In 2020, the Adirondack trails were overwhelmed with hikers looking for Covid-safe recreation. People were lined up long before dawn for trails in the High Peaks. Highways turned into parking lots, and wilderness rangers into meter maids.
Then in 2021, with Covid still a presence in the Northeast, the hiker crisis evaporated.
The crazy busy hiker weekends were gone. Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson says he towed only one (ONE!) car from the Garden trailhead in 2021. That place is usually a combat zone.
The Adirondack Mountain Club’s 40-year-old summit steward program, which has the best long- term data on hiker traffic, tells a particularly dramatic story. The average number of daily hikers atop Mt. Marcy last summer was 72, down from 111 in 2021. On Algonquin, the average hiker number dropped from a record high of 87 in 2020, to 55 in 2021. Overall, hiker contacts plunged from roughly 40,000 in 2020 to 28,000 last year, a 30% decline.
Everybody forgot about the Adirondacks? Not exactly.
Campgrounds managed by the NYS Department of Environment Conservation reported a record-breaking 394,401 nightly reservations in 2021, topping the previous record (set in 2016) by about 40,000 nights. (These numbers include eight Catskills campgrounds, too.)
That raises the question, “What is going to happen this year?” The best answer is, “No one knows.”
Because the Canadian border is finally open again, and up to 20% of Adirondack hikers traditionally come from Canada, most people involved in preparing for the hiking season are bracing for a new surge. Thousands of Canadians are already in love with the Adirondacks and are no doubt eager to get back on the trails.
How prepared are we? Years of steady build-up forced soul-searching by environmental groups, scrambling by local and state governments, and new management experiments.
–The new 70-spot free parking reservation system based at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve in Keene Valley had a strong first year in 2021, and is gearing up for its sophomore season. Already 24,000 hikers are pre-registered on-line for 2022, up from 15,500 who were logged in at the end of last season. (https://www.hikeamr.org)
Though highly controversial at the start, the state-sanctioned system ultimately won broad support from the hiker community, as hikers found they could guarantee themselves a parking spot in advance and therefore more precisely plan their hiking trips. Some days the lot was full, some days it was not. Only about 1,000 people were turned away when they showed up without a reservation. There was still plenty of confusion in the region; Adirondack Mountain Club staffers reported people showing up nearly 25 miles away at the ADK Loj Hiker Center expecting to need a permit.
–The Town of Keene’s front country Stewards and shuttle from Marcy Field to the Garden have been essential to better experiences for hikers, and townspeople, too. The stewards are directing people to less crowded trails, the shuttle takes pressure off town parking. The NYS DEC has adopted a sort of pop-up steward system, with staffers walking the streets of Lake Placid, to educate want-to-be peak baggers.
–Public awareness of limits to growth has increased significantly. All major environmental organizations have websites that feature a Leave No Trace message, urging hikers to avoid over-crowded areas, and plan for alternatives. The same is true for the state DEC and the tourism promoters at ROOST, the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism. Word is out that things are different than they used to be, and especially that parking is not without limits.
The Town of Keene is preparing for a big year, with its steward program and town shuttle bus. The AMR parking system is already up and running–effective Easter/Passover/Ramadan weekend—bracing for a possible Canadian invasion.
Will the state continue the regional shuttle experiment launched by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in hopes of creating an easy transit flow from Lake Placid, through Keene and South along Rt. 73? What about parking restrictions along Rt. 73. Some barriers were being installed in the last week.
This is a complicated problem. Local government wants to welcome visitors and their tourist dollars, but not at the expense of the small towns, nor degradation of the resource. The state forest preserve managers and environmental groups want to encourage hikers to use the trails, but not overwhelm them.
Finding the right balance is the challenge.
Photo of Cascade by Dan Plumley