Adirondack Great Camps

Adirondack landmarks, then and now

The Great Camp tradition began in the late 19th century soon after the publication of William H. H. Murray's Adventures in the Wilderness in 1869. This highly popular book was an account of Murray's various camping, hunting, and fishing trips in the Adirondack wilderness. Murray's book put the Adirondack Mountains and Hamilton County on the map as a tourist destination; grand hotels were built and the rich and famous from around the world were soon spending their summers here.

An engraving of two men in an Adirondack guide boat from the 1880s.
An engraving from Murray's famous work.

The wealthiest among these visitors, such as the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, soon began building their own wilderness retreats, known today as the Adirondack Great Camps. These camps were built so that wealthy families could continue to live in luxury, even in the remote wilderness of New York. More than a summer home, these camps were small compounds of rustic lodges that had everything from dining halls to guest cabins, and included such amenities as game rooms, tea rooms, and servants' cabins.

Great Camp architecture can be described as rustic and natural with a rugged edge. Camps were designed to complement the wilderness environment of the Adirondacks, a concept that is reflected in the native materials used in the building process. This Adirondack style remains popular today and can been seen in newly built homes and cabins across the region. The most famous illustration of this style would be the Adirondack chair, a popular outdoor furniture piece now decorating porches across the world.

A wide-angle view of an Adirondack Great Camp compound on a sunny day.

Raquette Lake and Great Camp Sagamore

The small town of Raquette Lake in the Adirondacks is credited as being the birthplace of the Great Camp. This credit is thanks to W.W. Durant, who began building the first Great Camp in the region, Camp Pine Knot, in 1877. The camp consisted of two dozen cabins with covered walkways connecting the various buildings. Durant went on to build several other Great Camps, including Camp Uncas and Camp Sagamore.

Camp Pine Knot was sold to the State University of New York at Cortland in 1947 for $1.00 and was later declared a National Historic Landmark in 2004. Camp Uncas, the second of Durant's Great Camps, was sold to J.P. Morgan in 1896 and stayed in the Morgan family until 1947. The camp was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008.

In 1901, the Vanderbilt family bought Great Camp Sagamore, a large wilderness estate in Raquette Lake, from W.W. Durant. The Vanderbilts quickly modernized the camp by incorporating flushing toilets, a sewer system, and hot/cold running water. The camp was expanded to include an outdoor bowling alley, tennis court, a hydroelectric plant, and many other unique amenities.

In the 1950's, the camp was transferred to Syracuse University and was almost destroyed as a part of the Forever Wild forest preservation act. The Preservation League of New York stepped in and saved the camp and it was eventually designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2000. Today, the camp is a 27-building complex that offers guided walking tours, Adirondack birding tours, and the public can stay at the Great Camp as participants in educational seminars, Grandparents Camp, music weekends, and more.

Great Camps today

These magnificent complexes sprouted up across the Adirondack region throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. Several of these camps have survived into the modern day and are still points of interest for many modern Adirondack visitors.

Today, you can take a narrated boat tour on Raquette Lake and catch a glimpse or two of the remaining camps. A few of these camps operate as summer camps where kids can canoe, kayak, and hike the same trails as the original residents of the camps. Some camps have also been modernized into conference centers, museums, and education centers.

Historic walking tours are available daily during the summer at Great Camp Sagamore. Check the Great Camp Sagamore website for more information about other, special tours that include nearby Camp Uncas.

Stay at an Adirondack Great Camp

For those modern Adirondack adventurers - looking to immerse yourself in the wild without sleeping under the stars, there are a few Great Camps available for you to stay in:
Great Camp Sagamore
Bearhurst Lakeside Cabins

Search our Adirondack lodging listings and spend your summer vacation relaxing in rustic luxury, just like the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Carnegies!