While the total number of visitors is still rising, the state’s initial actions to curb overuse of the Adirondack Park’s High Peaks Wilderness Area have started to show results, according to data collected by the Adirondack Council in 2017 and 2019.
The highest weekend peak visitor traffic numbers decreased across the top three destinations in the High Peaks by 3.5 percent. That is progress. We can celebrate that while recognizing that there is still much to do to ensure Wilderness and access are preserved.
I suppose that the DEC could have simply said that the surging popularity of the Adirondack Park is a good problem to have, and done nothing, ignoring the negative impact to natural resources, visitor safety and the wilderness experience.
Instead, the Governor has called overuse “a legitimate issue.” His agencies have instituted some new public education efforts, started redistributing use and began adjusting parking. The DEC is busy rerouting/rebuilding the worn-out Cascade trail, and with partners, has stepped up efforts to control overuse on peak weekends. The DEC also appointed a task force to recommend stronger measures, which is expected to report by June.
The Adirondack Council is pleased that the task force is working toward recommending a comprehensive set of additional strategic actions. We still have a long way to go to solve the problem, preserve the Wilderness and have management that ensures communities and the economy benefit.
Significant new investments including some in the Governor’s proposed FY’21 state budget will be needed since overuse grew much worse in many places, he said. In places where it got a little better, peak use levels are still twice the state limits established to protect the Wilderness resource. Parking lot capacity is different at each trailhead, based on the DEC’s assessment of how many visitors can be accommodated by the lands served by the trail:
“All High Peaks Wilderness Complex (HPWC) parking facilities were designed in the 1970’s to accommodate a desired capacity commensurate with interior use and to also, alleviate off-highway parking problems…This is a passive-indirect management approach to control interior use by balancing road access with the desired carrying capacity of the contiguous Wilderness.” DEC’s High Peaks Wilderness Unit Mgt. Plan, 1990
Because the DEC’s capacity numbers are based on limiting the number of vehicles, the Adirondack Council counted cars in 2017 and in 2019.
In presentations since 2017, the DEC explained that there are six essential best management practices needed to address wildlands overuse. They are: 1) comprehensive planning, 2) education/outreach, 3) front country infrastructure (parking/bathrooms), 4) backcountry infrastructure (improved/sustainable trails), 5) limits on use at some locations at some times, and 6) additional money/personnel. Wildland management experts say all six are needed.
Survey Results: Big Three Down, Rest Way Up
Fall peak weekend parking at three popular High Peaks Wilderness Area destinations (Adirondak Loj/Heart Lake, Cascade Mountain, Keene Valley cluster) dropped from 1,635 cars (263% of capacity) in 2017 to 1,577 cars (254% of capacity) in 2019. That is a 3.5% drop.
However, at another 10 popular locations peak weekend parking rose by 64% between 2017 and 2019. Overall across the entire High Peaks Wilderness Complex, top-peak-weekend parking increased from 2,113 cars in 2017 to 2,260 in 2019. The total parking capacity or design cap is an estimated 951 cars. So the total rose from 222% of capacity in 2017 to 238% of capacity in 2019, or a 7% increase.
In some cases, negative impacts of adjusting visitor flow was felt far beyond the High Peaks region. For example, the DEC has encouraged hikers to try the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area in an effort to relieve pressure from the High Peaks Wilderness Area. The five-car parking lot at the Jay Wilderness had a peak of 35 cars in 2017. In the 2019 survey, the number of parked cars was 75.
Surveys of hikers (as opposed to cars) showed similar trends. On Labor Day 2018, the Adirondack 46ers counted 1,216 people climbing the popular Cascade Mountain Wilderness trail. That number rose by 15% to 1,402 in 2019. At the same time, the number of dogs making the trip rose from 49 to 94, or a 92% increase in canine trail use.
The number of hikers using the Adirondack Mountain Reserve/Ausable Club access has grown from under 5,000 in the 1970s to over 27,000, and grew 7% between 2018 and 2019. At the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Heart Lake property annual use of the popular trail to Marcy dam reached 20,000 in the 1970s and in 2019 the Mountain Club and state estimated that total use through the property reached 100,000.
The Adirondack Mountain Club, DEC and others field trails crews, but they can’t keep up with the work. An assessment found over 130 miles of trails just in the High Peaks region that needed to be redesign and/or rebuilt – current crews are completing a mile or two, per year.
Overuse Still Spreading Inside Park
Other examples of redistributed use include the Boreas Ponds which had only 8 cars parked there on the busiest fall weekend in 2017. With new access open in 2019, peak parking rose to 35. Crows Clearing has a 10-car lot. In 2017 it had 24 cars. In 2019 there were 46. Haystack Mountain near Ray Brook had 23 cars in 2017 and 53 in 2019.
We understand and agree with the DEC’s decision to redirect visitor traffic so that the High Peaks Wilderness is not loved to death, but that alone won’t solve the overuse problem.
Many places have no active educators or stewards and need trail work. The solution has to be comprehensive and Park-wide, as the problem is expanding across the Park. Actions need to be planned and implemented in partnership with local and other stakeholders. We applaud the Governor for proposing funding for more trail crews and shuttles to help address overuse.
Photo of crowd on Cascade; map of High Peaks Over Use; map of Over Use in the High Peaks Wilderness Complex, Map of Giant Loop Over Use; and Map of Trails in need, provided by Adirondack Council.
“We understand and agree with the DEC’s decision to redirect visitor traffic so that the High Peaks Wilderness is not loved to death, but that alone won’t solve the overuse problem.”
Unfortunately, all of this goes out the window with the planned HP shuttles. I have not read about ANY restriction to trailheads accessed by the new shuttles. The shuttles will help with parking and safety, but will open the floodgates to the trails that are having trouble with the current hiker load, let alone any significant increase. I applaud DEC for starting to move, but it seems to me they are moving in circles because there is still no long-term plan for the HPW. Plan first, then make changes.
Until we stop trying to straddle the fence – decide one way or the other which is more important Economy or Resource Protection – none of this is worth the time it takes to talk about it. There are numerous examples (Moab, Rocky Mtn NP, Grand Canyon, etc) where attempts have been made to manage ever increasing numbers and they have all ended the same way – a slow acceptance (on the part of most) of intrusive development and infrastructure (degrading the resource) to facilitate ever increasing visitation. Thinking the same approach – studies, panels of experts, partnerships with Friends Groups, etc) is going to result in something different here is either a deliberate disregard for facts/history, hubris, or plain old folly. Being sympathetic to the people who live and work in the HP region and the ADK in general, I am advocating for neither approach, but we’ll never successfully split the difference.
My feeling is there is no need to straddle the fence. There is no provision in Article 14 stating localities are guaranteed use of the Forest Preserve as a source of tourist income, but there IS language to protect the resource. If we are to abide by Article 14, lands designated as Forest Preserve are protected – period.
Unfortunately, DEC has been institutionally ignoring their responsibility to protect the resource for 30+ years. We all understand the tight spot they are in as they indeed ARE forced to straddle the fence. They are charged with enforcing APA regulations pertaining to various land classifications, complying with Article 14, and keeping local governments happy within APA guidelines. The way I see it, there is no provision in DEC’s responsibilities to be an advocate for tourism or local governments. That is a political issue between local government, Albany, and APA.
I believe what we are seeing in the HPW is an issue with a mis-classification of the area. It is inherently inconsistent to classify a highly-used area such as the HPW as Wilderness when that very same classification limits the ability of DEC to control access, infrastructure, maintenance, repair techniques, and usage. To me, that is the real fence we are straddling. How do we allow intensive use in an area designated as Wilderness that hamstrings DEC’s ability to maintain and protect the resource that has been afforded the highest level of protection by the APA.
If tourism is going to be given priority, then the Wilderness classification needs to be changed by APA to something that aligns better with intensive use. Only then can comprehensive long-term infrastructure planning begin. But if resource protection is considered paramount, then the answer is obvious – access needs to be limited to a level consistent with a true wilderness. I agree with you, trying to thread a needle with a rope is folly.
An eloquent restatement of my garble, Boreas. Thank you.
I ask mainly for amusement: why is the DEC counting cars to gage usage instead of using trailhead registers?
More relevant: Physical damage, littering and the like are certainly factors to use in judging overuse. Harm to fauna and flora is the main one, of course. The number of dogs is a factor in my book (if overuse is suspected, they should be the first to go). Parking chaos. But to what extent should the number of people observed, per se, be a factor? Are there objections to seeing too many other people in the wilderness, or “wilderness”?
I admit there are times and places where I’d prefer not to see anyone else, to enjoy the special sense of solitude of a Lost Pond and similar, but I can’t ignore the fact that my presence will ruin it for another person seeking the same – I can’t object to his presence, can I? (I think we can all object to loud talking and screaming, though, at all times and in all places. Parents!)
I’m just trying to say I’m not sure if the number of people per se should count as overuse – the focus should be on the effects people may be causing.
Great question. The DEC made it clear in previous WMUs that they cannot count cars as a means to determine the number of boots on the ground. Some DEC officers as well as other employees have been consistent following the practice of counting trail register sign-ins. One Ranger who has been doing this For quote some time recently stated that total growth is around 2% per year. As you can see, none of the green groups seem to care about total growth. They care about Peak Weekend Usage.
There is concrete evidence that undoubtedly proves that all DEC trails are in better shape now than they were a decade or two, or even three ago. The areas that need help are herd paths and the most popular camping areas. This is because people are either ignoring/aren’t aware of LNT principles, or due to lack of sustainable trail design. These are the areas where 10 people who don’t understand backcountry etiquette are far more dangerous than 1000 who do.
This clearly isn’t a “protect our resource” issue because the resource in question is in the best shape its ever been in since the 70s and only about .0001% of it will ever see foot traffic. This is about the optics of cars parked along side the road, and how ‘a certain person’ is using this optic of public land mismanagement to push for a permit only access system.
If I lived on that side of the High Peaks I’d be extremely skeptical of any lobby group manager who belongs to an upscale pay-to-play resort that grants members private, unlimited access to the same area that he says needs a reduction in foot traffic. I’d also be wary of any group who continues to praise Cuomo for his efforts in assisting with the too-much-tourism problem when his admin has been running constant tourism ads to get more people to come here.
“I’d also be wary of any group who continues to praise Cuomo for his efforts in assisting with the too-much-tourism problem when his admin has been running constant tourism ads to get more people to come here.”
You nailed it!
Careful of statistics – they can be misleading. What sounds like a minor increase in usage of 2% per year is like compounding interest (anyone remember savings accounts that paid interest?). Every year, an increase in 2% means a 2% increase over a higher total than every previous year, so the number of hikers compounds annually.
Another qualifier – is this 2% annual increase statewide, Parkwide, HPW, or major trailheads?
WRT your last paragraph, we need to keep in mind that these “pay-to-play resorts” signed easement agreements with the state decades ago to legally allow non-member hikers on their private land when trail usage was significantly lower than today. Today’s hikers are still using their land for access. If I agreed to have 100 people use my land every week and a few decades later 1000 are using it, how long am I going to agree to this easement? Private landholders have rights and are indeed stakeholders in this discussion. We should respect that. Be it good or bad, HPW hiking as we know it is a result of access to these private lands. This access should not be taken for granted. We need to consider the access that places like Elk Lake Lodge, Ausable Club, and the Loj have provided over the years and where we would be without that access. Shutting down that access would go a long way toward protecting the resource. Is that where we are headed? Should we make private landholders out to be the bad guys here??
Perhaps this is the solution to the current “crisis”. Simply tear up the easements across private property in the HPW and re-negotiate them. Without the easements, landowners can limit access as they please. “Pay-to-play” from parking and hiking permits would help to counteract their tax increase.
Sell back the peaks that NYS bought decades ago and DEC will no longer be responsible for patrolling and upkeep of those trails. And Rangers would no longer be responsible to patrol easement access trails, freeing their limited numbers for other patrolling.
NYS could then plan and build well-designed, longer, flatter, trails into the heart of the region with large trailheads and reasonable parking or shuttle access.
Resource protection would likely improve and hiker traffic will be redirected to hardened DEC trails. Win-win?
Sounds like you’re suggesting the more nuclear, nuclear option. The first being permits. First lets address “the resource.” The resource that we’re protecting, the public land that makes up the HPWA, is in the best shape its been in for decades. With the exception of a small handful of specific non-maintained herd paths, the trails are in absolutely great shape. So what resource are we not doing a good enough job protecting? The roads? The trailheads?
Then lets address private landowners. Nobody here is attacking them. However, there’s a certain degree of necessary skepticism to be had when a member of a private resort who would not be subject to public land access permits (at least not through that resort), decides he wants his powerful lobbying group to push for land access permits. Not the AMR, not Elk Lake Lodge, or the ADK Loj, but a single member from a single club. If I were the AMR’s ownership, I’d probably be reconsidering a lot of my club’s policies by this point, but they aren’t. At least not publicly.
As far your suggestion of re-privatizing portions of the HPWA goes… OK. I don’t love the idea but FWIW the state isn’t meeting the demands of public outdoor recreation usage so maybe all options need to on the table. Does this mean that NYS would redistribute those dollars back to tax payers? Not likely. Would the new land owners allow public access? It could go either way.
There’s been lots of valid suggestions to curb the “crisis” in the HPWA, for those who believe there is one. Everything from no longer recognizing the 46-r organization, to mandating a Reserve America style public land access permit system. What hasn’t been done is initiating a single element of change, enforcing it, and tabulating the result. Currently there’s a new parking ban in place which hasn’t been fully enforced yet, there’s a new shuttle system being implemented which hasn’t run a single day yet, and there’s a new sustainable trail system with a massive off-street parking lot and information kiosks for the most popular peak which hasn’t even been opened yet. Its absolutely insane that the hot button topic of “overuse” is still being pushed as if nothing’s being done about it. Come on, folks, give these new steps some time to come into fruition before publishing diatribes about how more needs to be done.
Also, can we talk for a single moment about trailhead parking? So we know there’s ~951 HPWA parking spots. We know that on 2019’s busiest peak weekends there was an average of ~2500 cars. Ok. That illustrates a lack of parking for members of the public who want to access their public land. So remove July 4th, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Columbus day, what does the Saturday trailhead parking look like for the rest of the year? What about Monday through Thursday of every other week of the year? If we’re basing “carry capacity” on available legal parking, that’s 365×951= 917,715 cars allowed to legally park at Trailheads. Assuming that most cars can reasonably carry four people, that’s 3,670,860 visitors per year. So lets do some quick and dirty math, and we’ll be generous with it. Cascade’s trailhead had [generously] 40,000 visitors last year. We know that most peaks aren’t seeing anywhere even remotely close to those numbers, but we’ll roll with it to give the author the benefit of the doubt. 40k visitors times 46 high peaks, plus Rooster Comb, Owls Head, McNaughton… we’ll tack on a cool half million to be safe. That’s 40,000×46+500000=2,340,000. Now since certain groups are absolutely harping on the idea that parking lots/cars = capacity (even though the DEC’s UMPs have said its not accurate), we’ll go with that. This means the HPWA is at ~64% capacity, using the far-fetched standard that every single peak sees 40k visitors per year. 64% of capacity is a far, far cry from overuse.
Its pretty tough to argue that there’s an overuse issue when the real issue is clearly the optics of too many cars at trailheads on the busiest weekends. Lets all calm down and let the new initiatives take effect before we allow members from lobby groups to convince us of an unfolding crisis. They’ve done some great work in terms of helping push for improvements through various social media campaigns and other means of outreach, but its time to just let those things work before telling everyone that they didn’t and more steps are needed.
Thank you for your response @Boreas. I’m sure most of us have the resource’s best interest at heart. At some point this will simmer back down again. Lets just hope it doesn’t take anything as drastic and unnecessary as subverting access to public lands or chipping away at the HPWA to make that happen.
What exactly is the damage being caused by the current hiking levels… I have yet to see a valid study. The trails from my experience are in better shape than in the 1970s.
Parking is the issue. The High Peaks nor the rest of the ADK Park has done squat to expand parking capacity, unlike the White Mountains where there is still more cars than capacity, but weekends only.
Put up a speed limit that makes sense with the expectation that people will be walking along the highways… as is their right.
How high are we setting the bar for our trails if we keep using the 1970s as our baseline? Boy, the Cuyahoga River isn’t burning today, let’s ignore pollution standards! Perhaps if usage stays the same, the existing trails may not change or degrade. I agree, that research DOES need to be done. But is it being done? So are we going to cap trail capacities at today’s levels? At least that would be a plan. I believe the shuttle idea is a half-baked, knee-jerk reaction to a parking/safety problem that may have serious consequences for trails in the future. Cure one problem and create another? People should be thinking of the future without any long-term plan with skepticism, not trail erosion that we know is a fact.
Another fact is that Albany can’t be depended upon to improve or even maintain our trails at their current condition. Budgets change every year, and the squeaky wheel gets the money. The last few years Albany has spent some money on trails, but we shouldn’t sit back and consider the problem solved because the trails are better than 1970. Look how bad the trails got in the 50s-70s with MUCH lower hiker volume! Think it can’t happen again? If perhaps a significant amount of Cuomo’s projected several billion dollar conservation fund guaranteed annual funding for ongoing trail work and increased patrolling it would be a step in the right direction. But we still need a long-term plan.
If you’re going to have an argument for every single comment on this article, offer something better than selling back the peaks and implement a usage quota. Marks my words, those two things are not happening… but they may try. The ADK isn’t Yosemite or Denali. Its not *just* a park and cannot be managed like a national park. Its a community of over 100k residents who will not be told they cannot walk into the woods in their own back yards. That’s the problem with glorifying short-term studies from groups like LNT (like the ADK Council is currently leaning on). They’re basing their suggestions on federal land mgmt where staffing is astronomical compared to the ADK and visitors are subject to using entry control points. NYS won’t even fund a designated traffic cop to enforce the existing parking ban along public highways and people realistically think that NYS has the resources to implement National Park style usage quotas? Not even close.
Is the new shuttle system just a knee jerk reaction to pacify the unwashed masses? Yeah, probably, but we haven’t seen it function in tandem with the new parking bans yet. Does real data need to be collected? Absolutely, but that’s not going to happen when people are defending this ridiculous car counting study against everyone who calls it out for being the junk science that it is.
There’s numerous steps being taken towards righting some of the issues at play right now, and calling for more variables when the current set hasn’t been tested is pretty anti-scientific. We need to see the new sustainable Cascade re-route come into fruition. We need to see the shuttle system work along side an effectively enforced parking ban (not that the parking ban was brilliant to begin with). And we need to see a full season of trailhead stewardship at the top three trail heads, not just on the busiest holiday weekends.
And does it matter where we’re setting the bar in terms of trail conditions? This is basic logic: 30-40 years ago the trails were in atrocious shape with relatively few users. Now the maintained trails are in excellent shape with much larger numbers of hikers. This means that educational programs and trail maintenance is working where its being implemented. Example: Giant Ridge: tons of people, great trail, effective design and maintenance. North side of Seward: very few people, abysmal trail conditions, no maintenance or intentional design at all. Lillian Brook trail: moderate usage, one volunteer trail maintainer who drains puddles and clears blowdown in his spare time, talks to hikers, very nice trail. See how simple this is?
I 100% agree that we cannot count on Albany to correct this issue or show any sort of consistency. But at the same time we sure as heck cannot count on Mr. I Have Private Access But Demand Permits For Everyone Else and his organization to be fair and completely honest in representing everyone who has the Right to access this public land just as often as they do.
All that “over use” is jobs for people who live in the park.
Its clear that Willie, unlike many in the park, does not get his paycheck from tourism
I am very wary of grand “solutions” to localized problems in the Adirondacks. On the very same day there are parking issues on Rt. 73 you can be hiking a trail in another part of the park all by yourself. My party has many times been alone on the summit of an Adirondack mountain on a perfect weekend day in the summer. And, most of that excessive High Peaks use is confined to some very narrow slices of land we call trails, while you can still wander off that trail say 50 or 100 yards and quickly get lost in real wilderness if you don’t know what you are doing. Having hiked the region for many decades I can say without a doubt that most trails are in far, far better shape than they were say 30-40 years ago, and also most of today’s hikers are much better informed and have more respect for the backcountry. I remember when the remains of the Marcy shelter were used as a latrine by many and every leanto had garbage pits out back.
“I can say without a doubt that most trails are in far, far better shape than they were say 30-40 years ago…”
Certainly some trails are better than they were decades ago, but I don’t know if I would say “most”. Regardless, if we arbitrarily say 30 years ago saw the absolute worst trail conditions across the HPW (with significantly LESS foot traffic), does it necessarily follow that today the trails are in great shape? And even if we were to agree that today’s trails are in good/great shape, how long can that condition be sustained at ever increasing levels of usage? The fact is we don’t know, because we can’t predict future usage. Couple this with a wetter environment (extended mud season) that may be predicted with climate change and you now have several variables to contend with.
This is precisely why DEC needs to be working with research teams to determine the holding capacity of each trail and trail system in its current condition. Perhaps they are, but I haven’t heard of anything. But I feel it is too early to be patting ourselves on the back for a job well done. The job is just beginning.
My main point is that it is not all gloom and doom about the conditions on trails and overcrowding. Yes, there are problems, but a lot of progress has been made over the past 30-40 years.
Compared to the 1960s and 70s conditions are improved and the situation better managed. Back then, for example, every leanto had a dug garbage pit behind it.
I agree that the HPW is incorrectly classified as wilderness but that’s a big question. I don’t think that is on the table yet, but maybe in the future.
Lastly , Art 14 guarantees access, indeed ‘untrammeled’ access meaning no gates and probably no access fees. It is an odd fact that goes back to the original language and it is part of what makes managing it difficult.
Good points. I don’t deny there has been progress. But much of that progress was done based on trail usage at the time, not future usage several time higher that we see today.
Keep in mind, DEC is still responsible for managing the resource in the spirit of Art. 14. However, reservations for campsites in the FP are nothing new. Trails and trailheads are not addressed by Art 14. Aren’t trails and trailheads a type of restriction? Many people used to enjoy the challenge of a crummy herd path, but instead, DEC decided to “maintain” many of them to protect the resource. Luckily we are still allowed to bushwhack, but it certainly seems to be frowned upon.
Emergency trail closures are also nothing new. Snowmobiles are driven on FP lands, but not ATVs and bicycles (in some areas). So, is Art. 14 as viewed today, really being interpreted as truly “unlimited” access? It would appear not. There are many restrictions. Campsites, fires, motors, etc.. So I don’t believe Art. 14 should be viewed as a document allowing unlimited access. Guaranteed access and unlimited access are two different animals. I am guaranteed access to a public building, but not when it is full to capacity. So it is not unlimited.
Excellent points, Scott.
There is not over use. There is poor management (e.g. lack of adequate parking and lack of trail maintenance.)
If you want a wilderness experience there are plenty of other places that see very little traffic and are just as beautiful.