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Trick question: what is the largest park in the United States?
No, it’s not Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon or the Great Smoky Mountains, or even those four natural giants combined. The largest park is not a national park at all, but Adirondack Park, which at around 6,000 square miles encompasses one-third of New York State’s total area.
Long a tourist destination, the park, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark, remains pristine, wild, and sparsely populated except for well-settled tourist destinations such as Lake Placid.
The very wealthy—the lucky few to claim names like Vanderbilt, Morgan, Post, Rockefeller, and Guggenheim—forged a unique architectural style and way of life in the Adirondacks long before the end of the 19th century. Here, the Grand Camps offered them another opportunity to lavish cash on rustic indulgences, where they enjoyed unparalleled privacy while dozing off in well-heeled style.
“You could come here and disappear,” said Edward Neuburger, a historian who leads tours at White Pine Camp, once President Calvin Coolidge’s summer White House.
“The idea of Great Camps was to make it look like you were roughing it but actually living in luxury. In the early 1900s, if you had a camp in the Adirondacks, you were here.
While the existing Great Camps for the most part continue to be the domain of the wealthy, a few are open for tours and even overnight stays that don’t require trust funds to afford.
The history of White Pine Camp, in typical Great Camps fashion, is replete with larger-than-life personalities. Originally White’s Pine Camp, it was the retreat of prominent New York banker Archibald S. White and his decidedly party-loving wife Olive.
On 35 lakeside acres, the Whites commissioned New York architect William Massarene in 1907 to design a suitable camp for recreation among the pines. Three years later, Addison Mizner has further refined the original Massarene design. Mizner will then transform Palm Beach and create Boca Raton, far from the Adirondacks.
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Dozens of wealthy and powerful people and entertainers – from politicians to Broadway dancers – frequented White’s, which featured two sites designated for the production of plays, an indoor tennis house, a bowling alley and a Japanese tea house.
In the summer of 1926, a phalanx of Marines and Secret Service agents, along with five telegraphers and an avalanche of reporters, descended on the camp, where “Silent Cal” Coolidge, plus his wife and two white collies, vacationed from July to September.
Things are quieter these days in year-round retirement. Visitors can stay in the adjacent President’s and Mrs. Coolidge’s cabins, or 11 other distinctive cabins, all outfitted in the finest Adirondack handcrafted rusticity and so artfully dispersed across the expansive lakefront property that other guests are rarely seen. or heard.
At rates ranging between $95 and $450 a night, cabins are now within reach of tourists of modest means.
Great Camp Sagamore, the former rustic kingdom of the Vanderbilts, is also open for overnight stays, as well as tours through the Swiss-inspired buildings.
“The guesthouse of 100 years ago is still the guesthouse of today,” said historical interpreter Steve McErleane.
Alone in a remote site on Raquette Lake, Great Camp Sagamore stands frozen in time, a masterpiece of rustic architecture and the most sophisticated and architecturally influential of the Adirondacks camps.
William West Durant, responsible for the construction of many large camps, designed Sagamore for his family to embody comfort and luxury amid unspoiled wilderness. Unfortunately, Durant was a better builder than a businessman, and he was forced to sell the property right after he finished it.
Enter Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, who upgraded his new purchase by adding the sprawling room, known as the Playhouse, for socializing, as well as a massive, sleek building for dining with dozens of friends, and more. Margaret, Vanderbilt’s second wife, further fueled the renovations, including a state-of-the-art hydroelectric complex, luxury lean-tos with call buttons to summon servants and what every outdoor enthusiast needs , a bowling alley.
“It was a bold response to respecting wild places,” said historian Robert Engel, whose great-grandparents were keepers at Sagamore.
With Margaret as “hostess of the player crowd”, Sagamore enjoyed visits from Jerome Kern, Gary Cooper, Johnny Weismuller and Howard Hughes.
The camp is now open for two-night “Simply Sagamore” stays from $330 and for a wide range of overnight educational programs covering environmental, cultural, historical and wellness topics from $400 per person . With 1,500 acres of private land at their disposal, guests never feel crammed in the middle of the 50-building complex.
The same bell that once announced breakfast, lunch and dinner for Vanderbilt guests alerts today’s visitors to meals.
“The beds, the tables are all the same,” Engel said.
Sagamore and White Pine are both tucked away from the cheering crowds, but they can’t compare to the remoteness of Great Camp Santanoni, the only state-owned Great Camp. Visitors must walk or cycle almost five miles one way to reach camp, or let Newcombe Farm’s friendly Percheron horses, Bob and Doc, lead you there in a winding carriage through the 12,900 acres that the camp’s first owner, Albany banker Robert Pruyn, amassed.
“Even getting here is an adventure,” said interpretive coordinator Jenn Betsworth, who guides visitors through a national historic site.
Still with plenty of wiggle room, visitors explore a resort that reflects an unexpected Japanese influence, thanks to Pruyn’s time there. They stroll along the shores of Newcomb Lake, hike at their leisure, and in the winter snowshoe or cross-country ski.
Unlike Sagamore and White Pine, Santanoni does not offer lodging, but its 45 buildings, fine rustic workmanship, and once self-sufficient farmhouse place it among the largest of the Great Camps.
When a break is needed from hiking and canoeing, Lake Placid provides all the tourist magnets, as well as the Olympic vibe of a town that has hosted two Winter Olympics.
At Lake Placid Legacy sites, visitors can take bank-turns with a professional driver on a dizzying wheeled bobsled or ride the gondola to the terrifying towers where ski jumpers took off during the 1980 Olympics.
The Cliffside Coaster, the longest in North America, puts riders on the path to the 1980 Olympic slide track. The Sky Flyer zip line glides at 30 miles per hour from the top of one of the jump towers to land at the base of the complex.
For more leisurely pursuits, board the Raquette Lake Navigation Company’s WW Durant to glimpse the private Great Camps that still dot the scenic body of water.
With more than 23 historic and contemporary buildings on 121 acres overlooking crystal-clear Blue Mountain Lake, the outdoor campus of the Adirondack Experience immerses visitors in the area’s rich history. Visitors can choose from a fleet of vintage wooden craft, from classic guide boats to canoes, to paddle around the lake.
The legacy of the Great Camps may well be how they shaped tourism in the Adirondacks. Exclusive camps like Kora Lake continue to welcome affluent clients. The charming and more affordable Hedges has been welcoming visitors since 1921.
Most accommodations, from upscale resorts such as High Peaks Resort in Lake Placid to the cozy four-cabin Potter’s Resort near Blue Mountain Lake, exude that laid-back character that the owners of Great Camps have worked so hard to hone. At High Peaks Resort, that means enjoying a glass of champagne cheerfully handed to guests upon arrival in the expansive lobby decorated with beautiful vintage canoes, while at Potter, that translates to a kayak—and a lake—less than 10 steps from your cabin.
Beyond the Adirondacks, the Great Camps have influenced our perception of wilderness tourism, of what we expect of accommodations when we commune with nature, since, as Engel de Sagamore notes, the rustic hotels of national parks to the ski lodges that dot the American mountains.
Learn more about the Adirondacks
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