They call it the North Country, and in the winter, the name feels right. A beautiful, mostly untamed area deep in the Adirondacks of New York State. A place known for hiking, snowmobiling, sleigh riding, skating, and ice fishing during the frigid season. But, what if one has a hankering for some culture or history? How about for a family with young children? What’s there to do when ice fishing, snowmobiling, or hiking frost covered trails just isn’t in the cards?
Stop by a couple of forts on the outskirts of the Lake Champlain Bridge, why don’t you? You’ll be doing it in the off season- in other words, the visitor’s center/ museum is closed in the winter- but the surrounding wilderness, marvelous mountain views, and relative solitude of the off season may be exactly what you’re looking for.
Just before the Lake Champlain Bridge connecting New York State to Vermont lies the Crown Point State Historic Site. From the parking lot across the street one can already feel the history of the place. The beautifully maintained Champlain Memorial Light House (one of the nicest you’ll ever see), the bridge beyond it, and even the humbling train- like groan of the expanding Lake Champlain ice seems to convey a sense of the mysterious past. If you enter the site along the lake after having crossed the street a spindly fingered lake fog may engulf you on the way, and that’s when you’ll happen upon the first of the forts, St. Frederic. Built by the French in 1734 to protect their northern settlements, St. Frederic is hardly anything at all these days- a simple rectangle of stone marks the moat that once sealed the entrance to it. This is a theme that continues as subtle reminders of the French military, including scanty remnants of a guardhouse, are abundant. Consider taking a pamphlet from the visitor’s center/ museum just to the left of St. Frederic (they’re often left out even when it’s closed). It will answer many of your questions as you walk the grounds.
Unfortunately, those families visiting in the off season will miss out on the museum audio visual display that Crown Point State Historic Site Manager, Thomas Hughes recommends for children. To make up for this and head off your child’s highly variable attention span, make a quick break for the British side of things.
The British overtook the French in 1759 after several tries and put their own fort and Officers’ Barracks on the land farther from the lake. Rebuilt today, His Majesty’s Fort of Crown Point, is there for you to explore, and the Officers’ Barracks have been maintained nearly just as they were in 1762. In fact, the roofless structures are impressive in an old English kind of way. In the winter, it’s even easier to get a sense of how different life must’ve been for a soldier in those days. Standing by or in the large stone fireplaces littered throughout the dwellings, you almost want the fire to be lit, the chill in your bones to be quenched. What’s better, once the kids get done exploring the two dwellings- remember, they are made of stone so depending on their age you may need to hold their hand on the walk through- there’s a large field of grass, and as long as they stay in that area, they’ll be free to frolic. But, to be honest, the children are sure to be taken by the stone forts. They beckon even to an adult’s need to explore. Later, travel beyond the barracks to the flight of stairs leading up the hill and simply behold your surroundings (there is a pretty steep hill on the other side- if you’ve got a young child, time to hold their hand). There you’ll be able to see the same open view of the lake and surrounding area that must’ve appealed to the British when they chose the spot, even if you’ll enjoy it more for the breathtaking fog- lined mountains than the wartime advantage such a trajectory brings.
The forts of Lake Champlain are a place that one can visit with no money in the off season. They cater to a crowd that enjoys history, beautiful views, exploration, and a little time to just roam around. On your way out, back at the parking lot across the street, take the time to enjoy a one in a million lighthouse. And if you visit in winter, don’t look twice when the lake groans louder than you ever could’ve imagined- it’s the mark of a first timer.
Crown Point State Historic Site
4 miles off of Routes 22 and 9N
Champlain Bridge, Crown Point, NY 12928
As of 5/9/06- Visitor’s Center/ Museum is open May-October, Wednesday- Monday from 9:30A.M.-5P.M. (Sunday 1-5P.M.). Leashed dogs are allowed on premises.
Parking fee is $5 on weekends and holidays in season from 9:30- 5P.M. Museum entrance fee is $3 for persons aged 12-61. It is $2 for those aged 62 and above.
Interesting notes from The Crown Point Historic Site Manager, Thomas Hughes- “The geology of Crown Point draws groups of scholars from several universities every year. The bird conservation area of this 350-acre property is used (31 years in a row) for an annual Bird Banding program in May.”