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.