January 2016 - Cross-Country Skiing & Snowshoeing
By Bill Ingersoll
Exploring Camp Santanoni
During the 1970s, New York acquired four Great Camps and their surrounding estates for inclusion in the Forest Preserve. All four tracts were instrumental in improving public access to outstanding wilderness backcountry, but the presence of the camps – most of which were showing signs of deterioration – presented a constitutional conundrum. And in all four cases, the state took a completely different course of action.
Article XIV of the state constitution mandates that all forestland owned by the state in the Adirondack Park be forever maintained in a wild state – the so-called “forever wild” clause. There is no provision for buildings. Typically when the state acquires land with a camp on it, the building is razed or dismantled. But in these four cases, the state had never before acquired buildings of such historical and architectural significance.
In the case of Forest Lodge on Lake Lila in the Nehasane Preserve, the structure was razed so that the site could be brought into full compliance with Article XIV – and to fulfill the conditions of the sale of the property. At Camp Sagamore, near Raquette Lake, a statewide referendum approved a constitutional amendment that allowed a non-profit to purchase the entire camp complex and preserve the buildings. At Topridge, the state disposed of the buildings and surrounding 102 acres by placing them on the auction block, without seeking a constitutional amendment. The auction, though technically illegal, went unchallenged because all agreed it was the most expedient solution to the question of what to do with the Great Camp.
At Camp Santanoni in Newcomb, the state retained ownership of the buildings, although it took a number of years to decide what to do with them. Concerns for protecting the legal sanctity of the Forest Preserve and the historic value of the buildings have created a unique situation here. The camp complex, which is no longer occupied or furnished, is now maintained as a kind of backcountry museum. You can hike or ski to the camp at any time, just like any other destination in the Forest Preserve, but public motor vehicle use is not allowed.
Robert Pruyn bought the Santanoni Preserve (pronounced “santa-NO-nee”) in 1892 and began construction on the camp soon thereafter. Influenced by Japanese architecture, the main camp is a series of log buildings joined by a continuous verandah and united under a common roof. Outlying buildings included the farm complex and the Gate Lodge. The Pruyn family owned the property for sixty-one years, selling it to the Melvins of Syracuse in 1953. The Melvins owned the preserve until a family tragedy in 1971 – the disappearance of an 8-year-old boy, who was never found – disinclined them to remain there. They sold the property to the Adirondack Conservancy the next year, which then transferred it to the state.
The general public is barred from driving the 4.4-mile access road to the camp, but cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are immensely popular (in summer, it’s also accessible by foot, mountain bike, and horse-drawn carriage). DEC will again host three winter weekends of Santanoni open houses, a rare opportunity for visitors to enjoy interpretive tours of the inside of camp buildings with staff from the Adirondack Architectural Heritage. Over the past couple of decades the camp has been gradually restored by AARCH, DEC and the town of Newcomb. The 2016 events will take place on January 16-18, February 13-15, and March 12-13 from 10am to 4pm. Reservations are not required.
Since Santanoni is a backcountry destination, attractive lean-tos are available nearby along the shore of Newcomb Lake, for people who want to extend their visit for a winter camping trip.
From Northway Exit 29, take NY Route 28N to Newcomb where, 1.9 miles west of the Hudson River, signs point the way to the Santanoni Preserve. Newcomb Lake Road leads across a narrow bridge to the Gate Lodge complex, where there is a large parking area that is maintained year-round. The Gate Lodge houses a visitor center that is open in the summer.
The narrow road leading to the camp is an easy, though long, trail. The miles pass quickly, and the road never seems as long as it really is. Setting off from the trailhead, you reach the farm complex at 0.9-mile, where a distinctive building constructed of fieldstone – the creamery – stands to the left, as well as several houses. A barn and silo once stood to the right of the road, but these burned to the ground in 2004.
At 2.2 miles you reach the horse trail to Moose Pond. The road to the lodge bears right, and the walking is uneventful until it begins to descend toward the lake. This descent is very gentle at first, but soon after passing the red-marked trail that leads around the south shore of Newcomb Lake at 3.6 miles, you encounter the steepest grade on the entire road to the Great Camp. If you are on skis, this is a zippy drop that leads around a turn and levels out within sight of the bridge over Newcomb Lake, 4.1 miles from the start.
The road crosses the bridge and turns north. There are several numbered campsites to the left along the shore. Then you approach the main lodge from behind at 4.4 miles. Interpreters are only on duty on winter open house weekends, so some of the buildings will probably be locked the rest of the time. Camping in the lodge is prohibited, but picnic tables abound. The reconstructed boathouse lies to the left of the lodge as you face the lake, and an art studio stands apart to the right; this serves as a warming hut during the winter weekend events. A yellow-marked trail continues past the lodge around the north shore of Newcomb Lake; you can follow it a short distance to a cedar-lined beach and restored beach house. Additional campsites are located nearby.
Winter visitors have the option of trekking out across the frozen surface of Newcomb Lake, a scenic destination in its own right. The Fish Rock lean-to on the south shore, with its view of the Santanoni Range, is a popular campsite all year-long.
To learn more about the winter weekend open houses, call AARCH at (518) 834-9328 or visit aarch.org/preserve/santanoni/visiting.
Bill Ingersoll of Barneveld is publisher of the Discover the Adirondack’s guidebook series (hiketheadirondacks.com). For more on this region, consult Discover the Central Adirondacks.