"Upstate New York may be America's best-kept secret," wrote George Meegan, an Englishman who made a seven-year, 19,000-mi trek (ending in 1983) through the Americas, in his account The Longest Walk.
The "secret" world of the Adirondacks and Thousand Islands region of New York—referred to as the North Country—includes everything from refined civility to absolute wilderness. You might cross paths with the rich and famous, or you might cross paths with deer, bear, loons, and beavers. It just depends on how and where you choose to spend your time in the region.
Much of the region is part of 6-million-acre Adirondack Park, the largest park in the continental United States. In fact, it's bigger than Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Everglades, and Glacier national parks put together. Girding the blue-green, pristine mountain wilderness are lakes and rivers, principally Lake George and Lake Champlain to the east, the St. Lawrence River to the north, and Lake Ontario to the west.
The secret character of the region came about through disregard. The rugged land, inhospitable soil, and often unmerciful winter conditions sent early American settlers elsewhere for good farmland. Only the east, from Saratoga Springs, just outside the region's southern rim, to Lake Champlain, saw any significant settlement early on.
The extended disinterest proved, in the long run, a boon for wilderness lovers. By the 1800s the idea that there was value in the wilderness itself began to gain popular support. Fans as disparate as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Teddy Roosevelt discovered the Adirondack wilds and returned praising their virtues.
After the publication in 1869 of William H. H. Murray's classic Adventures in the Wilderness, extolling the freshness and purity of the Adirondack air, the area became recognized as a place for recuperation. A couple of decades later, wealthy families discovered the Adirondacks, giving rise to the building of rustic "great camps." These remote lodges were built of native wood and stone and had a rough-hewn look to them, but they were otherwise spacious and luxurious. One of the great camps, Camp Sagamore, was built in 1897 in the village of Racquette Lake. Now open for tours, it's a good example of what it means to rough it upper-crust style.
Though forgotten for much of the 20th century, the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid sparked renewed interest in the Adirondacks, Lake Placid in particular. The largest city in the region, however, is Watertown (population 27,000), which is in the Thousand Islands area but not on the water. The 1959 opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, connecting the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, prompted modest growth in the smaller cities, as did the opening of Interstate 87 in the 1960s. There are no big cities here, but cities aren't the draw in the Adirondacks—escape is.
In fact, it's the sparseness of civilization that visitors seem to enjoy most about the region. Hiking trails and a plethora of lakes and rivers throughout the region offer plenty of opportunities to explore. In fall, when the leaves change color, the great expanses of forested land make for one of nature's most dramatic spectacles.