More 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.