The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) owns land with trailheads for some of the most popular mountains in the High Peaks Wilderness, but you wouldn’t know that from their recent promotions on social media and traditional print publications. That’s because the club does not want to exacerbate overcrowding in the High Peaks.
Instead of encouraging people to climb Mount Marcy and Algonquin Peak, ADK is teaching people backcountry ethics, including Leave No Trace principles. “People are coming no matter what, so we don’t need to promote it, and what we need to promote is how to recreate responsibly,” said Julia Goren, ADK’s education director and summit-steward coordinator.
The education campaign is just one of several ways that ADK, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and other organizations are addressing the overcrowding issue.
The number of hikers visiting the High Peaks has grown substantially in the past decade. As a result, parking lots have overflowed along Route 73, summits have become packed on holiday weekends, trails have seen more erosion, the number of search and rescues has risen, and litter and human waste has accumulated in high-congestion areas.
“I’ve been thinking about this and talking about the overuse issue pretty much nonstop since pretty much last fall,” Goren said. “And even though there’s definitely not a single answer, there’s a whole lot of people working on different various parts of the strategy, so that’s, I think, a really positive thing.”
For now, the Department of Environmental Conservation has decided that education, outreach, and redirecting hikers, not increased regulation, is the best way to deal with the problem. Education is being done through social media and partner projects with hiking clubs. However, many people believe DEC will have to take other steps if the crowding issue continues to escalate.
“The five-hundred-pound gorilla in the room that stakeholders whisper about is the prospect of implementing a permit system to finally regain control of usage,” Chuck Schwerin wrote in his article “A Search for Wilderness,” published this spring in the Adirondack Forty-Sixers magazine, Adirondack Peeks. “All agree the current situation is unsustainable. The parking problem, especially at trailheads on heavily trafficked roads like Route 73, is a public safety concern. DEC knows it. Community leaders know it. The DOT knows it.”
When the Adirondack Explorer asked DEC if it would implement new policies to manage the crowds in the High Peaks, spokeswoman Erica Ringewald replied that the department wants to give the public access to the Forest Preserve with minimal regulations. “As overuse becomes more of an issue, DEC will explore a variety of options to curtail overuse and damage to the environment,” she said.
One action DEC has taken is to create a five-person crew that will be based in the High Peaks. The crew will be replacing ladders and bridges, improving the trail in Avalanche Pass, and relocating campsites at Marcy Dam and near Lake Colden and the Flowed Lands.
On busy weekends, parking along Adirondak Loj Road — which ends at one of ADK’s lodges — has raised public-safety issues in the past. With cars lining both shoulders of the road, the driving corridor has sometimes narrowed to the point that emergency vehicles might have trouble getting through. At the request of DEC and ADK, the town of North Elba has put no-parking signs along one side of the road.
In response to increasing foot traffic on Cascade Mountain, the Adirondack Forty-Sixers will station volunteers at the trailhead on weekends (and possibly other times) to greet hikers, educate them on Leave No Trace principles, and perhaps redirect them to other trails. The Forty-Sixers also have resurrected their tradition of corresponding (now via email) with aspiring hikers to teach them about proper use of the mountains. In addition, information geared toward beginner hikers is available on the group’s website.
Cascade is perhaps the easiest High Peak to climb and one of the most popular. On summer weekends, cars often line both sides of Route 73 near the trailhead. Keene Supervisor Joe-Pete Wilson says DEC, local towns, and other organizations need to work together to address the problem. One idea, written about by Pete Nelson in the Adirondack Almanack, is to shuttle hikers to Cascade from parking areas at the nearby Mount Van Hoevenberg cross-country-ski center.
“I’m not against hikers and climbers. I want hikers and climbers,” Wilson said. “I’m saying lets manage things better. Let’s provide sensible ways to handle the traffic we have.”
Digital media have become essential tools in reaching hikers. The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST), which is based in Lake Placid, recently created a website that among other things provides updates on trail conditions and includes links to a DEC list of suggested hikes outside the High Peaks and ADK’s Leave No Trace page. The website allows hikers to sign up for email notices.
Organizations also are using Facebook Live to get the word out. In February, Forest Ranger Robbie Mecus took part in an interview on the popular Facebook page Aspiring Adirondack Forty-Sixers to answer questions and discuss High Peaks issues. Representatives of ADK and the Forty-Sixers also have done live presentations on Facebook. They are archived on the Aspiring Adirondack Forty-Sixers Facebook page.
In Late June, ROOST held an Adirondack Backcountry Social Media Summit to discuss overcrowding in the High Peaks and how to educate hikers on backcountry ethics. The summit was held in coordination with several area organizations, including DEC and ADK.
Despite official concerns about crowding in the High Peaks, not all hikers think there is a problem. Indeed, many hikers have come to expect crowds on the more popular High Peaks.
Molly Heller, who hiked Giant Mountain over Memorial Day weekend, enjoys meeting fellow hikers on the trail. “It’s nice to meet other people from other places, and you bond with them over something that you love so much,” she said. “I think that is a little bit unique to the Adirondacks. You don’t really get that in the White mountains as much or other places.”
Sabrina Mongielo of Buffalo found about twenty people on top of Giant that same day. “Everyone up there was amazing,” she said. “Everybody up there was so friendly. I actually borrowed an icepack from somebody. They lent me an icepack. Everyone up there was sharing food, having summit beers together, sharing experiences, asking if this was their first hike, sharing patches, looking at everyone’s patches, taking pictures. It was a really cool experience. Everyone that hikes, all does it because they share a love for it, and everybody is very friendly, and very helpful.”
Sean Slattery of New Jersey, who was hiking with a half-dozen friends, said the crowds did not diminish his wilderness experience. “When you hike something it’s great to share it with other people,” he said. “What’s the point of doing something if no one else can hear about it or you can’t share it with someone else?”
Photos from above: Hikers on Big Slide Mt on a prime autumn day, courtesy Nancie Battaglia; Cascade Mountain parking on Sunday, October 15, during Columbus Day weekend; and Hiker on Giant Mountain, courtesy Mike Lynch.
A version of 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.