Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Whiteface Mountain Memorial Highway | Wilmington, NY | Adirondack Mountains

Pros: Incredible views, Easy drive, Fairly low cost, Trail to summit, Elevator to summit
Cons: None really

Looking to reach out and touch the clouds in the Lake Placid region without actually having to hike all the way to the mountain peaks? If you are in the area in the warmer months, there is a way, by driving up the Whiteface Mountain Memorial Highway and exploring the summit of Whiteface Mountain.

The Whiteface Memorial Highway is a great way to get an amazing view of the entire northern Adirondack region. You'll get to see the entire Lake Placid area below you, the High Peaks of the Adirondacks to the south, Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains to the east, the western Adirondacks to the west and to the north you can see into the northern portions of New York and beyond into Canada.

Not only that, but the road itself is an interesting drive with constantly changing views, you will get to explore a castle at the end of the road and at the summit, you can learn about the weather observatory there and the alpine summit area of Whiteface Mountain.

Where do I find the Memorial Highway?

The Whiteface Memorial Highway is located in the Town of Wilmington, New York which is about 12 or so miles east of Lake Placid. The highway branches off of State Route 431 a few miles outside of the center of town (and the intersection of Route 431 and Route 86). After passing through the toll booths, the road goes for about 8 miles while it climbs up the flanks of Whiteface. It ends in a parking area a few hundred feet below the true summit of the mountain. Here you can either take a trail and walk to the summit or you can take an elevator that's been carved into the center of the mountain from the parking area to the observatory at the summit.

How much does it cost?

The Memorial Highway is a toll highway, so you will have to pay as you pass through the toll booths.

Is it a scary drive?

I guess that depends on your temperament, but compared to other mountain roads like the Mount Washington Auto Road, this drive is a piece of cake. The ‘highway' name isn't a misnomer, the road is well built, wide and paved the entire way. There's only one lane up and one down, but there's plenty of room on the road and the shoulder. In addition there are few areas where the road really is on the edge of the mountain. Only at the very end is there a big drop along the road and at that point you will be parking up against the mountain so it's not that big of a deal.

What's at the top?

At the end of the road you'll have to loop around and through the "castle" that was built at the end of the road. I'm not sure quite why such a massive structure was built here, but it is pretty neat and quite imposing as it sits right below the summit cone of the mountain. Inside you'll find bathrooms, a small gift shop and a cafeteria. There are views from the castle if you want to stay inside and be out of the weather.

Depending on how much activity you are up for, at this point you can either take a trail along a ridge to the summit of the mountain or you can go down to the elevator entrance and take the elevator through the core of the mountain to the summit. Both ways are pretty cool in their own right.

I personally suggest that you go up the trail, as it is quite the experience. The trail makes its way along a rocky ridge that's fairly narrow as the mountain drops away on either side. There are guardrails and while the exposure if fairly high, the hike is easy and it's unlikely that you'd fall off (I've climbed it in the winter and had no problem). The views are just amazing as you go though. You can pretty much look all around you and in addition to the views down the slopes of the mountain, you get to see the mountains all around you.

The top of the mountain is home to a weather observatory along with the top of the elevator from the parking lot. There's a small outdoor patio area around the building and then the summit continues off to the south for a bit. The summit is above treeline so the views are pretty much everywhere. You can look down on Lake Placid, across the High Peaks and everywhere else. I think this is probably one of the best views in the Adirondacks because Whiteface is a mountain that sort of sticks up by itself and you therefore get a 360-degree view of the region without anything blocking your view.

As for the elevator, I usually take it down to the parking lot since the trip down the trail isn't any harder or more dangerous, but I like to get to experience the elevator ride too. It travels through the heart of the mountain and the door lets you see the inside of the mountain streak by as you travel down. When you reach the base, you are in a tunnel that's carved about 400 feet into the mountain and you slowly walk out towards the bright light at the end of the tunnel. It's really an experience.

How much time do I need?

Figure about a half and hour up and down the road as you stop to take in views and wait for other traffic. For the top, my guess is that you'll need at least an hour or two to really take in the views, read all the interpretive information and to just enjoy the mountain.


Whiteface is an alpine peak and the weather is generally colder and windier than you'll find in the valley areas. This is most noticeable in the spring and the fall when the variations are more extreme. You should bring something warm to wear and a wind breaker to help protect you against the wind.

When is it open?

The Memorial Highway is only open in the snow-free months of the year. It opens in mid-May and closes for the winter at the end of the Columbus Day weekend.

Other uses?

In the wintertime the Memorial Highway is a memorable ski trip. Parking is available at the toll booths and you can ski your way up the mountain on cross-country skis and then turn around and have an 8-mile downhill ski. It is quite the trip and you need to be well-equipped with proper winter gear, but if you are all set with that, it's well worth the effort to get to the top.

Final Thoughts

I really like the Whiteface Mountain Memorial Highway. It's an interesting drive up a very spectacular mountain that offers some of the best views in the Adirondacks. In addition to the views, you'll be able to explore the alpine summit area and you can sit and have a coffee in a castle as you take in the views.

If you are in the Lake Placid region you really should find the time to take a trip up the Memorial Highway, its well worth it and you won't be disappointed.

No comments: