It takes only moments to appreciate just how special Lake Placid is, and why this tiny village in the north country of New York State has been a popular tourist destination since the beginning of tourism in America, going back to the 1800s, beginning as a summer retreat and then, in the early 1900s, emerging as America's first winter sports center.
The very name, Lake Placid, is renowned worldwide for hosting the 1932 Winter Olympics - only the third winter Olympics in history - and then again the 1980 Olympics, most famous for the "Miracle on Ice" USA defeat of the mighty USSR hockey team.
Whether or not you take part in skiing, bobsled, cross-country, snowshoeing, or skating on the Olympic and world-competition venues here, there is so much to engage and enjoy here.
This isn't a simple ski place you come to for a couple of days; you can easily spend a week or more exploring.
What is most enjoyable about Lake Placid is that it is a real place, a real community, in fact, a place where the children return to live and raise their own families. It is not surprising that many of the children grow up to be major athletes, because of all the training facilities and competition here. In fact, Lake Placid is very possibly the only community in the country that has sent athletes to every Olympics since 1924. The Shea family, alone, has three generations of Olympians.
We have already had two Olympic experiences on our first day staying in Lake Placid - skiing and snowboarding at Whiteface Mountain, and having the thrill of the Bobsled Experience at the Olympic Sports Complex.
Ice Skating on the Olympic Oval
After a morning on Whiteface Mountain, and an afternoon at the Bobsled Experience, in the evening we stroll down Main Street from the Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort and take advantage of one of Lake Placid's unique attractions: the Olympic Speed Skating Oval - a 400 meter outdoor rink used in both the 1932 and 1980 Olympics, and is still used for training. This is where Eric Heyden made history in 1980, by winning Olympic gold medals in all five speed skating events.
It's right on Main Street! Can you imagine! It's not tucked away just for competition and training by major athletes. Anyone can skate and have that thrill.
Eric and David are talented skaters and hockey players, but when you have only skated in a hockey rink, skating on a 400-meter track is extraordinary and humbling. Before too long, despite the temperature in the 20s and the falling snow, they are sweating and shedding layers.
It doesn't take more than once-around the Lake Placid's 400-meter Olympic Speed Skating Oval to more fully appreciate Eric Heyden's feat, and one which arguably exceeds even Michael Phelps' wins in the pool. Heyden had to compete against the elements - wind, snow, temperature - and still won gold in five events which would be the equivalent of winning a 200-meter dash to a marathon and everything in between."
"No one will ever do that again," Lundin says. "There may be another Michael Phelps, or Apolo Ohno, but there will never be another Eric Heyden."
It is a magnificent setting, especially at night (a public session is offered 7-9 pm), with lighted Christmas trees in the center, the majestic Lake Placid High School building with lights in each of the windows, as a backdrop..Altogether magical.
(Admission $6; you can rent skates for $3, there is a delightful warming hut with restrooms; free one-time admission with Olympic Passport).
Lake Placid Olympic Museum
A few steps away from the skating rink - also a short walk from the Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort where we are staying - is the Lake Placid Olympic Museum, inside the indoor skating arena where figure skating competition was held and where hockey tournaments and skating shows are still offered(You really have to hunt for the museum because the entrance is not marked…. Go up the drive as if to enter the skating rink).
The museum focuses on the 1932 and 1980 Olympics that were both held here, and answers the question why Lake Placid, which in 1932 was this quiet, tiny village of 3000 people, was selected as the Olympic venue for only the third winter Olympics of the modern era.
Lake Placid was a popular summer resort going back to the 1890s (the beginning of the Gilded Age). Melville Dewey (Secretary of Education and the creator of the Dewey Decimal system) created the Lake Placid Club, a sports club By1904, Lake Placid also cultivated winter sports, emerging as America's first winter resort, and Dewey decided to keep the Club open during winter for tobogganing, skating and skiing. By 1920, Lake Placid was one of the foremost winter resorts in the world. Dewey's son, Godfrey Dewey, who coached the 1928 US Olympic ski team, got the idea that Lake Placid could host the 1932 games, and came home and lobbied the village council.
They had to build a bobsled run (the first in the United States) from scratch and Olympic stadium (speed skating oval) arena, and improve the ski jumps, cross-country, ski trails. The cost of $650,000 amounted to $58 for each Lake Placid resident, a mindboggling task in 1930, when America and the world had already plunged into Depression.
President Hoover declined to come; Franklin D. Roosevelt, then the Governor of New York, opened the games. Because of the Depression, only 17 nations and 348 athletes attended the Games.
The legendary Olympians at the Games included Norwegian ski jumper Birger Ruud, figure skating star Sonja Henie, American bobsledder Billy Fiske, and men's figure skating star Gillis Grafstrom of Sweden. Hometown Hero Jack Shea was a double-gold medalist in speed skating, along with Curtis Stevens and J Hubert in the two-man bobsled, and Fiske, Eagan, Gray and O'Brien in the four-man.
By 1980, Lake Placid had even a smaller population than in 1932, and faced even more obstacles as the host. Over $51 million in construction was made.
This was the Olympics in which men's speed skater Eric Heiden skated to a record five Olympics - a feat that was unparalleled, considering that the oval was outdoors and so subject to wind and other conditions. He was the first Olympian to win five individual gold medals at the same Games, but Jon Lundin, of the ORDA, says that Heiden's feat will never really be matched - and after skating there, we see why: the oval is outdoors, so subject to the wind and snow and temperature conditions.
During the winter months (December- March) the Oval is used for training and is open to the public for recreational skating.
Of course, the 1980 Olympics is most famous for the USA Ice Hockey's Miracle on Ice - the 4-3 upset victory of the Soviet Union, still considered the greatest Olympic victory ever, and led to the USA winning gold.
Indeed, the museum's most popular exhibit pays homage to the 1980 hockey Dream Team – with the actual goal defended by Jim Craig. You can see video of the game, with one of the most famous calls by a sports announcer, "Do you believe in miracles?"
You also get to see the very first medal awarded at the first winter games, in 1924 in Chamonix, which was won by Lake Placid native, Charles Jewtraw in the 500-meter speed skate. The medal is here on loan from the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History.
The museum is dotted with stations with historic videos that serve to remind and personalize - literally putting a face to the Olympians. And because you are in the context - you've skied down Whiteface or done the Bobsled Experience - you have a much richer appreciation. You feel a connection.
There are exhibits honoring Lake Placid's "Hometown Heroes" (Lake Placid has sent athletes to every Winter Olympics).
It is interesting to see the displays of uniforms, medals, trophies, and torches carried in all the Olympics, but most fascinating is to see how the equipment has changed (hockey players used to wear shorts and a leather cover).
The museum has only been open since 1994, though the planning began shortly after the XIII Olympic Winter Games were awarded to Lake Placid, and organizers started gathering collections pertaining to the Games for future use in a museum and research facility.
It is relatively small - just one large room (but we are told it is expanding this year) - and a modest display but very interesting.
You actually have to hunt for the Museum (there is no sign on the street which points you to it). The museum is inside the Olympic Center, an imposing building right on Main Street in the center of town, decorated with the flags of the countries that competed in the 1980 Olympics, overlooking the outdoor Olympic Speed skating oval. ($6 but included on the Olympic Passport).
The Olympic Center contains three ice surfaces: the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena, the 1932 Jack Shea Arena and the USA Rink, as well as the offices of the Olympic Regional Development Authority. The rinks are used for training in competitive figure skating, hockey, and short track speed-skating. The 1980 Arena is best known as the home of the USA Hockey “Miracle on Ice.” You can walk in and out of the arenas and watch exciting world class athletic competitions and training, and there are guided tours.
So far, we have been exploring the Lake Placid attractions associated with the Olympics, and the Olympic Regional Development Authority makes it easy - and economical - by offering an Olympic Sites Passport.
Olympic Sites Passport
The Olympic Sites Passport (www.whiteface.com/plan/olympic-sites-passport) gives you access to every one of our Olympic venues—from Whiteface to the Olympic Sports Complex and everything in between. Sold for $32 at the ORDA Store and its ticket offices, the Passport saves you time, money, and gets you into the venues at a good value.
The Olympic Sites Passport includes one time admission to:
Whiteface: A scenic ride to the top of Little Whiteface on the Cloudsplitter Gondola (summer/winter)
The Olympic Center
Lake Placid Olympic Museum (summer/winter)
Olympic Speed Skating Oval (winter only)
Olympic Sports Complex
Take a tour of our world class combined bobsled/luge/skeleton track (summer/winter)
Olympic Jumping Complex
Tour the facility and ride the elevator to the skydeck on top of the 120m jump tower (summer/winter)
The passport also gives you discounts on various activities:
- 20% off the Lake Placid Bobsled Experience (summer/winter)
- 20% off the Lake Placid Skeleton Experience (winter only)
- $2 off Be a Biathlete (summer/winter)
- 20% off of photo novelties at Miracle Moments concessions (summer/winter)
- A free pin at the ORDA Store on Main St. with a $25.00 merchandise purchase (summer/winter)
- $1 off the Olympic Center Tour (summer/winter)
- $2 off the Sports Simulator Ride at the Olympic Center (summer/winter)
Lake Placid Toboggan Slide
Walking along the shore of the Mirror Lake and park to the restaurant, we see one of Lake Placid's unique attractions, since the 1960s: the Lake Placid Toboggan Slide. A 30-foot-high converted ski jump trestle sends toboggans down ice covered chutes onto frozen Mirror Lake. Depending on weather conditions, the toboggans can travel1,000 feet across the frozen lake surface (unfortunately, it is too early in the season during our visit, but I have it on a list of things to do when we return).
Lake Placid has any number - and variety - of charming restaurants and cafes.
Our first evening, we venture out to discover some of the charming restaurants and at the suggestion of the concierge find the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, housed in a former Church (multi-levels and magnificent stained glass), directly across from the Lake, serving "upscale" pub food (the Angus burger was fantastic; BBQ ribs, an appetizer of Portobello mushrooms that got rave reviews) and get the sampler of eight of their own brews including their staples, Ubu Ale, Moose Island Ale, 46'er Pale Ale, and Lake Placid IPA. (Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, 813 Mirror Lake Drive, Lake Placid NY 12946, 518-523-3813, E-mail: email@example.com)
After dinner, we stroll Main Street and come upon a marvelous selection of boutiques and shops - including some of the famous outlets like Bass - a delightful array of eateries, lodges, and a neighborhood-style movie theater (the Golden Arrow's generations Restaurant offers a "Dinner & Movie" package for $25).
North Country Attractions Offer Adventure, History
Besides the Olympic Sports attractions where you can participate in sports or visit the venues (see story), the Lake Placid area in New York's north region offers outstanding attractions.
Just outside Lake Placid Village, High Falls Gorge, a privately owned and operated attraction, is open year round with snowshoe treks in the winter months followed by complimentary marshmallows and hot chocolate. And in the summer months you can take the half-mile round trip walk and watch the famous Ausable River as it explodes into deep crevices in its 700-foot journey through ancient granite cliffs formed over a billion years ago by the forces of ice, water and wind. There are sturdy bridges, walkways and groomed paths that lead you to breathtaking views. Winter programs include Waterfalls & Snowshoe and Family Waterfalls & Mining. High Falls Gorge is also handicap-accessible. (Located on Rt. 86, Wilmington, New York, 518-946.2278, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.highfallsgorge.com).
The Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehabilitation Center is located on 50 acres, along the West Branch of the Ausable River, about a mile downstream from Whiteface Mountain, on that section of the river called "Lake Everest." The Refuge Center includes a one mile educational hiking trail, which also serves as a Public Fishing Access trail, and winds its way along the river and river sloughs, through forest and meadow. Birds that are in enclosures for education include Red-Tailed Hawks, Broad-Winged Hawks, Rough-Legged Hawks, Swainsons Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, Great Horned Owls, Barred Owls, Screech Owls, Turkey Vultures and Ravens. The refuge mascots are Cree, a wolf-hybrid, and Zeebie, a wolf pup. (977 Springfield Road, Wilmington, NY 12997, 855-Wolf-Man, 855-965-3626).
En route to Lake Placid, we cleverly planned a detour off the Northway to visit Ausable Chasm.
Ausable Chasm is reportedly the oldest and largest natural attraction in the Adirondacks and the one of the oldest natural attractions in the country, dating back to 1870 (probably one of the reasons that tourists started coming to Lake Placid). Since then, more than 10 million visitors have explored the chasm. The thrill is to walk along towering cliff walks alongside a primeval forest and look into the chasm from many scenic overlooks and vistas. there are nearly five miles of trails. In winter, you need to arrive no later than 2:30 pm since ticket sales close at 3 pm and you need to be out by 4 pm. (www.ausablechasm.com). (See Hiking Ausable Chasm, natural wonder in New York State's Adirondack Mountains and slideshow)
Also, the North Star Underground Railroad Museum, located in the Town of Chesterfield Heritage Center, which opened in May 2011, reveals the relatively unknown history of the Champlain Line of the Underground Railroad. The museum is open daily from Memorial Day-Columbus day, and by appointment at other times (www.northcountryundergroundrailroad.com).
John Brown's Farm
High in New York State's Adirondack Mountains is the home and grave of abolitionist John Brown. Most of us know the song "John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave," but most do not associate the words with this simple farm at North Elba, New York, just outside Lake Placid. On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and his followers assaulted the U.S. Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, planning to use the captured arms in an extensive campaign for the liberation of the slaves in the South. Brown was captured on October 18, 1859, imprisoned at Charlestown, Virginia, tried by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and hung on December 2, 1859. His body was returned to North Elba and was buried in front of his home on December 8, 1859. The remains of several of Brown's followers, who fought and died at Harper's Ferry, were moved to this small graveyard in 1899. You can take a guided tour around the quaint farm house and the grave site. You can also hike through the acres of land surrounding the property.
Our base for our travels is the Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort (see story), 2559 Main Street, Lake Placid, NY 12946, 800-582-5540, (518) 523-3353, email@example.com.The website, www.golden-arrow.com, also provides links to attractions and packages that include activities.
For further information, Lake Placid/Essex County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 2608 Main Street
Lake Placid, NY 12946,518-523-2445, 8 0 0 - 4 4 P L A C I D, 800-447-5224), www.lakeplacid.com.
Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner
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