Passing Through: Lake Placid

Whiteface provides access to some of the Northeast’s most technical resort terrain

Long before ski towns installed rollercoasters and zip lines, Lake Placid tempted summer visitors with old-fashioned clean, cold air. Nineteenth century Manhattanites without air conditioning fled upstate to escape industrial New York City’s humid and sticky summer. It didn’t occur to them to stay for the winter, when temperatures dropped and life back in the city became bearable once more. But, the beautiful Adirondack village soon grew into the town that would host the United States’ first Winter Olympic Games in 1932.

Unlike Salt Lake City, LP built its Olympic venues right downtown, and unlike Squaw Valley, it built them to stay. With world-class infrastructure for ski jumpers, figure skaters, hockey players, and bobsledders, the town quickly became home to both professional winter athletes and recreational enthusiasts. And in 1958, when Whiteface Mountain opened with a 3,166-foot vertical drop—more than any other resort in the east—alpine skiers started moving upstate, too.

When Placid hosted its second winter games in 1980, the community rallied around the event with pride, readying Lake Placid for the world stage without compromising their rural sensibilities. The Olympic committee cleared out nearby Paul Smith’s College campus and cut the school semester short to avoid sinking money into new mega-hotels. Athletes bunked up in dorms and the students found work at the games.

The ’80 Olympics did attract outside money and tourists, and some locals began calling the town “Lake Plastic.” Even so, the modest commercialization of the ’80s has yet to spur unchecked development. The downtown village isn’t more than a five-minute walk from end to end, and the Palace, the family-owned movie theater decorated with vintage murals, charges $7 for a weekend flick. The tallest structure for miles is the Olympic ski jump ramp. Most visitors come by car on back roads—the airport in Burlington, Vermont, is over two hours away. So if you find yourself in Lake Placid, it’s very much on purpose. One excellent reason to be in town is to ski.

Visitors don’t always see the appeal of “Iceface.” The mountain is nowhere near an east coast snowbelt—averaging just 230 annual inches. When there is snow, it often slides right off the steep and icy base or is pushed into windblown piles against the dense wall of trees that line the trails. Entire runs can turn into endless sheets of bulletproof. The best way to ski Iceface is to ski it fast, and with sharp edges. Snowmaking has improved in recent years and most mornings a solid layer of manmade coats the mountain. Still, ski early. Most trails become well-polished by early afternoon.

There are days where clouds swallow the summit and drop light, deep snow. On these days, hop on the Summit Quad, also called Chair 6, which delivers skiers to the Upper Mountain. Skyward and Cloudspin are classic Whiteface trails—fast and long and steep. Lap these runs to stay warm, and though the odds are against you, pray that the lift is out of the wind. To ski trees, head to Little Whiteface or Lookout Mountain. The long, tiring gladed sections here aren’t for the faint of heart. Like any wooded terrain back east, the trees are tight and the turns quick. For true backcountry skiing, cut right from the top of Chair 6 and traverse a few hundred feet to the Slides, which are avalanche-prone and rarely open. Four narrow, distinct chutes offer the mountain’s steepest skiing. When the conditions are right, these slides are the mountain’s sweetest spot.

My other favorite is Big Mountain Deli, which is right downtown and my go-to choice for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks. They advertise 46 varieties of sweet and savory crepes and sandwiches. Chair 6, a cozy restaurant, serves a fantastic breakfast with sweet potato pancakes and has an ambitious dinner menu. For beer, head to the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery. For whiskey, try Smoke Signals, a new barbecue joint. And for cocktails, check out Liquids and Solids, a restaurant that pours creative cocktails.

A good place to stay is the Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort, which is on Main Street, overlooks the lake, and is within walking distance of the Olympic Training Center. Rooms start at $149. For cheaper lodging, there’s also a Crowne Plaza and Hampton Inn downtown. To experience Adirondack design at its glitziest, book a room at the Whiteface Lodge or the Lake Placid Lodge—both are log cabins on steroids and decked out with antler racks. Come winter, LPL offers dog sled rides across the lake, and hotel staff build a nightly bonfire on the lakeshore. A KOA with RV sites and cabins is closer to the mountain, if that’s more your speed.