Is a diminutive, soft-voiced recent college grad really the answer to the over-crowding problem in the Adirondack High Peaks?
She might be part of it. Naomi Hodgson is one of the new, home-grown “front country stewards” stationed at critical spots on busy hiking weekends. Their job is to direct hikers to right-sized hikes for their experience and skill level, recommend necessary gear and preparation, and provide critical pointers and friendly advice.
“I don’t get so many flip flops here,” she said. “Just sneakers, which is not so bad, really. I haven’t seen a person with flip flops in a while. “
‘Here’ is the Garden, which is a trailhead parking lot, really, not a garden at all, and it serves as the gateway to miles of rugged trails through the Johns Brook Valley, up to the Great Range, Mt. Marcy, and much more. Trying those trails in flip flops is kind of crazy to even think about.
The Town of Keene charges $10 a night for parking ‘here,’ and runs a shuttle bus from Marcy Field, down in the AuSable valley, for the same price. The Garden lot holds about 40 cars, and on busy weekends the shuttle brings hundreds of additional hikers. Hodgson greets them at the window of her little wooden booth.
“Some people walk up the hill and come up to my window, and say, ‘We’ve never hiked before, what do we need to know.’“ Some hikers ask her for the name of the mountain they planned to climb. They forgot the name — and a map.
Hodgson finished her 3rd year as a steward over the Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples weekend. The mission is to better manage the parking and hiker flow, thereby keeping spill-over parking off the residential and business streets in the hamlet of Keene Valley. That’s in addition to the job of welcoming hikers and educating them on how to be better prepared and safe. Paper maps have given way to cell phone apps; headlamps to cell phone flashlights. And who carries extra batteries?
The Town’s complex project is to ‘protect the resource’ (mountain trails) from over-crowding and still encourage people to come and enjoy this wonderful Adirondack Park. That is, after all, every New Yorker’s constitutional right. Those visitors are also the tourist-dollar life-blood of the region.
Keene won a “Smart Growth” New York State grant to pay for the stewards, beginning in 2020. The town spent about $24,000 in each of the first two years, and $16,000 this year. (Four stewards the first two years, only two this year.)
Keene may be at the epicenter of the recent explosion of hiker traffic, but the town is not alone in scrambling to confront the issues.
This front-country model has been adopted by the 46ers organization (which recruits volunteers for extra busy trailheads like Cascade), by the Adirondack Mountain Club (which has staffers at the Heart Lake hiker center and atop the most popular peaks), and by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (assigns staff to the streets of Lake Placid and at other key spots).
Can Hodgson persuade people to turn around when they are not prepared? “It’s hard once they have a parking space here,” she said, gesturing toward the most prized parking places in the High Peaks. “One man came in and was going to Saddleback at two in the afternoon. He got lost and spent the night out, which could have been dangerous. “ That’s a long, tough hike, and you should be heading home at 2 pm, not starting out.
“But I can usually talk them into going to get spikes or a headlamp or a bear canister.” During our interview, Hodgson gently turned around two cars in succession for exactly that reason, sending them back down into the valley for some smart shopping.
The contact numbers go up and down. In 2020, the first Covid summer, the Park was nearly overwhelmed, as it seemed that half the Covid-trapped people in the Northeast decided that hiking the High Peaks was “the answer.” ‘Chaotic,’ is what Naomi Hodgson recalls, in part because Covid prevented the town from running its shuttle bus from Marcy Field to the Garden.
Since then, things in Keene have calmed down, the parking flow has smoothed out, and fewer hikers are parked in the hamlets, in front of businesses, or in the path of emergency vehicles.
Local and state officials – as well as volunteer leaders at the Adirondack Mountain Club, the 46ers, and the Adirondack Council – are cautiously optimistic that new shuttles and parking rules, combined with a flood of on-line information and personal contacts with Hodgson and dozens of other stewards, are making a difference.
Of course, ‘the jury is still out.’ It is encouraging that the State is committed to actually collecting data to monitor what is happening.
In the meantime, here’s one encouraging data point: Hodgson hasn’t called a tow truck in a whole year!
Photo provided by the author