Any place you find a large chasm splitting the landscape, it seems that people (and tourism boards) are tempted to compare it to the Grand Canyon: the Grand Canyon of New Zealand, the Grand Canyon of Hawaii, and yes, the Grand Canyon of the Adirondacks. That’s what we found at Ausable Chasm near Plattsburgh, New York.
We visited Ausable Chasm as part of our Annual Autumn Leaf Peeping Getaway. It was a transition between the hustle and bustle of New York City, and the quiet beauty of Upstate New York and neighboring Vermont in the fall. We took advantage of Amtrak service aboard the Adirondack, which travels daily between Manhattan and Montreal. The picturesque route goes up the Hudson River Valley and skirts Lake Champlain, making it a fantastic trip for fall color. For a few months each year, Amtrak added the historic Great Dome Car (now retired) to the train between Albany and Montreal for a very special train experience.
Join us as we hike the trails of Ausable Chasm, learn a little of its history, and turn the visit into a weekend stay in nearby Plattsburgh.
Welcome to Ausable Chasm
Ausable Chasm is a park within a park; it is one of the most picturesque and easily accessible sections of the Adirondack National Park. The Chasm itself is about two miles long, with about 10 times as many miles of fun and adventure! That includes five miles of hiking trails, 15 miles of biking trails at the Ausable Chasm Recreation Center, and rafting on the river itself. (More on the trail hikes later.)
With varying degrees of difficulty, and tons of natural beauty, the park is very family-friendly. It’s obviously a great place to get in some hiking, but it’s also a great destination for birdwatching, leafpeeping, and enjoying the dense woodland forest. The trails are very well maintained, but there are narrow bridges and stairs in some places as they descend into and traverse the gorges.
A Brief History of Ausable Chasm
If we travel back in time about 10,000 years, Ausable Chasm would look completely different. For one thing, we’d be at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch ice age, and we’d be standing on a glacier. As it melted, caves, tunnels, and canyons formed. Eventually, a river eroded the 500-million-year-old Potsdam Sandstone, forming the chasm.
Fast forward about 8,235 years, when Irishman William Gilliland floated his bateau up one of the rivers feeding into Lake Champlain in 1765. He came to “a most admirable sight, appearing on each side like a regular built wall, somewhat ruinated.” His discovery on the Ausable River is what we know today as Ausable Chasm.
During the early 1800s, the Ausable River and Chasm were central to the Adirondack’s timber, lumber, and eventually iron industries. Around 1870, the Chasm entered the tourism industry also, when it was first opened to the public as a park. That makes it the oldest natural attraction in the United States! That is, it has been a park longer than any other natural attraction. At 10,000 years, it’s still a geological baby compared to, say, the actual Grand Canyon.
We started our visit to Ausable chasm early in the day (meaning before noon) at the Ausable Chasm Visitor Center. There is a cafeteria, but it has seasonal hours, so have breakfast and coffee before venturing out. Also in the Visitor Center is a small museum and some information about the history and geology of the Ausable River and Chasm. You can browse the gift shop, try your hand at gold planning (not always available), and take a short walk up to the Rainbow Falls overlook. (All of these activities are free. )
Once you’ve paid admission and entered the park, there are four mapped trails in three distinct areas: The rim, the Inner Sanctum, and the Dry Chasm. Each is progressively more difficult, though none are extremely challenging. Because some sections and activities are seasonal, our options during the fall were somewhat limited.
At the admission desk, you can purchase a wristband for the park itself and, in season, different activities. Since we visited in October, hiking was our only option. During the summer, you’ll find more adventure on the climbing and rappelling (abseiling) courses, and the via ferrata adventure course in an upper section of the park. The protected climbing route includes cable bridges, cargo nets, and some climbing on a route with a steel cable along the rock face.
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Since one admission price gives you access to all three trails within the park, it’s sort of an All You Can Hike situation! So long as you check out at the Gatehouse before closing time, you’re good to hike to your heart’s content.
Elephant Head Lookout
The first trail you’ll want to tackle starts at the Visitor Center, and is on the parking lot level. The trail leads to the Elephant Head overlook, and the entrance to the adventure trail. Because we visited in October the adventure trail was closed for the season. Taking a look down the trail at the small rope bridge and steep stairway, we decided that was perfectly OK. (Pretty sure the stairway could have been called the Stair Master of the Adirondacks!) Almost immediately, Ausable Chasm impresses you with stunning views, and soothes the soul with fragrant pine and hemlock trees, and the distant rush of water.
Once we visited Elephant’s Head Overlook and confirmed that it does indeed look like an elephant’s head, we doubled back along the trail to the exit point, and headed for the main section of the park.
Rim Walk & Inner Sanctum
Ironically, one of the parks and best and most iconic views is available for free as you cross the bridge over the Ausable River from the Visitor Center to the main section of the park. Just past the bridge is the Gatehouse where they check your wristband and you sign in. (You have to sign out as you leave, so they know nobody gets locked in overnight.) The Rangers can let you know about current trail conditions, and give you a map if you don’t have one already.
Trail markers help you stay on your intended trail. We decided to take the Inner Sanctum trail one way, and the Rim Walk back to the Gatehouse. On the Inner Sanctum trail, we walked alongside the river with great views of water features and unique geological formations. On the Rim Walk, we doubled back through the forest at the chasm’s edge, giving us views of the river from higher up.
Instead of tracing our route back to the Gatehouse, there is a shuttle option. Both the Rim Walk and the Dry Chasm trail cross the river again, and end at either of two trolley stops. You can ride the complimentary shuttles back to the Visitor Center.
If there is one Do Not Miss stop along the trail, it’s the very first lookout after the Gatehouse. A bend in the river gives you the picture-perfect view of the Highway 9 bridge over the Ausable River, with Horshoe Falls below it, and Rainbow Falls in the distance. The historic steel arch bridge was completed in 1933, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. It’s no surprise that Rainbow Falls is the most photographed waterfall in the Adirondacks.
One of our favorite spots along the Inner Sanctum trail is the mid-hike picnic area, with tables and namesake Adirondack chairs which, in this case, come with an incredible view. We also loved The Cathedral, where visitors have arranged loose stones into small cairns on some naturally occurring shelves beside the trail. Don’t forget to leave a message at the Post Office, too.
Some of the geological formations to watch out for include the Devil’s Oven Cave, and Mystic Gorge, which show the layers of 500-million year old Potsdam Sandstone exposed as the glaciers retreated. Another of our favorite spots on the Inner Sanctum trail is the Splash Board Bridge. A tall wall is covered by moss, fed by constant dripping from a natural spring. In the winter, the Splash Board freezes over with so much ice that the bridge is completely encased. On our visit, the trail was closed for the season just beyond the Splash Board, but during warmer months the trail continues to the river tubing launch.
In addition to a beautiful hike there’s the chance to spot local wildlife. The Eagles Perch lookout points out five or six species of birds that are commonly visible in the park, including the American Bald Eagle. We saw all of one of them, along with a few playful squirrels and chipmunks. Other animals you may spot include raccoons, turtles, Little Brown Bats, Stripped Skunks and more. Though unlikely at Ausable Chasm, the Adirondack Mountains are also home to Black Bears and majestic Adirondack Moose. (Adirondack.net has a good primer on wildlife of the region.)
Seasons at Ausable
Being an outdoor recreation area, summer is obviously the high season at Ausable Chasm. All trails are open, rafts are floating the river, and crowds are at their heaviest. Autumn is much quieter and cooler, and it’s a great place to enjoy the stunning fall colors of the Adirondacks. Upstate New York is a winter wonderland, even at Ausable Chasm. Special winter guided tours of the Inner Sanctum are available, so you can see the chasm covered in snow and ice formations.
Adventure at Ausable
If it’s adventure you’re looking for, visit Ausable Chasm in the summer. By the time we visited in October, all of the more challenging trails and attractions were closed for the season. However, here’s a peek at what you can find:
- The Adventure Trail is suitable for most ages, and takes you to a section of the chasm not reachable from other trails. On this trail, you’ll cross over the river on cable bridges, climb cargo nets, and navigate narrow rock ledges over the river while clipped in to a steel cable. This trail is fully guided, and costs an additional $32 per person (pp).
- As mentioned previously, rappelling and climbing are available. On the 2- to 3-hour rappelling tour, you’ll rappel up to 80-feet down, with Tyrolean (steel cable) traverses up to 130-feet above the river. The tour is $65pp. Climbing starts at $65 for a 90-minute climb, with routes of varying difficulty. Some routes have you scaling cliffs right over the river!
- You’ve already hiked Ausable Chasm, so how about seeing the towering cliffs from the water? River rafting and tubing are available May through October, weather and river permitting.
- Less adventurous, but every bit as memorable, Ausable Chasm now offers Lantern Tours after dark! The fully-guided tour follows parts of the Rim Walk and Inner Sanctum trails, and ends with a campfire and marshmallow roast! Lantern Tours are only offered on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays during the summer. Also, they are restricted to those who’ve managed to reach at least their 10th birthday. Lantern tours are $25pp, but you get a $5 discount if you’re staying at the Ausable Campground.
Ausable Chasm Recreation Center
If Ausable Chasm was only a beautiful hike alongside rushing rapids and waterfalls, that would be enough. But wait, of course, there’s more!
The Ausable Chasm Recreation Center has more than 15 miles of mountain biking trails through unspoiled Adirondack terrain. If you’re looking for even more to do, there’s Disc Golf at the Recreation Center, too. Don’t worry if you can’t bring your own gear; rental bikes and equipment are available.
Getting to Ausable Chasm
Ausable Chasm is in upstate New York. It’s easily accessible as a day trip from Albany, Burlington, and even Montreal.
Our journey started on the Amtrak Adirondack train from New York City, disembarking at Plattsburgh. From there, we picked up a rental car and hit the road. It’s a lovely 15 mile drive south on Highway 9. For most of the drive, the road skirts Lake Champlain with beautiful views of the lake and Valcour Island. Being a half day train ride, or four-plus hour drive from Manhattan, it makes a great overnighter from The City. We stayed in Plattsburgh in order to hit the trail bright and early the next day.
From Albany: Ausable Chasm is about 150 miles north of Albany on Interstate 87, the Adirondack Northway. Exit at NY-9N, and follow the road through Keesville. The park is less than 10 minutes from the interstate.
From Burlington: The best option from Burlington is taking the Burlington-Port Kent Ferry across Lake Champlain. The crossing takes about an hour. Then, from Port Kent, NY-373 takes you to the park in less than 10 minutes. Note that the ferry is closed during winter months. You can drive around Lake Champlain to Ausable Chasm in about two hours, crossing by bridge either north at Rouses Point (yes, you can see Canada from here!), or south at Crown Point. If choosing the southern option, you may want to allow time to visit the Lake Champlain Visitor Center, and Crown Point State Park.
From the Montreal area: Autoroute 15 will take you south into the U.S., where it becomes Interstate 87. Exit at NY-442, and drive east to Highway 9. Turn right and Ausable Chasm will be a few miles ahead. Total drive time is about 90 minutes.
By Train: As mentioned, the Amtrak Adirondack stops at Plattsburgh daily as it shuttles between Montreal and New York City. Once you disembark at Plattsburgh, there should be taxi’s waiting. You can rent a car from Enterprise on Cornelia Street (Route 3), or from most other agencies at Plattsburgh International Airport. The taxi can take you to either one for a minimal fare. We highly recommend the Enterprise staff on Cornelia Street. Not only were they thoroughly professional and friendly, they managed to snag a BMW M3 for us at a minimal upcharge, AND called during out trip to make sure we were happy with the car. (We’re sure they just wanted to be sure we were bringing it back.)
While you’re visiting Ausable Chasm, you can make a day or more of it by visiting some of these nearby attractions:
- North Star Underground Railroad Museum
- This museum is adjacent to the Ausable Chasm Visitor Center. In darker times of American history, the Lake Champlain area was the gateway to freedom for runaway slaves heading to Canada. Exhibits portray the compelling stories of those who passed through Northeastern New York and the Champlain Valley on their way to Canada. The museum is free, and is open daily from the last Saturday in May until Columbus Day.
- Champlain Valley Transportation Museum
- This automotive museum explores the Lozier Motor Company, which produced luxury automobiles from 1900 to 1915. The collection now includes a wide variety of antique automobiles, plus bicycles, trains, boats, and 750 die cast models. The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday, May through October.
- War of 1812 Museum
- Did you know the biggest invasion of the United States occurred in Plattsburgh during the War of 1812? Learn about the Battle of Plattsburgh and see colonial-era artifacts at this museum, open Wednesday to Saturday all year.
- Fort Ticonderoga
- About an hour from Ausable Chasm, “America’s Fort” sits at the southern end of Lake Champlain, where it played important roles in the French & Indian War and the American Revolution. Fort Ti is open all year; check for seasonal hours.
- Banker Orchards
- Upstate New York is apple territory, and Bankard Orchard is a family friendly orchard, farmer’s market, and petting zoo, all rolled into one. Check their Facebook page for seasonal activities.
If you’d like to stay in the area for a day or longer, there are a variety of options, which cater to all types of travelers.
- Ausable Chasm Campground
- If you’re a camper, this is your spot. Sites accommodate anything from tents to RVs with full hook-ups. There is a store, free hot showers, a swimming pool, and evening movies! If you’re not a camper, you can rent a cozy cabin that sleeps up to four. (Note that pets are not allowed in the cabins.) Summer is busy, so make reservations well in advance. The Campground is generally open from May to October.
- Best Western Plattsburgh
- Being the largest nearby town, most lodging and dining options will be in Plattsburgh. TravelLatte stayed at the Best Western Plus, which is just off of Interstate 87.
TripAdvisor Reviews ~ Book It with Expedia
There are a number of similar budget hotels in Plattsburgh, and if you are a member of one of the major chain loyalty programs, you might consider:
- Marriott: Fairfield Inn & Suites – TripAdvisor Reviews ~ Book It with Expedia
- IHG: Holiday Inn Plattsburgh – TripAdvisor Reviews ~ Book It with Expedia
- Hilton Honors: Hampton Inn & Suites – TripAdvisor Reviews ~ Book It with Expedia
- Wyndham: Microtel Inn & Suites – TripAdvisor Reviews ~ Book It with Expedia
For something a little more luxurious, consider the Point Au Roche Lodge. The Bed & Breakfast-style lodge is practically a part of the Point Au Roche State Park, and less than a mile from Lake Champlain. The park offers even more hiking trails and a sandy swimming beach, and it’s just 15 minutes north of Plattsburgh.
TripAdvisor Reviews ~ Book It with Expedia
To make a little more out of your visit, you can stay at nearby Bluff Point Golf Resort. Established in 1890, it lays claim to being the oldest golf course in the United States! Guests staying in the cottages on the course also have access to the resort’s private Lake Champlain beach.
TripAdvisor Reviews ~ Book It with Expedia
We couldn’t help but notice that literally every person in Plattsburgh that we asked recommended the same place to eat: Our House. Not literally their house, but a little bistro in the historic center of town. So that’s where we went, and where we would highly recommend you go, too! The “mom and pop” restaurant is known for their Mac & Cheese, so we ordered up a couple. We couldn’t quite wrap our heads around the PB&J Mac, but since we were at Canada’s doorstep, we figured the Poutine Mac had to be a winner. I mean, poutine plus Mac & Cheese? That’s just pure evil genius. And, it turns out, really filling. We could barely manage the Caprese Mac, and had to take the Reuben Mac to go. (Also pure evil genius.)
Also highly rated in Plattsburgh:
- Anthony’s Restaurant & Bistro – High-end American-European fare with a casual bistro, and a fine dining restaurant.
- Aleka’s – A casual restaurant serving Italian, Greek and Mediterranean food in the downtown area.
- Olive Ridley’s – A downtown tap house and grill with live entertainment.
- Himalaya – Somewhat unexpectedly, authentic Himalayan small plates in downtown Plattsburgh!
You know we have to have our coffee! The spot for that is the Koffee Kat. It’s right in the downtown area, so you can stroll around Trinity Park, see the MacDonough Monument, and then have a cup. Afterwards, go next door to the Corner Stone Book Store.
- Pronounced Awe-sable, it translates from French as “in the sand.”
- You can comfortably cover the Rim Walk and Inner Sanctum trails in 45 minutes to an hour…but why would you? Take your time to take it all in.
- There is a hydroelectrical dam just above Rainbow Falls, which has a lovely waterfall of its own, and is a short walk from the Visitor Center.
- Rainbow Falls was not always where it is today. As the river erodes the sandstone, the falls move ever so slowly upstream.
- Just past the bridge on Highway 9 is Old State Road, where you’ll find Velvet Kiss Cupcakes. It’s less than a half-mile from the Gatehouse. Because hiking deserves a sweet reward!
Summing It Up
Ausable Chasm is a great active family destination, as well as a nice getaway for friends and couples who enjoy time outdoors and moderate hiking. If you’re already planning on being in the Adirondack area, plan at least a half-day to enjoy the Chasm’s activities. If you’re coming from much further than Albany or Burlington, though, you might want to add some of the other area attractions and turn the trip into an overnighter or long weekend.
Whether you make it a day, a weekend (like we did) or longer, we’re sure you’ll enjoy every minute and, like us, will be anxious to go back for more!
Have you visited the Ausable Chasm or the Adirondack National Park? We’d love to hear about your experience. If we’ve inspired you to plan a visit, we’d love to hear about that, too! Just leave us a note in the Comments.
And here’s one last look at the beautiful Rainbow Falls, the most photographed waterfall in Adirondacks National Park!