Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Assessing A New Model For High Peaks Hiking Trail Construction

By the metric of public use the High Peaks Wilderness Area, and nearby Giant, Hurricane and Sentinel Range Wilderness areas, are major successes. The crowds hiking in the High Peaks are at an all-time high. The current dismal state of many of the hiking trails does not seem to be a major deterrent to the throngs of people eager to hike one of the High Peaks.

For many people hiking a mountain like a High Peak is no sure thing and is, and should be, a challenge. There are plenty of highly used and popular smaller mountains throughout the Adirondacks that provide stunning views, but the allure of hiking a High Peak is immense.

For many the view from a High Peak summit and one’s sense of personal accomplishment, however measured, erases their slog over long sections of eroded trails that damage the natural resources of these mountains. We need to change this equation so that people can continue to enjoy the High Peaks, push themselves to hike big mountains, create lifelong memories with friends and family, and do all this while hiking over beautiful and sustainable trails that protect the natural resources of this area and uphold wilderness values.

The hiking trails throughout the High Peaks and associated Wilderness areas are in disrepair. Throughout the High Peaks hiking trails generally run straight up the mountainside. Many of these trails were built, or stomped out, in the years after the Civil War. Many of the “trailless peaks” in the High Peaks have no formal marked trails, but have a network of unmarked “herd paths” that are haphazardly maintained and often include a series of side trails and dead-end trails. Hiking trails throughout the High Peaks are often wide, eroded, degraded gashes on a mountainside that undermine the wilderness character and atmosphere of the area and negatively impact the area’s natural resources.

Over the last several years, Protect the Adirondacks has campaigned for greater resources to be invested by the State of New York in rebuilding the trails in the High Peaks Wilderness and we will continue to press for even greater investments in the years to come. Some progress is being made and in real ways and we’re seeing what the future could be in the new sustainable contour trails now under construction on Cascade Mountain and Mount Van Hoevenberg.

Throughout the summer of 2019, three trail crews worked on the new hiking trails up Cascade Mountain and Mount Van Hoevenberg. This effort combined trail crews organized by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), a trail crew from the Student Conservation Association (SCA) Adirondack program, and a private trail crew Tahawus Trails from the Hudson Valley. The SCA and Tahawus Trails both work under state contracts. The entire effort was managed and supervised by the DEC. Inmates from the prison in Moriah also logged many hours working on these trails as did various volunteer efforts.

These new trails are test cases to try and build hiking trails that are sustainable and do not deteriorate over time, blend in with a wilderness landscape and management system, are designed to withstand high levels of public recreational use, are designed to effectively shed water and prevent erosion, and to provide and an easier, though longer, hike to a mountain summit.

These new hiking trails are narrow contour trails that traverse a mountainside on a course based on a slow, steady gradient, which contrasts with the standard wide trails in the High Peaks that run straight up a mountainside and often turns into a steep staircase of rocks and roots that degrades into a muddy stream bed. Contour trails are designed to withstand heavy recreational use and to prevent erosion. They are being built to facilitate single-file hiking on a narrow, yet smooth, trail that is built with hand tools and natural materials that blend in and uphold wilderness values. The length of new trails that have been built by the various trail crews so far has been modest, running 20 to 25 weeks for a single new mile of trail, but these new contour trails are a major leap forward in sustainable hiking trail design and Wilderness Area management.

The Cascade Mountain trail is a planned re-routed trail, which will replace the trail that starts on the roadside of Route 73 that is scheduled to be closed when the new trail is completed. The new Cascade Mountain Trail will start at the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports complex where a new trailhead staging area will be constructed as a part of the major redevelopment of that facility. The new trail up Mount Van Hoevenberg will also start at the same location and the trails will split off about 0.5 miles from the trailhead. There will be ample parking and public restroom facilities at the trailhead. There will be opportunities for enhanced trailhead public education as well.

Contour trails are dug into a hillside with hand tools. A long trench is dug out on a hillside or through the forest floor to anchor the trail and is then lined with a base of crushed stone 6-8 inches deep. The stone is gathered from areas along the trail corridor and then smashed by hand. The trail is designed to have a two-foot-wide tread area for hikers. Often the downslope side is lined with large rocks that are buried along the edge to stabilize the trail. Mineral soils at a depth of 4-6 inches are placed over the top of the base of crushed stone.

After the trail route is completed, the first step for construction is for crews to dig out a trail corridor trench around 1 foot deep depending on the terrain. This provides a base that anchors a narrow foot trail. The trail is either a narrow trench in a flat area, cut into the side of a hill on a hillside, or raised through a wet area.

The second step in the construction of a sustainable contour trail is for crews to line the side of the trail with large boulders. These rocks are mined from the area around the trail or unearthed while digging the trail trench. Some large rocks are split. The line of rocks are buried into the trailside to anchor and define the trail. This edge of rocks makes the trail sturdy and able to effectively withstand heavy recreational use. In areas where the trail is cut into a hillside the down-slope side of the trail is lined with a rock edge. In other areas both sides of the trail are lined with an edge of large rocks.

The third step is to fill the trail trench with crushed rock. Trail crews dig out large rocks from areas around the trail corridor and smash these  boulders into baseball-sized rocks that are used to form the base of the trail. The depth of the crushed rocks layer range from 6–8 inches. This base allows for water to pass through the trail and also helps prevent erosion. The work to “mine” or “harvest” rocks from around the trail can place a heavy hand on the forest in the trail corridor. Often large pits are dug out to get the rocks, which are then hauled to trail on tarps dragged through the forest or through a cable and pulley system rigged in the trees. This work can trample a lot of the forest understory, but does not cause trees to be taken down.

A sustainable trail corridor is designed to gradually gain elevation, which minimizes the needs for rock staircases. If a trail utilizes a steady gradient, then few steps are needed and a successful contour trail will have few stone staircases. Trail managers have found that hikers often walk around stone staircases if the stones are of an uneven height, include a large step, or if the stones are wet or ice covered. This has the unintended effect of widening the trail corridor, which leads to erosion and trail damage. The new contour trails include periodic staircases where there are major terrain obstacles, but generally limits stone staircases to a single step.

The new contour trail up Cascade Mountain will be longer than the current trail that runs straight up the mountainside from Route 73 by a considerable distance, but the architects of the new trail believe it will be much easier to hike, which they argue will make the mountain more accessible.

At some locations the trail is constructed with rock walls on both sides of the trail. This technique is called “turnpiking” and is designed to stabilize the trail into one central, narrow corridor that channels recreational use onto the center tread of the hiking trail. These areas are minimized in the overall design, but are used where necessary to physically raise the trail tread so that it’s higher than the forest floor to allow water to pass underneath the trail or to protect sensitive habitat.

The fourth step in the sustainable trail building process is for trail crews to cover the crushed stone trail base with a layer of mineral soils. The soil covering is 4-6 inches deep and designed to come up to the top edge of the line of stones on the downhill side of the trail. The mineral soils on the trail surface make the trail more comfortable to hike and safer because hikers do not have to negotiate a series of roots and rocks and long muddy sections. These contour trails are drier and not as steep as standard hiking trails in the High Peaks. As a result these trails will likely be more accessible to the general public.

One important part the sustainable contour trail construction is that the design is intended to blend in with a wilderness setting and enhance wilderness management values. They utilize natural materials gathered near the trails and are built with hand tools. These trails are designed to uphold and accentuate the wilderness character and atmosphere. In many ways the current dismal state of hiking trails in the High Peaks has undermined the wilderness values.

The new trail from the Mount Van Hoevenberg parking lot to the summit of Mountain Van Hoevenberg is expected to completed in 2020. The new trail up Cascade Mountain is expected to be completed in 2021. The Cascade Mountain trail is routed to link up with the existing trail at a point between Cascade and Porter mountains. The ability of trail designers and trail crews to maintain the sustainable contour trail design at higher elevations will be challenging where terrain is very steep and soils are thinner. Trail designers believe that trail construction at higher elevations may need more structural devices, such as stone staircases, though the sustainable trail ethic calls for use of rock rather than wood. Trail designers are very confident in the viability of these trails at lower elevations. Though they are bullish on them as a new trail standard even at higher elevations, they warn that trail designs at higher elevations will be circumscribed by the realities of steep terrain and limited vegetation.

The tree cutting on these new two new trails, topping over three miles constructed so far, has been limited to several dozen trees, consistent with new hiking trails constructed on Coney Mountain, Goodman Mountain, and Moxham Mountain. The DEC has started trail monitoring work on the Cascade and Mount Van Hoevenberg trails. SUNY-ESF has a contract for monitoring of ecological impacts and in 2019 has gathered physical baseline data. Interns from the Excelsior Conservation Corp have also been gathering baseline information. These efforts mark the beginning of scientific monitoring of trail sustainability and public recreational use impacts, which will help the managers of the areas evaluate the effectiveness and utility of these trail designs.

The downside of these new sustainable trails is that they take a great deal of time to build. Progress is slow. In Wilderness areas they have to be built with hand tools. Some private trail building crews use mini-excavators to dig out the trail corridor and place heavy boulders on private lands or municipal parks to greatly speed the process. In theory, these machines could be used in Wild Forest areas, but this approach has not yet been pioneered anywhere in the Adirondack Forest Preserve on a hiking trail. So far there is no hard-and-fast rule for the length of new contour trail that a trail crew of five people can be expected to build within a certain amount of time or the costs of building a mile of this type of new trail.

Protect the Adirondacks will continue to monitor the construction of these new contour hiking trails and their performances once they are opened. Right now these trails hold a great deal of promise and point us all toward a future where sustainable trails in the High Peaks become a reality as opposed to a dream. The challenge in the High Peaks is immense because we need to rebuild and re-route nearly 200 miles of existing hiking trails and build another 100 miles of sustainable trails on all of the “trailless” peaks. The current pace of sustainable trail construction makes this task formidable. Clearly a much bigger effort is needed beyond the three trails crews, inmate labor, and scattered volunteers that have been deployed this year. A massive effort is needed where the state and private entities fund two dozen highly trained trail crews, that number into the hundreds of trail workers, to rebuild the trails of the High Peaks. Even if a massive effort can be organized, this work will take many years.

Trail building in the High Peaks Wilderness should be part of a new comprehensive management program that integrates public education, facilities for parking and camping, and scientific monitoring of natural resources and public use impacts. In many ways the sustainable trail in the link that threads through and ties together effective wilderness management. The new contour trails under construction on Cascade Mountain and Mount Van Hoevenberg help us glimpse a positive future that fulfills the idea of active Wilderness management where trails blend in with and enhance wilderness values, rather than undermine them. As things stand now, the new trails on Cascade Mountain and Mount Van Hoevenberg lay down an example, where theory is turned into practice, and where the art and science of natural resource stewardship and public outdoor recreational management in a Wilderness area are significantly advanced in a way that we have not seen before in the Adirondack Park.

Related Stories


Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve.

Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife and two children, enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.

Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Twitter.




32 Responses

  1. MITCHELL H EDELSTEIN says:

    I would support my tax dollars going to build many more trails as described.

  2. Chris says:

    A huge undertaking, but obviously needed.

  3. Boreas says:

    As Chris says, a huge undertaking. A very time-consuming process – and I don’t believe this trail was being used while being constructed, which would complicate things further if trying to upgrade a trail while it is in use. It will be interesting to see if these techniques are practical throughout the EHPW. According to a recent report, virtually all trails in the EHPW are way too steep and should be re-routed, designed, and constructed using these techniques. It is going to require a lot of manual labor and a significant amount of time, but should ultimately pay off in the long run.

    My only question about the construction technique is if the trail is only 2-3 feet wide, how do significant numbers of people pass each other without stepping off of the hardened trail?

  4. timothy lippert says:

    Mohonk.has used.similar natural trail buildinga materials for years. Thousands of daily users, zero degradation. No toxic pressure treated materials needed.

  5. ADK Camper says:

    I’m all for modern trail building techniques… But, Cascade is the last mountain that needs a new trail in the High Peaks.

    • Boreas says:

      I think much of the reason for the re-route on Cascade was lack of safe parking with the current route for the number of people wanting to climb it, not so much the condition of the trail.

  6. Phillip Bobrowski says:

    As mentioned, there were only 3 trail crews that worked on Cascade Mountain and Mount Van Hoevenberg. So, I can’t help but wonder if a Call For Volunteers wouldn’t help in this undertaking?
    Train the trainers, assign group leaders, and allow for “weekenders” to get their hands dirty. Unless the design of each trail needs to be modified/customized on the spot, the layout and the daily tasks could be listed and assigned amongst a group of trail junkies.
    Simple hand tools are just that; simple. From reading this article, it sounds to me like there’s plenty of digging and shoveling that needs to take place. Let folks know it’s going to be real work, and not some “community service project” a group of back-yard gardeners can participate in.
    Maybe the DEC needs to develop a “Trail Builders” curriculum that can be offered to hiking organizations throughout the State, leading to a construction standard that can be utilized to areas beyond the Big Blue Line.
    I was a DEC Volunteer Campground Ambassador over the summer, and I saw where there were PLENTY of campers who would’ve joined this type of project for the nearby trails. At the Campground I was assigned, the largest family-based activities were paddling, swimming, hiking, and fishing. The sad part was, because of the lack of trail maintenance, they would be required to DRIVE to the closest trailhead rather than be able to use the one directly connected to the campground.

  7. Bill Keller says:

    Not one mention of what it will cost to build 300 miles of the new trail design.

    • Boreas says:

      Bill,

      Since this is so labor-intensive, unless they know where the labor is coming from and what that would cost, it would be hard to predict. I don’t know what happened to prisoner labor that DEC used to get, but breaking up rock with sledge hammers and picks certainly brought back memories of seeing chain gangs along the roads in the south when I was young.

      • Phillip Bobrowski says:

        I can see that proper engineering and trail design would probably be the largest cost. Guiding groundwater movement and reducing soil erosion would take EXTENSIVE on-site evaluations by professionally trained personnel.

        AND, could boulder removal and/or movement for trail reinforcement result in conditions that exacerbate/worsen slope degradation?

        I fell this all goes back to proper training and education by the lead organization; i.e. NYS DEC.

        • Phillip Bobrowski says:

          BTW – The USDA has publications available:

          Forest Service Outdoor Recreation Accessibility Guidelines, 1523-2811-MTDC.

          Forest Service Trail Accessibility Guidelines, 1523-2812-MTDC.
          Trail Fundamentals and Trail Management Objectives, 1623-3801-MTDC.

          Using the BMS Micro-Blaster for Trail Work, 0567-2338-MTDC.

          Innovative Design for a Short-Span Timber All-Terrain Vehicle Trail Bridge, 1223-2316P-MTDC.

          Locating Your Trail Bridge for Longevity, 1023-2808P-MTDC

      • Moosebeware says:

        I heard they were still using prison labor. The new trail up Cascade has about zero rocks on it, so they are having to do a lot of work, hence why the build is so slow.

    • John Warren says:

      “So far there is no hard-and-fast rule for the length of new contour trail that a trail crew of five people can be expected to build within a certain amount of time or the costs of building a mile of this type of new trail.”

  8. Tony Godwin says:

    The Cascade and Van Hoevenberg trails that are now under construction are indeed the “gold standard” of trail construction. However, there is no way the trails on the Great Range could ever be built to that standard without either a lot of blasting into the bedrock or pinning to hold the tread on the steep slabs. Even the Cascade trail may run into problems above 3,000 feet where the soils are thinner and there isn’t all that much mineral soil for the top layer.
    Coming down from the gold standard, the past 20 years have seen a number of new trails constructed to what I would say is a “bronze” standard. Examples are the new Hurricane trail from Rt. 9N, Lyon Mt., and Rooster Comb. For most of their length, these trail are benched into side hills, so that it is easy to construct drainage. The trails do in places exceed the supposedly “sustainable” grade, but with some steps the trails have absorbed considerable use without deteriorating. These trails do require annual maintenance to clear drainage, but all were built with a reasonable amount of time and expense.
    As for mobilizing many volunteers, there are jobs that lower-skilled workers can accomplish, but building multi-layer cribbing with the rock available at the site requires considerable skill to build something that will last. Additionally, moving 3-400 pound rocks with a high line is potentially very dangerous work and definitely not for unskilled “weekend warriors”.

  9. Phil Terrie says:

    How and when was the Ampersand trail improved? I first climbed Ampersand about 30 years ago, and the last mile was a mess–serious erosion, exposed roots, mud, all the joys of an old, steep Adk trail. Went up a week ago. Still very steep, but hardened with huge rocks, obviously found on site. I can only guess at the back-breaking labor involved, but whoever did it did a terrific job, under difficult circumstances and on difficult terrain. I’d be interested in learning how many workers there were and how long it took. (The view, on a sunny October day, remains spectacular!)

  10. Steve Shumway says:

    Thanks to Tony for his learned and reasonable commentary. The “gold standard” doesn’t seem achievable given the particular geology in the upper reaches of the high peaks. I would add that with all of the DEC focus (and funding) going toward the creation of these two new trails, there is no maintenance or repair happening on the great range, the crown jewel of the high peaks region. Shouldn’t the state be devoting some of their resources to those trails? Are they purposely being left to deteriorate to the point where there will be some justification for shutting them down entirely?

  11. The newly designed and rebuilt Ranger Trail on Poke-O Moonshine has taken five partial work seasons to construct over a total of 37 weeks by the ADK Pro Crews and Tahawus Trails to almost complete. It has been privately funded by $225,000 in private donations and grants raised by The Friends of Poke-O-Moonshine. DEC has approved and supervised the work. Cutting-edge trail design and the work to execute it is expensive and requires complex teamwork!

    I would argue that it is a”gold standard” trail, alternating contour trail design with numerous solid and beautifully laid-out rock staircases, three wooden bridges, two staircases, and numerous water drainage structures It is also laid out to take in interesting sites and views. The work has changed a 1.2 mile badly eroded rocky route into an intriguing and fun trail of 1.8 miles that smartly meanders up the east side of Poke-O. Public feedback has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic
    There are still several weeks of work left to complete the last section of rebuilding on the upper mountain.
    To learn more about and to support The Friends’ work, visit pokeomoonshine.org, and come hike the new Ranger Trail!

  12. John Sasso says:

    Thank you Tony Goodwin for your insight on this. I have a big concern about this narrow “single-file” design, which seems OK in theory but will fail in practice. The trail should be wide enough so at least 2 “trains” of people can go by each other comfortably: those going up, and those going down. No doubt, there will also be people passing others who are slower, and you don’t want them starting to duck into the woods off-trail to pass (thus, widening the trail).

  13. Chris says:

    All the regional “mountain clubs” have trial crews. If you are interested in the above topic, it makes sense to understand how they work: https://www.adk.org/explore-adk/trails/professional-trail-crew/

    And on page 16 of this Long Trail Newsletter, there’s a good article on trail building https://www.greenmountainclub.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/GMC_LTN_Sp19_FINAL.pdf

  14. Tony Goodwin says:

    David, i agree that the new Ranger Trail on Poko is at least a “silver standard” that will serve hikers well for many years of many hikers. That trail uses rock steps where that is the best choice, and the contours where that is feasible. The tread is solid on the contoured sections without resorting to a line of boulders on the low side, cobbles or broken rock for fill, and then mineral soil quarried to surface the trail.
    I was pleased to be able to make some modest contributions toward that $225,000 cost. How much more would I have had to contribute for that trail to meet the standard being set on Cascade and Van Hoevenberg?

  15. Frank Krueger says:

    No one has yet mentioned the fact that the state controller’s office now requires that trail workers on State land with funding from the state now must pay their workers the “prevailing wage,” which could be up to$40 per hour for skilled rock workers. Where is the state going to get this money for construction of trails to the standard of Cascade. I am concerned that valuable and scarce funds are being wasted on the new Cascade trail, when so many other trails are a complete mess and are receiving very little work and maintenance. I think DEC could have upgraded and modestly rerouted the present Cascade trail and build an adequate parking lot for less money than is being spent on Cascade. And I wonder how many hikers are going to use the new trail that is going to be over 7 miles long. And I doubt that it will be completed by the target date of 2022.

    • Devon Rosh says:

      Should my colleges working that trail project not deserve that money?? They are highly skilled at their profession. Next question….or get up there yourself and do somnething

      • Boreas says:

        Devon,

        As someone who volunteered for trail maintenance once (ONLY once!) I can attest you likely were not paid enough – especially when considering the cost of bug dope!

  16. warren kries says:

    I think the state should require hikers to purchase a yearly permit to hike the designated trails. This fee could help offset the cost of building new trails and not put the burden on the taxpayers. I have to get a fishing license every year, so why not make hiking licenses mandatory.

  17. Boreas says:

    As Frank mentions above, another thing to consider with the construction of these longer “neo-trails” (that are friendlier to both environment and knees) is simply adherence to using them. Bushwhacking is not illegal in the EHPW to my knowledge. I don’t know the plans for the current Cascade trail, but if it stays open, the new trail may not get much usage. If they close it and the parking area, will people still take a shuttle or Uber and use the old trail? Will longer, better-constructed trails mean more shortcuts, bushwhacking, and a return to herd paths? Will bushwhacking become an offense instead of an option? Will “No Roadside Parking” be extended through the entire corridor to discourage bushwhacking? Is a ~14-mile round trip the best way to introduce new hikers to the High Peaks?There still doesn’t seem to be a lot of discussion about actual future management of the EHPW that addresses these issues.

  18. Tom Murphy says:

    I visit Blue Mountain Lake in August at PPC’s. IMy parent’s and family have been there at least 25 years. We enjoy our stay very year. Being from Long Island, we feel we’re in the middle of nowhere. 30 miles to a supermarket….. Nevertheless, peaceful, quiet, relaxing. I imagine it’s not the same for the locals.
    Hiking the High Peaks is awesome. Views, lakes and relaxing on top is the greatest reward. Thank you for your hard work and the memories my family remember s. Bob Webb and Carol, rest in peace. God bless and see you in August….

  19. Chris says:

    So its alright for these trails “siwalks in the woods” to be built and machines to be used but building a trail for snowmobiles that bring real revenue to the area is not ok?

    • Boreas says:

      Correct. A 2-4 ft wide meandering “sidewalk” (“single-file” per article) for thousands of year-round hikers (all with cash in their pockets) vs. a 9-12 foot straight corridor for vehicular use when snow cover is present. Apples and oranges. Ultimately up to the courts and public pressure.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *