If you've wanted to explore the Adirondacks but don't know where you begin, the Wild Center in Tupper Lake is a good place to start. You can learn about the history and biology of the largest park in the lower 48 states -- and being almost smack in the middle of the Adirondacks makes it an ideal starting point for a variety of day trips.
Also, they have otters.
The Wild Center is a living museum situated on 31 acres of reclaimed wilderness. Inside, several Adirondack biomes are recreated, with dozens of species of live native animals. A marsh holds fish, turtles, and some slightly shy wood ducks. A huge tank has fish representative of the region's deep lakes, including prehistoric-looking sturgeon, and a simulated river features schools of trout. You can even touch a "glacier" and learn how ancient ice sheets helped shape New York.
But the uncontested stars of the show are the residents of Otter Falls.
When they're active, the pair of otters -- Squirt and Squeaker -- are friendly, frenetic, and funny. They're playful and curious and will swim right to the glass to check you out. You'll see them play in and out of the water, chase each other around, wrestle each other, and generally do whatever else otters do (including some of the less pleasant stuff). Plus, almost every afternoon the center's staff holds an educational session with a closer look at these mascots.
Along with the live exhibits are plenty of interactive stations that kids will love but anyone can learn from. Some, like the sniffable beaver and otter musk, might be too interactive. You can "touch a cloud," find out how wind and forests help shape the landscape, see details of Adirondack biology and geology invisible to the naked eye, and learn about the small- and large-scale ecologies of the park. And at the back of the museum are replica skulls and preserved specimens of Adirondack animals and birds and more hands-on interactive exhibits.
The museum also has a panoramic theater where short films and presentations are shown throughout the day. The center staff do a great job of packing the day with varied events; when I visited, I was able to catch a screening of gorgeous Adirondack photography from Carl Heilman II, a short film about the return of moose to New York, and a presentation on close up imaging of ice crystals - and that was just in the theater. The museum staff also had a look at some of the center's turtles to give visitors a closer look and a drawing and painting session. It's easy to spend hours exploring the place.
And that's only inside the museum. Outside, there are several trails for hiking or snowshoeing, and a snowshoe rental is included with admission. On my visit, a volunteer naturalist guided a small group on a short hike, explaining how the different pines in the area got there and how to identify them, leading us to a bird blind, and explaining a bit about the animals who winter in the Adirondacks and how they survive. You can take self-guided walks, as well.
The staff is very knowledgeable and does a great job of engaging with visitors, especially children, making it a good spot for families -- whether you spend most of your day or only a portion of it there.
A few ideas if you want to make a day trip of your visit to the area:
+ Skiing Through March 28, each admission to the Wild Center also gets you a free ski pass to the nearby Big Tupper Ski Area. The deal works both ways, too: if you want to ski first, you'll also get a free admission to the center.
+ Sightseeing Tupper Lake is just west of Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, and you'll drive through both towns if you take I-87 to exits 30 or 31 to get there. Both towns have plenty to see and do, especially Lake Placid with the village and Olympic center. You can visit the shops, grab a bite to eat, or just relax by the water.
+ Hiking Tupper Lake is also just west of the high peaks region of the Adirondacks, offering some of the best hiking in the Northeast. Most of the hikes are a little too serious to tackle if you're spending part of your day at the Wild Center, but two good options lie between I-87 and Tupper lake: Cascade and Porter mountains are relatively quick hikes and common first climbs of the 46 high peaks. And Hurricane Mountain is an intermediate climb with spectacular 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and Lake Placid, and even features a (defunct) fire tower.
+ Take a drive The winding roads of the Adirondacks are perfect for taking in the scenery from your car. Taking exit 30 from I-87 will bring you straight through Keene Valley with some of the most beautiful landscapes in New York, including dramatic mountains, cliff faces, and waterfalls. There are plenty of parking areas if you want to pull off for a picnic or just relax and enjoy the rest of a beautiful day. Route 30 south from Tupper Lake is the long way home but brings you through even more wonderful views dotted by small towns and villages that offer their own unique charms for the adventurous.
A few details to keep in mind
Winter and spring hours for the Wild Center: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm. Through the summer and fall the Center is open seven days a week, 10 am to 5 pm. (More details and holiday hours are on the center's website)
The Center is closed during April for exhibit installations.
Admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, and $9 for youths 14 and under -- children 3 and under get in free. There are also group rates, and teachers should contact the center about educational tours.
Don't forget to say hi to the otters!
The Wild Center
45 Museum Drive
Tupper Lake, NY 12986
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