Last weekend was ideal to be out hiking in the Adirondacks. Warm temperatures, sunny skies, with fall foliage color near or at its peak in many places.
The result was record crowds on trails of the popular High Peaks – numbers so great that some state and local officials were left shaking their heads wondering whether it’s finally time to limit the numbers of hikers through paid permits for parking areas to popular trailheads. Also, it emphasized the need to hire more state Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Rangers and other staff to help deal with things, some said.
“It was nuts,” said Scott Van Lear, a union representative for the Forest Rangers who was on duty and was personally involved in several rescues of injured hikers, a few who had to be carried off trails in Essex County.
Meanwhile, Forest Rangers and local officials are wondering how they’ll cope with problems associated with the growing numbers this weekend and the following Columbus Day weekend, when the size of the hiking crowd traditionally peaks each year.
The increasing number of hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts is something that’s been building for years in the Adirondacks, Van Lear said.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, though, there has been an additional bump of individuals arriving to enjoy the beauty of the area from throughout the state and behind. And normally an estimated third of those who come each year are from Canada, who aren’t on the scene this year due the border restrictions put in place during the pandemic.
So, what about next year when the Canadians come back adding to the mix? There are no quick answers.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation through the summer has been putting out press releases urging hikers to seek other outings and trails less traveled, emphasizing the “Leave No Trace Principals” of hiking and behaviors to reduce the risks of getting the Covid-19 virus. DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos has said measures such as a paid permit parking system will only be used as a last resort.
Problems this year associated with the growing numbers of hikers include:
*Overflowing parking lots and illegal parking along roadways. It has gotten to the point where hikers are arriving so early to secure a parking spot that a number are sleeping in their vehicles, or illegally setting up tents or hammocks at the trailheads.
“Arriving at 5 a.m. at a trailhead no longer guarantees one a parking spot,” said John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council.
In some areas, tickets are issued and cars are even towed, but it doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference. Shuttle services that were previously running from designated parking lots to traiheads in Keene and elsewhere this year have been shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Last weekend, after the Adirondack LOJ (a lodge run by the Adirondack Mountain Club offering a variety of services to hikers) parking lot filled up, some hikers parked along the roadand were hiking as much as 2 ½ miles before reaching a trailhead to start their day, Van Lear said.
*The harmful tromping of novice or uncaring hikers who often leave the established trails, doing damage to the vegetation alongside them and littering. Education has been identified as a key to dealing with many of these problems. The DEC has tried to make extensive use of social media, Rangers and volunteer mountain summit stewards to help teach hikers about the “Leave No Trace” principals of hiking, including how to take care of one’s bathroom needs in the woods. But some incidents this year have been unprecedented, such as when some hikers spray painted graffiti on trees and rocks along trails in the Hudson River Recreation Area in Warren County and Blue Mountain in Hamilton County.
*Unprepared newbies. Examples include hikers who arrive say at noon or 1 p.m. to do a lengthy hike, with little water and food, inappropriate footwear and clothing, no map, no compass, no headlamps – essentially completely unprepared to make their way back in the darkness or to spend the night if needed.
Town of Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson said he has been aggressively monitoring the parking and hiker traffic in his community for the past four years. He said enforcement of parking regulations isn’t enough, and that education and an increase in facilities and staffing to run those facilities and programs on and off the mountain trails and mountain summits is needed.
“There’s a tradition, a culture up here that one can park, step out of their car and disappear into the woods,” Wilson said. “There’s just so many new, inexperienced hikers. A whole level of those who don’t know about preparedness or the proper way to hike on the trails.”
Even though there is a lot of helpful information online and through other sources about being safe and responsible while hiking in the Adirondacks, many fail to check it out, Van Lear said. “I’m constantly surprised by people who lack sufficient knowledge about things.”
One recent example was the man who ignored the signs and drove his jeep up a closed trail halfway up toward the Marcy Dam, parked and then hiked Mt. Phelps.
“That guy was clueless. He had no idea what he had done,” Wilson said.
*Not enough staff to deal with the problems. Last year, around this time there were 61 rescues in the High Peaks ranger district. Already, there have been 91, Van Lear said. Those rescued pay nothing to cover expenses of the efforts as the DEC has determined rescues are part of what Forest Rangers are paid to do, one of their core duties.
What’s the DEC doing about this?
Last year, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos announced the formation of the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group (HPAG), a group made up of key stakeholders with expertise in local government, recreation, natural resource protection, business, tourism, and other areas.
“We are formalizing our next steps to address sustainable use in the Adirondacks, as well as other areas like the Catskill Park, using input we continue to receive and are actively engaged in discussing options, including permits, with stakeholders and the public. All options are being considered at this time,” according to written statement issued by the DEC.
An interim report was recently issued with the following proposed actions:
1. Establishing an independent visitor information group to provide relevant data and analysis to the State and stakeholders;
2. Strictly enforcing parking regulations with an increased presence of New York State Police and DEC Forest Rangers and Environmental Conservation Police Officers on State Route 73 and other roads;
3. Educating hikers on social distancing and the use of face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Forest Rangers, Assistant Forest Rangers, and Trailhead Stewards are taking the lead on these efforts;
4. Reducing the parking capacity at AMR lots at Roaring Brook Falls to 28 vehicles and the Rooster Comb Parking Lot by 50 percent;
5. Advising motorists about limited trailhead parking and closures using electronic variable messaging boards and additional signage on I-87 and Route 73, social media, and additional outreach;
6. Working with area municipalities to coordinate human waste management; and
7. Using social media and other platforms to educate hikers about the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace (LNT) while hiking.
As for increasing the numbers of Forest Rangers in the High Peaks area, Stephen Smith, the DEC’s Deputy Commissioner for Public Protection, said, “DEC continually reviews Ranger and Environmental Conservation Police Officer staffing assignments to ensure coverage for all areas of the state. Staffing levels at DEC are consistent with what they have been in years past, despite reduced state revenues and hardships endured by New York State amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”
He added that, “Hiking in remote wilderness areas is not without inherent risk. Hikers must bear individual responsibility to be prepared for whatever conditions they may encounter.”
Sheehan from the Adirondack Council agrees with the Advisory Council’s recommendations but stressed that a paid parking permit system should be put into effect first, rather than last.
“As long as it could be a modest fee (for for the parking reservation), we think that would be OK,” he said.
He said the private Ausable Club in Essex County, which allows public access on its lands to a dozen High Peaks and other mountain trailheads, would be a good place to start with a pilot program for a paid, online parking permitting process, leaving a few extra spaces open on a first-come basis.
If nothing else, it would guarantee hikers a parking spot for these outings, as opposed to now when they only find out when they arrive at a location.
And as for the Rangers, he said, they are trained for a number of duties.
However, the increased number of rescues of hikers is turning the Rangers into an “EMT force, with them often riding around or meeting an ambulance somewhere,” he said.
Students sharpen survival skills with 14-day adventure in Adirondacks
Injured hikers airlifted out of dicey situations in the Adirondacks: Forest Ranger rescues
The Run: It’s ‘finally starting to look like salmon season’ on Lake Ontario tributaries