Valcour Island Overview

Valcour Island. Photo by Robin Brown.

Audio: The History of Valcour

Valcour Island has 1,000 acres of public land managed by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Presently known as “Valcour Island Primitive Area,” the shallow soils, rock outcrops, low boggy areas, rockledge shoreline, small sandy bays, dense forest, and overgrown pasture speak to the diversity of Valcour. Undoubtedly of national historic significance, the island is also extremely important to wildlife. On the island is a great blue heron rookery and osprey and peregrine falcon nesting sites. Rare flora and a great diversity of other wildlife may also be found. NYSDEC rules for camping and hiking can be found at: http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/7872.htm

Recommended anchorages at Valcour Island include Spoon Bay, Bluff Point (north and south), Smuggler Harbor, and Sloop Cove.

The Clinton County Historical Association’s guide to the “Valcour Island Heritage Trail,” created by Kevin Kelley, inspired and supported by the research of Roger Harwood, provides the history of the island:

Valcour Island reflects the history of Lake Champlain. First documented by Samuel de Champlain in 1609, the island was part of New France until 1763. The French named it Isle de Valcours, or Island of Pines. One of the most important naval battles of the American Revolution raged on the waters between the island and the NY shoreline. In 1776, Benedict Arnold led a flotilla of American gunboats that stopped a British invasion fleet from dividing New England from the other newly created states.

Valcour Island was witness to the War of 1812 Battle of Plattsburgh on September 11, 1814, but remained a quiet place for most of the 19th century. Records indi­cate that the island was parceled into three sections by 1849 and used for grazing and cultivation. By 1870, Orren Shipman of Colchester, Vermont, had purchased the titles of two parcels. He sold a portion of Bluff Point, on the western side of the island to the federal government for a lighthouse, which was constructed in 1874. That year, Shipman also sold property to the Dawn Valcour Agricul­tural and Horticultural Association, a utopian community that failed.

Lake Champlain’s cool breezes made Valcour a popular place for escaping the heat of the cities in the ear­ly 20th century. Camp Penn, a summer camp for boys, operated on the island from 1906 to 1918. By the 1920s, cottages and cabins ringed the island. For the next few generations, dozens of families vacationed here.

The State of New York began buying camp properties on Valcour in the early 1960s with the intent of establishing a park. Early plans included public beaches, marinas, picnic areas, an 18-hole golf course and a giant movie screen for boaters to watch conservation films. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) owned the 1,100-acre island entirely in 1980 and local activists worked to get it included within the Adirondack Park “blue line,” which prevented the proposed park developments.

Of the numerous buildings that existed on the Valcour Island, only the lighthouse and the Seton House remain. This guide will help you visit the locations of those long-gone structures and envision what life on the island was like. The NYSDEC maintains trails and campsites along the perimeter of the island, so the hiking is relatively easy.”

Paddling experts Cathy Frank and Margaret Holden describe their paddling experience at Valcour Island in their book, A Kayaker’s Guide to Lake Champlain:

“With some trepidation we leave the protection of Crab and head south, back to Valcour. With the wind a little more behind us than abeam, crossing back to Valcour is faster and easier than was the trip over. Still, we are greatly relieved once we get back to Valcour and around to its leeward side. We have earned our lunch, and we stop at the first point of land on the east, just north of Spoon Bay. Climbing out of our kayaks onto some slippery underwater rocks, we find a long, flat, rocky ledge where we stretch out and relax our tired muscles while enjoying a clear view of Grand Isle, South Hero, Providence Island, and the Green Mountains to the east. This place is seductive. Out of the wind, it is a perfect day …

Valcour Island, owned by the State of New York and part of the Adirondack Park, has primitive campsites, many of which are located in protected harbors. It literally has a safe harbor for every wind direction. On the east side, pebble beaches buttressed by rocky cliffs and clear water provide a boaters’ and campers’ paradise. Lots of boats anchor in its many harbors, and the campsites, available on a first-come, first-served basis, are almost always full. Unfortunately, like all good Champlain Islands, it also has its share of lush poison ivy and mosquitoes. Arrive prepared.

We take our time on the east shore, going in and out of each cove and cranny, paddling around every rock that can be remotely called an island, seeing who can find the most unique and interesting spot…

Before we know it, we are back on the New York shore. It is hard not to be overwhelmed when under the spell of Valcour Island.”

The “Valcour Island Heritage Trail Guide” offers the following trip tips to the island. Before you begin, please remember these simple rules:

  • Pack it in, pack it out. Valcour Island is owned by New York State and lies within the Adirondack Park, so please pack out anything you bring in so others may enjoy the Island as much as you did.
  • Respect privacy. Many campsites are located near the historic sites. If you find a campsite occupied, please respect the campers’ privacy.
  • Take only photos. Please do not remove anything from the sites. We would like to be able to share these historic sites with future generations. A camera is a great means of recording your journey while leaving, intact, the sites for others to visit.
  • Look out for poison ivy! If you know what to look for, poison ivy is easy to identify: (1) Shiny, smooth leaves grouped in threes; (2) Smooth-edged, shiny leaves with no serrated (or sawtooth) edges with small “lobes” along the edges; (3) Reddish branches.

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