A Fall Cruise on the Saranac

For paddlers looking for a fun downstream paddle, the Saranac River offers a ton of options, from short jaunts to multi-day camping trips.

The Saranac is my second favorite place to paddle. (With all due respect to my hometown river, the Raquette will forever be my favorite.) The Saranac River watershed — part of Sections 2 and 3 of the canoe trail — gathers in the Saranac Lakes and becomes a river in earnest in downtown Saranac Lake, below the Lake Flower Dam, and flows all the way to Lake Champlain. In this post I’m going to write about the stretch from downtown Saranac Lake to Bloomingdale, but I’d encourage you to learn more about this marquee section of the NFCT.

My most recent trip on the Saranac was September 2023. The NFCT teamed up with one of its long standing partners, St. Regis Canoe Outfitters, to lead a trip from St. Regis’s shop in downtown Saranac Lake to the NFCT takeout at McCasland bridge. The fall foliage was near peak, and by setting out around 5 o’clock, the late afternoon/early evening light was perfect for taking in some truly beautiful scenery.

A dozen or so people joined us for this trip, including a couple from Pennsylvania that had never paddled the Saranac. The first part of the river takes you through the village and down a small section of very gentle rapids. Once you pass the Pine Street bridge, the river widens and features slow moving current.

Early on, my wife, Kaet, remarked that she was bored with this particular paddle, and it’s hard to blame her: we do it a lot. From bringing new paddlers on trips like this one to quick after-work outings, the two of us have done this one dozens and dozens of times. But after a couple bends in the river, the scenery opened up and the fall colors were blazing.

“OK, this is pretty awesome actually,” Kaet said, pulling out her phone to shoot some photos and videos.

Once you get downstream of the village’s wastewater treatment plant (don’t worry, the water is just fine here) and past the Fish & Game Club, the views are wonderful, with McKenzie and Moose mountains in the foreground and Whiteface Mountain in the distance. The landscape varies, too, with wide sections flanked by marshland and narrower sections with trees tucked up right against the riverbanks. Over the years, I’ve caught glimpses of hawks, eagles, herons, deer and all sorts of birds that I can’t name. Earlier this year, Kaet and I even came face-to-face — quite literally — with a pair of otters, who were just as surprised as we were.

If you are looking for a quick get-away, there is a campsite on river-right just below the Moose Creek confluence. Out of earshot from the road and town, this is a lovely place to sneak off to for some solitude.

After an hour or so, we paddled under the Moose Pond Bridge — this is the first (good) spot paddlers can take out, and it’s also the trailhead for an easy 1.7-mile path to Moose Pond. On the day we paddled, we continued on, but this is a good ending point if your time is limited. After another 10 minutes or so, we passed the NFCT’s Five Fahls campsite on river right, which is a beautiful spot tucked just a few dozen yards away from the river, which includes a lean-to, privy and an NFCT trail register. A few minutes later, we arrived at the McCasland Bridge take-out, which is also maintained by the NFCT with permission from a private landowner. (Please keep off the bridge!)

Here, we took out and St. Regis Canoe Outfitters generously loaded boats on its trailer and shuttled us back to town. In all, this trip takes approximately two hours depending on skill level.

Paddlers looking for a longer trip can pass under McCasland Bridge and continue all the way to the take-out above Permanent Rapids. This section is underrated and I can’t recommend it enough. The river winds its way through and past Bloomingdale, with the view of the mountains opening up even more — just be sure not to miss the take-out river left above Permanent Rapids!