Anyone who regularly drives Route 73 between the Northway and Lake Placid knows there has been a tremendous spike in activity in the High Peaks over the last few years. Parking has exploded, with vehicles sometimes lining the road for a mile between Chapel Pond and St. Huberts, dangerously crowding the trailhead at Cascade Mountain and overwhelming lots at Adirondac Loj, the Garden, Ampersand and elsewhere.
Trail use has soared correspondingly. The Cascade trail regularly sees hundreds of people on summer weekends. Many other trails are badly eroded and even remote summits can be crowded. This increase is no anomaly: the trend lines show it is the new normal.
This year these concerns came to a head, with extensive media coverage of “overuse” and plenty of discussion among residents, visitors, local government, environmental organizations and state agencies. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation convened focus groups to better understand the problem and consider potential solutions. The DEC also released an amendment to the High Peaks Unit Management Plan that proposed actions including restricting parking, building new lots, closing or relocating trails, encouraging alternate hikes and providing better trailhead facilities. Numerous ideas were put on the table. There was even serious talk of requiring permits to limit access. The state took a few immediate actions, some sensible and some controversial. Volunteer and environmental organizations did their share, upgrading trails and staffing summits and trailheads with stewards. Throughout, there was palpable concern that the High Peaks were being loved to death.
Here’s the thing, though. My own experiences in the High Peaks this summer tell a somewhat different story. Yes, parking areas are frequently overwhelmed, leading to dangerous situations. Yes, trails are busier and trail erosion remains a critical problem. Both those issues need comprehensive responses. But on the balance, I experienced a High Peaks Wilderness that is in substantially better condition than it was five years ago, or even 15 years ago. The opportunities for a true wilderness experience with solitude and remoteness remain in bountiful supply. I do think we need to react to ongoing challenges, but the last thing we need to do is overreact.
How can I claim the High Peaks Wilderness is in better condition? I’m in the backcountry regularly, but it was a long overdue family reunion that afforded me with an opportunity to hike trails I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, including all of the places featured in overuse discussions. The contrast with what I saw years ago is encouraging. Sure, areas are busier, but they are healthier too. The amount of garbage and litter is much less than 15 years ago. Revegetation efforts have greatly improved places like Marcy Dam, Lake Colden, and alpine summits. Human waste is less evident. Food storage and management is clearly better. Bear problems are reduced.
I’ll be the first to admit this is anecdotal. I’m all for more science and data to better measure and understand human impact in the High Peaks. That said, I undertook a dozen extensive hikes throughout the High Peaks and Giant Wilderness areas and what I saw was consistent.
So why is the High Peaks Wilderness healthier if use has increased? All the credit goes to the people working hard to protect it. That starts with volunteers, trail associations, clubs and environmental groups, right through to forest rangers. These people do the dirty work to keep the interior protected and beautiful. But there is a common thread that I think is the key: hiker enlightenment. True, increased use has supplied a whole new crop of unprepared hikers, but overall the level of awareness concerning everything from bear canisters to alpine vegetation is different than in the past. Education is working.
Take Cascade, for example. I saved it for Labor Day weekend when the count at 10 a.m. showed 200 hikers already underway. Yet I saw no litter. No one was skirting muddy areas. Folks on the summit were dispersed, on rock, and respectful. The trailhead and summit stewards clearly were making all the difference.
That tells me education is more important than the numbers. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Hiker enlightenment can result from some- thing as simple as two minutes with a steward or ranger, or from excellent interpretive signage. It’s partly an ethos, an expectation. We need an even stronger focus on education.
Some argue that the wilderness character of the High Peaks is being lost to this increased use. Setting aside my extensive experience to the contrary, I have real problems with limiting access. For one thing, heavy use is spotty, dependent upon weather, season and location, while the vast majority of the Adirondacks suffers little overuse. For another thing, the increase in use has not yet led to a corresponding increase in diversity. If we want the Adirondack Park protected in perpetuity we need the full spectrum of New Yorkers to feel welcome to experience the affirmation and grandeur wild places provide. Limiting access would make that challenge harder. My home looks out on Cascade Mountain, an immense privilege. What right do I have to limit access to those who would climb it?
We need to address parking and transportation issues. We need increased resources for trail maintenance. Both should fall within a comprehensive, long-term planning framework. But we don’t need reactionary steps, and limiting access should be a last resort. Good planning, with education and hiker enlightenment at the core, is the better path.
Photo by Mike Lynch.
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.