Peak Season: Head to Old Forge for a glimpse of the Adirondacks.

Kurt Gardner Photo
Aerial shot of the Old Forge lakefront.

Just northeast of Central New York lies a natural wonderland of 6 million acres, 3,000 lakes, 30,000 miles of streams and rivers, and more than 2,000 miles of hiking trails. It’s the Adirondack Park, and our nearest gateway is the resort village of Old Forge, about a two-hour drive from Syracuse.

Although Old Forge is small (with a population of around 750), it rolls out a big welcome to visitors in every season. Fall’s slightly cooler weather, spectacular foliage, and smaller crowds make it an ideal time to plan an October weekend family getaway or day trip.

Old Forge’s nickname, “the Paddling Capital of the Adirondacks,” tells you water sports take center stage. Not only does a river run through it (the Moose River, to be exact), but the village sits at the base of the Fulton Chain of Lakes. While many associate Old Forge with Enchanted Forest/Water Safari in the summer and snowmobiling, cross country and downhill skiing in the winter, other shoulder-season activities make an October or even November visit worthwhile.

Whether you come for the rivers and lakes, mountain views, scenic tours, shopping, dining, or an overnight stay, be advised that many businesses either reduce their hours or close after Columbus Day weekend. So as you plan your trip, it’s best to call ahead or check websites for hours of operation.

Go by boat

If the weather’s still good, why not take the family canoeing? Rentals are one way to test the waters. Family-owned Tickner’s Moose River Canoe Trips can launch your crew on an hourly, half-day or full-day trip in a canoe or kayak with all the necessary water safety gear. A van will shuttle you to the put-in site and return to pick you up at Tickner’s dock at the end of the trip.

Mountainman Outdoor Supply Company has kayaks sized for kids along with adult and tandem kayaks for half-, full- and multiple-day rentals. Mountainman also rents camping gear: tents, sleeping bags, cook stoves and cooking gear. Its paddle sports shop in Old Forge has more than 1,000 canoes, kayaks and paddleboards in stock—which you can try out on the Moose River—and the gear and clothing shop can outfit adventurers from kids to adults.

If your idea of boating is to sit back and relax, Old Forge Lake Cruises offers a daily sightseeing cruise through Columbus Day. The two-hour cruise departs from Old Forge Pond and follows the Fulton Chain of Lakes to Fourth Lake. Special pricing is available for children age 13 and under; in good weather kids get to meet the captain, drive the boat and earn a junior captain’s license. The PV Clearwater has an upper and lower deck, is handicapped accessible, and is equipped with restrooms and a snack bar.

Riding the rails

Few modes of transportation offer the romance of railroads, and the Adirondack Scenic Railroad in nearby Thendara captures the best of train travel. In October choose from a handful of themed round-trip rides including a fall foliage tour, a haunted history tour, and a pumpkin train that takes passengers to a pick-your-own pumpkin patch. In November, the Santa holiday train includes a visit with the jolly old elf and Mrs. Claus. Check its website for specific dates and times.

Or, to get to Old Forge, drive to Utica from Syracuse, take the train to Thendara, spend the day in Old Forge, and return the same way. The roundtrip Utica-Thendara run operates Thursdays and Saturdays with 9:30 a.m. departures and 7 p.m. arrivals.

Adirondack high

The pinnacle of an Adirondack visit is the moment when you stand on a mountaintop and take in the gorgeous landscape below. If you’re up for a relatively easy hike, Bald Mountain is suitable for small children and welcomes dogs on a leash. The route is approximately 1.7 miles roundtrip and takes you to the base of Rondaxe Fire Tower, which you can climb for a spectacular view of the Fulton Chain of Lakes.

That’s entertainment

Back in town, whether or not you have time for a movie, the Strand Theatre is a must-see. Hidden behind the small marquee is a combination multiplex/film history museum/jaw-dropping collection of motion-picture paraphernalia and Hollywood nostalgia. A 45-foot-long hallway connecting the quaint snack bar area to three of the Strand’s four theaters is lined with everything from stage lights and movie projectors to film cameras and posters.

Stop and shop

Just a block uphill from the Strand is Old Forge Hardware, “The Adirondacks’ Most General Store,” a multi-level shopping experience that brings together a bookstore, yarn shop, housewares, gourmet foods, outdoor gear, resort clothing, jewelry, candy shop—and that’s only scratching the surface. If you can’t find it at Old Forge Hardware, you won’t find it anywhere.

Across the street, Souvenir Village is exactly what its name implies: a mecca for tourists looking for that perfect Adirondack-themed item to take back home. A few storefronts down, Rainbow Zen, “the ultimate cool shop,” fulfills every flower child’s whims with international hand-crafted gifts from a variety of countries, hemp jewelry, tie-dye items, incense and room upon room of bohemian style.

For those with a sweet tooth, the Candy Cottage offers a wide selection of goodies including homemade fudge, fresh hot mini-doughnuts, and nostalgic treats like wax bottles and candy buttons.

Where to eat

A number of restaurants are kid-friendly and offer either children’s menus or foods that appeal to every age. Slicker’s menu includes sandwiches, burgers, pizza, seafood, soups and salads. The Adirondack Dog House’s hot dogs have been voted best in the Adirondacks for two years in a row. Keyes Pancake House is Old Forge’s answer to IHOP. Walt’s Diner has people waiting in line for breakfast in peak season.

The Front Door Diner is Old Forge’s newest restaurant, with a nostalgic soda shop feel. And Billy’s, open only for dinner, is a favorite among locals and tourists, earning rave reviews for its Italian specialties, and has a kid’s menu with both appetizers and entrees.

Where to stay

Two places with year-round accommodations are popular with families. For a fall visit, reserve a room at the Water’s Edge Inn and enjoy the indoor pool and sauna, fitness room, free WiFi and continental breakfast. For more rustic accommodations, Old Forge Camping Resort has log cabins, Adirondack cottages, and RV and tent camping.

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