Thursday, July 11, 2019

Analysis: High Peaks Trails Don’t Meet Design Standards

adirondack atlas slope layerMore than half of the trail mileage in the Adirondack Park’s central High Peaks Wilderness Area is too steep to remain stable and fails to meet the modern design standards for sustainable trails that apply to other state and federal lands, according to a new analysis funded by the Adirondack Council.

“It’s well known that Adirondack foot trails are in crisis with overuse and huge crowds of people hiking on these too-steep slopes,” Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway said in a statement announcing the analysis sent to the press. “We are seeing wider paths, deeper ruts, trampled plants plus loss of wildlife habitat. Too much soil is moving downhill into streams and lakes.”

Janeway believes the problem is repairable. “Redesign, reconstruction and strategic hardening of some surfaces with natural materials will help. The state and trails professionals in the Adirondacks know what to do, if given the resources. Not every trail, nor every foot of trail, is in crisis. But the majority of the trail mileage is, and the problem isn’t limited to the High Peaks,” Janeway’s statement said.

“Step one is assessing the amount of work to be done,” he said. “This analysis shows it’s a big job. The next step is a comprehensive plan, an estimate of the budget needed to fix the problems. We need a commitment to invest in the plan now and to keep investing in the years ahead.”

Janeway said that the trails leading to the summits of the state’s highest and most popular peaks were rarely built to the same standards as trails in national parks, or even state parks outside of the Adirondacks and Catskills. Some current Adirondack and Catskill trails can be traced to the early nineteenth century and were cut by early European settlers, trappers, hunters and, eventually, outdoor guides, survey crews, state crews, volunteers and hiking clubs.

Most of those trails follow paths of least resistance, or the shortest possible route, which often means a stream bed or its shore, straight up the mountainside. That means rain or melting snow often brings a rush of water and rapid weathering of those disturbed soils. In places, there trails are nearly vertical, making them hard to climb, and potentially hazardous.

The Adirondack Council’s analysis, which was developed for the web by Adirondack Atlas LLC, found 167 miles of trails in the middle of the High Peaks Wilderness whose slopes exceed eight percent (climbing more than eight feet in elevation for every hundred feet of distance). “In some places around the country with better soils and drainage, trails can be sustainable at an average maximum grade of 10 percent, if they satisfy other criteria,” Janeway said.

The Adirondack Council analyzed 300 miles of trails in the busy central portion of High Peaks Wilderness Area. Only 133 miles were at a grade of eight percent or below. Many of those lower grade sections lack proper drainage and get muddy when it rains.

A slope of eight percent is too steep for an interstate highway (max. 6 percent), unless yellow warning signs and permanently reduced speed limits are in place. (The Adirondack Northway, which traverses more than 100 miles of the Adirondack Park, includes no permanent speed reductions for slope alone. Slopes above 8 percent are too steep for public wheelchair ramps, according to New York State’s building code.

Out of the 300 studied, about 40 miles of trails have a slope between 8 and 12 percent.  About 58 miles of trails have a slope of 12 to 20 percent, which is steeper than an Olympic bobsled run (Beijing’s track averages 9.8 percent; Lake Placid 9.35; St. Moritz 8 percent) and steep enough for an expert downhill ski trail.

About 69 miles of trails have slopes of 20 percent or more. Whiteface Mountain Ski Center’s Cloudspin Trail is 26 degrees. The Rumor Trail at Gore Mountain Ski Center is 25 degrees. A slope of 30 percent is equal to a residential staircase.

In 2018, the Adirondack Council released a map and analysis of the central High Peaks Wilderness Area’s trails, showing where trails professionals, familiar with the Adirondacks, believed the trails were in poor enough condition to require redesign and/or reconstruction. While all trails need at least some annual maintenance, that survey identified about 130 miles of trails that were in such poor condition that they were good candidates to be redesigned and rebuilt.

“It isn’t mere coincidence that the number of miles of trails that are too steep is very similar to the number of trail miles that need to be rebuilt,” Janeway said. “It is good to have the cross-confirmation of trails professional’s opinions and a digital geographic data system analysis.”

DEC has made some efforts toward improving trails. The state redesigned the north trail up Mount Van Hoevenberg with generally sustainable grades. The trail opened last summer, with about a mile of the two miles built. Work has also begun designing and cutting a new trail on Cascade Mountain, which will eventually reach about five miles in length. The trail up Coney Mountain in Tupper Lake was redesigned and rebuilt, and the principle trail up Hurricane Mountain was recently relocated as well.

Editor’s Note: Adirondack Almanack founder and editor John Warren is a founding partner of Adirondack Atlas LLC.

Map of High Peaks trail slopes courtesy Adirondack Atlas.

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20 Responses

  1. Todd Eastman says:

    Slippery slope…

    … the NFS trail standards are primarily used out west where gentle gradients can easily be engineered into the landscape. The western trails are duller to hike on than watching paint dry. Using those metrics for eastern mountains is impractical as nearly every trail going up a peak will require major re-routing and likely involve massive tree cutting. Finding the funds for such work will likely prove a tougher adventure than the redesigning…


  2. Randy Fredlund says:

    This is not a problem limited to the High Peaks. I recently hiked up Crane Mountain on a straight-up trail of bare rock and boulders with a stream running down it.

  3. Walt Paul says:

    High peaks wilderness ?? …more like an extended urban boardwalk or 46er race track. Solitude??..great job wilderness advocates.!! …”an area untrammeled by man”!! ..I guess!!

    Should be on the APA reclassification list!

  4. ADK Friend says:

    …Adirondack Council says…


  5. Balian the Cat says:

    Willie J in the role of Captain Obvious?

  6. Beth says:

    Last Friday I was looking for a short and simple hike to get in a little walk with my aging dog. We went to the Hewitt EddyTrail along the Boreas River which years ago was a nicely maintained, family-friendly path. Last I hiked there was on snowshoes. This Summer the vegetation has grown in to the point where you cannot see your feet while hiking portions of the trail. A few trees are down and lying across the trail. There are sections of mud/water without adequate places to step. Although I am an experienced hiker and was using a pole to assist, I ended up falling, impaling my leg on a branch sticking up out of a log. Deep puncture wound as a result…had to visit doctor and needed an updated tetanus shot. As far as I’m concerned, the DEC should either maintain these trails or remove trail sign and trail register.

  7. Patrick Munn says:

    Beth, maybe you could take it upon yourself and do a little trail maintenance . DEC is under funded and under staffed….

    • Beth says:

      Yes Patrick. Moving trees/tree limbs off trail, when possible, is every hiker’s responsibility. On this particular trail there are sections so grown-in that you cannot see the ground. I live here and I am well aware that DEC does not have resources to adequately maintain existing trails. That doesn’t mean it is right to have trailhead signs/registers leading people (some of whom might be families with children) to take paths that aren’t really paths anymore.

      • Patrick Munn says:

        I’m seeing that your image of trail maintenance differs from mine… Take ownership…

  8. Tim-Brunswick says:

    “Don’t meet design standards” ???…..ISN’T “WILDERNESS” SUPPOSED TO BE AS YOU FIND IT …. NOT “DESIGNED”


    • Paul says:

      Sure, and that’s why people take the path of least resistance and hike straight up the hill and the place gets wrecked.

      Ore Bed Brook has a Hugh staircase up it this particular area is Wilderness in name only.

      Some of it is still pretty wild but the way things are going the Wild Forest Areas or even the easement lands are becoming the wilder areas with more remoteness and solitude.

  9. Jim S. says:

    I would prefer to see the trails hardened more than being rerouted to an 8 percent grade. Steep trails are fun.

    • Foulhooked says:

      ^^^Also this. Most of the steepest trails are on bedrock or loose rock already. Keep people on the rock, it’s much more durable than re-routing onto the thin organic soils regardless of the grade.

  10. Has Mar says:

    Adirondacks interesting people published books on the Adirondacks without the anticipation of crowds of people hiking up and down eroding the mountain in the paths in the ground
    I myself have done some volunteer work four state parks making handicap access for people in wheelchairs
    Maybe it’s time to ask people to volunteer put stones number to Stone in the path so it doesn’t erode as much

  11. Neil Luckhurst says:

    It would be interesting to see the plan to re-route say, the Santa Direct, Seward, Seymour and a few others of that ilk so they get the grade down to that of a bob-sled (?) run. The combination of organic soil and side-hilling that would be part and parcel of such a plan would be a killer. Whatever the budget, better make sure it’s an annual one because the maintenance costs will be horrendous.

    Memo to Adirondack Council: please cut a trail whose grade does not exceed 8% to the summit of Allen.
    In fairness, you could cut a trail from the Skylight Brook crossing that spirals it’s way 360 degrees around the mountain towards Sand Brook, then switch-back your way up to the summit. I did this as a whack (without the switch-backing) and it might actually work if people don’t mind lots of added mileage.

    Currently the herdpath from Skylight Brook to the summit is 2000′ of ele gain in 1.5 miles. To get it to the standards mentioned in the article that trail would need to be 5 miles long thus making Allen about 25 miles round-trip.

    • Boreas says:

      The first time I did Allen I did it as an overnight. Made it much more pleasant. Why do trails need to be quick and efficient? I might still have my knees if the trails were longer and less steep.

      • Neil Luckhurst says:

        You make a good point. Hurry, hurry and check off the list. On the other hand if aspiring 46ers decided to camp instead of doing day-hikes there would be a new logistical and ecological problems in the HP’s.

        While I’ve done my share of back-packing I (and my 63 year-old knees) now prefer a light daypack and going home to a real bed and perhaps a cold brew or two – for medicinal purposes only.

  12. Chris Stauble says:

    Let me know if you need help with this initiative.
    A few of us here in Schoharie County can donate time for trail maintenance in 2021.
    If there is a funding effort, please advise of that initiative as well.
    Stay safe and have a Merry Christmas.

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