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Turning Cartwheels Down Whiteface Mountain

Whiteface Mountain: A backyard big enough for every member of your family to play in... complete with its own fort.

View from the top of Whiteface Mountain

Growing up, my backyard was a magical world; a sacred square of green in a concrete jungle. The lavender tree that I would sometimes fall asleep under was home to a family of leprechauns, from my tree house I could see all the way down my driveway to my approaching handsome prince, and, when my father dug up all of the green grass and boulders of rose quartz underneath to further build upon that sanctuary, it was in my backyard that my friends and I waged dirt wars against each other before school. Maybe you have similar memories?

As my niece and nephews grow up, I watch their imaginations running wild in their own backyard. I share, with my parents, with my fiancé, with my brother and his wife, the joy of watching them grow up. And I share in the nostalgia for a time when that was me with boundless energy and limitless imagination, unconstrained by the size of the shrubbery and picket fence. And I sigh to myself, "George Bernard Shaw is right. Youth really is wasted on the young."

And then I asked myself, "why on earth are we nostalgic for a time when we could play in the dirt when this is our backyard? Why don't we go somewhere where we can all turn cartwheels and do handstands and play lookout and pirates?"

Whiteface Mountain Panorama from Veterans' Memorial Highway
Whiteface Mountain Panorama from Veterans' Memorial Highway

Whiteface Mountain, the fifth highest mountain in New York State, is the first place I think of for a special day with every generation of my family. It is a place where the lovers of history, the lovers of nature, the lovers of modern ingenuity and design, and the lovers of fresh air and scenic vistas can visit together and appreciate in its entirety. The road to the summit was dedicated in 1929 by then-New York State Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Though there is no doubt the four-year project made a significant impact on the engineers, construction workers, and stonemasons of the region in the face of the Great Depression, contrary to popular belief both at the time and today, neither Whiteface Castle (now Castle Café) nor the Whiteface Mountain Veterans' Memorial Highway were New Deal labor projects; instead, the entire $1.2 million project (approximately $21 million by today's standards) was paid for by the State of New York. In 1935, six years after its dedication, Franklin D. Roosevelt returned to cut the ribbon on the highway and dedicate it to our nation's veterans of the Great War, this time as President of the United States. It would later be rededicated to all American veterans.

Hewn from billion-year-old boulders, the twists and turns (some hairpin) up the Whiteface Mountain Veterans' Memorial Highway are an engineering marvel. As with so much of the early to mid-20th century, extreme care and attention were paid to the aesthetics of the highway; from the retaining walls to the curve of the road as it follows the curve of the mountain to the great stone boulders dotting the drive up. As you continue your ascent, take advantage of nine waypoints to stop, have a picnic, and take in the incredible views. When you reach the summit parking area, a guide will update you on the options for your visit. If your family is anything like mine, those options make all of the difference in the world and what makes this place family-friendly for the whole family.

I'm always surprised that no matter who I may be with, or even if I am with anyone at all, I can spend hours at this one part of the Olympic Mountain. Castle Café serves as a great place to congregate and have a bite if you didn't bring anything with you and also provide you with a place to choose your own adventure, will you walk to the top or ride to the top?

Whiteface Mountain Panorama from the Start of the Stairway Ridge Trail, Lake Placid in the Distance
Whiteface Mountain Panorama from the Start of the Stairway Ridge Trail, Lake Placid in the Distance

Walk to the Top

Don't let these tame stone steps fool you; while the hand supports continue in the form of sturdy iron hand-rails the stairs do not. Instead, you'll be making your way up 26 stories over 1/5th a mile and the convenient stairs turn to large smooth boulders. (Let me say, for the record, as with my fishing adventure, I do not own shoes truly appropriate for doing anything but strolling leisurely. My ballet flats served, but you would be well suited to wear something with more traction.)

Ride to the Top

There is no shortage of incredible engineering at Whiteface Mountain, but one of the most striking is the elevator to the summit. By the time it was opened to the public the President of the United States was in a wheelchair and could not reach the summit. Three short years of cleaving through solid granite, a 425-foot tunnel brought those who could not make the climb to an elevator that would bring them straight to the top. Today, even if you would prefer to spend a little energy on the trail this remarkable tunnel is not to be missed - so do both! Just because you went up one way doesn't mean you cannot come down the other.

Whiteface Mountain, the most famous of the Adirondack High Peaks, stands alone in this section of the forest preserve and, as a result, offers a unique opportunity for some of the most spectacular views in the world. From the top rocky outcrops and flat platforms with seating allow everyone a truly spectacular experience. From here you can see in every direction and on a pristine day you can see for 80 miles, even as far as Montreal, QC.; and from this special corner of New York State, you can share an incredible afternoon with your entire family.

"Yes, it is a great sight, one hundred and thirty-seven lakes that can be seen from the top of the mountain. You can see the whole range of the Adirondacks. Think of being able to see the Adirondacks, all of them, for a dollar. People are going to come here, my friends, and it is up to us, the citizens of the State of New York, to tell all of our neighbors in the forty-seven other States that they have to come and see this mountain, and not go back home without seeing it. To me, this is one of the finest things that the State of New York has ever done."
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, September 14, 1935

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Sunset through a set of wide bay windows
Sunset through a set of wide bay windows