Tuesday, August 31, 2021

New model sustainable hiking trail on Mt. Van Hoevenberg nears completion

The new sustainable hiking trail under construction to the summit of Mount Van Hoevenberg is expected to be completed in the early fall. This project has been a priority of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). This project started in 2018 and marked a completely different approach to hiking trail building in the Forest Preserve and the High Peaks Wilderness.

For the first time, the DEC committed to a multi-year effort to showcase new sustainable trail design and trail building techniques for the Forest Preserve. In many ways, this trail marks a new beginning for the state’s approach to hiking trail building in the Adirondack Park.

The new Mount Van Hoevenberg (MVH) trail begins at the Mount Van Hoevenberg Winter Olympic Sports Complex, managed by the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), between Lake Placid and Keene. The new MVH trail design was an attempt to build a hiking trail that would be a much easier trail to hike than the typical trail in the High Peaks Wilderness, or most other places in the Forest Preserve, that runs straight up the mountainside. These steep “fall line” trails often become water channels that change the hydrology of a mountainside and are prone to erosion as they become a muddy streambed of rocks and tree roots, where soils often wash away to bedrock.

The new sustainable hiking trails are narrow contour trails that are cut into the mountainside on a course based on a slow, steady gradient. While elevation is steadily gained, the trail has a smooth tread surface of compacted mineral soils, devoid of boulders and roots. There is an occasional single rock step in sections that changes the grade. Contour trails are designed to withstand heavy recreational use and to prevent erosion. They are built to facilitate single-file hiking on a narrow trail built with natural materials that blend in with the surrounding forest and mountains. 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.

Click here for a story about this trail during its early construction in 2019.

Click here to see more pictures of the current trail as it nears completion.

The route is a vital part of the design of a sustainable contour trail. The trail is routed on a steady gradient to gradually gain elevation at a 10% grade. This small grade effectively manages stormwater by shedding water all along its surface to prevent erosion and trail damage. A grade over 15% significantly increases the risk of erosion. The top sections of the MVH trail, which rises steeply, feature extensive staircases either framed with large rocks and filled with mineral soils on top of a crushed rock base, or large stone slabs.

Contour trails are dug into a hillside with hand tools. The trail is designed to have a 2-foot-wide trail tread area for hikers. This is a slow, methodical process. 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. This stone is “harvested” as large boulders from the trail corridor or surrounding forest are dug up and smashed into baseball-size rocks. The downslope side of the trail is generally lined with large rocks that are buried along the edge to stabilize the trail. Mineral soil at a depth of 4-6 inches is placed over the top of the base of crushed stone. By design water flows down the hillside and through the rock base of the trail, and never forms into a long channel. This means that these trails are projected to endure Adirondack weather conditions much better than existing trails and require much less long-term maintenance beyond clearing blowdown and debris.

Many of the major hiking trails in the High Peaks Wilderness were built in the decades after the American Civil War. Due to their poor design, or lack of design, these trails are expensive to maintain and despite heroic efforts over the years to “harden” these trails they remain in poor condition. There are many band-aid efforts to salvage failed trails, such as a long, wooden staircases bolted into the Mount Colden or Ore Bed trails. The new sustainable MVH trail is designed primarily using rocks, which will not wear away like wooden bog bridges or staircases or log walkways. These trails are designed to uphold and accentuate the wilderness character and the wilderness atmosphere of the area. In many ways the current dismal state of hiking trails in the High Peaks has undermined the wilderness values of the area.

For a number of 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 the Forest Preserve and we will continue to press for even greater investments in the years to come. The Cuomo Administration refused to get serious about rebuilding trails in the Forest Preserve. We hope the Hochul Administration will be better. The new Mount Van Hoevenberg and Cascade Mountain trails show what the future could be.

ORDA recently completed a $5.1 million amusement mountain-coaster ride at the Mount Van Hoevenberg Winter Sports Complex. So far this year, around 9,000 people have ridden the mountain-coaster. Less than two miles away at Cascade Mountain about twice that many people have hiked up the mountain this year, yet the Forest Preserve has never seen a $5 million investment in trail building. At current rates of the DEC leadership’s anemic spending on the Forest Preserve it will take 150 years to rebuild the 300 miles of hiking trails in the High Peaks, which means we’ll never catch up. And then there’s the 1,500 miles of hiking trails across the rest of the Forest Preserve in the Adirondacks.

In 2019, researchers at the Huntington Wildlife Forest at SUNY ESF were contracted to undertake baseline ecological studies of the forest, flora and wildlife along the new MVH trail. This is one of the rare times that Forest Preserve planners will have baseline data prior to recreational use to evaluate changes over time to the natural resources of a trail corridor.

The MVH trail was slowed by people regularly hiking straight through the work zone throughout its work, and was delayed by the state working out COVID protocols for its trail crew and contract crews in 2020. DEC also had to train its crews, and its contract trail building crews, in the new sustainable trail building techniques, which took time. As DEC has retained trail crew members from previous years, and as contract crews returned, the  crews have dramatically increased the quality and quantity of their work. Tahawus Trails, a private trail builder, and the Student Conservation Association, were contracted for work on the MVH trail.

The total amount of tree cutting on the new MVH trail may never be known. The trail was cut out at a point in 2018 when the state did not count trees under 3” DBH. The state has kept a tally of trees over 3” DBH, which changed as new work plans were created and the trail was re-routed. There are two long stretches of trail that were cut out and abandoned because the alignment was incorrect. The DEC has not released information on total tree counts.

The new MVH trail also reveals a major reform that’s needed at the DEC. The state needs to get serious about professional trail building and recognize that people who work on a trail like the MVH trail are skilled professionals and not simply laborers hired for minimum wage. The state needs to make Forest Preserve trail crews seasonal professionals who are part of the state civil service so that experienced people come back year after year. Volunteer trail crews and crews of student interns certainly help with trail maintenance and trail building, but their work does not compare with that of trained professionals. In recent years, the DEC has continued to whittle away at civil service titles of staff who work in the field, taking advantage of poorly paid contract staff to supervise the management on hundreds of thousands of acres of Forest Preserve lands.

The trail to Mount Van Hoevenberg and Cascade and Porter Mountains starts in a back alley behind a service building up the hill from the new $25 million main lodge at the ORDA Winter Sports Complex. Hikers walk around the back of the new main lodge and up a sandy path of loose stone next to a section of the old concrete bobsled track. The approach to the trailhead needs work.

The trailhead is jarring, very different from all other Adirondack trailheads, where one parks their vehicle and within a few minutes they are deep in the forest, and with every step gets further away from the highway, further away from the concrete world, and deeper into the Forest Preserve. The new trailhead for Mount Van Hoevenberg and Cascade and Porter Mountains demands that hikers navigate their way through the new Winter Olympic Sports Complex, which was been rebuilt top to bottom in order to host the World University Games in 2023. While this facility has unlimited parking, vast public restrooms, and a snack bar and shop with hiking supplies, there is also music blaring from the mountain-coaster loading area and hikers are treated to the drone of a continuous instructional recording for mountain-coaster riders over the first several hundred yards of trail during summer months. On the way to the hiking trailhead, however, one can stop and hop onto the medal ceremony podiums and pose for a picture, so that’s a perk unavailable at any other trailhead.

The first few hundred yards of the new MVH trail is in the shadow of the new mountain-coaster. The initial quarter mile or so of the hiking trail is on Town of North Elba lands, also managed by ORDA, which means that trail building work was undertaken with a backhoe and no one worried about tree cutting limitations. This part of the trail is steep and begins with a massive stone staircase that leads to a hiking trail that connects to the High Peaks Wilderness Area.

After about a mile or so, the new trail up Mount Van Hoevenberg forks. This is where the new trail up Cascade and Porter Mountains will begin. This trail has been marked and some work started but trail work will resume in earnest in 2022. The new Cascade Trail is expected to go much quicker than the MVH Trail. The new Cascade Mountain Trail will start at the same trailhead as the MVH Trail at the Olympic Winter Sports Complex and will intersect with the existing trail between Cascade and Porter Mountains. The new trail will utilize the existing trail at this point, which will be rebuilt, to reach the summits of both mountains. This will cause far less damage than cutting a new trail through the Krummholz forest of small diameter old growth trees, though it will require extensive rock work to build many stone staircases. The higher a hiking trail gets in elevation, the fewer options there are for trail builders as soils are thin and then disappear altogether.

The summit of Mount Van Hoevenberg is a mess. DEC flew in dozens of bags of baseball-sized shot-rock which are piled in places on the summit. The DEC has undertaken various summit stabilization efforts, but the shot-rock looks out of place and unnatural on the summit and the shredded plastic bags of rocks are numerous.

Despite the issues at the trailhead and the mess on the summit, the new trail up Mount Van Hoevenberg is impressive, one of single best things the DEC has accomplished in Forest Preserve management in years. While the Basil Seggos years at the DEC will be remembered for violating Article 14 and widely expanding motor vehicle access across the Forest Preserve, it will also be known for taking a chance on building the first major sustainable hiking trail, designed and built with Wilderness management principles, designed to blend in with its Wilderness surroundings, and to handle the heavy recreational use seen in the High Peaks.

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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 was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). 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, has two grown children out in the world, and 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 Threads.

15 Responses

  1. Habitatman says:

    Most enlightening and for the most part encouraging. Hopefully the Hochul administration will get off on a good foot and take note. Thank You!

  2. Boreas says:

    Trails look like they should hold up well! Doesn’t look like they will be too ski-friendly unless there is a significant snow base.

  3. Keith Rouleau says:

    Great Progress!

  4. TRAILOGRE says:

    and they didn’t need atvs and motorized equipment to to do the work

    amazing……..How about that…….:)

    • Paul says:

      Sounds like they used a helicopter. Just like John’s Brook Lodge does each year bringing their gear in and out. Nice if you got one!

  5. Eric says:

    Seggos didn’t violate article 14. You duped a handful of judges into changing the meaning of article 14 after the fact. I’m not a Seggos fan either but let’s not bend the truth or cast undue aspersions.

  6. Dave Mason says:

    This looks great. The Mt Van project began sometime in 2018, says this article. It’s the end of summer 2021 now, so this is 3-4 years of work.

    Was there anything special about this project that caused it to take so long? How might this experience figure into efforts to rehab the High Peaks trails that gets talked about? Just curious.

  7. Tony Goodwin says:

    This new trail is a great addition to the High Peaks trail system. We can hope that this trail is the one most frequently recommended to the casual tourist who just says they ‘want to take a nice hike with a view’. Currently, it’s either Cascade or Mt. Jo that are recommended. As of last weekend, there was still quite a bit of work left to do before the trail is truly “finished”, so I am not sure it will be finished this year, but surely early next year. Nevertheless, it is a sustainable route now in its almost-finished state.

    I question, however, the wisdom, or even the ability, to extend the same standards to the Cascade trail. 2019 was the first full season of serious work on this trail, so three full years has yet to finish about 1.8 miles of trail. The one year (2019) of work done so far on the Cascade trail completed about 0.8 miles of trail on mostly easy terrain. Over three miles of sometimes very challenging terrain remains to be completed. And this only brings a trail to the col between Cascade and Porter, with apparently with no plan to improve the trails that finally reach the respective summits. Furthermore, the upper end of the trail is above the level where there is not much, if any, mineral soil, so the trail may have to be surfaced with rock to make a durable surface.

    The Van Hoevenberg trail now has many steps made with rock that has been cut to shape with gas-powered drills during the mechanized “windows” for such work in designated wilderness areas. There will likely need to be much more of that use to build the rest of the Cascade trail.

    In his article, Bauer scoffs at “band-aid” fixes such as the wooden stairs on the Orebed and Mt. Colden trails; but other steep trails have been successfully stabilized with good quality rock work. While still rough the Slant Rock Trail and the trail up Ampersand have not suffered significant deterioration since they were worked on 30 years ago. More recently, extensive rock work on Noonmark has halted the progressive widening. And the new route of the trail to Hurricane from Rt. 9N demonstrates what can be done to make major improvements to a popular trail in a reasonable length of time.

    As I said, I’m glad the MVH trail will be finished to a high standard, but let’s look at how we can make sustainable more than one 1.8 mile trail every three years.

  8. EDP says:

    Of course, at the root of all that ails the Adirondacks, inadequate ranger numbers, insufficient studies, trail conditions, new land acquisition etc., is funding. The MVH trail, despite the regrettable trailhead access which evokes the worst elements of hiking in Europe, is the gold standard in terms of design for all the obvious reasons.

    It’s just inconceivable that the resources needed to scale this project in a timely manner, will become available, given all the other competing demands. In avoiding having the perfect be the enemy of the good, unless there is a dramatic change in Albany, or a common-sense hiker user fee system established, funds would be better targeted and go significantly further, tactically addressing some much-needed problem areas for the cost of 1 or 2 state of the art, top-to-bottom trails.

  9. Paul says:

    “Volunteer trail crews and crews of student interns certainly help with trail maintenance and trail building, but their work does not compare with that of trained professionals”

    These crews are amazing, this is an inaccurate statement at best.

    Plus ADK has a professional trail crew why does the state need to do everything? These civil servants are going to cost a lot more than doing it through a private entity like ADK.


  10. Zephyr says:

    Personally, I rather like the old Adirondack trails with their rugged nature and difficult routes going straight up the mountain. They are much more enjoyable and challenging hikes. I find the endless winding back and forth up the mountain of the more sustainable trails incredibly boring and also very disorienting. My inner GPS rebels at not heading in the direction I want to be going. On the other hand, I understand the desire and need to make Adirondack trails less environmentally destructive. It’s too bad this effort also makes the trails less enjoyable to hike.

  11. Todd Eastman says:

    Snowball’s chance in hell that this standard could or would be utilized in the HPW within the next half century…🙄

    • Boreas says:

      Chain gangs could probably cut that time in half! Who better to break rocks into gravel or haul mineral soil without using mechanization? Otherwise, it’s gonna get expensive to pay people a living wage for laboring on re-routing and repairing the remaining hundreds of miles of trails.

    • Tom Paine says:

      The ole Albany double standard. One wonders how many of the judges are members of the Environmental lobby. The Environmental lobby still has the keys to the back door of NYSDEC offices. White wash is still the favorite color in town.

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