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With Six-Million-Acre Adirondack Park in Its Backyard, Whiteface Mountain is East Coast Skiing At Its Most Authentic

Far from the urban associations of that world-class city downstate, Whiteface Mountain provides technical, steep, and sustained skiing.

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It’s not even 5:30 in the morning as I load into a snowcat at Whiteface Mountain. The coffee has just started to kick in; the rock and roll on the radio acts like a second alarm. I ride in the dark to the ski patrol shack on top of Little Whiteface, a 2,400-foot ascent. Uphill skiers are already booting up in the cold, dark parking lot below. Headlamps on, they’ll climb up as the rest of the world sleeps. In three hours, the lifts will start spinning. Still plenty of work left for these nighttime groomers. Still plenty of work for me, too. My ski boots won’t come off for at least another 12 hours.

Whiteface Mountain stands almost alone, the smaller peaks of Esther, Marble, Lookout, and Bears Den huddle among its massif. From afar it all looks the same, a monadnock among the mountains, plains, lakes, and rivers of the eastern High Peaks. As you pull into the resort, the prominence alone is enough to inspire. Long, steep, and sustained runs like the Slides lure with their off-piste technical terrain and gnarly vertical. The bowl-like shape of the mountain draws you in so intensely that it’s easy to miss the lack of large hotels, condos, and other lavish amenities.

Whiteface
The sun pokes out from behind the Adirondack high peaks. Photo: Nick Zachara

As a ski patroller, I’ve skied the mountain in all conditions, but this morning it’s perfect packed powder. My skis sink deep edges into the freshly groomed corduroy. I let out a whoop. It’s early March and just about everything on the mountain is open. My morning check is on Upper and Lower Northway. The steeps wake up my legs and the windblown powder on the lower section is a treat, good enough to want to lap for the rest of the day. I call in my trails for the grooming report over the radio—groomed, packed powder, powder—and head to my favorite chairlift, Little Whiteface Double, installed in  1988. On a powder day, be sure to get off at the mid-station as many times as justifiable and ski lap after lap of that fresh, northern New York snow. On a sunny spring day, ride the lift to its terminus. Get a little spooked by heights as you sail above the trees and take in the best view of the High Peaks Wilderness and beyond. Then thank your lucky stars that those before us chose to protect this place instead of developing it. 

Resort Guide 2022: See Where Whiteface Ranked in the East

On a clear day, the views from the summit will have you wondering if you’re really in New York at all. The Great Range in the High Peaks Wilderness rises to above 4,000 feet, and their particular shapes and contours cast such an impression on all visitors to this special place. There are no mansions on the hillside, no clear-cut logging operations. Just forest preserve, as far as the eye can see. It’s refreshing; it’s why I live here. Skiing for skiing’s sake.

Many locals who call the Adirondacks home have often told me, “If I didn’t live here, I wouldn’t live on the East Coast.” The six-million-acre Adirondack Park is by far the wildest place in the Northeast, and perhaps the greatest experiment in conservation in the country. Over 130,000 people call this place home. It’s not run by the Forest Service or the federal government, but by the state of New York. A little over half of the land is privately owned, and the remaining 45 percent is public land. One million acres of public land is classified as wilderness, but the majority is wild forest, deemed to stay “forever wild,” never to be built, logged, mined, or developed upon again. Priceless.

For skiers at Whiteface, that translates to a mountain experience that’s primarily about the skiing, the landscapes, and the authentic vibe of the place. This is a skier’s mountain, where locals are proud of the technical terrain and even the sometimes gnarly conditions. Truth be told, most of the time at Whiteface, I’m on my sharpest skis for carving groomers and the occasional “Iceface” conditions. However, East Coasters have a special knack for holding an edge with whatever they’ve got. Come as you are, and you’ll be in good company. Watch out for big storm days in February and March, with storm totals sometimes measuring in feet instead of inches. 

Whiteface
A crisp morning as the lifts start spinning serves up a chance for Whiteface skiers to revel in a blissful day in the Adirondacks. Photo: Eric Adsit

The year I moved here, 2010, fresh out of college and without a plan but with a love for the place, we got a 36-inch storm in March. It was the kind of storm that snows hard and is silently still. That first run, my ski partner and I got the fourth or fifth gondola up. He sneaked off into the woods, I charged down Approach to The Face, my favorite part of the mountain. I got first tracks on Empire, wiggling deep and quick powder turns down the narrow chute. Waist deep in snow, I opened up in the snowfields below, making soft and slow powder turns, soaking in every last wave all the way to the base.

Another way to embrace the Whiteface vibe is in the woods. The glades at Whiteface are intimidating—hard to find,  with tight trees, and sometimes, thin cover. They’re also some of the more memorable runs on the mountain. The woods slow me down, make me think about every turn. I love being among those tall trees, finding new corners of the mountain, and taking the time to soak it all in.

Also Read: The Top 10 Resorts in the East for Challenge

It’s always somewhat ironic to me that Whiteface’s legacy is one of Olympic speed and breaking records. Lake Placid, the charming town 20 miles from the mountain that’s home to the closest lodging and dining options, still cherishes its Olympic history, having hosted two Winter Games (1932 and 1980). You’ll see relics throughout the town and mountain. There’s the bobsled run at Mt. Van Hoevenberg, glowing on the hillside at night, and the Olympic Skating Oval in the center of town, right next to the Olympic Center that houses a museum and ice arena. The two ski jumps in the Olympic Ski Jumping Complex rise above any other manmade structure on the outskirts of town. They’re old and obscure. Some think they’re an infringement on the wild character of the place. I see them and think of home. 

On the mountain, you’ll see old scoreboards, monuments,  and start and finish buildings from those Olympic ski races. It may be well in the past, but the mountain’s Olympic heritage informs everything about the place, and that’s just the thing: You can revel in every powder turn, or channel 1980 Olympic gold medalist Ingemar Stenmark down Upper Parkway.
The one thing that ties it all together? When the skiing is good, folks get after it until their legs won’t take them any farther. The mountains—steep, sustained, and wild—are why we come, and why we stay.

Trip Planning: Whiteface and Lake Placid, N.Y.

Despite world-class terrain, Whiteface boasts a down-home vibe. Photo: Courtesy of Whiteface Mountain

Where to Stay

These are our top picks for comfortable and convenient places to stay in the region.

Most Luxurious: If you’re looking to stay somewhere within walking distance from town, check out The Mirror Lake Inn, with mountain views, two restaurants, and plenty of lodging options. It is the priciest on the list, but well worth the luxury and atmosphere.

Best for Families: The Crowne Plaza is a good and cheaper downtown option. Perched up on a hill with dramatic views of the High Peaks and Sentinel Wilderness areas, it’s a good locale for families with reasonable room rates.

Best for Couples: The Stagecoach Inn is the spot for couples, and a more personal and historic lodging option. Built in the late 1700s on seven acres of land, the Inn is the oldest building in Lake Placid. A complimentary two-course breakfast is included, as well as a free beverage during happy hour.

Where to Eat

Jen Jubin, EMT, herbalist, and manager of her family’s business, Cascade Ski Center, picks her favorite restaurants.

Origin Coffee Co. 

This spot should be your first stop in the morning. “They’ve got the sweetest staff, coziest hangs, and the best coffee,” Jubin says. Their breakfast sandwich with all the fixin’s is delicious.

Lisa G’s

Lisa G’s is another local favorite for dinner. “The lemon Caesar salad and calamari are two of my favorites on the menu,” Jubin says. Be sure to stop by on Mondays for their wing night (50 cents per wing).

Nori’s Village Market

This Saranac Lake market sells co-op goods and organic produce, and also has a cafe with coffee and smoothies. “Hands down the best grab-and-go lunch,” says Jubin.

Where to Après

Maddie Phaneuf lives in Lake Placid and is on the U.S. Women’s Biathlon team, currently training for the 2022 Olympics. When she can, she sneaks in ski days at Whiteface or in the surrounding backcountry. Here is her list of favorite spots after a long day on the snow.

Big Slide Brewery and Public House

This brewery in Lake Placid has the best brewed beer in town. You’re drinking: Big Slide IPA or one of their rotating sour beers. “Do you ever go to a bar and immediately feel at home? That’s Big Slide. I love sitting at the bar and chatting with the bartender and other beer-slinging folks after a day on the mountain,” Phaneuf says.

Top of the Park

Located on Main Street, check out Top of the Park for the most comprehensive cocktail list around, including beer cocktails and CBD cocktails, among their other delicious drinks. You’re drinking: their Bees Knees or Pamplemousse Martini. “Though this joint is small, it’s a very sophisticated space. Their cocktails are also some of the best in town. Not only are they so gorgeous you’ll want a picture, but they’re damn good. If the weather is nice enough, go sit on the deck, located right on Mirror Lake,” Phaneuf says.

The Cloudspin Bar and Grill

This restaurant and bar at the Whiteface base has windows looking out to the terrain you just skied. You’re drinking: A cold LaBatt Blue. “The Cloudspin Bar is a great choice for après, and it’s the only option right on the mountain. They’ve got a deck, a large bar, and lots of tables. Try anything on tap or your favorite cocktail, and the bartender will oblige,” Phaneuf says. 

The Lake Placid Pub and Brewery

Hit this spot late-night spot for a good beer selection, both their own beers but also a list of other cans and bottles. You’re drinking: their Ubu Ale. “Looking for that classic bar setting, with the pool table, darts, and jukebox? Head to the Pub. Not only are their beers great, but it’s just a nice place to hang with your friends after a long day of skiing. My favorite beer here is the Skyward IPA —but don’t forget to try the beer they’re known for, Ubu Ale,” Phaneuf says.

Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals is a lively joint that serves up great BBQ and an ambient bar scene. You’re drinking: Nutty Snowflake. “Smokes is located right in the heart of Main Street, so if you’re looking to continue your night, it’s the perfect place to start,” says Phaneuf.

What to Do Off the Slopes

Whiteface
Whiteface’s lack of commercialism is one of its best features, as is its storied Olympic history as host of the 1932 and 1980 games. Photo: Courtesy of Whiteface Mountain

If you’re looking for down-day activities, check out Mt. Van Hoevenberg for 54 kilometers of freshly groomed Nordic skiing, or take a run on the bobsled course. When the ice is thick enough on Mirror Lake, dog sled mushers set up shop on Main Street. Walk down to the lake and pay the driver directly for a dog sled ride across the lake with views of the High Peaks and beyond. 

How to Access the Backcountry 

If you’re coming from the south, The Mountaineer in Keene Valley should be your first stop before driving up Cascade Pass to Lake Placid. A local favorite gear store that’s been around since 1975, the Mountaineer’s staff is friendly and knowledgeable. They post a bulletin about the current backcountry conditions and can recommend local guides to hire, and share other insider knowledge about the area. Hiring a guide is helpful, but not necessary. If you have experience in avalanche terrain, pick up The Adirondack Slide Guide by Drew Haas at the Mountaineer. Do your research and check out options out of the Adirondack Mountain Club Trailhead at the Adirondack Loj. If you’re looking to backcountry ski, consider the Whales Tail, Avalanche Pass, and Mt. Marcy ski trails. Or, if a  remote backcountry hut for closer access to skiing is on your wishlist, check out the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Johns Brook Camps at the base of the Great Range. You can rent the huts directly on the Mountain Club’s website. At 3.5 miles into the woods, Grace Camp accommodates six people, while Camp Peggy O’Brien can fit up to 12.

 

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