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.