These 7 destinations once open only to the Northeast’s elite now welcome visitors seeking a rustic retreat from the outside world
By Holly Riddle
“It was the beginning of the biggest, most important economic engine of the Adirondacks,” says Steven Engelhart, executive director at Adirondack Architectural Heritage, when asked about the development of tourism in the region and the building of the Adirondack Great Camps. “Around the middle of the 19th century, largely led by artists who came to places like the Catskills and the Adirondacks to paint, people began to view the wilderness very differently — not just as a place to exploit, but something that could be used for inspiration and recreation and refreshment.”
Among those people were families of great wealth — Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, for example — who needed a place to stay during their ventures outside nearby cities, and thus the Great Camps of the Adirondacks were born. Typically built on large tracts of land, near bodies of water, these Great Camps were usually self-sufficient, with their own gardens and staff, and they often reflected similar architecture, incorporating logs, stones and birch bark. They were rustic in style, while still reflecting the luxury that their owners were accustomed to.
Today, there’s no need for wealth and prestige if one wants to visit an Adirondack Great Camp. Many have been converted into public historic sites or resorts, even day camps, and are accessible to the general public, including these seven that can be counted among the most well-preserved in the region.
White Pine Camp, Paul Smiths
Built in 1908 by prominent banker Archibald S. White on 35 acres overlooking Lake Osgood, White Pine Camp is known for a few unique factors. It was President Calvin Coolidge’s home for 11 weeks in the summer of 1926, and it features a blend of unique architectural elements described as “pre-modern,” making it stand apart from some of the more rustic Adirondack Great Camps. The camp has served a public role since 1994, when it was gifted to Paul Smiths College and converted into a museum before gaining its current status as public lodging.
Today, guests can book the same cabins where President and Mrs. Coolidge stayed during their visit in the 1920s.
Tours run every Wednesday and Saturday from mid-June through August, then they are Wednesdays-only through September. Each day that tours are offered, there are two time slots – 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
“No reservations are necessary for the tours; people can just show up and meet at the entrance gate. The tours have historically cost $12 for adults and $6 for kids (cash only). We do not allow visitors outside of the historical tours. We try to keep the property quiet and private for our overnight guests,” Innkeeper Tim Moody said. https://www.whitepinecamp.com/
Eagle Island, Saranac Lake
Built in 1903 by Vice President Levi P. Morton, Eagle Island is literally that — an island that’s only home to the Great Camp’s buildings and Adirondack woods. According to Eagle Island’s executive director, Paula Michelsen, “You can take a mile walk around the island and feel like you’re in another world, which is what’s so wonderful for the youth camp. It’s a unique experience. Right now we’re running day camps — do you know any other day camp where you have to take a boat to get there?”
Eagle Island has been a children’s camp in some capacity since 1938, when the then-owners, the Graves, gifted the camp to the Girl Scouts. In addition to serving as a youth camp, the camp is also a National Historic Landmark, which Michelsen credits to the camp’s authenticity. “The reason it’s a National Historic Landmark is there were so few alterations to the buildings. Many of the buildings are essentially serving their same functions. The carpenter shop is still our carpenter shop,” she describes.
Today, visitors can see the camp for themselves during Open Island Days, during which transportation to the island is provided and, once there, guests can enjoy a self-guided tour. Upcoming Open Island Days take place Aug. 21–22, and registration is required at eagleisland.org.
Great Camp Santanoni, Newcomb
Built by Albany banker Robert C. Pruyn in the late 19th century and hosting notable guests such as Theodore Roosevelt, Camp Santanoni is the only Adirondack Great Camp that is both publicly owned and open to visitors year-round. Overseen by New York state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, the historic area and National Historic Landmark offers a wealth of outdoor activities for visitors, including hiking, camping, biking, skiing, snowshoeing and tours.
“Camp Santanoni is among the best-preserved examples of an Adirondack Great Camp. Many of its original buildings are still standing and in use today. Although it is not the largest or most elaborate of the Great Camps, it does contain some of the best examples of local Adirondack craftsmanship,” explains DEC Historic Preservation Officer Charles Vandrei.
Today, visitors can experience Camp Santanoni Historic Area for free. View a full rundown of the camp’s activities on the DEC website.
Great Camp Sagamore, Raquette Lake
Possibly the most well-known Adirondack Great Camp and, according to Englehart, one of “the most accessible to the public that’s in the best shape and really represents everything that a Great Camp is,” Great Camp Sagamore, built in 1897, was developed by notable architect William West Durant.
According to Robert Engel, historian at Great Camp Sagamore, “Every rustic hotel built by the National Parks, every full-log ski lodge constructed in Colorado, owes a nod or recognition to Durant. Durant’s style inspired many able followers by the 1890s, but Sagamore, Durant’s final masterpiece, is the Adirondack’s most accessible Great Camp. Its Main Lodge is the single most recognized building in northern New York State.”
Now, visitors can stay overnight at the camp, which is still surrounded by 100,000 acres of State Forest Preserve land, or take a two-hour historical tour.
Engel notes, “Sagamore’s structures are fragile and complex. Many are built with bark-on logs and peeled bark coverings. For 125 years, the blustery moods of a remote Adirondack lakeside have taken their toll.” As such, preservation projects at the camp are continuously underway, and, in 2020, the camp restored the wrap-around Main Lodge porch, following Durant’s original design. More: https://www.sagamore.org
The Hedges on Blue Mountain Lake, Blue Mountain Lake
The Hedges on Blue Mountain Lake is currently celebrating its centennial. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, The Hedges began as Duryea Camp in 1880, built by Civil War General Hiram Duryea, but took on the Hedges identity in 1921, when it began welcoming traveling guests to its array of cabins and public buildings. Now, the property still hosts families visiting the region, many of whom have been making pilgrimages to Blue Mountain Lake for decades.
While The Hedges does not offer historic tours, The Hedges does offer on-site dining for non-lodging guests with an advance reservation, unlike many other surviving Great Camps, for a chance to see the property without an overnight stay. More: https://www.thehedges.com/.
The Waldheim, Big Moose Lake
Built in 1904, The Waldheim considers itself the oldest family-owned business in the Adirondacks. Still run by the same family that built the property, The Waldheim stands apart among the Great Camps of the Adirondacks as it wasn’t initially built as a private residence, but has always remained open to the public.
With 17 cottages on 300 acres, the Waldheim, says co-owner Roger Pratt, whose wife Nancy’s grandfather founded the property, still operates much the same way it did in 1904 and still welcomes some of the same families, generations later, that it did upon opening. There are no televisions or clocks; guests are served three full meals daily; and, as Pratt says, “families can be families.” More: https://www.thewaldheim.com/.
Lake Kora, Raquette Lake
Lake Kora is, according to Steven Engelhart, one of the most intact and well-preserved Great Camps in the region — but it’s also one of the most exclusive.
Sitting on a thousand private acres, designed by William West Durant in 1898, once owned by the Vanderbilt family and currently owned by an undisclosed family based in New Zealand, Lake Kora is open to private guests through limited months of the year. Original architectural details, fixtures and furnishings are abundant, from the 20-foot dining table to the hunting trophies, billiards tables to heritage bowling lanes.
A luxurious stay includes accommodations for 24 people, farm-to-table meals and beverages, at a cost of $21,980 per night. More: https://www.lakekora.com/