By Tim Rowland
On a crystal clear summer day, bright but not too hot, two fat trout were drifting lazily in a quiet spot on the Schroon River in waters that hemlock tannin had turned the color of copper. No one had tossed a line in, but a couple of campers at the spanking new Frontier Town state campground said they were definitely thinking about it. For the moment, however, as they sipped on cans of Pepsi, the gravitational hold of a couple of comfy camp chairs was proving too difficult to break.
The campers didn’t have the place all to themselves, but safe to say they had plenty of elbow room. The RV section was full, but RVers, while welcome, are not quite the demographic that the state has bet $25 million on, in hopes that adventurers will use Frontier Town as a base camp for hikes in regional outdoor attractions, such as the Hammond Pond Wild Forest, Boreas Ponds, the Essex Chain and the Upper Works trailhead to the High Peaks.
Tent campers have been more scattered, and equestrians have been few. That’s not surprising, considering the campground had only been open for a few weeks and the state has been less than aggressive in its promotions.
There are no signs for Frontier Town coming off the interstate, or on the Route 9 turnoff. The only clue that it exists is a hanging shingle about the size of a Realtor’s for-sale sign back in the shadows. Signage is equally small and cryptic on the access road, which does a semi-circle and spits you right back out on the main road if you don’t know where to turn in to the campground proper.
If there are no heralds out on the main drag though, a big, bold stockade style gateway greets you once you’re in. The staff is friendly and helpful. The first impression of Frontier Town is of its overall sturdiness. Few are going to accuse it of being under-engineered. Trails and campsites are hardened with crushed stone, posts and beams are beefy, roads and parking lots are covered in rich black asphalt, and in all it seems that Frontier Town could quite possibly survive an attack of nuclear weapons. Eyebrows have been raised over the price tag—nearly $20 million in state funds—particularly when there are critical needs elsewhere in the park. But, for anyone who cares to look at it this way, it’s a solid investment in the out-of-doors at a time when the federal government is letting its park infrastructure crumble.
The comfort stations are festooned with blooms and designed with a Western theme in a nod to the old Frontier Town theme park that closed nearly 20 years ago. There is a recycling station, leach-free manure pits for the horses and a couple of charging outlets for electric cars.
Tent sites, all well-spaced, are of crushed stone with an inset of sand that, one camper said appreciatively, was flat as a table top. In all sites are ample faux stone fireplaces that you can’t help but love and hate at the same time. Ambiance is lacking, but at least the coffee pot will stay upright. There are picnic tables and playgrounds aplenty, multiple bays of cross-tie horse stalls and, God bless the state of New York if you happen to be an equestrian, the mightiest mounting block in the history of earth.
Patti Brooks knows a thing or two, both about horses and theme parks. She is active in the Eastern Competitive Trail Riding Association and, as a 5-year-old girl, inspired her father, Julian Reiss, to build Santa’s Workshop in Wilmington, a forbearer of America’s theme parks.
Brooks said she believes that Frontier Town has great potential as a destination for equestrians. Distance riders like to camp at places such as Frontier Town and use it as a base for rides ranging from 20 to 100 miles. “What they do for fun is go find a campground and ride,” Brooks said. “And there aren’t too many places they can do that. I think the Adirondack trails would be perfect.”
Brooks said horse people don’t know about Frontier Town yet because the news hasn’t hit the horse-related publications they read. But she believes that will change. “I think they would love to go there, and once they’ve been there I would hope they would spread the word,” she said.
Those asked at the campground mostly said they had heard about Frontier Town through word of mouth. But work is going on that will give it a greater presence. Open Space Institute spokeswoman Eileen Larrabee said the nonprofit is working with Studio A consultants and other interested parties “to develop a vision concept plan for the Frontier Town project site as a launching point for recreation and a destination for interpretation in this region of the Adirondack Park.” Their recommendations for amenities to make the area more attractive to tourists will be prioritized and presented to the state, she said.
One possible way to dress up the entrance would be through property on which sits the iconic (but decidedly non-Western) A-frame building just off of Exit 29 that was the face of the old Frontier Town. At least that’s what Muhammad “Mo” Ahmad is hoping.
In 2014 Ahmad took a flyer on the Exit 29 Sunoco station, which at that time was in the middle of nowhere. Ahmad bet that the glowing yellow Sunoco sign poking out of the darkness would be a welcome beacon to travelers whose tanks were on E with no prospects of getting gas, or anything else, for miles and miles. Others before him had bet the same thing, but the sparse Northway traffic had crimped its sustainability.
Then, less than three years later, Ahmad was surprised when friends started clapping him on the back and praising his business acumen—and offering to buy the Sunoco, just in case he might be interested in selling. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, at his State of the State address, had just announced his plans to make Exit 29 the center of the universe for the south side of the Adirondack Mountains. Ahmad laughed at the memory. “They said I was a genius,” he said. “I am no genius, just lucky.”
Instead of selling, Ahmad doubled down, buying the A-frame property, which, despite outward appearances, is in sound structural shape. Ahmad said he’d like to develop it into a welcome center and a Frontier Town museum recalling the old theme park. The A-frame could become a conference center and outdoors there is room for concerts and other events.
Ahmad said Frontier Town “needs a face,” and the A-frame property, which connects to the campground, could be just that. Meanwhile, he said he is working with OSI and the DEC to see what they have in mind. “There’s a lot of potential here, and a lot of things could happen,” he said. “It all depends on how we collaborate.”
Another amenity that’s almost complete is the $5.6 million Paradox Brewery, which is looking at a mid-September opening date, according to Paradox President Paul Mrocka. Located on Route 9 just north of the campground, it is what RV drivers slow down to look at. The independent craft brewery will have an expansive deck overlooking the mountains to the west, as well as a picnic pavilion, a tasting room and kitchen space.
Mrocka said he’s looking forward to seeing other developments pop up and is hoping for a much-needed hotel. “We think everyone can be successful,” he said. “When the trails go through, this will be your starting point.”
The trails, as they now exist, are nicely mapped out at a kiosk at the Frontier Town trailhead parking lot. There are some attractive, if unchallenging, trails in the campground itself, including a lovely promenade (“trail” doesn’t quite do it justice) along the Schroon River amongst tall hemlock and white pine. The river can be accessed, sort of, at a couple of stone-bordered overlooks, but a camper’s complaint was over a lack of a good put-in spot for kayaks for those who are less than agile. And concerns voiced by Adirondack Park Agency members that campers would make their own herd paths to the river seem to be coming true.
There are trails for horses, bikes and people, but they are not long, and the hum of unseen interstate traffic is a reminder that this is no wilderness. But, as the kiosk indicates, not far from the campground are a world of possibilities within a short drive. Some of the prettiest Adirondack hikes that no one knows about are almost literally right across the street to the east, scattered throughout the Hammond Pond Wild Forest. These are mostly wooded, and pass along streams, ponds and flows, and the state has plans to build trails to some nearby summits. (Construction of snowmobile-bike-horseback trails tied into the campground is underway, but the connector trails to points west have for now at least been halted by the courts due to the amount of trees they would destroy.)
A relatively short drive to the west will take campers to Boreas Ponds, the Essex Chain and the Upper Works, all of which are worthy destinations. But the question hanging in the air is whether Frontier Town will indeed become a hub, as envisioned by the state, from which hikers and skiers, and bike and horseback riders, can fan out to find fun in areas away from the hustle and bustle of Keene Valley.
Clearly, it will take time for the ultimate vision to be realized. But a couple of vital pieces are now in place.