Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Adirondacks Are More Than Just The High Peaks

View from Cat MountainThe Adirondack State Park is a huge place, encompassing approximately 6.1 million acres. It stretches from Lake Champlain at its eastern end, almost all the way to the Black River valley in the west, and from nearly the Canadian border in the north to the doorstep of the Mohawk River valley in the south. It is the largest state park in the contiguous United States, and, in fact, larger than several states. It is even larger than the combined area of Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier and Great Smoke Mountains National Parks.

Its size is not the only unique aspect about the Park. Within its borders lies almost unimaginable beauty. Nature’s bountiful gifts take many different forms, including a near infinite number of lakes and ponds, more swamps than one can shake a stick at, acres upon acres of dense primeval forests, and of course, more than a few majestic mountains.

Yet there are those that would reduce the Park to a mere fraction of its size. These are not those people who routinely decry the restrictions and regulations, who seem to want to cut, build and pave their way across this beautiful park; these individuals love the natural beauty of the Park, although apparently, only a small portion of it.

Despite its vast size and great diversity, many regard the Park as a much smaller, more uniform place. They associate the Adirondacks with a single region within its border. Sometimes this bias comes through overtly, while at other times and places, more subtly. Sometimes it is apparent in their writing, at other times in their photography, paintings, etc. Sometimes it is even evident here at the Almanack.

These are the High Peaks obsessed. They view the rest of the Adirondack Park as merely the approach for High Peaks’ magnificent mountains, just areas to drive through on the way to their real destination. Most of the Park remains an annoyance to them, or at least an inconvenience, albeit an attractive one.

Apparently, there is a need for a serious attitude adjustment in the north woods.

Do not get me wrong, I have nothing against the High Peaks. I am not suffering from a bad case of peak envy either. In fact, I actually like the region. I spent much of my earlier trail hiking career there, climbing this mountain or that mountain, in my decade long quest to become an Adirondack 46er.

Many a fond memory from my hiking past involves this region. I will never forget the exhilaration of my first view from a High Peak on Giant Mountain. I fondly remember freezing my hands while climbing Mount Colden through the Trap Dyke the day after Hurricane Floyd came through. The memory of my only brush with (minor) fame, meeting David Hartman celebrating his 60th birthday on Mount Marcy remains permanently etched upon my mind.

However, at no time during this quest did I completely ignore the rest of the Adirondacks. During my decade-long quest for membership in that illustrious High Peaks organization, I still found enough time to experience the Adirondacks in all its glory. I explored and fell in love with the Five Ponds Wilderness; being rescued from its depths immediately following the 1995 Microburst. I hiked the Northville Placid Trail solo and in a single two-week long trip. Working numerous ornithological jobs took me into the trailless depths of numerous forested areas throughout the Park, further propelling my into the bushwhacking fool that I am today.

At no time did the High Peaks become the Adirondacks to me.

This complaint is not just another rant from a curmudgeon and annoyed by the continued provincial thinking about the Park’s identity (although there is that). This obsession actually has consequences beyond my pet peeves and frequent harangues. This narrow thinking leads to increased complaints about crowded trails, excessive erosion, clogged parking and all the other things associated with loving an area too much.

That is, at least it does in the High Peaks area.

This emphasis on the High Peaks goes beyond just the inconvenience of hikers though. It deprives other areas of the Park from getting their fair share of resources associated with increased tourism. The High Peaks acts as a resource sink, sucking the tourism dollars from all the surrounding areas of the Park and concentrating them into a single, small area. This creates a strong tourism headwind for all the other areas, which becomes increasingly difficult for them to navigate.

Even the New York State Department of Conservation (DEC) has been trying to get visitors to think outside the High Peaks box. Over the years, the number of campsites have been reduced, lean-tos removed, parking restricted, and rules and regulations governing the area’s use increased, all in an attempt to dissuade the legions of fans that descend on the area. Their message has been simple; visit other places in the Adirondacks. From my experience, it does not look like it is working, at least, not well. Perhaps they need to emphasize the lack of fire and glass container restrictions in the other parts of the Park, or the lack of the necessity of a bear-proof container.

I can understand the preoccupation with a small part of the Park. When I was young, the Park consisted of a small stretch of Route 28 between Old Forge and Blue Mountain Lake, where my family spent the majority of our vacation time. The towering white pines near High Falls or the extensive alpine zone on Algonquin Peak were unimaginable back in those days. It took just a couple trips during adulthood to break me out of parent-imposed narrow view, leading to an appreciation for the many other parts of the Park.

If people start thinking of the Adirondack Park as more than just the High Peaks, then maybe, just maybe, the crowds would disperse throughout the rest of the Park. More people would visit its other gems, such as the West Canada Lakes Wilderness, the Pepperbox Wilderness, the Five Ponds Wilderness or the numerous other Wilderness Areas, Wild Forests and Canoe Areas. The trails in these other areas could be full of hikers that once only appreciated the towering mountains of the High Peaks region. Maybe some would even leave the trail behind and journey out into the wild to experience nature at its most primal.

Wait a minute.

More people in the Five Ponds Wilderness? The Pepperbox Wilderness? Some even bushwhacking? Areas I normally go and have free reign, where the presence of others rarely disturbs my own wilderness experience.

Forget everything I said above. All of it! The High Peaks ARE the Adirondack Park. Keep going there for the mountains and the views; everywhere else is just trees, swamp and biting bugs.

Whew. That was a close one!

Photo: View of the Five Ponds Wilderness from Cat Mountain, decidedly NOT in the High Peaks region by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

14 Responses

  1. catharus says:

    Good one!

  2. drymocke says:

    Being located on Raquette Lake and not liking to waste vacation time driving, for 40+ years I have focused on hiking the Adirondack Low Peaks located within an hour of our camp. Lots of 1/2-1 day hikes and home in time for dinner!

  3. AdkBuddy says:

    Nice story, and since I have bad knees, I enjoy the lower peaks and hiking trails. That being said, it is not a 6.1 million acre state park. About half of it is private property, some of which I can enjoy as well via my hunting club.

    • Colvin says:

      Perhaps a clarification of terms is appropriate. The Adirondack Park and State-owned Forest Preserve land are two different things. All land within the blue line–whether public and private–is included within the Adirondack Park, and the APA has jurisdiction over all of this land (e.g., it has jurisdiction over private land under the Land Use and Development Plan and jurisdiction over State land under the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan) The Adirondack Park includes the entire geographical area located within the “blue line,” which is a surveyed line described in the Environmental Conservation Law. Not quite half of the land within the blue line is State-owned Forest Preserve land. Forest Preserve land is also defined in the Environmental Conservation Law.

      • adkmike says:


        FYI, please note that actually it is not called the ADK State Park. Google that name and it does not appear. State Parks are all run by a different agency (NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation), while the Adirondack Park is run by DEC and the APA. It is not a State Park and there are no state parks inside the Blue Line.

        It is one of those details locals know. It is easy to spot a neophyte with such an error.

  4. Pete Klein says:

    I have confined 99.9% of all my hiking to Hamilton County and have never bothered to hike up any of the High Peaks, although I once did drive to the top of Whiteface and years ago when living in NYC, I did hike up Slide, the highest mountain in the Catskills.
    My point is simple. If you like hiking and enjoy being in the woods, any wooded place to hike is a good place to hike and if you stay out of the High Peaks, you have a better chance to hike without being bothered by crowds.

  5. Amy Godine says:

    I’m finally catching up on my Adirondack Almanacks. One good essay after another.
    There are a hundred regrettable ways in which the perception of the Adirondack region is too partial and provincial — longstanding tunneled vision which impedes our grasp of its history and potential. But I’d never thought of this one, at least in quite this way. Very thoughtful. Thanks so much.

  6. Paul says:

    This is a good post and asks some interesting questions. I actually think that some people prefer to hike where there are other people. Also, I think it depends on perspective if you are coming from the busy streets or NY or Montreal any Adirondack hike is pretty quiet.

    People like to bag peaks that is for sure. Putting that name on the 6 mountains around Saranac Lake has drawn folks into to climb them who normally would not bother.

    Dan, if you did change your mind and want folks to spread out maybe you just need to give it a name?

    • Paul says:

      Also I think that people are simply “drawn” to big mountains. It is a something in many peoples nature. I spent most of my youth exploring the High Peaks region. It was fun. Then I headed out west and realized that our mountains were not the real draw to the area for me but it was the water (what we lacked out west, we had big mountains in spades). But I don’t think that for many people these lower lying areas are ever going to be a huge draw. I know that a lot of people here disagree with this assertion.

  7. Amen. The High Peaks are great. But they are not the only great place in the Park. Plus, the High Peaks area is an area I associate with hikers more interested in ticking off boxes or “bagging peaks” than enjoying the amazing natural scenery… something I see a lot less of in other areas.

    Some of my favorite hikes have been in other areas… Castle Rock over Blue Mountain Lake, Cat Mtn. in Bolton, Hadley Mtn. The views there are as breathtaking as anything in the HPWA.

  8. Bob Meyer says:

    Dan, i could not agree more with this post.
    those who only recreate in one area of the Park [whatever it’s actual official name, 🙂 ], are missing out on so much.
    each area of the Park has it’s own distinct character and flavor; all within the overall character of the whole.
    i love the high peaks, but, just to mention a few, 13th Lake area, Pharoah Lk, area, Lk George E & W sides, Indian Lk. area, The Northern Adirondacks, The N. W. corner, the Speculator, Kunjamuk area, The Blue, Raquette,Fulton area & yes, the Five Ponds area & on & on all are unique within the Park. ponds & peaks abound inviting more then a lifetime of trailed & trailless exploration. i’ve been at it for over 60 years & know i will never get close to seeing it all.

  9. Gary Fortcher says:

    Another great story Dan. There could be a need for other challenges to be created like the Saranack Lake 6er – for the different areas you mentioned. People love challenges. A goal to be achieved. And let us not forget the Bike trail instead of the rail.

  10. NyYeti says:

    How about we just be glad they come and spend their money in NY and not, let’s say VT.

  11. Richard says:

    Great post, Dan. But you almost gave away the secret….!!

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