As Lake Placid gears up to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the 1980 Winter Olympics this February, plan a weekend where you can try the bobsled run, skate the Olympic Oval or explore the backcountry.
“Here we go!” shouts our pilot, as the four-man bobsled slides forward into the hand-chiseled ice luge. Our ride starts just halfway up the mile-long track that arcs and spills down the side of Mt. Van Hoevenberg. As we accelerate, I have the feeling that I’m entering the blue, icy bowels of a big snowy beast.
With 20 turns in total, this track, built for the 2000 Goodwill Games along a portion of the path used for the track that hosted bobsleigh at Lake Placid, N.Y.’s 1980 Olympic Games, is one of the most challenging bobsleigh, skeleton and luge tracks in the world. As Marketa Jeriova, the 2002 and 2006 Olympic luge athlete says as she accepts my liability waiver, “If you can drive here, you can drive anywhere.”
As we fly down at 55 miles per hour, each turn spits us forward until the sled banks high, tipped almost on its side. All I can feel is speed, cold air and the sense that I’m flying.
Then, after just 50 seconds—the same amount of time it takes the World Cup bobsled athletes who compete on this track to scale its full mile-long length—it’s over. The pilot, also a former Olympian, hops onto the platform at the edge of the ice, pulls his helmet off and offers his hand with a grin.
And for the first time, I understand what Milton-born Team USA bobsled pilot Geoff Gadbois [See Athletes of the Year, p. TK] means when he says, “You come back for the speed.”
The Lake Placid bobsled experience is just one of many ways that anyone can get a taste of winter sports most people never try, and on the same ice—and snow-covered runs—where Olympians have made history.
It was 40 years ago this February that the 1980 Olympics took place in the tiny Adirondack village of 2,500. And this year, as part of the 40-year anniversary, there are more reasons than ever to visit Lake Placid.
One of two Olympic and Paralympic training centers in the United States, the town and Olympic Regional Development Authority are hosting a week-long celebration of the 1980 Olympic games from Feb. 14 to Feb. 23, featuring a ceremonial lighting of the flame, opportunities to get first tracks with Olympic medalist Andrew Weibrecht at Whiteface Mountain, learn to luge with Olympic lugers and coaches, try biathlon for a day with Olympic biathletes at Mt. Van Hoevenberg and more.
Governor Andrew Cuomo recently committed nearly $240 million in funding to support the Olympic Regional Development Authority facilities that housed the historic 1932 and 1980 games—an unprecedented investment that will create a stadium with world-class facilities for World Cup biathlon and Nordic skiing events, a new 50,000 square-foot base lodge at Mt. Van Hoevenberg and more. The projects are expected to be completed by 2023 but some efforts are already underway.
Whether you head over during the formal celebration, from Feb. 14-23, when you can brush shoulders with Olympians, or go another time, here are ten ways to have a winning weekend in Lake Placid.
Ride a Bobsled, Skeleton or Luge
The ice on Lake Placid’s mile-long track for bobsled, luge and skeleton competitions is hand-chiseled, poured and brushed by expert trackmeisters (many of whom are former Olympic sled athletes) every day to keep it smooth and fast. Set on the side of 2,940-foot high Mt. Van Hoevenberg, the track is the main training site for the U.S. National teams. It’s one of just four sites in North America approved for international competition by the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation and regularly hosts World Cup competitions. Sign up for the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA’s) Bobsled Experience ($95 per adult) and take a ride in a four-man sleigh from halfway up the track with a former Olympian as your driver. Or try the skeleton experience, where you’ll lie belly-down on a lightning-fast sled and reach 30 miles per hour. On Feb. 17, you can try the most dangerous Olympic sport, the luge, with coaching from Olympic silver medalist Gordy Sheer.
Ski the Original 1980 Olympic Alpine Courses
With 3,430 feet of vertical, Whiteface Mountain has more continuous vertical drop than Aspen Mountain in Colorado and is the only American ski area east of the Rockies with the vertical to host a World Cup downhill event. When Swedish skier Ingemar Stenmark won the gold medal in both the slalom and giant slalom there in 1980, it was the first time the Winter Olympic games were hosted on manmade snow. Today, Whiteface has 98 percent snowmaking coverage and some of the most serious in-bounds big mountain terrain in the East. On Feb. 15 and 19, you can ski with Olympians like two-time Olympic medalist and Lake Placid local Andrew Weibrecht ($104 per adult lift ticket).
In November 2019, Whiteface’s Mid-Station Lodge was destroyed in an overnight fire. According to The Adirondack Daily Enterprise, the mountain never stopped running its snow guns.
Speedskate on the Olympic Oval
Skate during the day or at night under the stars on the 400-meter Olympic Speed Skating Oval at the heart of the village. The track was built for the 1932 Winter Olympic Games and sits right in front of the 1980s Olympic Complex, downtown. Here, you’ll skate the same track where American speed skater Eric Heiden won five gold medals in 1980 and set a world record in the 10,000m. Skate rentals are available, along with a bonfire where you can warm up between laps as you look out at Mirror Lake and the High Peaks.
Be a Biathlete for a Day
Tucked in the shadow of 4,098-foot Cascade Mountain, the Adirondacks’ most-hiked 46’er, the 55 kilometers of groomed Nordic trails at Mt. Van Hoevenberg are lined by snow-laden spruce and fir. Ski to Josie’s Cabin and drink hot chocolate by the woodstove under the big wood beams or warm up at the outdoor fire pit. Try the “Discover Biathlon” program, and get a ski lesson, a day pass, a shooting lesson and access to the same 30-point range where Team USA Biathlon trains each season for $55. And on Feb. 18, you can take a lesson with Olympians Lowell Bailey, Andrea Henkel and Tim Burke.
Learn Olympic History
Lake Placid is one of only two cities in history to host the Winter Olympics twice and has produced more than 100 Olympians. Learn what it took to be an Olympic speed skater in 1932 and how athletes now rise through the training ranks in the exhibit “Quest for Speed” at the Lake Placid Olympic Museum. See the scandalous and pioneering outfits worn in the 1932 Olympics by Sonje Henie, the Norwegian figure skater who became the first athlete to win a gold medal in the same event at three consecutive Olympics.
And if think you’re nervous about taking a bobsled ride, check out the wooden contraptions used on the 1932 track at Mt. Van Hoevenberg (a track that two people died on just before the 1932 Olympic Games).
You can also get a history tour of the entire complex from a guide who saw the 1980 Olympic games in person. Watch real footage of the “Miracle on Ice” in the Herb Brooks Arena, where the USA Men’s Hockey Team beat the four-time defending champions, the Soviet Union, to win the gold medal at the 1980 Olympic Games. On the night of the game, the 8,500-person arena was packed with 10,000 spectators and was so raucous the local fire marshall was afraid to kick anyone out for fear of igniting a riot. See goalie Jim Craig’s mask and uniform from that game in the museum downstairs.
Skate on Mirror Lake
As soon as there are at least six inches of ice over Mirror Lake, Lake Placid’s Recreation Department grooms a two-mile skating course that starts near the town beach. Bring your hockey skates and join one of the games of pick-up or skate the full loop. The lake is surrounded on all sides by the Adirondacks’ High Peaks, with views of Whiteface’s trails and slides. Rent a fatbike or Nordic skis at High Peaks Cyclery and explore the far reaches of Mirror Lake. Bring a headlamp and make it a nighttime skate in the glow of Lake Placid’s waterfront.
Head to the Top of the 120m Ski Jump
Ski jumping has been a tradition in Lake Placid since the first 35-meter jump was built there in 1920 by the Lake Placid Club. Take a tour of the Olympic Jumping Complex (located right next to the farm where abolitionist John Brown grew up). From the Intervale Base Lodge, you can watch the U.S. aerial, freestyle and Nordic combined athletes jump year-round. New for this season are a set of “frost rails” for the 90m and 120m ski jumps—an internal refrigeration system designed to maintain a
more consistent and reliable jumping surface. It’s the first of its kind in North America, and ORDA hopes it could bring World Cup ski jumping competitions back to Lake Placid for the first time since the 1990s.
This winter, you can also ride the new gondola from the Intervale Base Lodge to the base of the 90m and 120m ski jump towers. Then, a new glass elevator rises for 120m to the top of the tallest jump, with 180-degree views of the High Peaks and the entire Olympic complex—from the bobsled run at Mt. Van Hoevenberg to Whiteface Mountain to the Olympic village. Step out onto the observation deck and stare down the steep jump itself—the same one that Billy Demong, the first American to win a gold medal in Nordic Combined, competed and trained on. If you’re lucky, you may even see Vermont’s Tara Geraghty Moats, currently leading the Nordic combined Continental Cup, in training.
Take a Toboggan Ride Downtown
If you’re not up for a bobsled ride, check out the 30-foot-high, converted historic ski jump trestle that sends wooden toboggans down a chute and 1,000 meters out onto frozen Mirror Lake. Hosted by the town of Lake Placid, it’s the perfect thrill for families with kids. Grab a rented sled, climb the stairs to the top and take the reigns as you fly down the trestle and out onto the ice.
Go for a Dog Sled or Sleigh Ride
If you drive 25 minutes out of town to the historic Lake Clear Lodge, you can take a wooden sleigh driven by Belgian draft horses over woodland trails along the edge of Lake Clear. With big stone fireplaces, exposed natural wood beams and a Great Camp aesthetic, the lodge offers sleighrides by lantern along the lakeside trails. In Lake Placid, Country Dreams Farm offers daytime horse-drawn sleighrides, complete with thick blankets and views of the Olympic Ski Jumping Complex set against the drama of the Great Range and Whiteface Mountain at John Brown Farm. Thunder Mountain Dog Sled Tours also offers dog sledding right from Lake Placid Village, out onto Mirror Lake or into the Adirondack woods.
Ski to a Full Moon Party
On the Saturday closest to the full moon of every month through the winter, locals grab a headlamp and ski into the woods at one of Cascade Cross Country Ski Center’s Full Moon Parties. Grab a map and ski along their 20km of groomed Nordic trails to a series of bonfires—each with a keg featuring a local brew. Ski back to the old-school great lodge for a fire in the big stone fireplace and dancing at the end of the night. This year’s events run Jan. 11, Feb. 8 and March 7.
Ice Climb a Gully, Ski a Slide
Thanks to serious freeze-thaw cycles, the Adirondacks are home to some of the best ice climbing in the Lower 48. Pitchoff Mountain, home to a popular moderate multi-pitch ice flow near Mt. Van Hoevenberg, offers a series of stunning 50- to 350-foot climbs that require access by skis across a frozen pond. To explore, hire an AMGA-accredited guide from an outfitter like High Peaks Mountain Guides or Cloudsplitter Mountain Guides, both located in Lake Placid. They can also take you backcountry skiing on slides like Bennies Brook on Lower Wolfjaw Mountain, which features serious pitch and about 1,100 vertical feet of wide-open, big-mountain terrain.
Take a Classic Ski Tour
The Adirondacks have a long history of classic, moderate ski tours on trails cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Some climb High Peaks (there is one, for example on Mt. Marcy). Others, like the 35-mile Jackrabbit Trail that winds from Keene to Lake Placid through the woods and meadows of the High Peaks Wilderness, are suitable for backcountry cross-country skis. For an intermediate tour, the 8.2-mile round-trip to Avalanche Pass leads to a stunning lake-filled cleft between Mt. Colden and Mt. Marcy with a fun descent on a ski trail reminiscent of the CCC trails on Mt. Mansfield. Get more information from the Barkeaters’ Alliance at betatrails.org.
For a full schedule of the 40th Anniversary of the 1980 Winter Olympics, head to lakeplacid.com/the-40th-anniversary-of-the-1980-winter-olympics.
The Olympic Facilities Are Getting Bigger and Better
This year, the Olympic Regional Development Authority has started building a brand-new racing facility at Mt. Van Hoevenberg, complete with an FIS and IBU-approved stadium designed to accommodate World Cup events, with 5km of new World Cup-standard ski trails in concentric loops through the stadium. By 2021, 3.5km of those trails will have the first automated snowmaking system at any Nordic center in the United States. “We’ll be able to cover our World Cup trails with three to seven centimeters of snow in less than a week,” says Nordic Programs Director Kris Seymour.
Starting in Fall 2020, visitors to Mt. Van Hoevenberg will be able to ride two-person carts that look like bobsleds on a mountain coaster—the longest in the world—that follows the path of the 1932 and 1980 Olympic bobsled runs to a new 50,000 square-foot base lodge (slated for completion in 2023) near the site of the existing bobsled track and future biathlon arena.
Once completed, the new lodge, which will be the central base for all of Mt. Van Hoevenberg’s biathlon, Nordic and sled sport facilities, will feature a 40-foot rock wall and workout facilities open to the public, a trail center and (eventually) a new trailhead with access to the summits of Cascade Mountain and Mt. Van Hoevenberg. There will be a new 500-foot-long push facility, the first of its kind in the United States, where Olympic and World Cup athletes can train and practice their starts, pushing bobsleds on a 500-foot stretch of ice with glass windows so visitors can watch. Another room will house a large-format treadmill that articulates so Nordic athletes can roller-ski. And yes, there will be a bar.
Also new for summer 2020 are a series of four zipline courses at the Olympic Jumping Complex that will run alongside the 90m ski jump tower and landing hill to give visitors a sense of what it’s like to be an Olympic ski jumper. According to ORDA, the most extreme of the courses will reach speeds of 60 miles per hour and send participants down a 30-degree incline.
Where to Eat, Drink and Stay in Lake Placid
If you like beer, you’re in luck. Lake Placid is home to three microbreweries: Valcour Brewing Company, Big Slide Brewery and Lake Placid Pub and Brewery. For classic diner fare and a true local vibe, head downtown to Lisa G’s for lunch or breakfast. Try the Heritage Berkshire pork cheeks, braised with whole-grain mustard, Fiddlehead IPA, caramelized fennel and parsnips at The View at Mirror Lake Inn. At the Top of the Park you’ll find creative cocktails like the Algonquin, with Taconic Founders Rye Whiskey, Dry Vermouth and a touch of pineapple.
Consider a night at the Hotel North Woods Resort on Main Street, with affordable, modern rooms that balance a young, chic vibe with a woodsy aesthetic. Get fancy and book your own luxury cabin or suite at the Lake Placid Lodge, on the shores of Mirror Lake. Right next to the Olympic Center is the Crowne Plaza Resort, owned by the family of legendary Olympic figure skating coach Gus Lussi. The Van Hoevenberg Lodge and Cabins offer quaint and very cute trailside lodging, as does the bunkroom at Cascade Cross Country Ski Center, or stay on the shores of Mirror Lake at the Lake House at Lake Placid Resort, another cozy mountain town hotel that offers complementary skate rentals, as it is located right off of the two-mile Mirror Lake skating Loop.
Featured Photo: On the infamous Olympic Bobsled Track, you can rip down an ice luge at 55 miles per hour. Photo courtesy ROOST