GPS: 44°19'N 74°07'W
Temps can hit -35°F (-37°C) here, but that’s about the only time Saranac Lake makes headlines. This Adirondacks retreat is a low-key alternative to the tourist hubs nearby. It started as a tiny lumber mill on the Saranac River, until its cool climate and fresh mountain breezes established the town as a major center for tuberculosis treatment. You can still enjoy the fresh air, but we recommend you do so from atop a nearby mountain, or out on any of a dozen or so local lakes. Canoe-camp the Saranac River and hike in the six-million-acre (2.4-million-hectare) Adirondack Park.
It would be easier to tell you what you can’t do. Saranac Lake is the unofficial capital of the wild, rugged Adirondack Park. For a day paddle, Adirondack Lakes and Trails offers guided out-and-back trips on a lazy, meandering stretch of the Racquette River (from $225 per person; www.adirondackoutfitters.com). For a three- to four-day trip, start in the wild St. Regis Canoe Area and paddle your way to the village of Saranac Lake, pitching your tent on islands and fishing monster northern pike from Oseetah Lake. The epic, well-trod trails of the High Peaks are just a half-hour drive, but Kevin Burns, who’s been a ranger in Saranac Lake for ten years, recommends local secrets Ampersand Mountain (5.4 miles/8.7 kilometers roundtrip) and Haystack Mountain (6 miles/10 kilometers). “Both mountains offer amazing views of the High Peaks, but they’re way off the beaten path,” Burns says. In the winter he backcountry skis the same mountains, and Nordic skis a stretch of the 33-mile (53-kilometer) Jackrabbit Trail that traverses McKenzie Pass into Lake Placid.
Downtown’s Eat 'n Meet Grill and Larder may be the classiest, quirkiest take-out joint you’ll ever visit. The tiny, three-table dining room doubles as the pantry, and an Elvis statue presides from the second-floor porch, but it’s the food you’ll remember after you leave. Chef-owner John Vargo grills an incredible array of first-rate food, including his locally sourced Blue Line burgers (which come in beef, pork, lamb, and veggie varieties). Order one of these with a stick-to-your-ribs side of mac ‘n’ cheese or plantain dumplings (www.eatnmeet.com). It’s BYOB, so stop first at Lake Placid Pub & Brewery and pick up a growler of their smooth, hoppy Ubu Ale to wash it all down (www.ubuale.com).
The Adirondack Motel is a cozy little mom-and-pop operation that’s been in business for upwards of 50 years. Most likely that’s because they offer personal service and cheap, comfortable waterfront rooms (doubles from $75; www.adirondackmotel.com). If you prefer a more luxurious base camp (think drinks on the hearth followed by a massage and a soak in the hot tub), The Porcupine Bed & Breakfast will meet your needs—and then some (doubles from $172;http://www.porcupineinn.com/).