Thursday, May 10, 2018

Big High Peaks Changes Coming Amid Crowd Concerns

High Peaks Wilderness Map May 2018As the upcoming Canadian Victoria Day holiday weekend (May 19-21) kicks-off the start of the busy season in the Adirondack High Peaks, local advocates and officials are assessing overcrowding, making plans to accommodate more visitors, and proposing new regulations and a sweeping expansion of backcountry facilities.

New regulations are being proposed to require registration for High Peaks Wilderness visitors; require dogs be leashed over 4,000 feet; expand the bear canister requirements; change the snow depth at which snowshoes are required to 12 inches off trail; and ban glass containers.

Among the facility plans are new parking lots; building more than 50 miles of new trails and rerouting and improving dozens more; installing toilets and privies at trailheads; building dozens of new campsites; improving and marking trails up “trail-less” peaks traditionally climbed by Adirondack Forty-Sixers; building new Day Use Areas with launches at Boreas Ponds, Henderson Lake, and Chapel Pond; and more.

The changes come as the Adirondack High Peaks are seeing record numbers of visitors.  DEC trail registers show that the number of hikers at Cascade went from 16,091 in 2006 to 33,149 in 2015. In 2015, 53,423 people signed the trail register of the Van Hoevenberg Trail near Adirondak Loj, up 62 percent from 2005. (In comparison, DEC estimated about 57,000 total High Peaks visitors in 1983, and 140,000 in 1998). Last summer, the Adirondack Forty-Sixers reached 10,000 people who have climbed their traditional list of 46 peaks.

DEC Forest Rangers are now conducting about twice as many search and rescue operations as they were a decade ago and “overuse of trails, campsites, and summits has led to erosion, soil compaction, loss of fragile vegetation and impacts on sensitive wildlife” advocates and local officials said in a press announcement this week.

In that announcement, local governments and environmental advocates released results of a High Peaks area trailhead study conducted between last Labor Day and Columbus Day.  A survey of parking lots showed:

“Close to 80 percent of all trailheads leading into the High Peaks and surrounding Wilderness areas were routinely above their capacity on fall weekends. Thirty-five parking lots designed to accommodate fewer than 1,000 cars frequently had more than 2,100 cars trying to park at them, the analysis found. As a result over 1,000 cars were repeatedly parked along roads, on private property, and in unsafe locations.”

The survey found that there were an average of 240 cars in the parking lot at the Cascade trailhead, despite a capacity of  only 73. Additional findings were:

  • Keene Valley trailheads contain a total of 353 parking spots, but had 721 cars;
  • At Adirondak Loj and South Meadows Road, parking for 196 cars, had 674 cars;
  • Baxter Mountain, no parking lot, 18 cars;
  • Hurricane Mountain, parking for 12 cars, had 46 cars;
  • Ampersand Mountain, parking for 10 cars, had 64
  • Route 9N, Elizabethtown/Keene, parking for 24 cars, had 83 cars; and,
  • Elk Lake, parking for 31 cars, had 56 cars.

On Thursday, May 10, the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) opened the 45-day public comment period on new DEC plans for the High Peaks Wilderness, which includes about 275,000 acres of publicly-owned “forever wild” Adirondack Forest Preserve. Many of the changes would be effected by amending the 1999 High Peaks Wilderness Complex Unit Management Plan (UMP), the document that lays out the management of the High Peaks. Phil Brown has a story about the fast-tracking of these proposals here.

The document has only been amended once before, to propose a trail up Porter Mountain. (The currently proposed amendments are here.) Some changes would be effected by amendments to the plans for the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Intensive Use Area (i.e., Cascade) and the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest (i.e., Boreas Ponds), which APA is also about to consider.

At Cascade, the most popular high peak, DEC’s plans include moving the trailhead to the Mt. Van Hoevenberg facility (where additional expansion is in the works) and closing the Cascade trailhead and parking areas on Route 73. The plan would add about two miles to the hike up Cascade, doubling the distance to make the summit.

New parking areas are in the plans for climbers in Chapel Pond Pass, and possibly a rerouting the Ridge Trail on Giant Mountain to these new parking lots. Additional trail reroutes are also in the proposal, such as moving the lower portion of the Wright Peak Ski Trail to connect with the Whale’s Tail Ski Trail (avoiding the hiking trail to Algonquin) and a reroute of the Ampersand Mountain trail to a new parking lot.

DEC is proposing to install privies and toilets at all High Peaks trailheads where it’s possible, following-up on the AuSable River Association’s project to install port-a-johns at select busy trailheads in recent years. It also plans improved signage with a Leave No Trace and Wilderness Ethic messages, maps, and some new kiosks.

DEC’s plans include building official Class III and Class IV trails up 21 traditionally-hiked “trailless” peaks.  DEC’s also seeks to add signs at the tops of some “trailless” peaks.  Maccomb, Couchsachraga Peak, Allen, Cliff, Mt. Redfield, Gray Peak, Mount Marshall, MacNaughton, Seymour, Seward, Donaldson, Mt. Emmons, Street, Nye, and Tabletop would all get signs.

Camping facilities would also expand with the addition of dozens of new primitive campsites including five on the shores of Boreas Ponds, accessed by a new Day Use Area planned at the dam. A new universally accessible lean-to is planned for the shore of Boreas Ponds, as is a new accessible hand launch. A similar situation is proposed for Henderson Lake. A new trail is proposed from the Boreas Ponds Day Use Area to the summit of Boreas Mountain, along with dozens of new miles of trails and improved trails across the southern High Peaks.

At Adirondak Loj, the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) has added an additional full-time educator to teach Leave No Trace skills and ethics education and are continuing a program they piloted last year in which volunteers meet hikers in the parking lots to help educate them.  ADK has also invested $1 million in infrastructure at the Heart Lake Center at Adirondak Loj, including a renovation of the High Peaks Information Center, a new wash house and septic system, a new section of campground, and a new yurt village which a press announcement said would be used for education.

Read more about overuse in the High Peaks here; all of the Almanack‘s stories about the High Peaks can be found here.

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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for more than 45 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John's Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on North Country Public Radio and on WSLP Lake Placid.

He is also on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and edits The New York History Blog. He is the author of two books of regional history.




45 Responses

  1. Rob Gdyk says:

    With all the planned building proposals now at Boreas Ponds, it’s a shame that the large lodge built by Finch, Pruyn & Company had to be demolished. In retrospect, what was the point?

    • Jim S. says:

      There is a difference between a campsite and a lodge. It has been classified wilderness, although with car access to within a tenth of a mile it probably will never feel like wilderness.

      • Rob Gdyk says:

        Wilderness? With my CP-3 permit, I’ll be allowed to drive my vehicle all the way to the parking area nearest the dam, so I ask again, what was the point?

        • Jim S. says:

          Even though you want Disneyland it can’t happen in an area classified Wilderness.

          • Rob Gdyk says:

            There is a difference between Disneyland and a lodge. Disneyland Resort supports upward of 65,000 jobs, which would be more of what Gov Cuomo could only dream of… not me.

  2. Lakechamplain says:

    My initial reaction is an enthusiastic yes for almost all of these proposals and a sense of appreciation to the DEC for proposing sound, hopefully effective measures to deal with the obvious that’s been stated and hashed over here many times: The Adirondacks are being loved to death.
    I salute what they didn’t propose: some kind of attempts to control the number of hikers/campers et al that are putting such great stress on the natural environment that it can no longer ‘bounce back’ from the boots on the ground as was counted on too much in the past.
    Here are just 3 examples of what I consider to be proposals to address real problem areas: The Cascade transformation. Last Columbus Day I believe the DEC experimented with what is now a proposal; a rainy Monday that weekend clouded the results. But everyone who’s been there hiking or just driving by on a weekend knows that situation on 73 was a tragic accident waiting to happen, And that’s just the parking situation. I believe, though this article didn’t mention it, that a new trailhead and trail for Pitchoff is also in the works.
    Two: putting new environmentally effective trails on the so-called trail less peaks. The 46ers(of which I am one) have their annual meeting later this month and
    I hope they wholeheartedly embrace this proposal. It’s known by most that these peaks have trails already, but the new trails will lessen the erosion and other ill effects of the current trails. Hopefully, and I’ll bet this was one of the reasons for this idea, it will also help ‘disperse’ some of the too-heavy traffic from the heart of the high peaks.
    Lastly, and this was is the Adirondack Enterprise article, it caught my eye that a new trail up Mt. Adams will be constructed. Just a personal thanks to the DEC. The trail, your classic firepower ranger trail that was straight up, has become essentially a disaster, a streamed that causes more erosion continually and a real pain for hikers trying to enjoy a hike up this nice peak with a stunning view of the High Peaks from the south if you climb the renovated fire tower. I was skeptical that due to its low traffic that it would get this attention. Perhaps not that important in the great scheme of this plan but a nice touch.
    The reality this comprehensive plan faced was that due to the countless access points to trails and bodies of water in this area there is no practical way that traffic can be controlled effectively without a cumbersome large new bureaucracy being created, I have read every post on this site over the years in the healthy debates that posters have had about ideas like permits or registration etc. and I don’t see how they would work like at most national parks where entrances are limited.
    One huge need the report seems to allude to about Ranger rescues increasing but I saw no proposal to deal with a huge need, more funding to hire more rangers and other support staff as well as more funding from the state to supplement the ADK Mountain Club and ADK 46ers work crews that do such stellar work.
    So the comment period has started. Please post your ideas here but more importantly share your thoughts with the DEC. Let’s save what we love about the Adirondacks for our children and future generations.

  3. Barbara J campbell says:

    It is difficult to witness man’s invasion of the glorious High Peaks. Trails worn to beyond roots were non-existent when my treks were started in the ’70’s.
    People admire the time in nature and I believe we must accommodate gently.

  4. Mike Schwartz says:

    Backcountry permitting for a fee is s great idea.
    ADK membership could be increased if membership was required as a way to gain access to the park’s paths and peaks.
    Licensing users the same way hunters are licensed or power boater users are licensed could also generate adequate maintenance funding. The Park is a national gem, pay to play is not cruel and unusual.

    • Jim S. says:

      I like the idea of fees. It would provide much needed revenue as well as decrease the number of users.

  5. Paul says:

    This is all just an effort to manage what is clearly too many hikers for the area. Much of this will probably make the problem worse. If you have 200 cars at a lot for 120 and you expand it to 200 you will just eventually have 250 cars trying to park there.

    Limiting the number of hikers is the only thing you can do. Parking restrictions are obviously not working. 674 cars at the Loj where there is space for 196? That isn’t a DEC staffing problem.

    Or Harden up the trails change the classification to something were you can get machinery in there to properly maintain the trails and everything else. Gotta come up with a plan where a limited number of people can manage more work. Give rangers ATV’s etc…

    • The parking lot at the Adirondack Loj currently can fit about 170 cars, it was designed for only 200. The extra 500 cars are illegally parking on both sides of the Loj Road and some park on the South Meadow Road. The Adirondack Mountain Club can only control the number of cars in our parking lot. ADK tells DEC when our lot is filled and on some occasions, DEC has stationed a forest ranger at the intersection of the Loj Road and South Meadow Road and this ranger has not allowed the illegal parkers to get to their spots. But rangers are scarce and one is not always available.

      • Paul says:

        Why are rangers enforcing local traffic laws? In this case isn’t it the Essex County Sheriff or the State Polices responsibility.

        Like I said this isn’t a DEC staffing issue.

  6. Nathan King says:

    I feel like the hikers fee is a good way to raise money for trail repair n labor n such …how ever no matter how cheap or expensive it is I believe that if you are a local who endures year round residence you shouldn’t have to pay to enjoy the 4 may be 5 months a year that doesn’t involve snow it should be and is one of the perks of choosing to live in the most rural least economicly developed parts of the north east …now that being said we need to figure out a way to separate the weakenders for the year rounder…just my 2 cents

    • Boreas says:

      Sounds OK to me – but how do you define “local”? Town resident? State resident? National resident?

      • Nathan King says:

        I would think the best way would be1 if you’re a year round resident of any county in the blue line you should get a parking sticker n what ever “paper pass” badge in the mail each year after you do you’re income tax or pay your land tax…

    • M.P.Heller says:

      I’m a “local”, “46er”. I support a fee based user system. I do not support a “local discount” in any way.

      • Nathan King says:

        Well i guess some people don’t mind being taxed at every turn for everything…me personally I’m sick of it …

        • Boreas says:

          Nathan,

          Currently, we ARE paying for it via general state taxation, and this mess is the result. So NYS can increase taxes on everyone even more, or target the people who use the resource. Which seems more fair? Consider it a ‘forced user donation’ to try to improve, what you must agree, is a bad situation.

  7. Boreas says:

    Everyone here knows my solution. Annual fee + mandatory education = Access License for HPW and parking privileges. Try it here first then expand as needed/desired.

  8. Paul says:

    How about we build a big wall on the Canadian border?

  9. Kathy says:

    Primitive campsites on the shores of Boreas ponds?…why does that make me sad…
    Are they to be reserved or have a stay limit?
    What is a hand launch? Having been to Boreas and Henderson I did not see a launch issue.
    Even so I’m fortunate to have visited already before all these “improvements”.

    • Kathy says:

      Still making all these areas more user friendly and not increasing the numbers of staff who search&rescue,fight fires and patrol for hazards, respond to lost hikers and maintain safety guidelines would seem to increase overuse and abuse of the areas opened by increased accessibility.

  10. Charlie S says:

    Jim S. says: “It would provide much needed revenue as well as decrease the number of users.”

    Sure, it is known (in some places) that when you start charging a fee to be allowed access to a wilderness area the number of users decreases. Whether this will be the case in the Adirondacks is yet to be seen and if the number of users do decrease will the decrease be enough to stop erosion,loss of vegetation, etc.? I have my doubts. There are just too many people who like what the Adirondacks offer.The population is growing and as there is more and more urbanization (with it…the tearing down of remaining woods and fields) everywhere an erected official can create new tax havens, there will also be this desire for more and more people to “get away” from this urbanization due to the archetypal nature innate in all of us.

    There will always be this subconscious urge to get away from the emptiness within us and so the explorer within will seek things without so as to be fulfilled in an authentic way, like wild places, woods, etc. where serenity reigns supreme. This is what is happening now and is increasing as technology increases and we become more and more distracted and further apart from the real world and from each other…a vacuum is created, a black hole. This is part of the reason why this mad rush to the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, plus the fact that the technology has more and more people aware of all the latest fads. What don’t help matters is the fact that the State has been pushing to sell the place off to hikers these past few years for tourism dollars which seems to be working.

    As we speak on these matters there are designs (by you know who) to rape and pillage what remains of some of the most wild places remaining on this planet. I suppose things could always be worse ….just imagine if the Adirondacks were a national park!

    • Paul says:

      It’s funny. It seems from my observation that too few people are getting out and are stuck in the virtual world. I guess my observations are wrong and more people are getting out into the wilds. In some sense that could be good for the long-term preservation and appreciation of wild places. If you get out there you certainly quickly understand why you would want to preserve something like this. It is more of a question of how to manage these trends.

      • Suzanne says:

        Two hundred peple sitting on top of Giant yakking on their cellphones and taking selfies is not a wilderness experience.

        • Paul says:

          Maybe not for you, but it might be for them?

          • Boreas says:

            Solitude is certainly part of a wilderness experience. Otherwise, you are just outside.

            • Paul says:

              Solitude is in short supply on most of the peaks in the HPW in the summer. That is not going to change even if you stop things where they are now or even are able to dial it back a little. Apparently these folks swarming up here are coming for a different experience. I would say right now some of the best solitude in the Adirondacks can be found in some of the vast conservation easement parcels that are on private land open for public use. They are basically deserted in the summer months, very few people seem interested. If you go it usually just you and the bugs!

              • Boreas says:

                “Apparently these folks swarming up here are coming for a different experience.”

                That is the point Suzanne and I were trying to make, and the crux of the problem in an area designated as Wilderness. 50+ people on a summit sounds more like intensive use to me, regardless of the experience the hikers are looking for. What needs to be limited in the HPW are the total numbers on the trails and peaks at any given time. Either that or accurately classify the HPW peaks and trails as an Intensive Use areas and harden them. Otherwise, status quo.

                • Paul says:

                  I totally agree. I have said the same thing here. Sounds like the trend is not away from limiting use, so that leaves the middle option:

                  “Either that or accurately classify the HPW peaks and trails as an Intensive Use areas and Harden them.”

                  The local economy is more and more dependent on the tourists coming so unless the idea is to torpedo the economy what are you going to do?

                  • Boreas says:

                    Perhaps the best option isn’t to limit the numbers in the Peaks area but to harden the Peaks area into an Intensive Use island within the HPW. If the days of a “wilderness” experience are truly over in that specific area, perhaps they should be managed as Whiteface is – but without the road. Shuttles from MvH to ALL trailheads.

                    The options, whether politicians see it or not, are to significantly control numbers or harden trails and add facilities – which seems to be the direction they are heading in piecemeal fashion. I don’t necessarily agree, but they didn’t ask me…

    • Boreas says:

      “There are just too many people who like what the Adirondacks offer.”

      Charlie,

      You touch on a good point. We have wonderful national and state parks across the country, but few are with a half-day drive of two huge metropolitan centers on either side of them. It isn’t always the beauty of the ADKs that bring in large numbers, it is the convenience and easy accessibility to the region by the masses. People don’t have to take a vacation to come here as they do in many national parks. A day or weekend will do. All too often, little planning is involved. ‘Gee, I have never hiked before – I think I’ll drive there (from Albany or Montreal) early today, climb Marcy, and sleep in my own bed tonight.’ Can’t do that in Yellowstone or Denali where even getting to the destination is problematic.

      So I believe unique problems require unique solutions. Clearly, a free-for-all is leading to chaos.

      • Paul says:

        Many national parks have far more visitors than the Adirondacks despite their “inaccessibility”. 4.3 million visitors to Yellowstone last year. Relatively speaking, even with the uptick, the numbers are pretty low up here. And as we are always saying we have more space than places like that. We are just doing a bad job of managing the situation. People up here must pay to maintain the resource like we see out west at the hard to reach places.

        • Paul says:

          The “people up here” – are the users.

        • Boreas says:

          “Relatively speaking, even with the uptick, the numbers are pretty low up here.”

          Again, statistics can lead people astray. One must be precise in explaining what you are comparing. The HPW is much smaller than the total Adirondack Park. It isn’t all about simple head counts because the nature of the two types of parks are different. You can’t really compare the two types of parks without explaining the major differences. If you want to have a more accurate head-count comparison in this trail-use context, you would have to compare the number of people who actually use the trails, not simple park gate counts.

          In my experience living in the Rockies in Montana and Utah for a period, the majority of people who visit Yellowstone and Glacier never leave pavement or boardwalks, as most popular spots are well hardened. Many never leave the tour bus except to eat and relieve themselves at the premier destinations.

          Most backcountry trails in YNP and GNP see relatively light use compared to the Peaks area of the HPWA. So mere gate counts do not portray an accurate comparison of trail usage – the Blue Line does not have a gate. Often in GNP and YNP, I was the only car in the lot – even on popular trails – and on the weekend to boot! I don’t recall ever seeing a full, let alone overflowing, parking lot except on trout stream/river access.

          Another significant factor is the sheer density of trails in the HPW. Things are more spread out in the West (MILES between peaks), trails are typically dry, rocky, well-routed, and vegetation often sparse. Most trails are many miles apart, and more importantly, every peak is not a must climb “destination” as in the HPW.

          In summation, I don’t believe the backcountry hiking trails in most national parks have the same targeted and intensive usage as the dense, intense, network of trails linking the 46 “High Peaks”. Even within the HPWA, the 46 peaks are an extremely concentrated subset of trails. Management is certainly an issue as you say, but so is a concept I would call ‘destination control’. It is obvious the Peaks section of the HPW needs extensive study, review, and management changes. I also believe, as you say, that users should be shouldering more of the financial burden here. I believe we ALL agree properly matching feet-on-the-ground Ranger numbers to the intensity of hiker usage needs to be a PRIORITY until the usage design and management of the HPW is eventually figured out – which may take decades – and Rangers aren’t cheap, nor should they be!

  11. Charlie S says:

    Paul says: “How about we build a big wall on the Canadian border?”

    Boreas says: “And have Canada pay for it!”

    You guys are on a roll. I like your humor!

  12. Blahblahblah says:

    Less trails. Stop making so easy to reach the top. That’ll fix the over crowding problem

    • Matthew says:

      Tell that to Marshall, where “no Class 3 or 4 trail” was replaced with about a half a dozen herdpaths. Look, we have to be honest with ourselves. These mountains are on a list. LOTS of people want to finish the list. They’re going to get climbed with or without a trail. Putting a big sign that says “Wilderness! Keep out!” isn’t going to stop that.

    • Boreas says:

      I agree with Matthew. Fewer marked trails often leads to even more “unmarked” trails. Even mountains WITH marked trails can develop herd paths and bushwhacks – often created by rock/ice climbers or people seeking alternative routes to a summit or col. People will usually follow the path of least resistance as defined by a topo map, and that often is bad environmentally.

  13. Deb Evans says:

    All well and good and has been needed for a long time. I believe attention and improvements should be made to all the p opular hiking trails not just the high peaks. Too small pking lots. So many hikers on rondax that theres no trail. When some trails started on private land, like finch pryne, mucky over used troden down trail would get relocated every 5-10 yrs. Parking spaces for most trails are very inadeqite in the summer season. Can be very dangerous when the cars park on main roads.
    and then theres garbage and human waste on these trails too.

    apa and dec should be addressing the increase use of all the hiking trails in adks.

  14. Chad Forcier says:

    New Visitor’s center, Ranger station and entrance with parking for 500 cars, build up the hanging spear falls trail as the new way up Marcy, new trails up Cliff, connection between Redfield, Skylight and Allen.

    Problem solved.

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