Canoe camping in the Adirondacks

Canoe camping in the Adirondacks (ADKs) in upstate New York is one of the best ways to enjoy peace and tranquility, amazing remote wilderness, and also some of life’s creature comforts.

The Adirondack Park is a 6-million-acre wilderness area that’s larger than the National Parks of Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and the Great Smoky Mountains combined.

The park is best known for the famed Adirondack Mountains, a series of dramatic peaks, more than 40 of which are taller than 1,219 m / 4,000 ft. When I was a child, my family spent many a summer and fall weekend hiking these peaks, many of which tower well above the tree line and provide amazing vistas for those willing to climb to the summit.

However, these wonderful peaks represent only a small part of the extensive park. The rest of which is chock full of thousands of rivers, creeks, ponds, lakes and streams. This lesser known and less travelled part of the park is where you can truly get away from it all, and the very best way to visit this natural paradise is via canoe.

canoe camping in the adirondacks eric

I just love spending time in fall paddling on one of “my” ADK lakes

Canoe camping in the Adirondacks amidst a plethora of lakes and streams

The Adirondack Park has more than 3,000 lakes and ponds, and endless miles of rivers and streams, providing an plethora of possibilities for canoe enthusiasts.

Some of the lakes here have seen some development, such as Lake George and Lake Placid, both of which have numerous inns, cafes and restaurants. If you’re looking to combine your canoe adventure with some other attractions and activities, this might be your place.

However, there are also a great number of pure wilderness lakes for those who don’t mind roughing it a little in return for a much more intimate and private Adirondack experience.

And best of all, many of the lakes here ban all forms of powerboats, so you won’t have someone jet-skiing in front of your campsite while you’re  trying to enjoy your “commune with nature”.

Most (if not all) of the primitive canoe destinations in the Adirondacks are listed on various maps and have designated campsites, so it’s really not all that difficult to do these trips.

Just be advised that in spite of the remote and relatively un-trampled nature of these adventures, these sites can get filled up on a busy summer holiday weekend. This is especially true for the coveted “private island” campsites, which go quickly.

Therefore, the best time to go is midweek, if you can swing it; second best is to get there early on Friday and third best is to be there really early on Saturday. If you get there Saturday late morning, you’ll have to take what’s left.

But don’t dismay. I have never found a campsite in the Adirondacks I didn’t like.

The little harbor on our private island

The little harbor on our private island – not a bad place to spend a couple of days

Beware of bears as they can ruin your canoe camping in the Adirondacks

Black bears are far more of an issue in the High Peaks region, but they are everywhere in the Adirondack Park, and trust me, if they smell food, they’ll try to get at it.

In the old days you could hang your food on a tree, but the bears have figured this out. One of them realized that they just have to slice the rope around the tree trunk with their claws and “voila”, the food drops form the sky; within one season, these news had spread throughout the bear world of the ADKs.

Therefore the best way to prevent bears from bothering you and eating your food is to get a bear canister (a plastic tub that looks like a small beer keg). In fact, these are mandatory in the Eastern High Peaks region in the summer, so you can easily rent them at any local outdoor shop. They are a pain in the ass if you’re hiking (heavy and cumbersome), but with a canoe, it’s no problem.

Don’t forget to also put things like your toothpaste and deodorant into the canister. They also attract bears, and should be banned from your tent — this also goes for midnight snacks.

But don’t be too scared. Black bears in the ADKs are generally not dangerous or aggressive, or that big … but they are smart!

A few years ago a ranger told me that these ADK bears figured out that if they stand up on their hind legs and make a roar, hikers will drop their bags and run. Yogi would have respected this technique for getting another “picnic basket”.

Aerial view of one the the ADKs remote lakes

Aerial view of one the ADKs’ remote lakes – you can’t see any bears from this view, but there are for sure some around

Why a canoe camping in the Adirondacks is the best way to enjoy the region

Unlike hiking, where you really have to watch your weight and bulk, there’s plenty of room in a canoe to bring all those creature comforts that make sleeping in the woods so much more luxurious.

I’m talking about oversized sleeping pads, a big roomy tent, convenient lights and plenty of clothes for all weather possibilities. But most importantly, you can bring real food and the equipment to cook it.

I never liked freeze-dried food; it’s pricey and can get pretty boring. When canoe camping, I have the luxury of bringing along juicy steaks and a grill to fry them on. In addition, I can pack real veggies and fruits and pretty much anything my heart desires, including NY cheesecake.

My father’s best friend was a gourmet chef and also a huge canoe camper. If you were lucky enough to be invited to go a on a trip with him, you were in for a culinary experience, and great food tastes 10-times better when you’re in the wilderness.

Camping on our own private island

Camping on our own private island – with the center of the camp being the bondfire place aka kitchen

Canoe camping in the Adirondacks amongst the remnants of the rich and famous

Of course I was not the first one to think of bringing luxury in to the ADK lake region. Back in the gilded age when robber barons ruled the land, the Adirondacks were the “in” place to be. Families like the Vanderbilts, Astors, Guggenheims and Rockefellers all built “Great Camps” here to experience and enjoy the simple pleasure of the “great” outdoors.

These were not shabby tents or leantos. These guys had cash and knew how to spend it.

The Point on Upper Saranac Lake

The Point on Upper Saranac Lake

The best place to see these rustic “mansions” is on Upper Saranac Lake, which is where most of the “Great Camps” were built. It’s also where you’ll find the largest collection of remaining camps. One of these, “Wonundra,” which belonged to William Avery Rockefeller, has been turned into a high-end resort called The Point. It’s an amazing spot where you can not only live like a Rockefeller, but also spend like one, as it cost roughly $1,000 a night. Of course, it’s all-inclusive and provides such an enormous selection of all-you-can-drink, top-shelf booze that you might need to check into detox after a couple of days here.

If you do a little research, you can also find the ruins of old Great Camps on some of the more remote lakes. Don’t expect to see much, however, as many of these 20th century multi-millionaires had their homes burned to the ground so nobody else could enjoy them.

Beware the legendary Adirondack black flies when canoe camping in the Adirondacks

The best time for canoe camping in the Adirondacks is in late summer and fall. This region is known for mosquitoes and black flies, and during the spring and summer they can be fierce. The fall is also predominantly dry and clear. And if it’s October (my favorite month), you can bask in the beauty of the Adirondack’s amazing fall foliage.

The ADK's amazing fall colors

The ADK’s amazing fall colors

You might have notices that we intentionally did not provide exact details of our favorite remote lakes. That’s because, we feel these magical places should only be for those willing to put in a bit of effort. So if you really want to visit this region, do a little research yourself. You can’t go wrong, especially if you choose a lake where motorboats are banned. I promise you, it’s worth it!

Have you been canoe camping in the Adirondacks? If so, where did you go and how did you like it?


Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.
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About Eric

Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.

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