The number of hikers in the High Peaks has been steadily increasing in recent years, especially near Lake Placid and Keene Valley, raising concerns about safety and degradation of natural resources.
“I think that we’ve got a serious overuse of some of our places in the High Peaks,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). “Clearly, Cascade and Pitchoff are just getting a very large number of people.”
Located along Route 73, Cascade Mountain is one of the easiest and most accessible of the High Peaks to climb. Pitchoff Mountain, while not a High Peak, also is popular and rises just across the highway. On a busy weekend, it’s not unusual to see dozens of cars lining the narrow road and large numbers of hikers on both summits.
State Department of Environmental Conservation statistics show the number of hikers signing the register at Cascade each year more than doubled over the past decade — from 16,091 in 2006 to 33,149 in 2015. Much of the jump occurred over the past five years.
On weekends and holidays, hundreds of people may climb Cascade on the same day. On the Sunday of the Labor Day weekend in 2015, the summit steward reported coming into contact with 540 people.
Adirondack Mountain Club Education Director Julia Goren, who oversees the summit- steward program, said it’s good news that hiking numbers are up because people who enjoy the outdoors are more likely to become conservation-minded later in life, but the increase is happening faster than expected.
“You need to have people have direct experience [of the outdoors], but on the other hand, you need to manage the population, and I don’t think that anyone is quite ready for the numbers of people who show up,” Goren said.
Cascade isn’t the only trail seeing steadily rising usage. The Van Hoevenberg Trail, which starts near Adirondak Loj, is perhaps the most popular trail in the Park. It leads to Mount Marcy and is used to reach other destinations in the eastern High Peaks. Last year, 53,423 people signed the trail register — a 62 percent increase from 2005.
Although that’s a steep rise, the 2015 number is only 6,486 higher than the 1998 number. Visitation in the eastern High Peaks decreased in the early 2000s after the state Department of Environmental Conservation enacted regulations in 1999 that, among other things, limited the size of hiking groups and prohibited fires.
The recent increase in hikers mirrors regional trends. Hiking challenges play a part. In New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the number of people hiking the four-thousand-footers rose from 330 in 2010 to 529 in 2015—a 60 percent jump. Likewise, the number of hikers climbing the forty-six High Peaks in the Adirondacks also has increased dramatically.
Neil Woodworth, ADK’s executive director, said numbers in the High Peaks are way up partly because the state has been marketing the Lake Placid region as part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s initiative to increase tourism in the Adirondacks.
“Maybe the solution is to start advertising other places in the Park. Usage in the Adirondack Forest Preserve is very, very uneven,” Woodworth said. “You’ve got all these people using the eastern High Peaks, but you could go just a short distance away to the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest or you could go to the Hoffman Notch Wilderness, and you could find very little usage. We could do a better job of spreading people around.”
The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST), which is based in Lake Placid, says hiking is by far the most popular outdoor activity of people who visit the Adirondacks. ROOST Executive Director Jim McKenna said the non-profit organization already promotes other areas of the Park such as Hamilton County and Tupper Lake.
“Most of our effort has been at the surrounding area, not the High Peaks,” McKenna said. “We try to expose the other areas than the High Peaks because they need it, and the High Peaks [visitation] almost happens on its own. I think anybody that’s getting into hiking or knows hiking, if they are going to come to the Adirondacks, they are probably going to gravitate to the High Peaks.”
McKenna also pointed out that most visitors to the LakePlacid.com website are looking for short hikes, not hikes in the High Peaks — although interest in all hiking content has been way up in recent years.
Woodworth and others fear that the increased traffic will diminish the hiking experience, because of the crowds and the chatter of people talking among themselves or on cell phones. “It’s degrading the experience when you have large numbers of people on a relatively small peak area,” said Woodworth.
Woodworth is also concerned about damage to natural resources. Many trails in the High Peaks are severely rutted, partly because of the foot traffic and partly because of poor trail design. Old trails such as the one on Cascade go straight up the mountain because they followed paths created by guides and early explorers looking for the shortest route.
“Trails that go straight up the side of the mountain are not sustainable because the water wants to run down them,” said DEC forester Tate Connor, who oversees the eastern High Peaks. “But we have this legacy of trails that are like them, so as hikers go on them and water comes down them, we have increased erosion. The newer, evolved science with trail building involves traversing the slope, switchbacks, different techniques that basically has water shed to the side of the trail.”
Connor said DEC and its contractors employ modern trail-building techniques when rebuilding old trails or constructing new ones. Examples of rebuilt trails can be found on Jay, Hurricane, and Lyon mountains.
Another growing problem is that hikers often fail to heed Leave No Trace principles that aim to minimize human impacts in the wild. For example, hikers have cut trees on summits to improve views. Connor said this was done on Nippletop and Lower Wolf Jaw in the last three years.
“There was some branch cutting in the past, but we’re seeing actual tree cutting,” Connor said.
Human waste and trash also are issues. The woods near the summit of Cascade are littered with toilet paper and female hygiene products. Similar problems have been reported on other mountains and near trailheads.
The waste issue motivated DEC to take the unusual step of installing box privies high on Cascade last fall. The department plans to install privies on other peaks as well, including one at about four thousand feet on Marcy. “Historically, we haven’t put privies up there because of the [shallow] soils,” Connor said.
ADK’s Goren said many visitors are relatively new to hiking and lack backcountry skills. Surveys by the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2003 found that one-third of the hikers in the eastern High Peaks were novices or visiting the High Peaks for the first time. “We assume that’s pretty consistently true [every year],” Goren said.
Hikers’ inexperience may also partly explain a rise in search-and-rescue missions. In 2006, DEC forest rangers rescued fifty-three people in the greater High Peaks region, which includes the Giant Mountain, Dix Mountain, Sentinel Range, and McKenzie Mountain Wilderness Areas. In 2015, that number jumped to one hundred people (including ninety-three hikers).
“We definitely see more and more people who don’t have maps, who have never looked at the guidebook, who are navigating off their phone, or have taken a picture of a map and then are trying to use that printout for navigation purposes,” Goren said.
Additional efforts are being made to prepare hikers for the backcountry. DEC is upgrading its website to contain more educational material, and the Adirondack Forty-Sixers plan to station volunteers at the Cascade trailhead to talk to hikers. These initiatives will supplement the ongoing efforts by DEC’s rangers and Adirondack Mountain Club to educate backcountry users.
Safety has become an issue at popular trailheads where parking areas often overflow, especially along Route 73 near Giant and Cascade, where vehicles frequently line both sides of the road. Connor said DEC recognizes the problem.
“Parking lots overfill, people line both sides of the road, people are crossing with traffic coming through,” he said.
Connor said DEC plans to meet with officials from towns, police agencies, and the state Department of Transportation to come up with solutions. One idea is to move parking areas to stretches of road where drivers have a longer line of sight.
Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee said he would welcome an initiative by the state to address the parking problem. In the last few years, he said, hikers have taken to parking on side streets in Keene Valley when trailhead lots are full.
“My stores — Stewart’s and my grocery stores and my diners — they are happy because they are picking up more revenue, more business, but parking is an issue,” Ferebee said. “We thank God for our governor, who is promoting our area heavily, but so far they haven’t come forward with trying to help us with parking issues.”
Photos, from above: Cascade Mountain outside Lake Placid (photo by Mike Lynch); cars lining Route 73 (photo Mike Lynch); Big Slide (Nancie Battaglia); privies installed by the Ausable River Association (Phil Brown), and 46er chart by Jerry Russell.
This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.
It’s interesting to read the ADK’s Neil Woodworth’s comments, especially considering that there are reports that there was at least one bus at the ADK Loj yesterday that discharged a very large number of hikers who then proceeded to hike up Wright & Algonquin. I was not there, but multiple people in the “Aspiring 46ers” Facebook group have mentioned this today.
Why would a club that is concerned about overuse then turn around and allow a bus full of people to use their property to access the back country? Seems counterproductive to me.
I hope lots of people read this story, especially those who believe that classifying land as “Wilderness” is somehow anti-economic. This unbelievably stale and false debate between Wilderness and “access” as economic boon is denigrating to both the protection of our precious wild assets and the welfare of our wonderful, unique communities. It’s not about access, where “access” means mechanized or motorized devices. it’s about hiking, it’s about the draw of dramatic, wild places to get to on foot. Read the numbers in this story again; go study national trends; take note for the umpteenth time that hiking is by far the main draw in the Adirondacks. Then note the disappointing use of the Essex Chain, complete with all its access, which is getting nowhere near the hoped-for use. Shall we repeat the same mistakes at Boreas?
I have a better idea: let’s end the foolish, balkanized, old-style debate. Let’s protect Boreas as its nature, size and location unquestionably deserves: as Wilderness, no compromises. Let’s allow horse access on Gulf Brook Road and have guiding and equestrian services to accommodate easier access for paddling and access for the disabled. Let’s build a shorter trail to the LaBier Flow and let’s build two through trails to the rest of the High Peaks. Then let’s build a multi-service High Peaks Gateway at the Frontier Town site that leverages these skyrocketing High Peaks hiking numbers and takes some pressure off of Adirondack Loj and the Garden, and empowers North Hudson and Newcomb as Host Communities for every type of recreation imaginable, encompassing a Boreas Wilderness, Upper Works, the Hudson, Essex Chain, Vanderwhacker and more.
If you don’t think we can do both – protect Wilderness and act in the very best interests of our local communities, then you are stuck in yesterday’s debate. If you do think we can do both, then check out Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, sign our petition and let’s get to work.
You’ve seen my posts here before, so I’ll get to the point: why would you allow horses and carts within the wilderness and exclude a bicycle? I’m curious. Why “end the foolish, balkanized debate”? Debate should always be allowed and encouraged in a free society.
I thought that the general premise is that bikes destroy trails and footfalls do not or something to that binary effect. I found it interesting that the article mentioned “poor trail construction”, yet it has been stated by certain posters here (initials TE) that trail construction would have to become “a series of switchbacks” (or something to that notion) to accommodate bicycle use. Hmmmm….could there be similar erosive forces at play in the stale footfall vs bicycle trail erosion debate? Could hiking trails benefit from “switchback construction” as is seen in the western US? Is it possible that many of the hiking trails in the ADK’s are poorly built and do not follow modern principles of sustainable construction?
I don’t know any “riders” that wish to see access granted to peaks or other geographically prohibitive areas. I’d like to simply cross a few “patches” of “wilderness” so as to link up “wilderness/wild/off-road bikepack” routes (perhaps it should be illegal to use the word bicycle and wilderness in the same sentence, as it is an oxymoron, yes?).
To me, this article reinforces what I know: footfalls cause erosion and alteration (destruction?) of the landscape that is under the “protections” of the “wilderness” construct. Overuse by any means leads to destruction. To me it is the access itself that is the primary source of impact and the mode of access to a lesser extent.
First and foremost, assuming you’ve read me over the years, you know I’m a strong advocate of debate. I don’t want to limit debate here at all. I’m merely pointing out that the way we’re debating land-use issues is balkanized, thus counterproductive. We section off pieces of land and argue over them with the usual positions as though parcels are the only basis upon which to debate. I urge a larger view.
I have mixed views on both bicycles and horses. As to bicycles, I have advocated for more mountain biking trails in the park. But like many mountain bikers, I see a fundamental inconsistency in the pace and nature of the interaction of a mountain bike with Wilderness. I understand the historical roots of a Wilderness definition that seeks to keep Wilderness as free as possible of mechanization. Referring to the balkanization debate, I see plenty of room for biking in the Park without opening Boreas. To those who say we need more, my response is the low use of the Essex Chain.
As to horses, my personal version of the the Boreas Wilderness might not allow them on Gulf Brook Road; it’s close for me, as damage and invasive species issues concern me. But the coalition I co-founded, Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, see horses as appropriate to Wilderness – as the creators of the Wilderness Act did as well – and we want to ensure the potential for disabled access and and various guiding services.
A very reasonable response… much appreciated!
Pete, yes a reasonable response indeed. However, even if we assume those things you outlined came to pass, a question keeps nagging at me. Where are enough users to make even a horse operation viable going to stay or eat, when they arrive? Folks like to stay close to where the action is.
I saw nothing in my trip between Long Lake and I-87 this past June along 28N and Blue Ridge Rd. enticing visitors to stop, not counting Santanoni. Not even a fast-food place to grab a little lunch. I didn’t go into North Hudson to see what it looked like.
You pretty much need a certain “visitor presence” to cause new, tourist-based businesses to open up, and I don’t believe making Boreas Ponds all Wilderness will create this initial presence. It seems doubtful that even opening the roads to bicycles will do a lot, but that would certainly result in more visitors.
There is another factor, I know about Boreas Ponds through these pages, but how many people outside the Park or in other states read the “Almanac?” To take pressure from other areas, the state and businesses in the area would have to do some serious advertising, rather than Boreas Ponds just being another wilderness open for business.
I believe one very significant reason some areas are being “loved to death”, is there are amenities such as the Adirondack Loj, amenities not available here.
I would guess that the disappointing use of the Essex Chain would scare off anyone trying to start a business based on anything at Boreas
With respect to Heart Lake, the article says that trail head sees “6486 more people than 1998″. My arithmetic says that is a grand total of 13.8% for 18 years of growth.
Pete – I love your enthusiasm but your statement: ” …these skyrocketing High Peaks hiking numbers …..” is empty hyperbole not grounded in fact.
But these facts remain:
We do have seasonal parking issues (but this is a long standing problem). We have pit privy’s near summits! We have a lot more helicopter rescues! We have long new staircases to make climbing easy! We have cell phones! What do these facts say about the High Peaks and how we are actually ‘managing wilderness’ today?
Your Boreas Ponds debate is among a couple of user groups about aesthetics wrapped in the legal tangle of how wilderness is defined to exist where it does not actually exist. The ponds are in fact dammed, man-made ponds, surrounded by logging roads reaching into cut over lands all over the area. These same features are why the Essex Chain isn’t a big draw….it’s heavily cut over extensively roaded land. The Boreas lands are not going to be popular enough to support any kind of business at Frontier Town, which is some 15-20 miles away.
The Garden in Keene and the ADK complex at Heart Lake, along with various roadside trail heads will remain the most used hiker entry points. Thoughtful changes to more intensive management of these locations, their trails and campsites is what’s needed now. The Boreas Ponds don’t matter in this equation any more than the Essex Chain has.
The article completely supports my contention, hyperbole aside. Your Heart Lake reference, those numbers having been directly addressed in the article, are cherry-picked. In addition to trail head numbers, there is the obvious experience of hiking in the High Peaks versus 20 years ago. Ask the experts, the Rangers: Scott van Laer, feel free to weigh on the changes in High Peaks use over the last two decades.
Have you bushwhacked all over Boreas? I have. The vast majority of it is wild, wooly and gorgeous. This has been brought up so many times over the last year I’ve lost count, but most of the Adirondack Wilderness is recovered. Boreas was stewarded well and the distance it needs to go in order to recover is far less than Flowed Lands/Colden eighty years ago. Just because it was logged does not mean it is no longer a candidate for Wilderness. That’s a specious argument.
The distance from the Frontier Town site to the Gulf Brook Road entrance to Boreas is less than eight miles, not 15-20m miles. It’s an easy ten minute ride. Frontier Town is a lot closer to points south where the vast majority of New Yorkers live, not to mention Montreal.
I agree with you about High Peaks “accommodations” like stairs and too many trails, and I have written so. The privies make sense for environmental reasons, but are disappointing.
Heart Lake has limited parking and limited camping. It is *not* representative of the High Peaks in general.
I believe Heart Lake has the largest trailhead parking area in the park. With the ADK facilities I believeit has more camping at the trailhead than any other site in the park.
Pete, The Eastern High Peaks Wilderness is popular because it has high peaks. Places like Ampersand mountain and the beaches on Middle Saranac lake in the 79,000 acre Saranac Lakes Wild Forest are also wildly popular. There are no registers there but looking at places like the second pond boat launch (with what something like 75 or 100 parking spaces which are usually at beyond capacity) makes me think that it has little to do with classification.
I agree; it has little to do with classification. It is simply a correlative fact that grand, wild places that deserve protection are also places people want to hike. That’s a good thing. Boreas is in that category, and not just for the ponds. The focus on the ponds is understandable, but excludes a lot of tremendous hiking assets.
But you seem to try and make this point that people will somehow avoid an area because it doesn’t have the requisite wilderness classification. What in the Boreas ponds is there that would really be a big hiking draw like the HPW? When I first heard about that purchase it seemed to make perfect sense to add it to the HPW. I too was thinking of it as an alternate route to some good hiking but the more I learned it seems clear it is a paddling place. No reason for ridiculously long carries in there. Why is the western approach to the HPW (Corey’s/ Axton landing) not too crowded? I think it is because it is easier to access the hikes people want form the Eastern side. That seems to argue that it isn’t a classification thing but an access thing.
For some reason you’re reversing my argument. I have never once stated that people will avoid an area that doesn’t have Wilderness classification. I simply argue that Wilderness classification, with non-mechanized access, does not mean reduced use, and the facts bear me out. I’m interested in Wilderness classification to protect the ecology and aesthetics of land that deserves that protection, and for no other reason.
As for hiking appeal and what would draw people to Boreas other than the ponds, there’s an impressive list:
– Wolf Pond, less than a mile hike. Terrific views and solitude.
– Ragged Mountain South, less than a mile hike. It has a fabulous, expansive view to the south, including Hoffman, Vanderwhacker and the central Adirondacks, plus northwest to Boreas and a dramatic corridor towards Dix and beyond to Nippletop.
– Boreas mountain. Epic views of the area, the Great Range as well. The best view of the Dix Range in the Park. Arguably a top ten view.
– North River Mountain. Needs a trail. The summit is only partially open but you get a perspective of the High Peaks that’s basically Mount Adams on steroids. Fantastic view of Marcy, with a real sense of its superior vertical.
– Through trail to the Opalescent East trail. This proposed connector trail would stay high above the Ponds, affording a great view of them, and could be routed through the dramatic pass between the North River Range and Cheney Cobble.
– Through trail to the Panther Gorge trail. This second connector to the High Peaks trail system might be the best thing of all, as its potential route skirting the Marcy Stillwater would reveal the wildest, loneliest place in the High Peaks, with tremendous views to boot.
That’s just the highlights. This parcel is teeming with possibilities.
You said North River Mountain needs a trail…why? If you or others have been there to appreciate the view, then it is accessible. Why not leave some views for the more adventurous? Isn’t that part of the appeal of wilderness areas? We create public wilderness areas then build roads for hikers to the best places. Thus, part of the problem in the High Peaks.
Not to belabor what I said, but it seems to me it’s like installing bolts on climbing routes (that’s a trail made for climbers for those who don’t know), which thankfully is now illegal in a lot of places.
Pete:. I love wilderness. I also love to canoe. I’m planning a trip to the Essex chain in two weeks, but only because I only have to carry in my canoe less than a mile. Hope to see you there!
This is where I show my age but when I finished the 46 in the 1980’s, Ranger Pete Fish met people in the parking lot at the Campers and Hikers Bldg.at the Loj and scared us all straight with stories of dead hikers. We wore wool or at least blends, we climbed in vibram soles with leather boots, we carried gear to spend the night in day packs and we knew everything about the trail. The summit stewards are ok, but you need some old guy to sit in the parking lots and scare people senseless if you want to save their lives and the backcountry. I remember asking myself, What will Pete say? when I packed for the backcountry. It might scare off these people wearing flip flops on top of Cascade.
I was talking to Pete once at Marcy Dam once when an old gum wrapper blew out of a nearby lean-to. Reflexively, I went stomping through the snow trying to grab it so he wouldn’t yell at me. One certainly didn’t wear cotton on the trail without fear of running into him – often wearing shorts often in mid-winter.
I too finished the 46 in the mid-eighties, and I credit Pete for keeping me and many others safe in the HPW. I am sure he grew weary of those lectures, but I think you are right. The ME generation could use a stern talkin’ to now & again. I think it may even do us all good.
Ranger Pete Fish didn’t just ‘meet with you’, it felt more like an inspection and interrogation. It was all good though, making sure you were prepared and aware.
Wish we had 100 Ranger Fish clones today.
Or, Pete, we could just admit that the High Peaks is not a wilderness in any true way, shape or form. Portajohns on summits? 540 people on ONE SUMMIT in ONE DAY? Seriously? Until the DEC decides to get serious about resource protection and limit the number of people who can access these summits, as well as CLOSE unsustainable trails until the time that they can be upgraded, the “Wilderness” name is a bad, sad joke. I understand it will take years to rebuild trails, but unless something is done NOW, it will only get worse.
Don’t ever forget that Wilderness/wilderness is an aspirational place for the public and the agencies…
… so many have ventured into a world of adventure having cut their teeth in the High Peaks. We may need to tweak ways the area is supervised, but the good it creates is nearly unmeasurable.
I hear your pain over the numbers of people in the back country. But speaking as one who mostly avoids trails when going there, it won’t be me admitting that that High Peaks is not a wilderness. I have a terrific suggestion for you and other who rightly cite overuse, trail erosion and the like but wrongly conclude that therefore the area is not wilderness: draw a mile-long line anywhere, any direction in the High Peaks. Then try to walk it.
Your concerns are all the more reason to relieve the pressure on the totally overused trail heads, say, with a High Peaks South gateway that is more accessible than Upper Works.
I’m also toying with the idea of a column that suggests beginning to move away from the 46 peaks as a thing and towards something like “the top 50 views in the Adirondacks.” The 46 phenomenon will never die, but it could use some serious ramping down. Look at Cascade as the leading example. Meanwhile, though views are subjective, any top 50 list would have many accessible, less fragile, non-High Peaks that could alleviate some of the ridiculous pressure, while distributing usage pressure and actually providing economic benefits to a broader set of towns.
I have worked for the US Forest Service for decades. Most of my time in the woods has been bushwhacking. But regardless of how you get there, in my mind if a summit has over 500 people on it, it is not wilderness.
Agree about summits that crowded. Nothing about Cascade seems wild to me. But go past Porter on the trail to Little Porter and it’s entirely different. It’s easy to avoid the crowds in the High Peaks.
Maybe using guide books and Internet sites to point people seeking solitude to such spots would help. If solitude is your goal it is easy to find via many options. But if Marcy is your goal there is only one summit. There is no effective way to stop hikers from climbing Marcy, but anyone can choose a less crowded option….there are many.
The other angle in this is timing. The crowds described are peak weekend high season problems easily avoided by going on a different day. No elaborate system is needed.
You bring up some good points except I might take issue with putting secluded areas in guidebooks and on the internet. I realize the Adirondacks is not Bob Marshall Wilderness, but instead of writing something like, “take this trail 3 miles, turn left at the big rock, and go another mile to a secluded pond full of native trout.”
How about not even mentioning the pond and let folks who can use maps find it on their own? We want wilderness, but we also want the best and easiest access to it. See my point?
I’m familiar with a good-sized public lake, which I saw flooded and built, where the eventual great hybrid bass fishing was decimated after a couple articles in national magazines appeared.
I’m a lifelong Keene Valley resident and hiker, and I no longer hike any of these trails.They are depressingly degraded, and strewn w/waste. Glad to see some porto pottys at some trailheads but its not enough. I, for one, would be happy to pay an annual fee (perhaps reduced for residents of the Park) to help offset the costs of better maintenance of trails, education of users, and construction of well designed parking/shuttling. If hiking is by far the most popular recreation here, its time to pony up!
The Forest Ranger staffing levels are completely inadequate for the High Peaks district. We have evolved into a emergency response team because of the incredible volume of incidents and now the mere possibility of these incidents. If you review the Forest Rangers annual reports and look through the statistics there is significant evidence to support this conclusion…..miles hiked, campsites inspected, tickets written, public presentations made, have all dropped, some significantly. The high volume of rescue means more rangers are kept in the front country (their truck) so they can respond because we never know where the emergency will occur. We always had some rangers in that type of response mode but now it requires most of us to do so, especially on a Saturday. That is also when Stewardship and public interactions would be the most effective and we just can’t accomplish it now.
Pete Fish hiked Mt. Marcy 777 times! A forest Ranger today would never be able to or allowed to hike that much. The seasonal staff and volunteers added to help offset the ineffectiveness and inadequate staffing of the rangers is great but none have enforcement powers or the S@R training we have. When they find violations in the back country they can’t really do anything about it. The regular patrol area I am responsible for is all interior accept for the trailheads, yet because of the influx of incidents I am rarely permitted to camp interior or stay at an outpost during peak season. Even hiking 20 minutes from my truck is discouraged. It is wonderful that we have added so much Forest Preserve the last few decades but Forest Ranger staffing has not kept up. You can debate all day how these lands should be classified and what the UMP should say but if you have no one to implement these even the best plans will fail.
If the people of NYS want to preserve wilderness, they need to pay preserve it , not just purchase it. I feel strongly that every new acquisition needs to be accompanied by the requisite manpower to patrol and protect it. This rather obvious tenet has been ignored for decades. Much more of the revenue generated by visitors to the park needs to be earmarked for both the damage from usage, S&R, and Ranger staffing. Frankly, if NYS cannot better protect its acquisitions, it should probably stay in private hands with limited access.
There needs to be some sort of legislation that circumvents annual budget politics. A simple equation of acres/ranger that must be maintained, with more rangers in high usage/damage/S&R areas. We need to get the Rangers out of their vehicles and into the woods where they can be of the most service – education & enforcement.
I agree and if they don’t do it don’t buy any more state land. You can’t circumvent what you call budget politics. It is also called paying for what we can afford and not more. An “equation” will not generate additional tax revenue that we don’t have.
Thx Scott for this laser like shining of the light on the achilles heel of the “wilderness”. Too often not acknowledged, the Ranger contingent is asked to do more with fewer resources.
Hear! Hear! Those of us in the world of environmental activism must and will continue to advocate for more resources for DEC.
We are talking about a small percentage of the total Forest Preserve. I would bet there are thousands of acres of Forest Preserve never visited the whole year. Throw out hunters, who tend to leave the marked trails since they are good woodsmen, the acreage would jump even more. Even in the High Peaks, hundreds of acres exist that never see a person because they are off trail.
I agree trail degradation and sanitary issues are problems that have to be dealt with. However, I believe most of these people using the high peak trails are not looking for a true “wilderness” experience. If they were, they would be traveling to the countless other areas of the Adirondacks offering that opportunity.
Ask Dan Crane how many people he runs into traversing the Five Ponds wilderness.
I walked to Little Porter one day last summer and met no one. The Garden lot was full, and, I imagine, so were the parking areas at the Porter and Cascade trails. The day before, I walked up to the First Brother with my son and his young daughters. We met only a few other hikers.
I certainly don’t know the answer to over-used trails. Fees? More emphasis on the low peaks, versus the 46? Peter Fish clones at the trailheads? (When my husband and I hiked the High Peaks with our children, we lived in fear of being caught wearing cotton and being otherwise unprepared.) Maybe this is actually a good problem to have.
I don’t really understand why a usage fee/license/permit system specifically for the HPW is such a toxic subject. NYS requires a license for hunting, trapping, fishing, etc.. Why is hiking off-limits to permitting? I don’t recommend an annual permit for hiking on state land in general, but a required permit with mandatory backcountry education specifically to use the HPW certainly isn’t out of line. It would be a reduced fee for NYS residents, just like other licenses. It could somewhat reduce the amount of “casual usage” in the HPW that causes much of the damage and S&R expense. It could also reinforce mud season trail closings and would, most importantly, provide dedicated funds for Ranger staffing, damage mitigation, and S&R costs.
Hunting licenses certainly don’t diminish the joys of hunting, why would an HPW license be bad for hikers wishing to use this unique area?
There are no mud season trail closings in the High Peaks or anywhere else in the Adirondacks. There are road closures but not trail closures. There should be trail closures but there isn’t. Other than suggestions to avoid certain areas I have never seen anything.
Sorry. We know there are no current closings. Please insert the word “potential” mud season trail closings.
I am not saying that there are any current closings. The state never “closes” any trails (with very few exceptions). They only suggest that you avoid certain areas. You do not have to follow those suggestions and many people do not. That is a huge part of the problem.
Thanks to scottvanlear for the reallity check and keeping the nys dec forest rangers front and center in our minds. Much effort is expended by advocates each legislative session on funding the DEC Forest Ranger program, including the assistant rangers, but here’s the bottom line: recruitment of new full-time Forest Rangers is not keeping up with ranger retirements; and we have about as many DEC Rangers today as we did in 1966. Of course, all DEC natural resource positions are a fraction of what they once were. And the public pays (through our state budget) less than $1 dollar per acre to manage our 4 million acre Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve. So, what’s the answer? Stewardship of our public lands is everyone’s business. DEC Rangers, assistants, partnerships, shared training of stewards (thanks to the Student Conservation Association, ADK and many others), increasing the stewardship line in the Environmental Protection Fund and yes, selective use of fees where they can be ploughed back into stewardship.
Spread people around. Sounds reasonable. But it’s unlikely to work, and probably best not to try. People want to hike high peaks because they’re popular climbs to great views. Most people in the peaks plan one or two vacation excursions for the year. No matter how much people learn about undiscovered treasures like Ha-De-Ron-Dah, Blue Ridge, or Hoffman Notch, you won’t get them to pass on a quick trip up to an open summit for the big payoff of a Heilman spectacle just because you’ve educated them about the chance to count trees on a long slog down a lonely trail through Hoffman Notch. And anyway it’s unlikely that the people standing in a crowd on the top of a peak on a sunny summer Saturday will tell you that solitude was high on their wish list for the day. Nay, probably many of them would say the communal atmosphere was one of the pluses.
Those of us to whom solitude in the back country is important will find it pretty easily most everywhere. We can go to the places that almost never get many visitors, or in more popular places pick days or seasons when they are likely to be pretty empty, or bushwhack. But most people in the High Peaks are just looking for the best places to hike in good weather on their normal days off. No matter how big a wild area is, if it’s attractive and we want people to stay on trails, they shouldn’t head in with high expectations that they’re going to have the place to themselves. We should just accept that – up to a point, and focus management on protecting soils, vegetation and public safety. Yes, more investment in management – moving trails to more durable routes, hardening them to withstand high use. Use limits should be established and achieved largely by strictly enforced controlled parking. Yes, more education and enforcement means more Rangers, more stewards, working in partnership with local authorities.
It makes sense to provide short hikes to attractive destinations all around the Park, and focus management resources there too. Let’s not worry too much about solitude in those places, regardless of classification. Again, if they’re attractive, that’s where people are going to go. But let’s not work too hard to push people into “underused” areas. People who need the experience of plunging deep into the wild alone need areas purposefully and perpetually managed to afford “outstanding opportunities for solitude.”
The High Peaks are WAY overrated in my book. Good. Keep the people out of the rest of the ADK’s. I love my often solitary trails elsewhere. But, potties, people, garbage…and bears all seem to add to the charm of the High Peaks. Camping with all the luxuries of home…even cell phones!
Nope, not for me.
We need a much better DEC presence throughout the ADK’s, yes. But, especially the High peaks. A dollar in my taxes earmarked for the DEC would make me happy.
To me, the graph accompanying this article showing the growing ranks of the 46ers organization shows a curve of nearly continuous growth that shows no indication of plateauing. There have been hiccups in that curve — the 1950 blowdown, the gas crises of the 1970s, implementation of the new regulations circa 1999 — but the graph shows an upward trend that resembles the graphs I used to make in high school math.
I doubt that this growth will reach infinity like those mathematical models, but I also doubt that the High Peaks can physically withstand infinite growth in recreational numbers. At some point there logically must be a breaking point at which the allure of climbing the peaks is overtaken by the perceived social problems on the trails. There is only so much trail hardening and infrastructure building that you can do before the High Peaks experience becomes transformed so much that even the novices are turned off from wanting to go there.
What is DEC envisioning when they build log ladders up Mount Colden? Long, endless lines of single-file hikers a la Everest? There must certainly be a ceiling to how much use there can be of the High Peaks; for the people who are already turned off by High Peaks crowds, that ceiling has already been breached.
The word “overuse” has been associated with the High Peaks since the 1960s, when numbers were much lower than they are today. The current management policy is to accommodate those numbers, not manage them. Compared with other popular wilderness areas across the nation, the High Peaks is unique for its lack of a permit system. At the very least, backcountry camping in the eastern zone should be managed under a mandatory permit system, and fees should be implemented for parking at all the key trailheads. Revenue from these permits/parking fees should be kept in a dedicated fund for stewardship.
I could go on, but my lunch break is over, haha.
In general, I agree about a permit system. But I feel we need to do more than add a simple permit/parking fee revenue stream. Just because people are willing to pay for access doesn’t mean they are PREPARED to do so. That is why I feel a required backcountry license specifically for the HPW is a better idea. A basic online backcountry safety, etiquette, and preparedness course would be required before the license is issued. And I feel these licenses should be cheaper (but still required) for NYS residents. The licenses would expire after 1-5 years and would require repeat, updated course certification.
My original comment above was written in a bit of haste during my lunch break, so I didn’t have my usual opportunity of self-editing. But I was essentially reacting to the original article in which there are quotes from a number of knowledgeable people who all admit there is a problem in the High Peaks, but who were otherwise short on potential solutions. Apparently the best ideas we have is building more ladders and installing more privies.
The underlying assumption in those strategies is that more people on the mountains is a good thing, and so we need to mitigate the impacts of all those additional feet by hardening the trails, relocating trailheads, and staffing trailheads with volunteers. Some of these ideas strike me as acts of desperation rather than viable long-term solutions.
The chart about 46-er enrollments amused me because I made the exact same thing myself a few months ago. All anyone has to do is go to the club’s website and copy and paste their membership data into Excel. Converting it into a pivot table allows you to create a line chart. I believe I used this chart as my data source: http://adk46er.org/pdf/Roster_statistics.pdf.
What I saw when I created my chart, and saw the one created for the Explorer, was NOT an inexplicable new spike in activity, but rather an extension of a hyperbolic curve that began way back in the 1930s, when the 46ers of Troy first decided to turn the Marshall’s exploits into a “thing” that should be repeated and rewarded. That trend started slowly but has spiked several times, with each major spike significantly outdoing the previous.
For instance, the 15 new 46ers in 1946 (the first year of peace after WW II) was nearly double the previous “spike” of 8 people in 1940. The Forest Preserve was closed to all public recreation in the aftermath of the 1950 hurricane, but from 1955 through 1975 you can see a steady growth in interest in the High Peaks. The numbers fall off in the late seventies, I’m guessing due to gas prices, but then begin to build up again from 1982 through 1999, the year the UMP was finalized. There is another stall in growth from 2000 through about 2007, which seems odd because this was a period when improved winter equipment made the peaks more accessible to a broader range of people on a year-round basis.
It’s hard for me not to see the current spike as anything more than the continuation of an established trend, one that could be not only predicted, but extended into future. People were alarmed by the 102 people who became 46ers in 1971, the year before the SLMP was implemented. That number was doubled in 1999 to 208, and THAT number was nearly tripled to over 600 in 2015.
The 46-er data is useful because it’s all that we have to measure interest in the High Peaks over the decades, in the absence of tabulated trailhead data, which is missing for many years. If we assume that 46-er enrollments represent a percentage of the overall trail traffic, then we can assume that the overall volume of hikers has been rising on a comparable curve since the 1930s, if not longer.
In my opinion, it’s that upward trend that needs to be managed because we cannot assume the High Peaks have an infinite capacity. We simply cannot. Julia Goren is credited in the article as saying that these new High Peaks hikers are more likely to become conservation-minded voters later. Perhaps. But if these new voters are coming away with the impression that a mountain summit should be as crowded as a beach in summertime, then what exactly are they learning about wilderness?
What always strikes me about these discussions is that we talk about the High Peaks as if they exist in a vacuum. I’ve been hiking and backpacking in a number of different wilderness areas across the country, including national parks, national forests, and even two other state wilderness parks, and I’ve experienced a variety of approaches that wilderness managers have used to either address or proactively avoid the types of situations we have here. There are plenty of models for managing the High Peaks, and yet we insist on reinventing the wheel. And since we can’t agree on what that wheel should look like, we instead go build a few more ladders because it’s easier.
Before enjoying my wilderness experiences in other states, I’ve been required to watch 10-minute videos on the basics of Leave No Trace, or listen to a similar lecture from a live park ranger, as a condition for obtaining a permit. The Boundary Waters have a daily entrance quota for each access point, mainly to ensure an even distribution of visitors and to prevent bottlenecks on portage trails. Many parks require permits mainly as a mechanism to get visitors to interact with rangers. The Sylvania Wilderness in Michigan is managed as a 12,000-acre campground, complete with reservable campsites. Many of the popular trailheads in New Hampshire have fee parking areas. At Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior you can get your permit on the ferry ride, but if that doesn’t happen then the ranger station is the first thing you see as you get off the boat.
In no event have I ever been required to obtain a “hiking license,” and as an out-of-state visitor that would be quite a chore. But I do see two straightforward solutions that would have immediate and targeted impacts on the High Peaks region:
(1) Implement a permit system for overnight camping, in which specific sites can be reserved for specific dates. If I have successfully obtained a permit for, say, Feldspar Brook the night of September 3rd, then I can set off with reasonable confidence that I will have a spot to myself waiting for me as I climb up the mountain. And in the process of obtaining that permit, I will have interacted with someone who could make a spot assessment of my capability and preparedness. Currently when I backpack in the High Peaks I may pass half a dozen empty sites at Lake Colden only to find Feldspar so crowded that people are camping beside the outhouse for the lack of a better option. Or if I do manage to score my own campsite, I may be forced to share it as latecomers arrive. If people were allowed their own little piece of the woods for the night, many of the perceptions of overcrowding would go away. Backpacking in the eastern zone might become enjoyable again. And if the number of permits issued each day was capped to the physical number of legal campsites, then the number of campers would never be more than the resource could support.
(2) In a region with so many access points as the High Peaks, it would be very difficult to contact every single day hiker, so I think a permit system would be less successful for this sector. But every trailhead has a parking area, and every parking area has a finite capacity. If that capacity was enforced, then you have a built-in method for managing the numbers of people on the trail without the need to implement an arbitrary quota system. The assumption should be that if the parking areas are filled to capacity, then so are the trails, lean-tos, and campsites. Collect fees for use of the trailheads and aggressively enforce against illegal parking.
The goal is not to reduce visitation rates so much that there is never more than one person on any summit at any time, but to realize we can improve the quality of the High Peaks experience by managing the quantity of people hitting the trails. It’s great that all these people are discovering the outdoors, but of what use is it if we’re training them to expect a crowd on every peak, a bridge over every patch of mud, a ladder up every steep slope, and a privy behind every bush? (Not to mention a bear in every campsite.)
The “HPW license” I envision wouldn’t need to be anything onerous. In fact, it could probably be gotten in 15 minutes with a smart phone online sitting in the parking area or at a restaurant if one didn’t get it in advance. I can now get a fishing license the same way (but without the testing). But anglers and hunters are required to know and observe the general regulations. Ditto with this. At first, penalties would be simply stern education if caught without one, but would eventually entail a citation, just as fishing or hunting without a license. Random, episodic, checkpoints at trailheads and in the backcountry would likely be all that is needed for enforcement. It could even be used in conjunction with your permitting suggestions – no camping permit in the HPW without a license requiring basic backcountry education.
My intention isn’t to limit use, but limit unpreparedness and subsequent damage and S&R operations.
Vee must zee your papers…
… gotta love checkpoints…
Check points, fees, permits, licenses…..never gonna happen. Adding to that list.for real wilderness:
No off trail travel
No trail improvements or leantos
No dams, no roads
But this is all impossible today
My comment was focused on countering the suggestion that high use in the High Peaks might be addressed partly by letting people know about other areas – distributing use. I don’t think it would work, and I don’t think it advisable to increase use in areas where solitude is currently available without management. Of course high High Peaks use should be addressed. Direct management strategies, like permit systems, while ultimately the most effective, require a lot of investment in administration and enforcement. Our experience shows that resources for management are stubbornly hard to come by. Meanwhile, Indirect methods, like aggressively controlling peripheral access, might be a good start – not without its own challenges! But this certainly is a very large topic.
People tend to hike trails that are well traversed, marked and easy to access. Why? They are generally afraid of being alone in the woods even when they are hiking by themselves. I’m not talking about the hard core hiker but the general enthusiast who comes to Lake Placid to not only hike but have a good dinner and a soft bed after their adventure. Nothing wrong with this but it is the main reason you have so many in the High Peaks. Not necessarily because it is classified as Wilderness. Most people, I expect, hardly know the difference in the classification. One person I conversed with recently explained to me that Wilderness areas are high up in the mountains and Wild Forest meant it was in the lower levels and valleys. I had to explain the difference to them and they couldn’t understand why anyone would classify “flatland” as Wilderness.
ROOST marketing is working well for the area and bringing in the people. Quite a few think that the whole Park is a public entity and have a difficult time wondering why they can’t find a place to land their canoe for a picnic because of the private shorefront on many lakes and ponds. There are plenty of remote opportunities but quite a few folks just want to go for a couple of hours and have a swim and lunch. The popularity of the Saranac Lake Sixers and the Tupper Triads have both expanded the use of those trails.
Having a Hikers center in Newcomb like the ADK Loj with some camping opportunities would go a long way to promote the area. That type of destination would be a catalyst for other small operations to be sustainable because it would encourage alternative use of trails into the High Peaks. I don’t think North Hudson is the appropriate place. One should be able to park and start a hike directly from the Hiker Center.
You nailed it with your first paragraph! Nailed it.
I live up here in the Saranac/Lyon Mountain area and I find most of the Sable Highlands area (old Domtar property) more “wilderness” than the High Peaks hands down.
And guess what…bikes are allowed, ATV’s and snowmobiles. But thanks to many folks’ mental hangups, the aforementioned prevents any chance of it being called “wilderness”. Thanks to its “less desirable” classification and general remoteness, it retains more wild character than many “wilderness” areas. For some reason, many people feel tight contour intervals are prerequisite for a “wilderness” label. I could never figure that one out. Remove the roads and aforementioned users and it magically becomes “wilderness”. Crazy. Absolutely crazy!
I occasionally listen to a podcast about AT thru-hikers and their experiences. Many of those interviewed are very uncomfortable in “the woods”. I get a laugh from listening to some these folks’ hangups. My opinion is that only a very small percentage of “hikers” have true wilderness skills and the “ease in the wilderness” feeling that comes with that. Don the backpack with the life-support goods, follow the marked trail and get in and out in record time or bag as many peaks as possible in X hours. An outdoor gym with trees and bird sounds. A museum you can walk through.
Boreas says: “I don’t really understand why a usage fee/license/permit system specifically for the HPW is such a toxic subject. NYS requires a license for hunting, trapping, fishing, etc.. Why is hiking off-limits to permitting? I don’t recommend an annual permit for hiking on state land in general, but a required permit with mandatory backcountry education specifically to use the HPW certainly isn’t out of line.”
> A license for killing wild animals is fair game no pun intended. A license to hike? This is extreme.
Bill says: ” That is why I feel a required backcountry license specifically for the HPW is a better idea.”
> So if I decide to take a hike on a whim on a trail in the High Peaks Wilderness I would be exempt from doing so unless I had a permit? I don’t like this idea it’s not fair. And why would anyone give NY State another excuse to suck more money out of us…as if they’re not getting enough already? I’m a New York State resident I pay taxes I am not an abuser of the land. Matter of fact I go out of my way to do what’s right when i’m any acre of land. Maybe they should have courses titled “Earth 101” where they teach every student from kindergarten all the way up to our senior years in college (lest we forget) how to respect what’s left of our natural resources.
I don’t feel requiring a trail license is extreme at all. I can’t drive on a whim, I can’t go fishing on a whim. I can’t go hunting on a whim – not in NYS, not in any state. It isn’t an “excuse” to get more money out of you. For all I care NYS residents can get the license for free. The idea is to limit the people hiking in the HPW to people with a MINIMUM amount of knowledge and preparedness. Just because you have good backcountry knowledge and ethics doesn’t mean I do. Obviously it isn’t enough just to post a few rules at a trailhead. I can always say I didn’t see them or understand them.
Requiring a license in the HPW isn’t a panacea and won’t cure all the ills the HPW is afflicted with, but it may just enable DEC to get a better handle on casual use and abuse in a very sensitive area of the park. If it generates some cash for hiring new Rangers, trail maintenance and S&R activities, then all the better.
When they are available I purchase habitat stamps and trail supporter stamps when I buy my fishing license online. Because I feel I need to give more money to NYS? Of course not. Because I have enjoyed the years I have spent hiking in NYS and feel I should be prepared to ante up for habitat and trail support. I am probably just a sap for believing my $5-10 goes toward ANYTHING resembling support for these causes. If so – so be it.
Nothing like commodifying the outdoors…
… well, now we’ll be best to find a private contractor to supervise the system…
… some private prison companies and guards will be looking for work…
Do you have any suggestions as to how to remedy the HPW overuse/damage issue? You mentioned above we may need to “tweak” things a bit. I just feel it is irresponsible to continue to turn a blind eye and simply write the region off as a loss.
Agreed Todd. I’m on the same philosophical page with you here. This is a paradox that I’ve chewed on for a long time.
This is wilderness, it is wonderful. We need more wilderness. Everyone! Everyone! Come experience this wilderness! It’s wild! Everyone comes…more and more. Oooops, too many are coming. Those that come do not have the same ethics as I…we need to limit them, control them. We need to manage this, we need to certify them. Make rules. Permits, classes, certifications, gates, personnel to verify, instructors to instruct. Wilderness to escape the complexity and neuroticism of modern life. Wilderness inevitably becomes complicated. Humanity imposes the rules it is trying to, if only for a brief moment, escape from. Those that love rules and order and complexity step up to “manage” (bureaucrat types). Wilderness is lost.
I’ll say it again… most folks do not really want true freedom (can’t handle it) and subsequently, most folks do not want true wilderness (likewise, can’t handle it). They want the NOTION of wilderness. In the end, wilderness lives between the ears.
And in spite of what I just wrote, I realize that the problem (overuse, destruction of resources) will not self-correct.
The crux is in this notion of management of users (and wilderness itself) within the philosophical and psychological spirit of the “wilderness construct”. A paradoxical problem in my view.
Indeed paradoxical. Perhaps a step in the right direction would be to simply rename the HPW as the High Peaks Area or High Peaks Special Use Area, but keep the Wilderness classification for maximum protection. Then people wouldn’t be confusing it with wilderness.
Good idea! Stop calling it something it isn’t. Manage it for the real world existing conditions.
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