
There was something about the downtown that piqued my interest, so I started asking Steve questions about life there. His answers were long, a telling sign that there was more to this village than the mountains and lakes that surround it. A few years later my wife, Anna, and I got married in the Adirondacks and moved to Saranac Lake. We've found more than we expected in the years that followed — good music, good art, and good friends — so we bought a house.
Saranac Lake is a truly wonderful place to live, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the mountains and lakes that initially drew me to the region so many years ago. I've spent a lot of time exploring the region, and the following three hikes are my favorites — and they're all less than a 10-minute drive from downtown.
This is the mountain that started it all.
About 20 years ago my friends and I visited the Adirondacks from our homes in Binghamton, New York, the area we all grew up in. We rented a campsite on an island in Middle Saranac Lake, and during a particularly sunny day we decided to find out where the trail we passed on our way to the boat launch led to. We paddled back to shore, hopped in a car, and set off on a hike that planted the seed for my Adirondack obsession.
I love Ampersand Mountain any time of year, but winter might be my favorite season to visit this open summit. Its proximity to our house, relatively short length, and outstanding view makes it the perfect go-to on a short winter day.
To get to the popular Ampersand Mountain trail from Saranac Lake, head toward Tupper Lake on Route 30. After about 8 miles from downtown Saranac Lake, you'll see a decent-sized parking area on the right. The parking lot has a large wooden sign, so it's difficult to miss. Park here and carefully cross the busy road to reach the trailhead.
Don't be fooled by the short, 2.7-mile distance to Ampersand's summit. The trail starts off easy but begins to steepen at the 1.2-mile mark. As many times as I've done this hike, I'm always surprised by how steep this trail gets around the 2-mile mark.
Warnings aside, this is a gorgeous trek. The forest here is old and lovely — there's a boardwalk at one point that goes across a wet section where I was once startled by a barred owl loudly flapping its wings — and the scenery gets more rugged as elevation is gained. After the steepest half-mile section, the path levels out and passes by a set of enormous boulders before swinging right and climbing over open rock to the summit.
A trip to Saranac Lake isn't complete without a hike up Mount Baker. The little mountain is a short walk from downtown, and once you recognize its profile you'll be able to spot it as you shop, paddle, or pedal around town.
From the intersection of Bloomingdale Avenue and Broadway at the north end of downtown, turn onto Bloomingdale Avenue (also Route 3). Take the third right onto Pine Street — Mount Baker is the mountain that's across the river and to the right before you make the turn. Pine Street dips down then crosses a set of railroad tracks. Take a left on Forest Hill Avenue after that. Stay on this road as it wraps around Moody Pond, and you'll see the Mount Baker trailhead on the left. Park in the pull-off on the right.
Follow the well-traveled and well-marked trail for 0.9 miles to the top of Baker, where views of the High Peaks await. It's a short, steep climb that's easy by big-mountain standards, but if you aren't an avid hiker you will feel the burn a little! Be aware that the trail has been rerouted to help reduce wear-and-tear on the forest, so be sure to stay on the marked path.
I probably climb Baker at least once a week, and it never gets old. In minutes I'm whisked from the town into a mountainous world of big rocks, big views, and red pine forests.
It's a great hike any time of day, but my favorite time to climb Baker is just before sunset to see the grays, pinks, and oranges in the sky over Lower Saranac Lake. Just be sure to pack a good headlamp and take your time descending.
Follow Bloomingdale Avenue past Pine Street and continue for about 4 more miles. You'll see a stone quarry on the left; shortly after that the right shoulder of the road widens to make room for cars to park. You'll know you're there because the pull-off is followed by a dirt road, then a farm. Follow that road and be aware that this is a corridor through private property. After a very short walk down a gradual decline you'll see a couple of parking spots on the right (you can also park here if your vehicle can handle the dirt road), a bridge over the Saranac River, and a trailhead sign on the opposite shore.
The wide, well-defined path follows an old road as it climbs steadily to a height of land before descending to the shore of Moose Pond in 1.5 miles. The trail never gets too steep and it's smooth and usually clear of obstacles. This is a great — and popular — place to ski in winter.
The trail reaches the pond at a rock outcrop that's ideal for swimming, reading, or picnicking. If that's occupied, and it often is on warm, summer days, simply bear left to stay on the path as it follows the shore. There are other rock outcrops along the way, so explore until you find one. Moose Pond is a beautiful waterbody, and the view of Whiteface Mountain and the McKenzie Range makes the hike that much more worthwhile.