Wednesday, July 13, 2022

A Review of the AMR Parking Permit System in Year Two

2021 was the first year of the new permit system at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR) parking area and trailheads in St. Hubert’s, organized by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The permit reservation system is seasonal and runs from May 1st to October 31st. 2022 is year two. Last year I went through the system in its first month on a hike up Gothics Mountain and wrote a review about my experience.

This year, I went back on a summer weekend, a day I figured to be a busy weekend, on Saturday, July 9th, the height of the hiking season in the High Peaks. I’ve looked at the AMR reservation system as an important experiment in public use management in the High Peaks Wilderness, an area that has seen remarkably little experimentation over the years.

The AMR manages its trailhead parking area off of Route 73 in St. Huberts, between Keene Valley and Chapel Pond, and across the highway from the DEC parking lot for the Roaring Brook Trailhead to Giant Mountain and Rocky Peak. The AMR is part of the Ausable Club, an exclusive private club. The state purchased a dozen mountains from the club in 1978, in one of Peter A. A. Berle’s, the best DEC Commissioner in its history, great accomplishments.

Berle also crafted a conservation easement over the AMR lands that secured public access, and the terms of that easement are now managed jointly by the AMR and DEC. The easement lists 24 public trails that AMR must maintain and provide public access to, requiring those areas to be kept in a forever wild and natural state. The parking lot on Route 73 provides access to trailheads that lead to High Peaks like Armstrong Mountain, Gothics, Saddleback, Sawteeth, Colvin, Blake, Nippletop, Dial, among several others, and popular shorter hikes such as Indian Head, Noonmark Mountain, and Bear Den Mountain. The easement calls for a minimum of 28 parking spots; click here to read a copy of the conservation easement.

Just before noon on Friday, July 8th, I went online to the AMR reservations site. There were plenty of spots open for the weekend. I made a reservation for 7 AM on Saturday morning July 9th and reserved for two people. The reservation is free of charge, with no fee. I made my reservation less than 24 hours ahead of my intended hiking time. My prep time was that on a Friday at noon, I checked the weather and my schedule, and free of any other obligations. I decided I wanted to hike in the High Peaks the next day and thought that a hike over Nippletop Mountain, Dial Mountain, and Bear Den would be fun. Reservations can be made up to two weeks in advance.

One benefit to me of my AMR reservation is that I could leave my home on Saturday morning for a hike in the High Peaks in July with the certainty that I would have a parking spot at the trailhead I wanted. It’s a 90-minute drive from my home in Blue Mountain Lake to the north side of the High Peaks. With my AMR reservation, I could leave my house at a leisurely hour of around 6 AM. If I wanted to hike on a Saturday in July and park at the first-come-first-served parking lots at Chapel Pond, Roaring Brook, Rooster Comb, the Garden, or along the South Meadow Road, I would have had to leave Blue well before 5 AM to try and get a parking spot and even then it would be a crapshoot. Or, I would have to park at Marcy field and take a shuttle, which would add travel time.

When I arrived at the AMR lot on Saturday morning, July 9th, an attendant checked my name off of a list. I was ready with an email confirmation on my phone but did not need to produce it. There’s second check-in at the trailhead register at the gatehouse to the Lake Road. After I wrote about my experiences with the reservation system last year, several people emailed me and complained about the intrusiveness of this second check-in. I agree that it was a tiny annoyance to be asked my name and be checked in a second time, after just having done so a few minutes before. It took a few seconds; I told them my name in the time it took to sign-in at the register and then I was on my way.

There are 73 total parking spaces at the AMR lot, which includes three for disabled individuals and eight for overnight campers who make multi-day reservations. That leaves 65 parking spaces available each day. Under the DEC-AMR conservation easement, AMR is only required to provide parking for 28 vehicles. In 2018 and 2019, when parking was less organized and hikers parked atop one another, around 90 to 100 cars often squeezed into the AMR lot on peak-use days, with more lining up on the roadsides. While the AMR parking capacity is down from the dizzy heights of a few years ago, it’s well above the limits in the state conservation easement.

In 2021, after its first year of implementing the reservation system with the DEC, AMR reported that around 16,000 hikers accessed hikes to the High Peaks through their lands. This is down from peak levels in 2019 of 27,105 and 2020 of 29,102. AMR says that 16,737 reservations were made in 2021, of which over 3,000 were canceled, largely due to poor weather. That just 12,000 hikers were produced from over 13,000 reservations shows that there was also a fairly high number of no-shows. There is no access to the AMR property without a reservation from May to October; no drop-offs, no walk-ins, no riding in on a bike, and no shuttle drops.

One complaint about the AMR permit system is that it does not allow Adirondack residents or those visiting and staying locally total spontaneity in their hiking choices. The reservation requirement eliminates the possibility of a local hiker waking up in the morning, looking at the weather, seeing how they feel, and then deciding that ‘hey, today, I’ll hike Mt Colvin’ or one of the other peaks most easily accessed through the state’s public easement on the AMR lands. While the AMR permit system does preclude same-day hiking reservations, I did not find reserving a spot with minimal advance planning to be any kind of burden. There are still complaints from hikers who wish to start earlier than 5 AM. And, there are still complaints from hikers who just don’t like making a reservation.

As I hiked up Nippletop and Dial I leap-frogged with a group of twenty-somethings from Rochester. They were a big group, clearly having a lot of fun, and were all staying together at an Airbnb in Lake Placid. The reservation system worked fine for them. They were pleased to have reservations that assured them of parking spots for the hike of their choice. Last year, some of them had shown up to the AMR lot without any knowledge of the permit system and were turned away. They went to the Loj Road, walked for miles along the road, and hiked Wright and Algonquin. Some described that day, even though they all reached the summits, as “misery.”

The AMR parking lot has 73 parking spaces. The attendant, who clocks in at 4:45 AM to open the gate by 5 AM told me that the lot was full up with reservations for that day. She said it seemed that hiking was down a bit from 2020 and 2021 in the High Peaks and that the lot had not been at capacity all week. The biggest change to the parking lot from last year is the installation of an automatic gate that opens from the inside. This lets hikers who get out from their hike after 5 PM when the attendant clocks out easily exit from the parking lot. Last year, there were understandable complaints from hikers locked in all night. The new gate solves that problem.

As I drove on Route 73 en route to the AMR lot around 7 AM, coming in from the Northway, cars were already parked along the road, spilled out from the small parking lot for Grace Peak and the Boquet River. The Round Pond parking lot, the northern trailhead to Dix Mountain, was full, and there were cars nestled into the various designated shoulder parking areas nearby. As I drove through Chapel Pond and the roadside parking spaces for the Giant Mountain Trailhead, there were just a few spots open. After I parked my car at the AMR parking lot in St. Hubert’s, I walked across Route 73 to the Roaring Brook parking lot and saw that it was already full.

The hike up the Lake Road and to Nippletop, Dial, and Bear Den mountains is around 12 miles with some significant elevation gains. Though I’ve been hiking in the High Peaks for years, the views from a High Peak, surrounded nearly on all sides by other High Peaks, continue to astound me. That Saturday was sunny with a few clouds and even, oddly, fewer bugs. The view from Nippletop and Dial west to the Great Range was remarkable. I sat for a long time on the outcrops of each mountain, basking in the long sweeping views from Allen Mountain, which I had hiked two weeks before, and Redfield, Skylight, both Haystacks, Basin and Saddleback, Gothics, the heart of a grand, gnarled wilderness. The forest was thick everywhere, broken only by rocky summits, and long slices of new and old slides. Whenever I’m lucky enough to spend time on the summit of a High Peak, I’m newly blown away by the scene, and it’s clear why so many people want to experience these mountains.

Overall, the hiking trails on the AMR lands and the Forest Preserve in the loop up and over Nippletop, Dial, and Bear Den were in decent condition. There were stretches of typical degraded fall-line trail that ran straight up the mountainsides, heavily trenches or worn to bedrock, poorly designed, poorly drained mud holes, but the trails were better than the degraded trails up Blue Mountain or Snowy Mountain, and much better than the trail from AMR up to Gothics. Perhaps after hiking Allen Mountain two weeks before, and picking my way seemingly forever up a slippery slide strewn with blowdown and a degraded maze of eroded herd paths, almost anything would look and feel better.

The hiking trails to Colvin and Blake and to Nippletop and Dial cut through a mature northern hardwood forest. There are lots of 20- and 30-inch diameter trees. The trails wind through thick stands of hemlock in places and forests dominated by white pine, sugar maple, and yellow birch in others. The forest on Bear Den is very different after the forest fire in 1999. The flanks and summit of Bear Den are thick with small fast-growing poplar and white birch, with charred downed trees and stumps still visible from the trail and various open ledges and rocky outcrops. With decades of climate change ahead, which is predicted to change Adirondack forests, I can only wonder what forest will emerge when the poplar and paper birch reach the end of their run and give way in 75 to 100 years from now.

On my way down from Bear Den I passed a hobbling hiker who had twisted her ankle but was making her way gamely with her hiking poles. She had a friend with her. I figured I’d relay this info to the rest of her party ahead so they could at least meet her at the gatehouse with a vehicle. As I was on the Lake Road heading towards the gate an AMR staffer popped by in a golf cart. At the gate the attendant said other hikers had told him about woman with the twisted ankle and the staffer on the golf cart was dispatched to ferry the injured hiker to her car at the parking lot. As I walked out, I thought that transporting the hiker with a twisted ankle was a nice thing for AMR to do and then thought that those types of things must happen all the time.

The AMR reservation system was primarily predicated on public safety. It was part of a series of changes to limit haphazard roadside parking along Route 73, from Cascade Mountain to Chapel Pond. In 2021, the state closed many informal parking areas along Route 73, posted many areas against parking, and stopped allowing roadside spillover parking from trailhead lots. The DEC said this was part of a public safety plan, but it also regulated public use on a certain level.

This summer, both the Town of Keene and Essex County are operating hiker shuttles from Marcy Field in Keene. The Town of Keene shuttle takes hikers to and from The Garden parking lot, which accesses the Johns Brook Valley. The Essex County shuttles will take hikers west to the Cascade and Pitchoff Mountain Trailheads and east on Route 73 to the Rooster Comb, Roaring Brook, and Chapel Pond trailheads. While shuttles are fine services for improving public safety, they do not regulate public use, though they could be part of such a plan in the future.

There are no shuttle drops at the AMR parking lot and trailhead. I’m not sure how that makes sense if the reservation system was predicated on improving public safety. The new shuttles will drop hikers at other nearby parking lots that are filled up, and provide access to fewer mountains than the AMR parking area, hence concentrating heavy use on a few trails. In this way, the lack of a shuttle drop at AMR stands out. Is the reservation system about safe parking or controlling and limiting public use? That public use was effectively cut in half at the AMR by the reservation system points towards its success on that front. AMR-DEC are working on a study about the reservation system with a SUNY-ESF outdoor recreation specialist. This report is expected to evaluate the performance of the system, assess the experiences of the users of the system, and make recommendations for ways to improve the project. Hopefully, this effort will seek public input on ways to improve the system.

Given that I had made a reservation on a Friday for a hike less than 24 later on a Saturday in July, I found the AMR reservation system easy to use. Given that I had a guaranteed parking spot for my hike of a High Peak on a July Saturday, I was happy. When I arrived back at the parking lot after 5 PM after the attendant had left for the day, because I’m a slow hiker, the automatic gate let me drive out. The AMR website is better than other reservation sites that the DEC operates through contractors. AMR pays attendants seven days a week for 13 or so hours a day and have upgraded the parking lot with the electronic gate, so the organization has invested to make the whole thing work well.

Right now, the AMR reservation system stands out among all the public access points along the north side of the High Peaks Wilderness, from Heart Lake to Chapel Pond, that have all been managed in a pell-mell short-term way for years. The DEC continues to struggle to build a coherent management system for the High Peaks Wilderness Area, but there are glimpses of such a system emerging one day. A new coherent system will likely involve more things like the AMR reservation system, so in this way, it’s an important prototype to evaluate.

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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 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.




12 Responses

  1. Brian says:

    You were able to make a reservation on Friday for a weekend hike because gas is near $5 per gallon. Just FYI. Once that falls you won’t be able to anymore.

    It’s also convenient for you to reserve more than a few days in advance if you had to because you are an older person and presumably hiking with a spouse or close friend. It doesn’t work so well for younger people who are still working on finding their hiking buddies through loose connections or have the kind of jobs where they don’t know what day they will have off until a couple days beforehand.

    Seems to me everyone could be accommodated if they just had half the spots be redevable and return the other half to first-come first-served. The people coming from three hours away with their spouse can reserve a spot. The younger folks who live within an hour or two without set work schedules or established hiking buddies can wake up in the middle of the night to vie for a spot just like they always have been able to do.

    You can still limit parking to the 73 spaces (which is laughably inadequate in my opinion but that’s another thread) if you’re hell bent on controlling use.

    Win-win-win for everyone.

    Having virtually every space as reservation only means you just don’t like young people.

    • Steve B. says:

      Likely the younger folks are even more adept at figuring out online reservations than many seniors, I suspect they would actually have fewer problems.

      As well, first come, first serve doesn’t get you a reserved parking and of course theres zero guarantee any permits will exist. Under those conditions I’d bet most would be online all the way up the Northway.

      I do think they should allow same day reservations as otherwise a slow day is just a waste of space.

    • Eric says:

      Gas prices are part of it but I also think the AMR permit system had created a lot of confusion that is keeping people away. I had a co-worker ask me the other day how to get a permit to hike Cascade Mt. After a quizzical look and some probing I discovered that she thought “AMR” was shorthand for “all state land in the Adirondacks”. This wasn’t some touron from Kentucky. This was a highly educated finance professional who lives in Queensbury.

      I also had a friend some weeks ago who wanted to do Colvin and Blake but the earliest time slot available on the website was 3pm and that didn’t work for him. When I explained that he could have taken the 3pm slot and still showed up at 5am he was apoplectic. They really need to just number the slots and take the times out of the site. I know they explain it in the FAQ but no one reads that and the time slot thing causes way more hate toward AMR than they’d otherwise be getting.

      This is just my experience with two people but if you multiply this out by all the people out there who are confused it’s no wonder visitor numbers are way down across the park.

  2. Boreas says:

    Peter,

    Thanks for the detailed update. It may not be a perfect system, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon if given a future.

  3. Lark says:

    The DEC is supposed to be protecting us from special interests like the AMR, not working with them. Anyone at the DEC that conspired with these people should be in prison.

  4. WBB says:

    Question asked…

    ” Is the reservation system about safe parking or controlling and limiting public use? ”

    and answered.

    ” That public use was effectively cut in half at the AMR by the reservation system points towards its success on that front.”

    • Zephyr says:

      Yes, public use cut to a public trail easement paid for by the taxpayers of New York with no scientific trail capacity study done or documented overuse. Note that the DEC only says this permit system is to “address public safety along a particularly crowded stretch of Route 73 near Ausable Road.” https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/100916.html

  5. Zephyr says:

    In 2021 I tried to make a reservation for three different weekends many weeks in advance and was unable to, and then decided that I prefer hiking to sitting in front of my computer trying to score a reservation. My summer hiking is very limited due to my job requirements and where I live (hundreds of miles away). Therefore I can only make decisions at the last minute, weather permitting, so this reservation system makes it impossible for me to hike there. I remain angered that an easement purchased by NY State taxpayers at a cost of something like $750,000 remains off limits to me, an ordinary taxpayer without the privileges of membership in the exclusive Ausable Club. Frankly, I refuse to partake on this transparent effort to limit use so as not to upset members of the club. This is a prime example of how the Adirondacks and wilderness areas in general remain enclaves for the privileged and in-crowd.

  6. Robert Coleburn says:

    Great article Peter! Very informative and you hit all the issues. At first I was skeptical of the AMR reservation system. I thought it was an underhanded way of keeping people off the Ausable Club/AMR property. But once I used the reservation system and had the comfort of knowing that I had a reserved space, my views changed. No more anxiety about whether I’d get a parking spot on my way in from Vermont. The system also prevents the trails from being overrun by too many hikers, but at the same time keeps the area accessible to all, you just need to plan ahead a bit. The AMR is a jewel of the Adirondacks, it needs to be preserved, and I don’t mind some light regulation to keep it that way.

  7. Randi says:

    I was not able to make a reservation two days before a weekend. It would be helpful if they opened up more spots on the weekends.

  8. AK67 says:

    It seems that if people had the sense to disperse themselves throughout the numerous trails in the Adirondack Park, there would be little to no need for these permit systems and limitations. The time, effort and resources being spent on this issue is mind blowing. Common sense applied by those who are creating the problem would help to eliminate the problem.

    Plan ahead and prepare, have a few backup hikes in mind in case the place you want to hike is already crowded. A full parking area at a trailhead means that there are already enough hikers trampling the trails in that area. Accept this reality. Be smart. Be flexible. Be kind. Truly CARE about the Adirondacks and their limited resources. There are plenty of trails for all of us to enjoy.

    • Boreas says:

      AK67,

      Indeed! Unfortunately today’s hikers are driven more by goals than common sense. Social media and the Adirondack 46Rs basically pushes many, if not most, users to hiking the High Peaks specifically.

      The first 30 years of the 46R club tallied roughly their first 2000 members. The next 30 years tallied about 10,000 completions! Current 46R roster is about 14,000 people. These are people that have FINISHED climbing the 46 “High Peaks” at least once. How many people started and never finished? How many people keep re-climbing those peaks?

      I completed the 46 around the 2000 number in the mid 80s, and remained a paying member until around 1990 when completions were nearing 3000! At that point, I conveyed my displeasure to the 46Rs that the focus on climbing the 46 as the only criteria was not really in the best interest of the High Peaks Wilderness we all love. Just the increase in numbers of hikers I encountered on trails between 1980 and 1990 was very obvious, as was trail degradation. I suggested to the 46R management that a membership cap should be considered. I did not receive a reply. To me, that spoke volumes, and I dropped my membership.

      The 46R organization has been great as far as offering resources and education to promote trail stability and sustainability, but they are certainly the elephant in the room that is only spoken of in hushed tones by most stakeholders. Today, there is still no cap and their arms are still outstretched to create aspiring members.

      I have mentioned several times over the years that if the 46Rs do not want to cap membership, they should at least consider altering their membership requirements to minimize impact on their namesake peaks. For instance, require 10 specified major peaks (that have sustainable, hardened trails that they help maintain), 6 non-specified peaks, 10 (5 specified, 5 non-specified) backcountry ponds/lakes/falls (hardened trails) around the the Park, 10 backcountry loop hikes (5 specified, 5 unspecified) (hardened trails) anywhere in the Park, and 10 backcountry paddles or skis/snowshoeing anywhere in the Park. These add up to 46, so the Adirondack 46R name can stay. It takes emphasis off of hiking and adds other traditional activities such as backpacking, paddling and/or skiing/snowshoeing. And most importantly, it spreads people to other beautiful areas of the Park.

      Ignoring the impacts of the 46R organization – both negative and positive – ignores a major component to perceived “overuse” of the HPW. In my mind, the above example is a long-term solution that is healthier for both the hikers and the RESOURCE. Heavily used trails can be hardened or rerouted while other trails get a respite from boots clambering just to tally remote peaks. My wish is that I would see the 46R organization adjust their qualifications in order to be more sustainable well past my demise. Who knows – perhaps I will even pay my 30 years of back-dues! This is a conversation that needs to be breached by stakeholders, and perhaps AA editors.

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