Falling for Upstate New York
November 5, 2009
Filed under Destinations
My journey to upstate New York began as a great excuse to RV to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. I had never been to Cooperstown, and the invitation from a friend who had been an intern there was the golden opportunity I was unwilling to pass up.
Along the way, I discovered that there is so much more to love about this area. Rolling hills blanketed with trees give way to the placid lakes of the Adirondack Mountains to the north. Every village and town has history and charm to spare, and drives between sites revealed beautiful vistas that delighted my travel-weary eyes. Even after spending several days in the region, I knew I would have to return to see more in the future. The following is my chronicled journey, along with some important RV tips for traveling the area.
The name Cooperstown is synonymous with baseball, and its National Baseball Hall of Fame is indeed one of the primary tourist destinations for visitors to this bucolic rural town. Yet this is hardly the only attraction. Situated as it is on the southern shore of Lake Otsego, the town draws visitors with both indoor and outdoor recreation in mind.
The town’s name hints at another claim to fame. The land that eventually became the Village of Cooperstown was purchased in 1785 by Judge William Cooper, who had the land surveyed and the town established one year later. This would seem to be enough fame for one family, but the best was yet to come. The town founder’s son was none other than James Fenimore Cooper, who incorporated the surrounding landscape into his famous series of novels known as the Leatherstocking Tales. The audiobook of Cooper’s masterpiece, The Last of the Mohicans, provides perfect accompaniment for a drive through this area. Surprisingly, the 1992 film adaptation was shot in North Carolina.
The first family of Cooperstown also lends its name to the elegant Fenimore Art Museum. The first-rate collections of works by American artists includes fine art, folk art, and the Thaw Collection of American Indian Art, true to the spirit of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels. I must admit, however, that it was the museum’s exterior that took my breath away. The rear portico of the converted mansion that houses the museum opens onto a long, verdant lawn that slopes gently down to the shores of the lake. The view is incredible, and hand-built replicas of a native birch canoe and bark-covered house continue the educational mission of the museum even on the outer grounds.
Time was short, so I didn’t visit The Farmers’ Museum, which promises hands-on experiences for visitors, as well as a carousel with hand-carved animals, an 1840s historic village and plenty of farm animals. Chalk that one down for next time. I did manage to gawk at the Otesaga Resort, a grand hotel built in 1909 that evokes images of the Great Gatsby, with magnificent views, a golf course and a huge façade of white columns that loom three stories high. The exclusive guest list includes each year’s inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame, who sleep in style before the big day.
When visiting the Hall, plan on walking a bit. I parked on the town’s Main Street and came back to find a ticket when I went out for lunch. Apparently, two-hour parking is strictly enforced. However, a park-and-ride south of town will deposit visitors on a trolley that goes to all of the major attractions, which sounds like a marvelous way to see the sights.
Aside from the awe-inducing cases full of memorabilia that snake through a chronological telling of baseball’s history, the Hall has embraced the historical leagues that women and minorities once played in with even more fascinating exhibits. Other exhibits explore baseball’s depiction on film, artistic representations of the sport and past champions.
I toured the Hall with Brian Moynahan, the ex-intern, and he insisted we get there early for some quiet time in the plaque gallery. The gallery atrium admits natural light, and it almost felt like the narthex of a cathedral as we quietly looked for our favorite players. I spoke to a Hall employee who seemed to be enjoying the displays as much as we were. “I never get in here in the busy season,” he said, “but every once in a while we get a quiet morning like this one, and I come in and enjoy it for a few minutes.”
The hand stamp administered at the front door allows passage in and out, so my friends and I had lunch at the a nearby café, then watched players warming up at the adjacent Doubleday Field before going back in for more. It was a very full day.
Since this was my first visit to upstate New York, I was determined to visit the Adirondacks as well. Rather than meeting back up with the interstate, I decided to drive north out of Cooperstown on the scenic route 80, which hugs the shore of Lake Otsego. As I rolled farther up the valley, I could see why the novelist James Fenimore Cooper called this body of water “Glimmerglass.” The lake has a relaxing aura about it. Even if you don’t bring along your own watercraft, rentals and boat tours abound.
It was a nice drive, but I did learn some RVing tips to share. One, the road is narrow, so be careful. Sometimes it looks like you’re perched above the lake’s water with very little leeway. Two, make sure your tow vehicle’s fuel tank is full before you leave town, because I only found one gas station on a very small lot during my drive north, and I was sweating the fuel level by the time I made it to the New York State Thruway several miles later. Three, bring cash, because this area is chock full of farmer’s markets of a very special type.
Shortly after passing by the Erie Canal, I turned onto State Road 10, heading into the mountains. As I came up over a ridge, I was astonished to see a horse and buggy clopping toward me. My research on the area had failed to turn up the fact that Montgomery County is New York state’s Amish country. I passed several more carriages and bonneted women on foot as I passed through. The aforementioned cash came in handy at the roadside stands and markets, where sweet corn and squash are among the regular offerings. Treat yourself to fresh food grown the old-fashioned way – you won’t be disappointed.
Look at a map of New York state, and you’ll see a large green blob that covers much of the northern third of your chart. The blob is a mapmaker’s representation of Adirondack Park, a parcel of 6.1 million acres managed by the New York State Forest Preserve. More than half of the park is privately owned under strict state guidelines, which means plenty of cozy houses along the shores of the various lakes.
The Adirondacks are a recreational wonderland for those who love the outdoors. I was there in the period when summer was giving way to fall, and it was still warm enough to take a dip in the water. Heavy winter snowfall in the park provides excellent conditions for skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling – a park for all seasons.
The park is well-suited for every kind of vehicle. The primary roads do wind a bit, but they are well-paved and wide enough for RV travel. Some of the side roads that lead to boat launches and fishing spots were occasionally unpaved and overgrown to the point that I couldn’t feel confident about getting in and out with ease. The best bet is to pick one of the multiple campgrounds inside the park, find a spot that suits your style, and plunk down in the region’s favorite piece of furniture – the sloping, wooden Adirondack chair. There are activities aplenty for the daytime, but nothing beats spending a quiet half hour watching the sun go down over the mountains at the end of the day.
Overall, I found this region to have a comforting blend of history, nature and small-town life. Even the interstate highway that brought me in and out of the area provided excellent views of church steeples rising alongside stony brooks and hillsides covered with goldenrod and purple thistle. So many points of interest lie within close proximity to Cooperstown, I never felt that I needed to range too far afield to entertain myself. If you’re looking for a place that has it all, look no further than this charming slice of upstate New York. It could become a habit.
Cooperstown/Otsego County Tourism, (800) 843-3394, www.thisiscooperstown.com.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum, (888) 425-5633, www.baseballhalloffame.org.
Visit Adirondacks, (800) 487-6867, www.visitadirondacks.com.