Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, both nestled in upstate New York, offer a treasure trove of activities.
In this piece, I’m rolling them into one because they practically high-five each other with their proximity and a few shared gems.
What makes this duo intriguing is the way they complement each other. Lake Placid is the poster child for the “go-getter” mindset, urging you to chase your dreams with an Olympic fervor. Its rich Olympic history and a parade of Olympic-themed attractions set the tone.
Meanwhile, Saranac Lake carries a more solemn, yet equally compelling history, rooted in the battle against tuberculosis. Their joint stories make for a fascinating blend.
During our month-long stay in Saranac Lake, we dived deep into the fabric of these twin cities. In the paragraphs that follow, we’ll dive into our adventures and unveil the experiences we had.
Herb Brooks Arena: The “Miracle on Ice”
Visiting Herb Brooks Arena is a journey back in time to one of the most iconic moments in sports history.
Named after the legendary coach Herb Brooks, this arena is the very place where the “Miracle on Ice” unfolded during the 1980 Winter Olympics.
The Miracle on Ice, told very well in the movie Miracle, was a historic ice hockey game between the United States and the Soviet Union. Team USA, comprised of amateur and college players, faced the formidable Soviet team, which had dominated international hockey for years.
Against all odds, the American team, led by Coach Herb Brooks, pulled off a remarkable upset, defeating the Soviets 4-3. Then they went on to win the gold medal.
The victory captured the hearts of a nation and became a symbol of hope and perseverance during a challenging period in U.S. history.
Today, visiting Herb Brooks Arena allows you to step onto the same ice where this legendary underdog story played out.
What’s extra fascinating is that you can step into the arena and have it completely to yourself depending on what’s going on at the time. It’s one of the places where you can still feel the history and it’s as if the magic still lives on.
Tip: Make sure that you also take time to visit the locker room with the famous Herb Brooks speech was given.
Lake Placid Olympic Museum
A visit to the Lake Placid Olympic Museum provides a comprehensive exploration of the rich Olympic history of Lake Placid, having hosted the Winter Games twice, in 1932 and 1980.
Visitors can discover the evolution of winter sports, from the early days of the Olympics to modern times, with exhibits on various disciplines like figure skating, skiing, and bobsledding.
The museum also features a wide array of Olympic memorabilia, including medals, uniforms, and equipment used by athletes over the years. One of the coolest things we were able to do while in Lake Placid was hold a real Olympic torch from the 1980 Winter Olympic games!
Interactive displays and multimedia presentations offer insights into the challenges and triumphs of Olympic competitors. You’ll be able to test out your knowledge and skills while also learning unique facts about the Olympics such as the evolution of the Olympic theme song.
Make sure that you take some time to watch the short film they have on the “Miracle on Ice.”
The museum is located in the same facility as the Herb Brooks Arena so it makes sense to visit the museum first and then hop over to the arena to live more of the history.
Lake Placid Olympic Ski Jumping Complex
An absolute showstopper in the area is the Lake Placid Olympic Ski Jumping Complex.
This is where you get to stand on the edge of a ski jump once graced by the daring athletes of the 1980 Winter Olympics. Gazing down from the takeoff point, you can’t help but envision the intense focus and exhilaration that Olympians must’ve harnessed as they prepared for that epic leap.
And here’s a bonus – you might time your visit just right to catch future Olympians in action. During our visit, we lucked out, witnessing some of the 15-year-old prodigies take flight off the ski jump. It’s a rare glimpse that truly deepens your appreciation for this sport, something you can’t quite grasp from the comfort of your couch, watching it on TV.
Right next door, you’ll find the freestyle jump ramp, where athletes soar high into the sky, executing gravity-defying twists and aerial stunts before making a splash in a pool below.
The mountain coaster + a tour of Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Center
Lake Placid boasts the crown jewel of mountain coasters in North America, and what makes it even more intriguing is that it traces the path of the bobsled track that was once the stage for the Winter Olympic Games.
As you swoosh down this trail, you’re the captain of your speed, and you’ll be treated to a narrated audio tour by one of the voices behind the iconic movie “Cool Runnings.” It’s a truly unique experience, and when we tried it during the fall, the scenic backdrop only cranked up the enjoyment.
While you’re hanging out at the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Center, I’d strongly recommend diving into a tour of the facility, which is part of the Legacy Passport deal, which gives you access to several sites mentioned in this article.
It’s your golden ticket to peek behind the Olympic curtain, witnessing how the bobsled team hones their skills, and you might even catch some biathlons in action.
But the real showstopper is the chance to stroll along the hallowed bobsled track, which is also used for sports like luge and skeleton. It’s one of the coolest things you can do in Lake Placid, and you won’t want to let this experience slip by!
The site of the 1980 Olympic Torch
If you’re up for a little more Olympic nostalgia, you can also catch a glimpse of the 1980 Olympics torch. It’s not exactly the most awe-inspiring sight you’ll come across. It’s smack in the middle of a park, mostly dedicated to youth sports, and, well, it’s seen better days.
But there’s an undeniable cool factor in getting up close and personal with a piece of history like this. After all, how often do you stumble upon an actual Olympic torch from the 1980 Games? It’s a piece of the past that adds a unique touch to your Lake Placid experience.
As an interesting tidbit, the Olympic Village used during the 1980 Winter Olympic Games was actually purpose-built to be a prison from the get-go.
While it’s not a tourist destination by any means, it’s still a captivating piece of history. Many Olympians weren’t too thrilled about the prospect of staying in prison cells during their time at the Games, and it adds a fascinating layer to the Olympic legacy in the area.
Whiteface Mountain Cloudsplitter Gondola
The Whiteface Mountain Cloudsplitter Gondola is your ticket to some really good views of the Whiteface slopes, especially when the foliage is rocking its peak season colors.
But that’s not all – it’s also the prime spot for Oktoberfest shenanigans, so you can ride the gondola and get a taste of Oktoberfest all in one day.
Plus, if you’ve got one of those legacy passports, it covers admission to both experiences, giving you extra bang for your buck.
Once you’ve ascended to the summit, you’re standing on Little Whiteface Mountain, but don’t let its size fool you. The vistas up there are nothing short of spectacular. And if you’re feeling spry, there’s the option to stretch those legs and explore the surrounding hiking trails. It’s a win-win all around.
By the way, there are quite a few other seasonal events to check out like the Lake Placid Film Festival or Ironman Lake Placid.
Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway (scenic drive)
The Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway is a winding path that gets you within arm’s reach of the Whiteface Mountain summit.
Once you’re near the top, you’ve got options: either take the elevator for a smooth ride up, or channel your inner mountain goat and scramble up some boulders (don’t worry, there are railings to lend a hand).
Now, it might not deliver the same grandeur and adrenaline rush as scenic drives through the Rockies, like the epic Mount Evans Scenic Byway that soars over 14,000 feet. But make no mistake, this drive has its own charm, especially when autumn rolls around and the landscape below is draped in a riot of colors.
Sure, it comes with a price tag, and it ain’t exactly cheap. But if you’re armed with the Legacy pass, it sweetens the deal considerably, making the experience a whole lot easier on the wallet.
So, if you’re up for a scenic adventure that blends accessibility with nature’s splendor, this drive is definitely worth a spin, especially during the vibrant fall season.
Hiking in the Adirondack mountains
In the Saranac Lake and Lake Placid vicinity, you’ve got a smorgasbord of hiking options, catering to all levels of hikers. Whether you’re seeking a leisurely saunter through wooded paths or aiming for a challenging ascent with some serious elevation gain, they’ve got you covered.
If you’re in the mood for a hike that’s comfortably in the middle, consider the jaunt up Mount Van Hoevenberg. This one’s a real pro at making the most of the autumn color show, and it dishes out just the right amount of uphill hustle to get your heart pumping.
Another solid choice is the hike to Ampersand Mountain, offering a moderate to strenuous level of challenge with a few steep sections to keep things interesting. We happened to tackle this one on a drizzly and overcast morning, which did obscure the views from the top, but I’ve heard they’re quite a treat on clear days.
For those craving a quick but invigorating workout, Baker Mountain, right in the heart of Saranac Lake, is the go-to spot. It’s a short hike that packs a punch, making it a fantastic choice for a compact adventure.
But again, there are lots and lots of different hikes to choose from and these are only a small taste of what they have to offer.
Lake Placid’s charming Main Street
Main Street is only a stone’s throw away from the Olympic Museum and the Herb Brooks Arena. As soon as you roll into town, you can’t miss the primary parking lot, which is a real convenience, especially if you’re gearing up for a day of exploring the Olympic Center and beyond.
Main Street parades right alongside the picturesque Mirror Lake, offering up some fantastic vistas and doubling as a launchpad for those itching to go kayaking.
Now, when it comes to Main Street itself, it’s a bustling strip lined with a cornucopia of shops and eateries. The Team USA stores are a personal favorite, not to mention the hockey apparel shops, loaded with gear that nods to the legendary “Miracle on Ice” athletes. If you’re lucky, you might even bump into some of these sporting heroes while perusing the shops.
And let’s not forget the indulgent side of things. There are sweet shops doling out gourmet popcorn that’ll tantalize your taste buds. And there’s a chocolate shop where we had our first brush with birch beer, which was quite the unique experience.
But I’ll level with you, the restaurant scene in both towns doesn’t exactly set the world on fire. While you can stumble upon some solid spots like a decent barbecue joint, the culinary options might not be as diverse as you’d hope for.
Saranac Laboratory Museum
The Saranac Laboratory, a creation of Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau in 1894, holds the distinction of being the first laboratory dedicated to tuberculosis research in the United States.
For Dr. Trudeau, the fight against tuberculosis was more than just a scientific pursuit – it was deeply personal. In 1876, he sought refuge in the Adirondacks, fleeing the clutches of tuberculosis, which had cruelly snatched his older brother’s life within a few short months of diagnosis.
During his stay in the Adirondack mountains, Dr. Trudeau experienced a remarkable improvement in his health, a transformation that kindled his passion for exploring the therapeutic potential of nature. This personal revelation fueled his unwavering commitment to researching the healing power of the great outdoors.
Not content with simply building the laboratory, Dr. Trudeau also championed the establishment of the cure cottages, another fascinating piece of the puzzle that’s well worth a visit.
Checking out cure cottages
One of the most fascinating ways to soak in Saranac Lake’s history is to meander through town, taking in the unique architecture. It’s here that the renowned “cure cottages” sprouted like wildflowers, drawing people from all corners of the globe.
These cottages served as havens where folks infected with TB would practically live on their porches, which were enclosed but built with sliding windows to allow them to inhale the fresh air all day long. Some guests would convalesce here for months, or even years.
Today, these cottages still grace the town, preserving a unique architectural style infused with a captivating history.
When checking this out, be sure to head to the Trudeau Institute, where you’ll find a beautiful memorial (with a sculpture done by the same guy who did Mt. Rushmore). You’ll also see the “Little Red Cottage,” which held the inaugural patients and serves as a poignant piece of the town’s medical history.
Next, swing by the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium site, erected in 1885. There, you can get a glimpse of the original buildings from its early days before private cottages started cropping up. It’s like stepping into a time capsule and getting a taste of Saranac Lake’s therapeutic past.
Robert Lewis Stevenson cottage
Robert Louis Stevenson, the literary genius behind iconic works like “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Treasure Island,” grappled with health challenges from a tender age.
His health struggles led him to believe he had tuberculosis, eventually leading him to Saranac Lake. You can pay a visit to the very cottage where he sojourned for several months, which has now been transformed into a dedicated museum honoring RLS.
At this museum, you’ll cross paths with an exceptional docent who’s practically a living encyclopedia of all things Stevenson. Conversations with him are a delight, and he’s a goldmine of information about one of the most celebrated authors in literature.
Plus, you’ll discover a treasure trove of cool artifacts, like the deck of cards that Stevenson was said to have used on the day of his passing. It’s a deep dive into the life and times of a literary legend.
Things I wish we could have explored
You don’t always have all of the time to get to all of the places you’d like to visit. So here are some of the sites or activities that I wish we would’ve been able to check out:
- Kayaking in one of the wilderness areas
- Flume Falls
- The Wild Center
- Lake Placid Bobsled Experience.
Both Lake Placid and Saranac Lake are riveting destinations that deserve a spot on your travel radar. Lake Placid’s claim to fame lies in its dual role as host to two separate Olympic Games, a distinction that has birthed a captivating lineup of Olympic-themed attractions.
On the flip side, Saranac Lake played a pivotal role in the quest to conquer tuberculosis, boasting its own intriguing history in that regard.
These neighboring gems are close enough that you’d be remiss not to explore both during your visit. Their unique stories and attractions make for a dynamic and well-rounded experience that showcases some of the best of the Adirondacks.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.