Mountain Lakes Park
By Taro Letaka, Supervisor Mountain Lake Park
“Almost World Capital” “Almost Tuxedo Park”
The claims cited above are not ones you’d think to associate with Mountain Lakes Park — a 1,000-plus-acre preserve that is in both North Salem and Lewisboro — given its quiet seclusion. However, those were the tag lines, along with “…the Great Lakes, the Adirondacks and a rolling countryside in miniature”, that were used in a New York real estate pamphlet in the 1950s looking for buyers of the former ‘Port of Missing Men.’ Despite the marketing flair and exaggeration, the advertisement did capture some of the spirit and history of the park.
From the land’s purchase in the 1700s from the Tankiteke Sachemdom of the Wappinger Tribe, and through its ownership by Joseph Sarles and George Bailey, nephew to H. Bailey who founded the first American Circus, this area of northeast Westchester County was used for hunting and farming. It was in the early 1900s under the ownership of Henry Anderson, a wealthy attorney, that roads, sewers, dams, and wells were constructed in an attempt to create a development that would rival Tuxedo Park. In another crafty marketing move, “The Port of Missing Men,” a barn converted into a restaurant with glassed-in porches and views of the rolling hills was created. The restaurant, named after a popular book of the time that was set in the hills of rural Virginia, attracted over 20,000 visitors until its closure in the 1930s. Of course, the plan to make this Tuxedo Park East never got off the ground, in part due to World War I. Following the second World War, the land was apparently given serious consideration as a headquarters for the United Nations, hence the “Almost World Capital” claim.
Mountain Lakes became a park in 1961 when Westchester County purchased 1,082 of the original 1,860 acres to become a summer camp. The park is still used by Camp Morty, a sleepaway camp for disadvantaged children, and the North Salem Recreation Day Camp. The park was re-dedicated to Sal J. Prezioso in 2009 to recognize the former Superintendent of the Westchester County Recreation Commission and past president of the NYS Recreation Society.
All hype aside, the park does have a feel that is similar to the Adirondacks or Appalachians. The view from the Lookout is an easy 20-minute walk from the main park road and is one of the best in the area with its panoramic vista encompassing Lake Waccabuc and the northeast corner of Westchester County. The park also contains the highest point in all of Westchester County: Bailey Mountain at 982 feet above sea level.
With the high elevation come changes in vegetation and climate. Mountain Lakes may be one of the coldest places in Westchester County which make it great for a summer getaway from blacktop-melting temperatures (local research shows Mountain Lakes is several degrees cooler on average than cities in lower Westchester) and for outdoor ice skating. The cold climate is also hospitable to evergreen trees that are uncommon elsewhere in the area: Hemlock, Cedar, Larch, Laurel, Fir, Spruce, and Pine. Those are also the namesakes of some of the camp sites and the man-made ponds in the park on which visitors can go fishing or rent a canoe. Largemouth bass, painted turtles, pickerel frogs, and great blue turtles are some of the animals that paddlers are likely to meet, while pond lilies and cattail flowers add a scenic background. The streams that flow into the ponds are flanked by trails with cascades and pools: the OS trail (for Old Sib, a local road that once went through the park) leading to Spruce Lake doesn’t appear on maps yet, but it is a definite highlight of the park.
Hikers in the park will pass abundant juneberry, blueberry, and spicebush shrubs, Christmas fern and spotted wintergreen ground covers, and a canopy of ash, beech, hemlock, oak, and pine provide shade to the majority of the land. Less frequently seen, but definitely present in the park are beavers, white-tailed deer, red fox, river otters, coyote, flying squirrels, and the occasional bobcat. A black bear may pass through the park but usually moves on to territory with more food to offer. The eleven campsites are spread throughout the 1,082 acres to give campers the most privacy of any local campground – along with the calls of owls and frogs.
More information about the park can be found at parks.westchestergov.com. Camping and canoe reservations can be made by calling the park office at 914.864.7312. Updates on ice conditions are available on social media websites or by calling the office.