I hiked Cascade Mountain from the Route 73 trailhead on Saturday September 16th. I went to see the crowds, the condition of the trail, and the general scene of what is believed to be the most popular High Peaks hiking trail. In 2015, over 33,000 people signed in at the trailhead register. In 2016, over 42,000 people are believed to have hiked the summit. Near the top there is now an electronic counter.
My whole trip took about five hours in the middle of the day. Many passed me by on the hike up and many others were hiking down the mountain during my ascent. I stayed on the summit about 90 minutes, which was gloriously sunny with the lightest of breezes. On the summit I counted people twice, with each count topping 100.
As I drove to Cascade Mountain, I passed the trailhead to Giant Mountain at Chapel Pond, which was mobbed with a long line of cars parked on both sides of the road. At the lower trailhead to Giant, both parking lots were full and cars were parked on both sides of the road for a long ways. Before climbing Cascade I drove into the Adirondack Loj Road to check out the chaos of a beautiful September Saturday. Forest Ranger Scott Van Laer had set up a traffic stop at the junction with the South Meadow Road, where he talked with hikers and campers, directing people on where to park, which through his efforts was orderly. He chatted with people about their preparedness, asked hikers about things like whether they had a map and proper clothing, explained the rules, and informed them on where they could obtain needed supplies.
At that time, around 10:30 am, the ADK lot at Heart Lake was already full and I counted over 200 cars parked on the side of the road from ADK to South Meadow Road, approximately 1 mile. Many people were walking on the road towards Heart Lake to access a trailhead. Van Laer routed other hikers and campers to park along the South Meadow Road and to access the High Peaks through the fire road to Marcy Dam. While it struck me as an odd thing to see a Forest Ranger at a traffic stop, with emergency lights flashing from the Ranger Truck and Van Laer standing with an orange cone, as I observed the scene it seemed an effective interdiction, given the chronic shortage of Rangers, to provide coherence to a scene that could otherwise be overrun, chaotic and dangerous.
At the base of the Cascade Mountain trailhead, the Adirondack 46ers had set up a tent and table with educational materials. The table was manned by three volunteers who all wore official-looking shirts with shoulder patches. They provided Leave No Trace materials, educated people about Forest Preserve rules, provided trash bags, showed people how to bury and burn their feces, and told them where the privies were located at the base of the mountain and in one location near the summit. I watched as the three 46ers volunteers engaged hikers and from my time watching and chatting with them I saw most hikers pause and listen. The 46ers did this work through an agreement with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and their outreach at Cascade Mountain is seen as a possible prototype for an expanded effort to other popular High Peaks trailheads in the future, such as Giant Mountain, a station at Marcy Dam, among others.
On the summit of Cascade there was a Summit Steward from the program jointly administered by The Nature Conservancy-Adirondack Mountain Club-DEC. I talked to the Steward, who was friendly and enthusiastic. Though Cascade Mountain does not have the rare alpine summit vegetation of 16 other High Peaks, it does have erosion problems and the Steward educated people about how the enjoy a High Peaks summit in a way that does no harm.
I walked slowly up the mountain and took scores of pictures. I came away impressed with the overall condition of the trail. Clearly, a ton of work had been done in the past few years to build waterbars. Many of the waterbars were lined with rocks on the topside, which makes them more durable and easier for hikers to step over. There was a waterbar practically every 50 feet for the first half of the trail. While I hiked on a clear dry day, most of the Cascade Mountain trail did not appear to function as a stream channel, like many other trails to mountain summits in the Adirondacks, as water was effectively shed from the trail at regular and multiple locations.
The overall condition of the trail for the lower two-thirds was very good. I hiked with a tape measure and took a lot of measurements. The trail up Cascade is an official “Trunk Trail” and as such in the High Peaks Wilderness Area Unit Management Plan, it’s supposed to have a trail tread (the center trail area where people walk) of 18-26 inches and a cleared area (an area brushed out of trees and branches) of 6 feet. In some places the worn trail tread width was narrow 2-3 feet, and for long stretches the trail was surprisingly narrow, while in other places the worn tread was 6-10 feet or more.
The other dominant feature in the trail was work in the trail tread area to build stone staircases and to harden sections to elevate the hiker from the ground, allow water to flow through the rocks, and stabilize the trail corridor. In many places, downed trees were placed alongside the trail in piles to narrow the trail. In some places, trail sides saw lines of larger rocks placed to narrow the trail.
The top third of the Cascade Mountain Trail appeared to me to have seen less work than the lower two-thirds. In some places the trail was worn down to bedrock and with thinner soils there are fewer options for trail builders. The trenches with bedrock bottoms seemed about the best that could be done. Whereas some of the rock stair cases in the lower sections had herd paths in the trees alongside them, likely from hikers skittish about wet or icy rocks, the thick high elevation krumholz trees largely prevented hikers from hiking off trail. Near the top, some stretches used elevated boardwalks through wet areas. Although the boards were dry and easy to cross, I watched people use the herd paths around them.
In July, I hiked Santanoni Mountain and found that trail to be in terrible condition, literally from beginning to end. Just awful. The trail to the summit of Santanoni, or to “Times Square” between Santanoni and Panther Mountain, is a herd path and while it is marked it is not maintained. The lower section of the trail to Bradley Pond is an official trail and it’s a mess. Washed out bridges stand dilapidated and the trail is nearly continuously wet. Waterbars are scarce and erosion is prevalent. Little maintenance was evident at the time I hiked it.
Though I realize that far fewer people hike to Bradley Pond than hike Cascade Mountain, the work that was done on Cascade showed what could be done given proper investment and resources. My experiences in Hamilton County hiking on trails up mountains far less popular than the High Peaks is that most of those trails are more like the trail to Bradley Pond than Cascade. For example, the trail up Cascade Mountain is infinitely better than the trails up Blue Mountain or Snowy Mountain.
What about litter? What about the horror stories of human feces in the trail? On my trip, I picked up one band-aid and that was the only litter I saw. There were some minute decayed white paper remnants in the trail, but not many. I saw no feces. I saw no trash.
What I did see was a lot of seemingly happy and friendly people; akin to happy hordes I’ve encountered going to a pro baseball game or a rock concert. In other places where I encounter hordes of people these days, such as a mall in Plattsburgh or Albany, when forced to go there, or a big box store, or when I go to the State Capitol on a busy legislative day and it’s filled with protestors and staffers and state employees, I don’t get happy vibes from these busy places. I got a happy vibe from everybody on the Cascade Mountain trail.
As I mentioned earlier, in my time on the summit I counted over 100 people at two points. At times the number of selfie sticks rivaled the number of hiking poles. People were spread out in small and large groups, taking pictures, napping, sunning, eating, talking, and pointing out things in the surrounding views. Chatter was constant, but it hardly disrupted or disturbed the beauty of the summit.
Cascade Mountain provides a stunning 360-degree panoramic view. It’s a great view than can be obtained with a relatively easy hike. Young parents had kids in backpacks. One young mother carried her 5-month-old in a frontpack. There were people clearly much older than me (I’m 55) and many much younger. There were families, a group from North Country School, a church group, lots of couples of all ages, college kids, a group from Fort Drum, many groups of millennials, and a high number of groups of women of different ages. I saw about two dozen dogs, mostly all leashed, though a few people hiked with their dogs off leash. Everybody I saw appeared to be day-hikers as no one carried equipment for camping, and some even hiked with no packs of any kind.
Given the horror stories of human feces in the trail and hundreds of hikers out of control on Cascade Mountain I was expecting a far different experience. I was expecting to document a disaster where natural resources were being degraded and where the user experience was poor. I came away with far different and positive impressions on both scores.
I do not think that the people who hiked Cascade Mountain with me on September 16th were seeking an experience of solitude or of wilderness. It occurred to me that for some the abundance of people on the trail made it a safe place to go in their minds. I did talk to people who were aspiring 46ers and Cascade and Porter Mountains were numbers 1 and 2 in their quests. If one is seeking solitude or wilderness there are myriad places in the Adirondacks where that can be obtained. The Cascade Mountain experience as it stands now in 2017 is that of a popular hike, one likely to be shared with hundreds of other people on any given day, and one that provides a stunning view, one of the best in the Northeast US, from a beautiful mountaintop. A lot of work had clearly gone into the trail to make it durable and safe for hikers as well as to protect the natural resources. As I hiked I thought of that narrow corridor snaking up the mountain trod by tens of thousands of feet day after week after month and the vast forests on both sides that scarcely ever sees a single human footstep.
Perhaps I hiked Cascade Mountain on a good day, maybe even the best day. Perhaps on a day when a thousand people summit instead of 500 it’s different. Perhaps on days when the 46ers are not at the base educating people, and the Summit Steward is not doing the same on the summit, things go terribly awry. Perhaps when the trail is wet and muddy these conditions lessen the experience for the hiker and have negative impacts to natural resources. But despite these questions I found the combination of public education at the base and summit and extensive trail work evident on the Cascade Mountain trail to be things worth replicating on other highly popular trails in the High Peaks.
My main takeaway is that large numbers of hikers can be accommodated and both the experience of the hiker and the natural resources of the High Peaks can be protected. In my mind, the High Peaks suffers not from overcrowding and overuse, but from chronic under-investment. The trail to Bradley Pond doesn’t suffer from overuse; it suffers from a lack of investment plain and simple. Lack of investment in Forest Rangers, trail work, and public education. The trail up Cascade, which while it would certainly benefit from further trail upgrades, has clearly seen significant investment, both public and private, in public education and trail maintenance, and shows not only what can be done, but what must be done in other locations.
In the High Peaks, we’re in the throes of a historic increase in public use; a major step change is clearly underway. Public use on the Cascade Mountain trail is close to triple what it was 20 years ago. The state needs to get serious about comprehensive stewardship of the High Peaks. The increase in hiking in the Adirondacks is to be welcomed, but much more needs to be done to make sure that a terrific experience is provided for hikers and that the natural resources are protected.