Wednesday, February 19, 2020

National Parks Offer Models For High Peaks Hiker Issues

Trails in need mapKeene town officials and volunteers working on ways to better handle the expected overload of hikers this summer and fall are looking to learn from other popular destinations around the country.

On Monday, St. Lawrence University Professor Pete Pettingill, an expert on the subject, will present some case studies from National Parks in Keene.

Pettingill’s talk, “Recreation and Transportation Case Studies from the National Parks,” will take place on Monday, February 24, 7 pm, at the Keene Valley Congregational Church. The presentation is free and open to the public.

The Town of Keene has formed a volunteer-led strategic planning committee to make recommendations for the 2020 hiking season.

The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation has also created a special High Peaks Advisory Group to work on the problem. At the same time, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is recommending a Route 73 shuttle bus this summer to move hikers in and out of Keene Valley trail heads safely and efficiently.

You can read more about this subject and the issues being discussed here.

Map of Giant Loop Overuse in 2017 by Nancy Bernstein, courtesy the Adirondack Council.  A legend to that map, and more maps about this topic can be found here.

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41 Responses

  1. Balian the Cat says:

    A natural resources professional with proven methods from other highly visited areas? As Adirondackers, we’ll insist on a harder way.


    I worked at 7 different National parks. From 1983 at Yellowstone to Byrce in 92. Getting permits to go on a Backcountry hike was just what you did. If the limited spots were filled you either didn’t hike or went elsewhere. Sure the transition will be difficult but after a few years it will be it’s just the way it is. Solves many issues, a permit system, no?

    • Zephyr says:

      “…a permit system, no?” No! Not needed for the vast majority of days and trails, and will be a complete waste of time and resources. It will be a huge undertaking that just further burdens the overworked Rangers. It will keep away the experienced regulars that spend money year-round, leaving the newbies who are able to schedule their one grand hike of the summer. Even though they will know nothing about proper hiking safety and protecting the wilderness, they will show up in shorts, T shirts, and running shoes to summit Marcy in a thunderstorm at their appointed date and time. Those of us who can’t schedule our time, and realize it is dangerous and irresponsible to commit to a schedule in the backcountry, will certainly go elsewhere, taking our spending with us.

    • Greg says:

      No to permits. It is stepping backwards not forward.

      Planning a trip to a major national park is very different than the Adirondacks. Major national parks trips are typically planned months in advance for extended periods of time and without dependence on weekdays vs weekends.

      Most visitors to the ADKs are within a relatively short driving distance and are highly flexible with their plans — regularly planning an outing specifics within 24 hours of embarking based on weather/party members capabilities/available time/etc. Studies reported here shown visitors are coming for less and less time. Permits work counter to all of this.

      Weekdays in the high peaks are largely under control — permits would be a major overstep and waste of time/resources. Weekends in the high peaks are a problem only on certain weekends a year and within even then largely on only certain fair weather days — something that cannot be predicted in advance.

      Let’s stop pushing people away. It’s not good for anyone. Lets not spend the millions (and it would be millions!) that would be devoted to permits, signage, enforcement, education of rules and more. Instead let’s solve the actual problems with that money and hire trail crews to shore up 5-6 major trails each year and push people to use them instead of “spreading out”. I usually am at odds with Peter Bauer’s views, but even he suggested that a hike up Cascade with hundreds of other people was not really a problem given the hardened trail.

      We also need to give up that the high peaks is a “Wilderness” to find solitude. Given the major trunk trails and popular peaks, restricting for the purpose of solitude is no different than other elitism arguments. There are hundreds of other trails in the park to find solitude even on the busiest days of the year. Or visit the high peaks on a weekday, less common trail or walk 100 feet off trail.

      • Boreas says:

        It boils down to which people you want to go elsewhere. I essentially stopped hiking the HPW 20+ years ago because of the number of people. I didn’t have the luxury of being able to hike any day of the week. The tour buses of hikers showing up at trailheads were the last straw for me.

      • Steve B. says:

        “Lets not spend the millions (and it would be millions!) that would be devoted to permits, signage, enforcement, education of rules and more”

        This is simply false. The DEC currently runs a permit system in the assorted preserves it manages on Long Island. It certainly did not cost millions (I mean, really ?) to setup, it’s an online computer program, some signage that they’d be installing anyway (and do in Daks), with endorsement mostly the honors systems, in that if they do enforce, it’s a nice fine. The rangers rarely sit at a parking lot and check permits. I’m on the fence as to the need but I can recognize that it is not difficult to setup and painless for the users and I’m one of them.

        • Greg says:

          I’m not an expert on Long Island, but searching online I’m only seeing a free 3-year permit that is mailed in. That is nothing like what we’re talking about here. Have a link?

          I think part of the problem is the use of the words “license”, “permit” and “reservation system” interchangeably. For a system to be effective at curbing use it needs to be at least:

          1.) Date specific — This is rather obvious — 10 reservable parking spots for this Saturday = 10 people with reservations for Saturday.

          2.) Cost something — Without cost, people will reserve on the chance that they may want to hike and not “cancel” and we’ll have empty parking lots which are good for no one. Many do this with the current DEC campgrounds when the window opens 9 months out — reserve and figure out later if your actually going to go. Many empty sites during the prime months are actually fully paid for but unused and/or cancelled last minute. Frustrating when there are empty waterfront sites and you are in a sub-prime off-water site. And this is at ~$20/night (+$7.25≥), which is hopefully far more than any parking cost.

          The earlier that reservations are opened, the more prevalent this becomes. But the later reservations are opened, the harder it is for travelers planning larger trips who we want to encourage to visit becomes.


          I’d agree that a blanket license or permit system that is not date-specific is relatively easy to administer. What is challenging to administer is the date-specific reservation part. Enterprise-level software that the state would need for this is hundreds of thousands of dollars (I’ve personally led many similar software projects). Given that, I’d expect the DEC to naturally turn to — it’s what they’ve done with Peekamoose Blue Hole in the Catskills this past year. Not sure the details of the agreement, but it’s currently free and I’m sure either (a) DEC is paying for it or (b) reserveamerica is doing it pro bono to keep business in-house since they make a killing on the state-wide campground rentals.

          I doubt they would do the high peaks for free. They charge $7.25 for a campsite reservation. Quick math of taking just Fish Creek Ponds with 355 sites, with say an average of length of stay of 5 days for the core 12 week window yields 355 * 15 * 7.25 yields $43,239. Changes / cancellations / etc add even more to that. This is money not staying local as they are based in Texas. A lot of money just for reservation administration, money of which does not help the ADKs at all.

          I’d imagine the cost of the high peaks to be higher as it’s a longer season with much higher visitation. The state would probably want some money too. Couple that with education, signage, enforcement and the fact that this is NYS we are talking about and the money will be in the millions quite quickly — paid (wasted?) directly by NYS and/or by us the user.

          Let’s not create new problems with a reservation system and solve actual problems:

          1.) Harden trails — it’s the only long-term solution

          2.) Enlarge parking lots to be capable of handling non-peak demand without shuttles. Some of these have been in management plans but not implemented. Add trails as needed to prevent road walking.

          3.) On peak days, encourage use of hardened trails and associated parking/shuttles accordingly

          • Boreas says:

            Good points. Another long-term solution isn’t just hardening trails, but perhaps redesigning the trail system to provide a mix of hiking challenges within the HPW. Instead of making all trails high-volume trails (sidewalks to every peak), redesign the HPW to allow for easy access to a few peaks/destinations and difficult, challenging access to many other peaks, similar to the old “trailless peaks” concept.

            The other part of this redesign would essentially be limiting the number of trailheads and parking areas to just 3-4 high-volume lots that can be better managed and safer (think the Loj parking). Closing some lots and trails and offering hikers longer, more challenging hikes to access destinations deeper in the HPW may be another effective management tool if properly coordinated with roadside parking bans.

            • Balian the Cat says:

              These truly are good points, I am just going to reiterate one unfortunate reality: NYSDEC is woefully understaffed in the Forester / Natural Resource Planner / Operations sphere. The work we would all like to see done cannot be left to generous but not necessarily skilled volunteers groups. Everyone understands the need for more Rangers, but few address the necessity for the types of staff that facilitate the actual recreational needs.

              • Boreas says:

                Absolutely! We can’t expect forward-thinking solutions if there is no one to do it or implement it. Perhaps planning for some of this needs to be taken on by Essex County since our county is the focus of all the attention, and any changes in policy or management will directly effect us.

          • Steve B. says:

            Very good points Greg

            As note, the DEC permits used on L.I. get filled out online than submitted to the DEC and then printed at the users computer, one for land access, the other for parking. You sign one and keep it with you, parking goes on the dash – IF you happen to use a DEC parking lot, no need otherwise (you can bike in as desired). Or the DEC can mail you the permit if you’ve no computer, or you can stop in to the office and get one in person.

            But I agree that the likely route the DEC would take is the Reserve America system as used at their campsites. They could start out as free, as an information gathering tool only and initially (tells them who’s going where, when and how many) and scale up to a fee based system as needed.

            I’m on the fence about permits, hate the idea generally, hated it for mt. biking on L.I., but it’s really no big effort here. I think trail hardening is is the top priority (after add’l Rangers added), but that too invites significant usage. If there are multiple hundreds on a peak on a weekend now, what’s acceptable ?, 1000 ?, 2500 ?, where do you then institute a permit system if only to avoid having the final mile on Cascade look like the infamous crowded Everest photo of last year ?.

    • John says:

      The problem is not too many people – it’s too many cars. So, I would hope that if any type of permit system were to be implemented, it would only be applicable to parking at trailheads.

  3. Paul O. says:

    Experienced hikers will be the first to learn to use the permit system, and all hikers will enjoy their experience more with less people around.

    A permit system is already in use for reserving campsites in New York State Parks,

    Simply require the permit to be left showing on their dashboard. Tow cars without displayed permits. Post signage stating these rules at the trailhead. If there are days of the week, or seasons of the year, where demand doesn’t necessitate a permit system, don’t require permits at those times.
    Will unprepared hikers show up? Yes, just like they do now.

    • Zephyr says:

      There’s a huge difference between reserving a drive-in campground spot at a very limited number of campgrounds and reservations for a “wilderness” hike where if you arrive and the weather is nasty you might be taking a grave risk starting out. It is simply irresponsible to schedule a hike up a High Peak without first checking the daily forecast and planning accordingly. I routinely change my hiking plans at literally the last minute based on weather conditions, the number of cars at the trailhead, the abilities and preparedness of the party, etc. That’s how you stay safe in the backcountry. Plus, access is controlled to the campground usually via a single entrance with a guard, meaning that one person can monitor the coming and going. It is quite another thing to have to patrol miles of roadway and thousands of cars checking for parking permits, or stopping hikers in the backcountry to “show me your papers.”

      • Balian the Cat says:


        I agree almost entirely with the spirit of your stance, but I have on numerous occasions hung a back country permit on my pack and/or tent in the past with zero inconvenience on my part. I am also struggling with the concept wherein we need to manage for the cohort who is incapable or unwilling to plan or get there act together – despite my complete acknowledgement that such folks do exist and do represent a problem.

        • Zephyr says:

          I am capable of planning ahead, but as I pointed out it is irresponsible to schedule a wilderness hike say six months ahead of time. Plus, some of us have demanding jobs that basically eliminate the possibility of scheduling something that far in advance. I often don’t know if I can take a vacation until the day I leave on vacation!

          • Boreas says:

            Sorry Zepher – not buying it. ANY planning for the backcountry needs to be met with common sense at the trailhead – whether reservations are involved or not. Just because one has a permit doesn’t mean they are forced to enter the backcountry on that day. If it spoils plans, so be it. If they are smart and MUST hike when they are here, then they should probably get a multi-day permit. I schedule vacations all the time that get rained out. One has to adapt to the weather no matter what you do. I may make reservations for a week, may have perfect weather or may not be able to step out of my tent or motel. Can’t blame a reservation system for bad weather and last minute changes in plans.

            “It is quite another thing to have to patrol miles of roadway and thousands of cars checking for parking permits, or stopping hikers in the backcountry to “show me your papers.”” Not sure what kind of system you are envisioning here.

      • Steve Bailey says:

        ” It is quite another thing to have to patrol miles of roadway and thousands of cars checking for parking permits, or stopping hikers in the backcountry to “show me your papers.””

        The method used in other area’s the DEC issues permits is they only occasionally do a parking permit check and sometimes and when they do a parking check, they will then be checking for permits at the trailhead. They don’t patrol the trails and are usually out at the trailheads as part of their regular duties. When not rescuing, which seems all the time these days. The permit systems seem to be the honors system. I have heard of fines being issued, but rarely it seems, usually a warning. That seems to be enough incentive for most users.

  4. Paul says:

    This is simply an opportunity to listen to an expert on the topic. I see that all the expert commenters here already have it all figured out, but maybe some people would like to hear from actual experts on the topic?

  5. Eric says:

    Yes, would be nice to hear from an expert. Having visited many national parks, there is one thing I always see, a use fees. That use fees pushes the burden of maintenance upon the actual users. National parks are a treasure, and so are the High Peaks. I see nothing wrong with a reasonable use fee enforced through parking. This can go towards trail maintenance, a shuttle system and better infrastructure. Every major area at a national park has a decent restroom. This would also spread out the cost of the park beyond NYS citizens. A permitting system at least for overnight stays should be established. If it is only for summer weekends than so be it. This would help prevent the illegal camping at so many spots that is rampant, as well as hopefully provide some accountability for trash left behind. Hopefully the lessons passed on from the speaker are published as many of us are interested in what they have to say.

    • Tim says:

      “I see nothing wrong with a reasonable use fee enforced through parking. This can go towards trail maintenance, a shuttle system and better infrastructure”

      I see this kind of comment again and again. Anyone familiar with the State finance system will tell you it doesn’t work like that. The money goes to Albany. Then the Governor and Legislature appropriate funds however they want. There would be no link between user/parking fees and trail maintenance, etc.

      • Boreas says:

        It wouldn’t have to go through the state. The way I see it it would make more sense to keep it in the county or local town and let them do the collecting.

      • Paul says:

        ADK manages these larger parking areas and fees, not the state.

  6. Pat Trask says:

    I think Cuomo ought to leave well enough alone.
    If it’s working don’t try to fix it.??

    • John Warren says:

      It’s not working and Cuomo isn’t driving this, local people who are affected are.

      • Zephyr says:

        “Local people” and various groups, many of them statewide, that are trying to preserve the Park while also maintaining access for recreation. The Cuomo administration seems to have a major focus on promoting tourism, which is part of the problem–too many tourists all coming at the same time. It is a complicated problem because the various stakeholders have competing concerns. A high percentage of “local people” do not want to discourage tourists, but instead are concerned about parking issues and the costs of maintaining the trails. The biggest local concern, IMHO, is growing the local economy. Reducing the number of people able to hike during peak times will reduce the number of dollars spent locally.

        • Boreas says:

          “It is a complicated problem because the various stakeholders have competing concerns.”

          Kinda says it all. Difficult to preserve a Wilderness area by encouraging unlimited usage. So what do we change – the Wilderness designation or the intensity of usage? Can that needle be even be threaded? If so, what is the best way to thread it?

          I think that is why the NP people are being given a chance to illustrate what works and doesn’t work for them. Perhaps we can learn from their experience managing tourists. Perhaps we can’t – or should I say won’t? But let’s at least get all the ideas out there before we start shooting them down.

        • John Warren says:

          Having a poor quality experience reduces usage. Getting a ticket for example, or not being able to find a place to park.

          The odds of the number of users declining to pre-2000 levels is slim to none however. The numbers show we are in the midst of a boom in outdoor recreation, including fishing, boating, hiking and camping.

          As the population engaged in outdoor recreation continues to increase in the decades ahead, issues such as housing, traffic, and easy drive-up access are going to grow. Cuomo has pushed tourism, because he recognizes it translates to local jobs (although many are low paid, many are not) and because local leaders understand how important it is to their economies.

          • Zephyr says:

            I don’t think most hikers on even the most crowded trails have a “poor quality experience,” or else they would be voting with their feet and going elsewhere. Yes, usage could be reduced by making the experience crappy by requiring permits, giving out parking tickets, etc. I know for myself one bad experience in a particular place might mean I never go back there. Is that what locals really want?

            • Boreas says:

              “I don’t think most hikers on even the most crowded trails have a “poor quality experience,” or else they would be voting with their feet and going elsewhere.”

              Myself and several friends went elsewhere – specifically because of the crowded trails and infrastructure. But winter was usually OK back then. Now? How many others have voted as well? Hard to tell if they never come back. Did they just choose other parts of the Park, or did they choose the Whites or Greens? Did they take up paddling, or did they take up golf? Would they come back if conditions were different? Would be a good topic for an online poll.

  7. T-bone says:

    When are they going to start charging hikers for a season pass to the Adirondack trails? It’s the only reasonable solution to keep up with the maintenance and mayhem.

    • Boreas says:


      Hopefully someday. The idea is about as popular as permitting, so don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, all we can do is buy Trail Supporter patches and hope some of the $$ comes to the ADKs. Simplest thing would be to at least sell different patches for different areas, including HPW vs. ADK Park.

  8. Patrick says:

    Stop paying all the marketing dollars to attract people to come to the ADK until the parking/trail situation is resolved. Permits are a terrible idea. Perhaps require a NYS drivers licence to be on the crowded trails, as it’s the NY taxpayers that fund all this.

  9. adkDreamer says:

    Be careful. A potential Red Line inside the Blue line folks. If the HPW becomes National Park-like in character (defacto), then it is one step closer to becoming a National Park, in fact. True, a national park designation would expect support from the federal government alleviating many of the fiscal and other resources (ECO’s etc) of NYS that are stretched beyond reasoning.

    If the HPW becomes National-Park-like I am afraid the character of this area may change forever, and not in a good way.

    • Boreas says:

      Excellent point! My personal perception from many weeks spent primarily in Yellowstone and Glacier in a previous life was that they were set up for family touring by car, not so much as hiking or backcountry destinations. Fishing access, car campgrounds, and “attractions” in YNP were typically quite crowded. Most hiking areas always seemed relatively deserted. Any hikes I did were virtually without seeing others – even short hikes. Similar in the eastern portion of GNP, but much less fishing pressure (fewer fish). It wasn’t that the hikers were spread out over many miles of trails – even the parking lots were largely empty. And so, because of the climate, soil types, and trail routing, the trails I visited were typically in great shape. There are certainly exceptions to these two premier parks, such as Yosemite (which is also closer to population centers), but I believe most NPs have been set up primarily for auto touring since many were created after the invention of the auto and US road network.

      This needs to be contrasted with the older ADKs or HPW. There are some nice views from a car, but not 50+ mile Rocky Mountain views. The older ADK park was set up for hiking and paddling because automobiles were not a factor for the first 50 years. The West lends itself to auto touring because the lack of trees in many areas allow for outstanding views from the comfort of a car. With the ADKs and HPW, most people would say you really need to leave the car behind and get into the backcountry to properly see the mountains and lakes. In other words, you usually need to get up high or get on a lake to get majestic views. One exception is Whiteface, which was developed for cars by public works programs similar to many NPs. It is a similar situation in the Smokys where the hiking pressure also seems more substantial than western parks. I don’t have actual data, but to me, that is the biggest difference between Eastern and Western parks, whether they are national or state parks. The parks were set up at different times to do different things, and as you say, have unique history and characteristics.

      • ROBERT DIMARCO says:

        I worked 7 different National parks. Yes there are roads, set up for touring by car. I don’t agree with that. And the majority of the parks I worked at were always more crowded along the roads. Every park that had a permit system in place was a glorious place to hike into the back country. Please stop worrying about all the possible issues with a permit system . It will go a long way to solve the over crowding we have now. And not everything is about the Dollar.

        Parks worked:. Yellowstone, Denali, Bryce, Sequoia/kings Canyon, Olympic,Glacier ,

  10. Philip J. Stubli says:

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