Driving the Veterans Memorial Highway to the Top of Whiteface Mountain
Veterans Memorial Highway
If you’re a sucker for great views, enjoy a little adventure every now and then, and happen to find yourself in upstate New York, consider driving the scenic Veterans Memorial Highway to the top of Whiteface Mountain. This scenic byway takes visitors from the sleepy town of Wilmington to the summit of Whiteface Mountain.
Opened to traffic in 1935, the Veterans Memorial Highway was the idea of a local resident by the name of Marcellus Leonard who lived in nearby Saranac Lake. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt formally dedicated the highway on September 14, 1935 after over three years of work to complete the road.
At 4,867 feet above sea level Whiteface Mountain is the fifth highest peak in New York and is one of what is referred to as the High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains. What makes Whiteface Mount so attractive and unique is that one can drive to virtually the top of the mountain. And if Whiteface Mountain seems a bit familiar to you then perhaps you recall the 1980 Winter Olympics that were held in nearby Lake Placid and the fact that the downhill skiing events were held right here on Whiteface Mountain.
Whiteface Mountain Ski Area
The Veterans Memorial Highway (NY 431) actually begins in Wilmington and takes visitors along an 8-mile route that slowly ascends toward the summit. After passing through the Toll House station you will pass by up to nine scenic stations on your way to the top, which offers visitors a chance to get out and check out the view. Each scenic stop also has interpretive informational signs so that you can read up on the history of the region.
You can stop at the Toll House area before heading up the mountain as they have a small pond that is stocked giving kids a chance to fish. There is also a short hiking trail that takes visitors around the pond and offers a chance to see all 34 species of trees found here in the Adirondacks. The chalet style building was built in 1934 and has a number of exhibits that highlight the flora and fauna of the area.
As you make your way to the summit the road will end at what is referred to as the Whiteface Castle, at an elevation of 4,600 feet. The “Castle” is actually a small restaurant and gift shop, which also has restroom facilities and it makes for a great pit stop area.
From here there are two ways to get to the summit at 4,867 feet. There is actually an elevator that is located inside the mountain and requires a 424 foot walk through a tunnel into the heart of the mountain. When you reach the elevator it will take you 276 feet up to the summit. The elevator was the idea of FDR as a means of helping those less mobile visitors reach the summit from the parking lot.
Memorial Day Snow Storm
The other way to the top is to follow the Stairway Ridge Trail, which takes visitors on a .2-mile uphill trek over stone steps. Most visitors opt to take one method up and the other down and I can tell you the elevator is an interesting experience and not to be missed. There is actually an elevator operator who will greet you and give you a brief history of the mountain on your ride up or down. We were lucky to have visited just two weeks after the incredible Memorial Day snowstorm that dumped 3 feet of snow on the mountain and were treated to some great photos of the snow on the top of the mountain by the elevator operator.
The Elevator Tunnel
When you reach the actual summit you will find the shelter house that contains the elevator and a 360-degree viewing platform. There is also a weather station up here but that is off limits to visitors. There are numerous viewing spots and plenty of space to walk about the summit area. There is a wide expansive area of rock which makes a great area for catching the views in every direction, having a picnic, or just finding a seat to soak in the beauty of this region. To the south you will notice many of the other High Peaks of the Adirondacks including Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York State.
To the southwest is a beautiful view of Lake Placid and just beyond is Mirror Lake and the village of Lake Placid, site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. To the east, on a clear day, you can see into Vermont with views of Lake Champlain. And to the north you get a great view of the Veterans Memorial Highway as it snakes its way up to the top of Whiteface Mountain. No matter what direction you look to you are greeted with beautiful majestic views. You can’t help but to marvel in your good fortune for finding yourself in such an amazing place.
Plan on allocating at least a couple of hours for your visit to Whiteface Mountain depending on where you coming from. If Lake Placid is your departure point it will take you approximately 15 minutes to drive to Wilmington and the start of the Veterans Memorial Highway. The time to drive up the Memorial Highway to the top will depend on how often you stop along the way. Before you head out be sure you have enough gas for the trip. The only gas station in Wilmington closed recently so there is no gas available between Lake Placid and the Memorial Highway.
The Veterans Memorial Highway is a toll road and the cost is $12 for the vehicle and driver. Each additional passenger costs $8. The fee to bike the road is $10 and a bicycle season pass can be purchased for $50. There is no cost to park or take the elevator once you reach the top of Whiteface Mountain. You can pack a picnic or snacks for the trip or opt to grab a bite to eat in the Castle Restaurant.
Amazingly there are bugs at this altitude so be sure to bring some bug spray. I’m not sure what was biting us but they left some nasty bite marks. Also, the weather up here can be very changeable and windy so come prepared. Don’t forget your camera and also your binoculars, which will come in handy.
The Memorial Highway is open from May 17 through October 14, weather permitting. From May 17 to June 26 the road is open from 9 am until 4 pm. From June 27 until September 2 the road is open from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm. And from September 3 until October 14 the hours are 9 am until 4 pm.
As with any mountain road please be sure to follow all speed limit and caution signs. There are a number of frost heaves on the road so be cautious. When driving back down the mountain you would be advised to use a lower gear to save your brakes.
If driving up the mountain is not your thing you can stop at the Whiteface Ski area and take the Cloudsplitter Gondola ride to the top of the ski area. This does not go all the way to the top of the mountain but is another alternative activity if visiting the area. The gondola is open from June 14 until September 2 from 9 am until 4 pm. The cost is a little steep at $20 per person for adults, $16 for those aged 7 to 19, and free for kids 6 and under.
A summer Olympic Passport ticket is available for $32, which if you are here for an extended stay might be worth purchasing. This one ticket includes the gondola ride, the toll on the Veterans Memorial Highway, the Lake Placid Olympic Museum, the Olympic Sports Complex, and a tour of the Olympic Ski Jumping Complex. It also includes discounts on many other activities in and around Lake Placid.
If you are spending time in the High Peaks area of the Adirondacks in or near Lake Placid consider making the drive to the top of Whiteface Mountain. The Veterans Memorial Highway is an incredibly scenic road and the views from the top are simply stunning.
Questions & Answers
- Helpful 7
Can I use a New York State access pass to get to the top of the Whiteface Mountain?
That I am not sure about. I did research it and could not find anywhere that states a New York State pass will get you through the toll booth on Whiteface Mountain.
Are dogs allowed in the elevator and on the top of Whiteface Mountain?
Yes, we took our dog with us in the elevator up to the top of the mountain. She had a great time roaming over the rocks and exploring the landscape.
© 2013 Bill De Giulio