This Columbus Day weekend I decided to put the issue of overuse in the High Peaks region to a little test. I visited three of the most crowded trail heads in the area and hiked from two of them. I also investigated the State’s grand relocation of the Cascade trail and parking.
What I saw confirmed a working theory I have been informally discussing with both private folks and local and state government employees. The theory isn’t mine, indeed a number of people have the idea. It’s a simple concept, really: back country overuse can be mitigated in large part simply by addressing parking issues. In other words, we can manage recreation capacity by more effectively managing transportation capacity.
While the visits to the busy trail heads were illuminating, it was a fifth foray this weekend, a climb of one of the Adirondacks’ greatest peaks, that cemented my thinking. It convinced me that we need to limit parking in ways that are reasonable and pair that with an accessible on-line system that provides modern, real-time, hiker-friendly alternatives. I believe if we do that we have a good chance to effectively manage the recreational use of busy High Peaks trails without licenses, permits or other methods that fundamentally limit hiker access itself.
In the interest of avoiding the accusation that I’m directing hordes of aspiring hikers to some little-used gem, I’ll speak of this trail generically (although savvy High Peaks hikers will be on to me in seconds). The mountain to which it leads is one of the biggest in the park and serves as a gateway to several other peaks. The view from the summit is considered by some to be the best of all, including a good friend who is a well-known photographer in the park. The route is on the longer side, more than twelve miles round trip and more than three thousand feet of vertical ascent, but it is still well within the realm of a day hike – less distance than Mount Marcy, for example. Add in the fact that much of the vertical is gained on the easy grade over the first five miles and the overall effort is less than many shorter ascents, including Algonquin, Giant and other popular climbs. The route itself is a corker, encompassing water bodies, rivers, slides and a gorgeous variety of forest zones that are sometimes delineated dramatically by the trail itself; in one stretch it is as though Nature drew a razor-sharp line between Hemlock forest and mixed hardwoods. In every way I can think of, this route is a total winner.
Then why, I wonder, on Columbus Day weekend, did our party encounter only two backpackers coming out from a lean-to and one other hiker all day? Granted the weather was not sunny but it wasn’t terrible either, with only a few moments of rain. More than that, the trail itself spoke of very light use. It looked nothing like other High Peaks trails and more like a trail one would find in a modestly-used section of the central Adirondacks: narrow, having good vegetation, roots and rocks and in only a few places eroded to mud or bedrock.
The trail head is on a main road, not out of the way. It is a moderate hike, it leads to a major summit and it is gorgeous. Yet clearly it is not getting a ton of hikers. How can this be? Here’s why: there is only parking space for maybe six cars, and no room to cheat along the side of the road. This trail is the last place we need to worry about overuse because the parking self-manages it.
Now imagine a redesigned travel corridor at the western end of Cascade Pass. A small number of parking spaces are clearly marked, using the existing footprints. Everywhere else is declared no parking, with signs – and enforcement. Guardrails are added or moved as needed to allow room for bicycles to ride the shoulder but not enough for cars to “cheat” park along the roadside.
A small roundabout is situated in one of the exiting parking areas, for shuttle and hiker drop-off. A kiosk stands nearby with 10 minute parking spots on either side. The kiosk has information on alternative parking areas and trail heads (such as at Mt. Van Hoevenberg), shuttle services and schedules, and Uber and Lyft numbers. Importantly, it also offers near-real-time information on available parking spaces at all area lots.
A well-advertised smart phone app does all that the kiosk does, plus it encompasses many other high-traffic areas where similar solutions have been implemented. The app is intelligent – that is, rather than making you hunt for information, it recognizes where you are and assembles all the relevant information for you. Crazy? Nope. From a technological standpoint this kind of thing is simple, and it can be implemented in easy stages.
Now instead of arguing about hiker capacity, which is much harder to quantify and control, we make eminently sensible decisions about parking capacity, and the hiker capacity becomes much less of an issue. The mechanism for managing parking needs and it’s the associated impacts becomes the mechanism for managing hiker needs and their associated impacts.
For example, we limit parking on Route 73 at Cascade as described above. Is the reduced capacity negatively impacting the use and perception of the Park? Okay, expand the facilities at Mt. Van Hoevenberg. That works okay, but too many people are upset about the longer hike? Implement a shuttle to the original trail head, for a fee that covers costs. One shuttle every hour is not enough? Add a second one. And if it is deemed that too many people are using the trail, exceeding recreational carrying capacity and causing undue damage? Reduce the number of shuttle runs, or tighten parking. You get the idea.
If this kind of management is paired with a service-oriented system that gives people alternatives and real time parking information, they’ll love it. No one likes arriving at a dangerously overcrowded parking lot, trust me. Meanwhile, providing all these alternative services represents an excellent business opportunity for our communities and businesses. Cascade’s current use represents as many as a few thousand people per week. That’s a lot of services: sign me up!
Is this one-off scenario in an Almanack column the answer to all our overuse problems? No. But with comprehensive and inclusive planning, an effective and visitor-friendly parking management system could be a huge part of it.
Photo: a lonely trail from a small parking lot.