Aerial drone view of Lean to Campsite in the Adirondack mountains with a campfire burning.

Campsite With a View: The Adirondacks’ Famed Lean-Tos

Explore the best of these versatile backcountry shelters that help connect routes through the largest publicly protected area in the lower 48.

The Adirondack Mountains are a backcountry oasis amid otherwise crowded eastern states. This circular dome rises to define northeastern New York, blending rocky summits, forested ridgelines and low hills with wooded flats dotted by chains of lakes and wandering rivers. Visions of fur trappers and traders, hardy backcountry guides, hunters, anglers, loggers and summer campers are all easy to come by walking through the ’Daks’ dense spruce forests past countless log shelters and signs of the area’s rich outdoor past.

Of those structures and shelters, one endures: the lean-to. Originally developed by guides bringing city-goers into the mountains originally inhabited by Iroquoian peoples, the three-sided, pitched-roof Adirondack lean-tos were crudely built as shelters for hunting and fishing parties. Eventually, they matured into the still-sound structures that have become a hallmark of the region. Today, several hundred lean-tos line trails throughout the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park, many in some of the sprawling protected area’s most spectacular campsites, ready to serve as a pre-installed basecamp for exploring one of the East’s most iconic mountain ranges. 

Lean-to 101

Unlike a lot of other backcountry shelters and campsites, lean-tos in the Adirondacks are operated without reservations, caretakers, or any other infrastructure. And while there are typically enough to go around, there are some best practices for visiting them:

  • Lean-tos typically sleep up to eight people and are shared. If there’s room for more, welcome anyone else looking for a place to sleep on the other side of the shelter. 
  • You can use rope or cord (no nails) to extend tarps off the front of the shelter, but you can’t close in the open side with one. 
  • Don’t set up your tent inside the lean-to. Many lean-tos are in areas that also feature designated tent campsites
  • Keep the shelters clean. You’ll often find a broom stashed somewhere around the shelter to brush our debris. And as always, pack out what you pack in

If you’re visiting a lean-to for the first time, take a look around for a logbook—often on a small shelf near the shelter’s eve. Sign your name and mention your trip, then take a look back at what other visitors have been up to. 

leanto shelter in the adirondacks

Lean to these standout lean-tos 

Head for one of the Adirondacks’ most wild and outstanding lean-tos to experience the best outdoor adventures that these unique structures offer backcountry travelers. 

1. Carry Lean-to

Carry Lean-to sits just above the Cedar River, south of Cedar River Flow and the town of Indian Lake. Situated along the Northville-Lake Placid Trail, it’s a popular stopping point for thru-hikers for good reason: From inside the shelter, you can look out over the calmly winding Cedar River and north into the valley where it meets a larger body of water (eventually flowing into the upper Hudson River).

2. West Lake No. 1 Lean-to

The Canada Lakes are full of beautiful campsites scattered on the shores of a collection of lakes also along the Northville-Placid Trail, but West Lake No. 1 is tough to beat. It’s about as close to the water as these shelters can get, with just enough room for a firepit between you and the shoreline. Most easily accessed from the town of Speculator, it’s also a great basecamp from which to explore the trails heading out in all directions: Hike west to remote Brooktrout Lake, northeast to sprawling Cedar Lakes, or south across bogs to Spruce Lake (all of these destinations have lean-tos of their own, as well). 

3. St. Regis Pond Lean-to

The St. Regis Canoe Area, west of the town of Saranac Lake, is one of the best places in the entire park to feel like you’ve truly gotten away from civilization. The wilderness is dotted in countless lakes and ponds, and the only trails here are designed as canoe carries between them. This shelter, located on the western shore of St. Regis Pond, is only accessible by boat, but from here you’ll have spectacular views looking across the lake and up to 2,878-foot St. Regis Mountain rising above (look for the firetower poking off the summit). 

4. Panther Gorge Lean-to

Panther Gorge, a deep valley between three of the state’s highest peaks, is about as remote as you can get in the popular High Peaks Wilderness. Access it by coming from any of these summits, or via a long trail leading to Elk Lake Road, west of North Hudson. Expect to feel alone and small, with your head craned to look at the mountains 2,000 feet above and less than a mile horizontally from you. 

5. Seward Lean-to

Another shelter along the 144-mile Northville-Placid Trail, Seward is a long way from anywhere, unless you’re thru-hiking the trail, but can be accessed from the Upper Works Trailhead, northeast of Newcomb. But getting here is worth the trek. The lean-to is close enough to Cascading Millers Falls to hear the water tumbling down the slick rocks. The Cold River here also makes a great swimming hole. 

6. Fifth Peak Lean-to

You won’t find too many lean-tos with the Alpine views of Fifth Peak. The 1,813-foot peak sits at the crest of the Tongue Mountain Range, which forms a peninsula sticking out into massive Lake George nearly 1,500 feet below. The lean-to sits nearly on the summit, with views looking out over the island-dotted Narrows, and up and down the 32-mile long lake. It’s the perfect centerpiece of a hike along the trail that rides the top of the range. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.