When asked where to go to see the best fall colors, even many New Yorkers instinctively respond "New England." And while there can be no denying the strength of New England's claims to seasonal superiority, neither is there any need for Empire State leaf-peepers to "go abroad," not with their very own Adirondack Mountains -- a 6 million-acre state park -- beckoning them due north.
To be sure, the Adirondacks offer a different sort of autumnal splendor. Lakes (more than 3,000 of them), mountains (more than 100 over 3,000 feet) and unbroken forest (often as far as the eye can see) combine to create a more rugged, primitive canvas upon which Mother Nature paints her annual masterpiece. But it's much less congested and every bit as colorful. (The I Love NY website lists crimson, copper, bronze, burgundy, scarlet, mustard, goldenrod, pumpkin and canary, for starters.)
A movable feast
Given its size and topographical variety, it's hard not to find plenty of spectacular scenery in the Adirondacks during fall foliage season. But doing so requires both a car and a willingness to use it, since slight changes in elevation can make significant differences in the intensity of the colors and just a few miles can reveal an infinite variety of vistas and backdrops. Among the more rewarding drives, all of which are less than 50 miles in length are:
Route 73 starting at Exit 30 of the Northway (I-87) and continuing north through Keene Valley and Keene into Lake Placid, the Adirondack's premier destination
Route 28 starting at Exit 23 of the Northway and heading northwest through North Creek and into the town of Blue Mountain Lake
Route 28 starting in Blue Mountain Lake and continuing southwest past Raquette Lake and the Fulton Chain of Lakes to Old Forge
Route 86 starting in Lake Placid and heading northeast past Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington and then into Jay
Route 30 starting alongside Great Sacandaga Lake in Mayfield and heading north to Speculator and on into Indian Lake
There are, of course, other ways to take in the fall colors and even the most ardent of do-it-yourselfers will appreciate letting someone else do the "driving" for a while.
By land: See the forest through the trees on a vintage train ride via the Adirondack Scenic Rail Road (315-369-6290, adirondackrr.com) offers two round-trip excursions between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid (through Oct. 13, $19 adults, $11 ages 2-12) and Old Forge and Otter Lake (through Oct. 18, $15 adults, $9 ages 2-12), while the Saratoga and North Creek Railway (877-726-7245, sncrr.com, $35 adults, $25 ages 13-18, free 12 and younger) makes the two-hour-plus run between those two towns thrice daily.
By sea: Nothing brings the colors into better relief than seeing them from the middle of a large, mountain-girded lake. For that ocular pleasure, choose either the W.W. Durant (315-354-5532, raquettelakenavigation.com, $15 adults, $10 ages 4-11, through Oct. 13) sailing out of Raquette Lake, the Clearwater (315-369-6473, oldforgelakecrusies.com, $19 adults, $12 ages 2-12, through Oct. 14) sailing out of Old Forge, or the Mohican, Minnie-ha-ha, and Lac du St. Sacrement, all based in Lake George (518-668- 5777, lakegeorgesteamboat.com, $13.25-$20.75 adults, $6.75-$9.75 ages 3-11, through Oct. 26). If you prefer your water trips wet and wild, both Adirondack River Outfitters (800-527-7238, aroadventures.com, $79 adults, $65 under 18) in North River and the Adirondac Rafting Co. (518-523-1635, lakeplacidrafting.com, $85 each) in North Creek, run float trips through the 17-mile Hudson River Gorge well into October.
By air: Get a bird's-eye view of it all from the Cloudsplitter gondola at Whiteface ski resort in Wilmington (518-946-2223, whiteface.com, $20 adults, $14 ages 7-12) or the Northwoods gondola at Gore Mountain (518-251-2411, goremountain.com, $17 adults, $10 ages 7-12, through Oct. 13). Or go even higher in a hot-air balloon at the Adirondack Balloon Festival in Glens Falls, Sept. 19-22 (518-222-4593, adirondackballoonfest.org, rides $175-$210) or in a sea plane with one of several operators, including Helms Aero in Long Lake (518-624-3931, helmsareoservice.com, $40 adults, $20 under 13) and Payne's Air Service on Seventh Lake (315-357-3971, $40 adults, $10 children under 11), both for a 20-minute flight. Note: You also can drive to the top of Whiteface on the Veterans' Memorial Highway ($10 car and driver, $7 each additional passenger, both through Oct. 14).
While the lure of the Adirondacks has always been nature, up-close and personal, the mountains are not without their man-made attractions, and foliage fanatics should not overlook them, be it for variety's sake or in case the weather turns uncooperative. Among the most rewarding of these, especially in terms of appreciating the region's human and natural history, are:
The Adirondack Museum: Situated in the delightfully undeveloped hamlet of Blue Mountain Lake, this expansive, everything-you-could-possibly-ever-want-to-know about the Adirondacks educational facility will keep you fascinated for hours (518-352-7311, adkmuseum.org, $18 adults, $12 ages 13-17, $6 ages 6-12).
Great Camp Sagamore: One of the few publicly accessible "Great Camps" from the Gilded Age era is Alfred C. Vanderbilt's 27-building compound near Raquette Lake (315-354-5311, greatcampsagamore.org, $16 adults, $8 students, till Oct. 14).
The Wild Center: In the former logging village of Tupper Lake, this 7-year-old interactive museum focuses on the natural history of the Adirondacks. (518-359-7800, wildcenter.org, $17 adults, $10 ages 4-14).
Where to stay
Options run the gamut from modest roadside motels and lakeside cabins to rustically elegant Adirondack-style inns and resorts. Leaf-peepers will find the greatest concentration of choices in the two tourist centers of Lake Placid and Lake George, where dining and shopping opportunities (think end-of-the-season sales) abound. Those willing to think -- and travel -- outside the resort box, however, will find even more aesthetically compelling options among the park's many smaller villages.
Timing is everything
Historically speaking, colors begin arriving in the higher elevations in early September and peak around the end of the month. The show then works its way down into the lower elevations with the Lake Champlain and Lake George valleys peaking in mid to late October. The best seats for the 2013 season, however, cannot generally be selected in advance but must be sought out the day of the performance. To assist you in that process, monitor the progress of the colors by contacting the official New York State tourism department at 800-CALLNYS, iloveny.com or by visiting the independent Foliage Network at foliagenetwork.com. General information about the region is available from the Adirondack Regional Tourism Council (518-846-8016, visitadirondacks.com).