Great Beginner Family Hikes in Lake Placid
When we went on our first family trip to Lake Placid a few years back, hiking wasn’t really on our minds. With a three year old in tow, we were more interested in leisurely swimming in a calm lake, kayaking, going in the pool and maybe even playing some tennis at our hotel. We soon found that you would have to work pretty hard to go to the Adirondacks and not end up on some sort of nature trail at one point or another.
Thus we found ourselves on one of the most breathtaking 30 minute nature walks you can imagine at High Falls Gorge. Stroller and wheelchair accessible, this walk affords dramatic views of waterfalls cascading over rocks carved out a billion years ago.
Next we ended up on Whiteface Mountain, where you can take an elevator to the peak (thank you FDR!) and walk back down on a dramatic rocky path. (Or, I guess, vice versa?) At an elevation of 4,867 feet, the views of Lake Placid are pretty awe-inspiring.
Both are these activities had a pretty huge payoff for pretty minimal effort… my then 3 year old was fine with both. The views, the natural beauty in this place… it leaves you wanting for words.
This time around, we were ready to take the kids on a proper hike.
I purchased used versions of three different books to help us plan. I referred to each one quite a bit — they all came in extremely handy: Kids on the Trail, Hiking with Children in the Adirondacks, 12 Short Hikes Near Lake Placid, and Adirondack Birding (we would never have identified that three-toed woodpecker without this one!).
We planned to do three hikes during our six day trip. I’ve seen my younger son walk for three hours straight bird-watching in the summer sun, but I knew that starting with way less than that would be wise.
After researching the best hikes for kids, we were choosing from: Owls Head, Mount Jo, Cobble Hill, Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center, Brewster Peninsula and Henry’s Woods.
I loved the sound of the woodsier landscape within Henry’s woods, since many of the others on our list were mountain trails, but at almost 4 miles, it was one of the longer ones we were considering and I didn’t want to break my rule of not over-doing it. We decided to save that one for next time.
We settled on a plan to do Owl’s Head, Paul Smiths and Mount Jo. But my son got sick on our last full day there! So instead of Mount Jo, we did Cobble Hill the day we were leaving, which was short and very close to our hotel. We hiked in the morning and then got in the car and headed straight back to NYC. All’s well that ends well!
Owl’s Head– 1.2 miles, elevation 460 feet
Our first hike ever with the kids! One thing I learned about a lot of the Adirondack trails – there is a bit of a rush to get to the top. That means lots of climbing. And the climbing on Owl’s Head starts straightaway. But it’s manageable, even for amateurs like my family. The kids loved it. Children are natural climbers. It’s easier for them than for us.
In fact, my kids were very cocky about how easy it was. My husband and I laughed as they sang a slightly different tune on the way down. I may invest in walking sticks at some point. They are definitely helpful on the descent.
One of my favorite things about hiking is moss. And I have gotten my kids on board with this obsession. We also found so many cool mushrooms, as our trip happened to coincide with insane rain. Wild blueberries were also fun to spot. Being on the lookout for these little treasures helped keep the kids engaged. There’s a rock climbing wall at the peak and we all had fun watching the rock climbers.
We bought sandwiches for lunch at the Adirondack Corner store, to take on this hike. They were great, but we spent almost $50 for all four of us, including snacks. My husband and I should have shared one sandwich. For the remaining hikes, we wizened up and PB&J’ed it.
Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center (“The VIC”), Heron Marsh Trail– .8 miles
I could come back to this amazing place a million times over. The trails at the center are painfully beautiful and meticulously marked. There are many different loops that can be done alone for shorter hikes, or combined for longer ones. We went through so many different landscapes on this one short trail.
The Paul Smiths trails are woodsier than the mountain hikes, which is what I love most. I truly felt a million miles into the forest. The excitement of the day was seeing a Great Blue Heron in the marsh. It was on this hike that we also saw our aforementioned three toed woodpecker, as well as a beautiful little unidentified warbler and some nuthatches and chickadees. The butterfly house is wonderful. Stop in on your way in or out if you visit, for sure.
Many of the beautiful trails here become cross country skiing and snowshoe paths in the winter and we’re now pretty intrigued by the idea of snowshoeing. I never have, but suddenly, all at once, it seems palpably obviously to me why you would want to.
Cobble Hill– 2.0 miles, elevation 450 feet
Our last minute hike! We decided to squeeze this in literally on our way home, and were glad we did. The most pertinent piece of information here is that there is a short path to the peak and a long one. Many people take the short path up and the long path down. We chose to do the same to keep the hike a manageable distance.
But the short path requires you to, according to 12 Short Hikes Near Lake Placid, “climb up or scramble around a steep slab near the top” and “some folks, including young children might find the exposure intimidating.” I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. Now I know!
In truth, it was a bit of a dicey climb. We stuck to the left side and I really don’t know if we made our ascent in the best (or worst) spot. I had a legit moment of fear as my shoes slipped a bit down the too smooth rock. But the kids were ok and this slightly scary spot was over with pretty quickly. It was an adventure and my boys were pretty proud of having done something that had a whiff of fear to it.
The peak is reached very quickly and we saw lots of birds – two cedar waxwings, thrushes, a junco and a few others we couldn’t identify. On the way down, the trail meanders along Echo Lake for a bit, where we spotted a mama duck and her babies.
A few things I learned about hiking with kids…
- -Every trail takes longer than expected.
- -If possible, break the hiking days up. We had no choice but to hike consecutive days because of weather and my kids got a bit uppity about it.
- -PB&J, all the way.
- -Pants, always pants.
- -Having the kids search for items helps keep them engaged.
- -It’s hard to get kids to shut up so that you can hear the sounds of nature, but it’s worth asking them what they hear every once in a while to attempt to encourage them to do so.
- -Kids have an irresistible urge to run. Lots of reminders are needed to make them aware that the woods are not the park.
- -Lightweight walking sticks would be very helpful on the way down.
- -We carried some stuff for our kids. You can only carry so much, so it’s a good idea to keep extra water in the car for the inevitably thirsty ride back.
After Cobble Hill we packed ourselves up, got in the car and began the journey home, listening to an audio version of Fellowship of the Ring. (Nerds!) Every word took on a richer tone as we drove through the mountains and tall trees of the Adirondacks.
Next time we’ll do Mount Jo, for sure, and hopefully Henry’s Woods. I will definitely return to the VIC as well. To say nothing of the endless trails for more experienced hikers that I hope are a little further down in our future.
The only other very important piece of information I feel I must impart is that, if you go to Lake Placid, you need to get a pulled pork sandwich from Smoke Signals.
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