Winter? These Guys Made Winter.

The Olympic Theme Park

Dec 1, 1998
Outside Magazine

Lake Placid's Main Street, which stretches about a mile along the shore of Mirror Lake (and not the larger namesake body of water that lies to the north), is an apparition of constant freneticism stranded in the frozen heart of the Adirondacks. From whichever direction you approach, the town's emphatic contrast with the surrounding pastoral lull comes as a bit of a shock. But equally surprising is that the village still seems tiny—too tiny, in fact, to have hosted a recent Olympics.
Just at the village's entrance, though, as New York 73 curves west into Main Street, you'll spot the Games' first grand-scale Kilroys: the open-air speed-skating oval and the vast Olympic Center, where the underdog American hockey team so memorably whipped the Ruskis. Out on the oval, it's hard to resist imitating the speedsuit-clad racers, hands tucked behind their backs as they blaze past. But this act usually lasts no more than about 10 laps, after which you'll have to take a seat to ease the burning in your quads. Inside the echoing, bunkerlike Olympic Center are a museum and four rinks, a couple of which are usually hosting a hockey tournament or curling practice. Watch a while, and then huff through a few training laps of your own.

Farther up the main drag, the road narrows. On your right is Mirror Lake, encircled by a brick sidewalk that's a popular two-and-a-half-mile stroll on sunnier winter days and typically frozen solid and skidded across by dogsledders and skaters. Main Street's 100 or so shops are half kitschy, half charming: the inevitable Gap and U.S. Olympic Spirit Store indiscriminately sifted together with village institutions like High Peaks Cyclery, an 8,500-square-foot temple to snazzy athletic gear, and With Pipe and Book, where locals escape the cold for used tomes and tobacco blends.
To find the rest of the Olympic venues, you'll have to head out of town. A 15-minute drive through dramatically beautiful High Falls Gorge leads to Whiteface, New York's largest ski area, where you can hurtle down Parkway, the super-G course dominated by Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark in 1980. Home to the East's largest vertical drop (3,216 feet), it's also home to decidedly eastern skiing: brutal winds and icy conditions. (The resort's owners recently tried to combat its stubborn nickname, Iceface, with a $2 million snowmaking investment.) Still, the serious steeps up top attract plenty of expert skiers and big events, including last year's U.S. Ski Team Gold Cup. On the way up, keep an eye out for snowshoers doggedly scrambling the snow-clogged trails along the road; these are would-be "46ers," racking up winter ascents of all 46 of the region's 4,000-plus-foot peaks—Whiteface included.
For a steeper incline, head five miles south on New York 73 to the ski-jumping complex and its 90-meter and 120-meter ramps. Having rejected advice to build into a mountainside, the 1980 organizers instead bestowed these rusting high-rise souvenirs. But it's still a kick to ride the elevator to the top, take in the view of the surrounding mountains, and peer down the long run, wondering to yourself, Why on earth would anyone...? (To watch the pros answer this question, call the Olympic Training Center at 518-523-2600 for the current week's schedule of practice sessions.)
The remaining venues—bobsled, luge, and nordic skiing—can be found at Mount Van Hoevenberg Cross Country Center, farther out on 73. Here you can rent skis, take a lesson from the ski school, and scope out the serious racers, recognizable by their ripped Lycra. Lake Placid's trail network is the best in North America, and Van Ho's 31 impeccably groomed miles are the showpiece. All the 1980 trails are still used, including the infamous Russian Complaint, a grunt so steep and so long that the Soviets protested. The Porter Mountain loops, where the men competed, are twisting and tough; the women's 5k course, meanwhile, is better suited to intermediates.
Skiing through the woods, you'll occasionally hear PA-amplified announcements crackling through the air: "One minute, four seconds!" That would be the bobsled. Dubbed the "Champagne of Thrills" to justify its $125 price (no doubt town fathers nixed the more economically accurate "White Colombian Powder of Thrills") the ride sandwiches you between driver and brakeman as you hit 75 miles per hour, bolting around steep S-turns pinned down by 4.5 g's. Meanwhile, at the twisting Luge Rocket next door, you'll go solo on a sled retrofitted with a roll bar. Lie on your back and stick your feet out in front, but don't try to steer—Isaac Newton does the driving.
To regain your equilibrium afterward, stop by the new Lake Placid Pub & Brewery (518-523-3813), home to great live music and a particularly soothing Lake Placid IPA. Or head seven miles west on New York 86 to Casa del Sol, a noisy and fun local Mexican joint offering up great jalapeno-tequila mussels, Cadillac margaritas, and 400 kinds of courage-restoring hot sauce.