The Adirondack Destination That’s in the Middle of Nowhere But Has It All

by | August 2022, Featured, Travel

Photographs by Nancie Battaglia

A framed T-shirt on the wall of the Newcomb Café—the only place in town to grab breakfast, lunch or a tank of gas—advertises “Beautiful Downtown Newcomb. Conveniently located in the middle of nowhere.” It’s not just a self-deprecating joke. Newcomb, a town of around 400 that’s at least a 20-minute drive from the nearest community, is conveniently located to the stuff that brings people to the Adirondacks.

The first thing drivers heading west into town see is the Overlook, possibly the most breathtaking roadside panorama in the Blue Line, if not the Northeast.

Want to hike? Head to the Upper Works trailhead, the southern gateway to the High Peaks; it’s not nearly as crowded as the trailheads in Keene Valley and Lake Placid. Like fire-tower summits? Newcomb has two. For something less strenuous or accessible to wheelchairs, the Adirondack Interpretive Center has you covered. Paddlers, anglers, campers, whitewater enthusiasts and history buffs will all find their little slice of heaven here.

two women and a man standing in front of a country store

Ruth, Dave and Sierra Olbert

Other conveniences—not so much. If you want to live in Newcomb, points out town supervisor Robin DeLoria, you have to be willing to “take half a day out of your life to get a haircut.” And the closest thing to a supermarket is the little shop run by Ruth and Dave Olbert, of Cloudsplitter Outfitters. The Olberts made room for foodstuffs among the kayak paddles, propane canisters and fishing tackle in 2017, after Newcomb’s only market burned down and couldn’t rebuild.

“People would come in and say, ‘We just got into town. Where can we get groceries?’” Ruth says. “When I told them 14 miles away, their bodies would just droop.”

Like many visitors to Newcomb, Cloudsplitter was my family’s first stop last August when we arrived in town for a few days at the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Lake Harris Campground. We knew enough to have brought provisions, but we needed campfire wood, ice and advice on taking our exuberant coonhound puppy, Miles, out in a canoe for the first time. Ruth provided all of the above, and even lent us a canine PFD for our senior mutt, whose old one could no longer accommodate his expanding waistline (I feel you, Ollie).

We spent the next few days sampling Newcomb’s smorgasbord of activities—and non-activities. Our campsite, like most at the campground, edged Lake Harris, so I did a fair amount of water-gazing and, after dark, stargazing and campfire-gazing.  We never worked up the nerve to test Miles’s sea legs in the canoe, but my husband, Matt, and our nine-year-old, Micah, took the boat out to cast a few lines. Lake Harris is said to contain panfish, northern pike and smallmouth bass—reports I can’t confirm—but we did hear loons and a very vocal owl.

a brown log building with a red window frame and two bicycles

Great Camp Santanoni

One day we rode our bikes to Great Camp Santanoni, a quest that had remained unchecked on my bucket list since moving to the Adirondacks 12 years ago. The 10-mile round trip was just hilly enough to give Micah a sense of accomplishment. His favorite part was the model of the Great Camp property housed in one of the buildings of the farm complex, about a mile down the dirt road. The Pruyns’ 13,000-acre spread included a working farm that provided most of the camp’s food—no 14-mile carriage ride to Ye Olde Stewart’s Shoppes necessary.

The camp itself, built in the 1890s as a family retreat for Albany banker Robert Pruyn and his wife, Anna, overlooks beautiful Newcomb Lake and has some 5,000 square feet of porches alone. (Robert Pruyn enjoyed water-gazing, too.) Designed by Robert H. Robertson, the main lodge—actually six buildings connected by covered walkways—was constructed of spruce logs. The architecture incorporates Japanese influences that may have been inspired by Robert Pruyn’s time as secretary for President Lincoln’s minister to Japan, who happened to be his father. 

In the 1950s the Pruyns’ heirs sold the property to the Melvin family, who sold it to The Nature Conservancy after the tragic disappearance of their grandson, eight-year-old Douglas Legg, in the 1970s. The property was then immediately transferred to the state to form the Santanoni Preserve, with a carve-out for the historical buildings added in 2000. These are undergoing a years-long restoration process through a partnership between the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the town of Newcomb and the historical preservation group Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH).

On the day we were there, the construction crew’s choice of music—Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses—at first seemed incongruous with the Gilded Age vibe. Then again, what better soundtrack for a town that owes its existence to the discovery of iron ore than heavy metal?   

That discovery, in the early 1800s, took place just east of the Santanoni Preserve,  near what is now called Henderson Lake. By the 1830s, the village of McIntyre, later known as Adirondac, had sprung up to house the workers for the Adirondack Iron and Steel Company near the outfit’s Upper Works mine. (A smaller hamlet known as Tahawus was at the Lower Works, at the southern end of Sanford Lake.) Less than 30 years later, flooding and financial troubles forced the operation to close, and the property was leased to a sportsmen’s club. It was there, at the MacNaughton Cottage in Adirondac, that Theodore Roosevelt stayed in 1901, on the eve of becoming president after McKinley was shot. Newcomb’s role in this historical drama is celebrated each September during the Teddy Roosevelt Days.

Mining returned in 1941, when titanium—used in white paint—was in high demand due to the war. A new company town was built by National Lead, seven miles north of the Lower Works; the name Elijah was chosen in honor of the Abenaki man who had discovered the ore, but the name never caught on with locals, who called it Tahawus.

Many of Newcomb’s prominent residents, including town supervisor Robin DeLoria, Cloudsplitter’s Dave Olbert, and Joan Burke, executive director of the Newcomb Historical Museum, grew up in Tahawus. They describe it as an idyllic, self-contained community with its own school, general store, YMCA and endless acres to explore. But like all mining communities, there were tragedies too. Burke’s father was killed in a work-related accident when she was seven. Because her mother taught in the elementary school, they stayed on. “I had about 25 fathers,” she says. “All these buddies of my dad adopted the family.”

The Tahawus era ended in 1963, when the company wanted to mine beneath the village. The houses were moved to Newcomb’s Winebrook neighborhood, where today the original houses are mixed in with newer homes.

In 2003 the Open Space Institute (OSI) acquired the 10,000-acre Tahawus Tract, turning all but 212 acres over to the state to be added to the High Peaks Wilderness. Last year OSI completed $1.3 million in improvements to its Adirondac Upper Works property, with expanded trailhead parking, stabilization of the blast furnace and interpretive signs about the site’s history and remaining structures, including the MacNaughton Cottage.

NL Industries stopped titanium mining in the 1980s, but the 1,200-acre industrial site was not part of the OSI deal. The future of this property and the railroad tracks leading to it is a source of controversy that encapsulates an ongoing debate: As mining and logging—Newcomb’s other main source of jobs, traditionally—decline, can tourism fill the void?

In March, the rail line was sold at auction to a New Mexico couple who wanted to use it to transport titanium from the old mine, which they also planned to purchase from the current owner, Mitchell Stone. Their financing fell through, leaving it to the second-highest bidder, a partnership including Revolution Rail, which operates railbike tours out of North River.

The town has invested in tourism-related projects, such as a new welcome center being constructed across from the Overlook, with meeting rooms, history displays and visitor information.

“Our economy needs to be diversified,” says Paul Hai, associate director of the Adirondack Ecological Institute at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s 15,000-acre Newcomb campus. He points out that the campus, which includes the Adirondack Interpretive Center, is the town’s third-largest employer, and he sees potential for an even bigger role for education in boosting the local economy. This summer, the DEC is holding part of its Forest Ranger Academy on the campus for the first time, which will bring 40 new rangers to town for 16 weeks. And the latest state budget included funding for the Timbuctoo Summer Climate and Careers Institute, an idea that grew out of conversations between downstate leaders; Aaron Mair, director of the Adirondack Council’s Forever Adirondacks Campaign; and the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, which Hai helped found. The institute will bring students from Medgar Evers College, in Brooklyn, to the campus to expose them to the Adirondacks and potential environmental careers.

My family spent our last afternoon in Newcomb at the town beach on Lake Harris. That evening a local band played classic rock covers from the pavilion, while the crowd picnicked and danced. Micah joined up with some local kids for a game of tag.

Then we ate at Lake Harris Lodge, the only dinner spot in town. With a huge stone fireplace, dark wood and photographs celebrating Newcomb history, the space has an upscale but casual atmosphere. The menu changes seasonally, with Italian, Southern and comfort-food classics like filet mignon and barramundi with jambalaya.

Owners Kelly and Tony Audino bought a camp in Newcomb in 2004 and became full-time residents in 2013, opening the Hoot Owl Lodge the following year. That led to catering and a weekly pizza night at the firehouse. “It just snowballed,” says Tony. “We didn’t choose this, it chose us.”

A Main Street Revitalization grant allowed the couple to open their own restaurant, which Tony, a contractor, built entirely from scratch—with some help from locals eager for a gathering place.

The lodge and the Newcomb Café and Campground, also a grant recipient, both opened the winter before COVID hit. Within months they had to transition to takeout only, and even after they reopened there was the problem of getting food deliveries—US Foods took Newcomb off its route, meaning the owners had to drive to Queensbury for supplies. The Audinos have hung in and continue to evolve, adding lakeside glamping, a downstairs bar and wedding packages.

A few months ago, Newcomb Café and Campground’s Troy Ford and Jimmy Schaeffer considered calling it quits, exhausted from two years of pandemic and their commute from Crown Point. But the community’s outpouring of support, and finding a Newcomb property that would accommodate their horses, convinced them to not only stick around but expand. They plan to serve dinner once or twice a week and hope to eventually open an equestrian center with space for horse camping. “We just love the people [in Newcomb],” Ford says. “It’s a great community. They’ve pulled us in like a part of the family.”

Small communities like Newcomb live or die on the efforts of individuals like Ford and Schaeffer and the Audinos—and few individuals have made more effort than Ruth and Dave Olbert.

In addition to their guiding service and store, the Olberts have vacation rentals and a small farm. Dave serves on the town board, and ran as a write-in candidate for supervisor in November. Ruth recently added quail and two yaks to her growing menagerie, and has visions of a closed-loop aquaculture operation.

“You give some things up living in Newcomb. But you look out the window,” she says, gesturing to her Hudson view, “and you know you’re blessed.” 

Newcomb is on Route 28N, 24 miles west of Northway Exit 29 via the Blue Ridge Road. Visit newcombny.gov or download the Experience Newcomb app for more information.

WHERE TO EAT

Newcomb Café & Campground
5575 Route 28N, (518) 582-8999, www.newcombcafeandcampground.com 

The Lake Harris Lodge
5410 Route 28N, (518) 582-8333, www.thelakeharrislodge.com

WHERE TO STAY

With no traditional hotels or bed-and-breakfasts, the lodging options in Newcomb are either campgrounds or vacation rentals. Check Airbnb or VRBO for additional listings.

Most of the 85 sites at the Department of Environmental Conservation–run Lake Harris Campground hug the northern shore of 275-acre Lake Harris. Book online at newyorkstateparks.reserveamerica.com.

Newcomb Café and Campground is a family owned and operated RV park with 34 sites. (518) 582-8999, www.newcombcafeandcampground.com

The Inn at Santanoni is a four-bedroom, three-bath farmhouse rental remodeled in vintage country style, with one room that’s handicapped-accessible. Available by the room or as a whole. (518) 582-4851. View on Facebook or Airbnb.

The Inn at Santanoni owners also rent Tracy Camp and the Cabin in the Woods (www.adirondacktracycamp.us).

The Hoot Owl Lodge
Four-bedroom, two-bath rental, plus a lakeside glamping site, from the owners of Lake Harris Lodge. (518) 582-3556, thehootowllodge.com

Cloudsplitter Outfitters rents the apartment above the store. (518) 582-2583, www.cloudsplitteroutfitters.com

EVENTS

Independence Day Fireworks
At the Overlook, July 2

Rubber Loon Race
Adirondack Interpretive Center, July 17, 3 pm
Watch as a flotilla of rubber loons races down the outlet of Rich Lake.

Bands on the Beach
Town Beach, Lake Harris
Every Wednesday in August, 5 to 7 p.m.

Labor Day Celebration
The Overlook, September 3, noon to 7:30.
Bands, food, a craft fair and farmers’ market, plus a bounce house.

Teddy Roosevelt Weekend
September 9–11
Historical and family-friendly events, including a Roosevelt reenactor.

HIKES AND PADDLES

view of mountains, lake and fall foliage seen through windows of a fire tower

View from Goodnow Mountain fire tower

Goodnow Mountain
Part of the Huntington Wild Forest, managed by SUNY–ESF, this 1.9-mile trail leads to a fire tower on the summit with 360-degree views of the High Peaks and the Essex Chain Lakes. It’s a moderate hike with a 1,053-foot elevation gain. The trailhead is on the south side of Route 28N, 1.6 miles west of the Adirondack Interpretive Center.

Mount Adams
Newcomb’s other fire tower is a little more challenging to reach, requiring a 4.6-mile hike with 1,800 feet elevation gain. Some portions are steep, but the views from the tower reward the effort. The trailhead is on Upper Works Road just past the Old McIntyre Blast Furnace.

Flowed Lands
Take the Calamity Brook trail from the Upper Works trailhead to Flowed Lands, about 11 miles round trip, for gorgeous views of Mount Colden and Flowed Lands, without much elevation gain.

Rich Lake to Route 28N Bridge
If you rent kayaks or canoes from Cloudsplitter, they can drop you at Rich Lake to paddle the 5 miles back to the store. There’s one short portage and three small rapids that are portage-optional, making it a novice-friendly voyage.

Essex Chain of Lakes
Paddle Second through Seventh Lakes, starting from the Deer Pond Parking Area.

HISTORY AND NATURE

Great Camp Santanoni
Hike, bike or ski to the camp, or call Larry Newcombe to reserve a horse-drawn wagon ride (518-480-1743). Tours are available daily in summer at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. The preserve has eight first-come, first-serve campsites and two lean-tos. Santanoni is open year-round, but many of the buildings are closed between Labor Day and late June. www.greatcampsantanoni.com

Adirondack Interpretive Center
Explore 3.6 miles of interpretive trails along the shoreline of Rich Lake and Rich Lake outlet. The visitor center includes a gallery featuring the work of artists in residence and hosts frequent lectures, films and events exploring the intersection of nature, science and the humanities. www.esf.edu/aic

Newcomb Historical Museum
See Anna Pruyn’s piano and other artifacts from Great Camp Santanoni and the rest of Newcomb’s storied past. This summer’s exhibit, on view through October 15, showcases the country stores that have come and gone, including a restored neon sign from Bissell’s, which first opened in 1915. (518) 582-2274; newcombhistoricalmuseum.com

Adirondac Upper Works
The Open Space Institute just completed $1.3 million in improvements to the historic Adirondac site, including the MacNaughton Cottage and the McIntyre Blast Furnace.


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