Now’s the right time for permits

AMR lot
Hikers walk along Ausable Road on the way to the Adirondack Mountain Reserve trailhead. Photo by Mike Lynch


By Jack K. Drury

Finally there’s a serious attempt to collect data on how a permit system might provide a higher quality wilderness experience. But what were we waiting for, New York City’s Central Park to provide a higher quality wilderness experience than the High Peaks?

From reading the online forums you’d think a permit system ranks up there with mask wearing as an infringement on life, liberty and the pursuit of a Wilderness experience. A couple of things to keep in mind; first, this is an experiment that, even if made permanent, will leave over three million acres of forest preserve and conservation easements accessible without a permit. Second, the worst case scenario is that permits will be required for specific, overused areas, during the times of year when that overuse occurs. But is that really bad?

The idea of a permit system in the High Peaks Wilderness Area has been around for ages. In 1977 the High Peaks Wilderness Advisory Committee Report recommended permits as an educational means and a method of statistically analyzing camper use. The committee acknowledged that permits may be inevitable in specific areas or in sections of the Adirondack Park. But hey, that was over 40 years ago. 

In 1999 the DEC’s High Peaks Wilderness Complex Unit Management Plan required possession of a self-issuing permit. It didn’t last long. My guess is that the Department didn’t have the personnel to crunch the data collected and it’s too bad because the data would have been invaluable in addressing today’s challenges. In the modern world decision making is data driven. It’s time for the DEC to do the same.

Perhaps solitude is not something you value. Perhaps you don’t mind seeing hordes of people in our Adirondack Wilderness areas. But that misses the point. There’s a legislative mandate to avoid visitor crowding and conflict, and to maintain natural conditions and solitude. Hordes cause the first, and permits help the latter.

Why do I feel that the whining is more about a sense of entitlement than about a permit system? Folks want to hike where, when, and with whomever they want. For example I’ve seen folks on the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR) riding their bike or bringing their dog, even though both are prohibited. It’s private property, folks. The AMR is entitled to regulate it as they see fit.

The problem is relatively simple; We have too many people, too uneducated, and too unprepared venturing into the wilderness. The solutions are complex. A required parking permit to access these lands however, will allow the state; to collect much-needed data, improve public safety, provide equitable access, and protect the resource. It is a laudable effort that we should all celebrate.

So what does requiring a permit demand? It demands only adopting the primary principle of Leave No Trace: Plan Ahead and Prepare. Is that too much to ask? I don’t think so. We all know the stories of visitors who, due to poor planning and preparation, not only put themselves at risk but also damage the resources we all love so much.

I’ve had the opportunity to travel through numerous wilderness areas around the world and many of them required permits. One of the most inspirational places I have ever visited, the backcountry of the Navajo Nation, required a permit. Did requiring a permit take away from the transformational experience. No, it allowed it. It would have had no impact if we had shared it with throngs of others. Its spiritual nature required solitude.

A permit was required for our two-week paddle through a portion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Did it detract from our experience? No, it allowed us to experience the area without fighting crowds for available campsites and experience Wilderness’ greatest attribute, solitude. Without permits our trip would have been less than the wonderful experience we had, and, more like a paddle down Manhattan’s East River.

Permits will allow the state to make better decisions about management of our Adirondack wild lands. Myself, I’d trade needing a permit for a higher-quality Wilderness experience any old day.

Jack is Professor Emeritus of North Country Community College having founded the college’s Wilderness Recreation Leadership Program and has spent his career training educators throughout North America, the United Kingdom and the Middle East. He has been an Adirondack guide for 45 years, is past president of the Wilderness Education Association, and is the co-author of five books.

About Adirondack Explorer

The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

Reader Interactions


  1. Zephyr says

    So apparently you feel that the state can just allow private landowners to dictate when and where the public can access public easements accessing the forest preserve? With no study or facts done with regard to traffic, carrying capacity, possible environmental degradation, etc.? Where is the study done that indicates there was actually a problem that needed to be solved? Where is the evidence that a study is now being done measuring anything? Where is the evidence of a transparent public process creating legal rules for public access? We all know the answers to these questions. The AMR has been trying for decades to get out of its legal obligations providing public access to the public, and now the DEC has decided to grant them their wish for some unknown reasons via some backroom deal that was just sprung on the public with no chance for comment or modification in a transparent manner. Imagine how you would react if a public park in your town was suddenly gated off with no announcement, no public discussion, no evidence of why the gate was needed, and no explanation of how data or what data would be collected during the “pilot” program.

  2. Jesse Gigandet says

    I’m not opposed to the concept of parking permits, but I agree with Zephyr – there was no real study done – and the AMR is actually far less of a problem than the Cascade Pitch-off parking and foot traffic on the trails. The AMR has had a contentious (often rude) approach to the hikers that they are LEGALLY bound to allow on their property for access to several hikes. They pay minimal takes, and were bailed out of near bankruptcy in the 1970’s by the state in exchange for access to the state lands. This is nothing more than a back-door deal they made with the DEC.

    On its busies days last year, Cascade recorded well over 300 hikers reaching it’s summit. This new restriction of 70 cars at the AMR allows up to 6 hikers per car… but realistically on average there will likely be closer to 2. Which means only approx. 140 hikers will be allowed to enter and choose from 9 high peaks, plus Pyramid, Noonmark, Round Pond, Indian Head, Rainbow Falls, Gill Brook Trail, the Lady’s Mile and Ausable Lake. Compare that to the 300-400 that summit Cascade from 1 trail in a single day.

    I have never seen garbage or human waste on ANY of the trails in this range – likely because they are more difficult trails that are more frequented by experienced hikers that respect the land they are on.

    As far as a safety issue, there hasn’t been a single vehicle/pedestrian accident in this stretch of road, ever. Parking is an issue – but there is plenty of space in the AMR Parking lot if they would take down the ropes that block it from being used to expand their lot.

    Why is the state discouraging people who want to get off of their couch and enjoy nature from doing so? This should be something that’s celebrated!

  3. gebby says

    Does the author think that this permit system is going to make for more educated and prepared hikers, or will they just be shunted off somewhere else, where they will still be just as unprepared and uneducated! Shunting these hikers elsewhere, perhaps to more fragile and unprotected places is going to do more harm than good. Much of the hikes in the club lands start on a maintained road, well-suited to deal with the numbers of people hiking there: whereas, other areas are much less suited to the traffic. This permit system is going to cause people to look to bushwhack on to the club’s lands and create obvious herd paths, where currently there are none and is going to cause people to hike longer distances to get to the Great Range and both work arounds are going to lead to increased rescues in the area. This is nothing but the club having seller’s remorse and trying to keep the “great unwashed” off of their property! By the way, WHERE’S THE SHUTTLE!!!! WHERE’S THE VISITOR’S CENTER!!!! Why do we excuse away the state’s responsibility for driving traffic to the Adirondacks and rather than hire more rangers, they are actively seeking yet more volunteers to staff trailheads to educate hikers, rather than make the required and appropriate investments needed?

  4. EDP says

    Permits may very well be a necessary solution to the overcrowding problem in the High Peaks but questioning the extensiveness and transparency of the process that led to this program or the establishment of the metrics that will ultimately define success, is certainly understandable. How successful was the AMR’s decision to restrict parking during the height of the pandemic? Having an aggressively self-interested party steering such a significant effort is very unfortunate.
    At the root of all of the issues facing the Adirondacks is a lack of adequate funding. You don’t need an ‘experiment’ to determine that restricting access via a permit system, will result in lower hiker numbers. I would rather see consideration for establishing a fee-based individual user pass, at least, initially for the High Peaks. Yes, it will be a bear to implement and enforce (no tougher than a permit though) but having another source of revenue, albeit modest, from the actual users of the Park, seems worthy of a conversation at least.

  5. TRAILOGRE says

    “So what does requiring a permit demand? It demands only adopting the primary principle of Leave No Trace: Plan Ahead and Prepare. Is that too much to ask? I don’t think so. We all know the stories of visitors who, due to poor planning and preparation, not only put themselves at risk but also damage the resources we all love so much.”

    A Permit system does no such thing !!!!!!!

    The State would be better off stationing a Pete Fish at every main trailhead
    to turn the unprepared away
    It would be cheaper too
    instead of this ridiculous permit

  6. Lou Harv says

    Wow, some of these comments are so detached from reality it makes me think that they’re all from the same person with an axe to grind against AMR. “The AMR has been trying for decades to get out of its legal obligations providing public access to the public…”. Really, providing decades of open access to hikers and maintaining a parking lot is trying to “get out of its legal obligation”? If you go back and read the 1978 agreement, I believe it stipulates 20 parking spaces, not 70. That seems to me like they’re going beyond their “legal obligation”. If you’re going to cast blame and accusations, please make sure it’s based in fact, not fabricated by personal animus. I having been hiking the Adirondacks since I was a kid and feel personally attached like many, but I’m also not going to allow my feelings to cloud facts and reality. As the author noted, there are millions of acres of hiking trails and parking lots that aren’t affected by this reservation system. If you’re unhappy about it, choose any number of hikes that don’t take you through this lot, or just keeping griping on ADK Explorer website rather than going out and enjoying the Park!

    • EDP says

      Fortunately, we can do both. Personally, I’ll likely get behind a permit system, once properly vetted, but after having spent many years/decades in the park with some direct and indirect interaction with the AC/AMA, I’d simply question them as the appropriate independent, unbiased manager and evaluator of this effort, their extra parking spaces notwithstanding.

    • Jeanne says

      Nicely said, Lou Harv. I too agree. I’ve been hiking inthe High Peaks since 78, and in the last five years, I’ve seen too much disrespect for the woods.
      This really will insure that ‘ we are protecting the people in the woods’ & ‘protecting the woods from the people’. I believe a female Ranger coined this phrase. It’s true, too!


    There needs to be a shuttle bus, otherwise, how can they say this has anything to do with what they say it does?? really we need more shuttle buses across the board up and down 73

  8. ADKFunPolice says

    You lose all credibility when you say “it’s private property.” It belies an ignorance of the subject matter. it’s a PUBLICLY owned easement. That’s public property. Try telling your municipality that they can’t come on your property on their right of way and see how that works out for you.

  9. Iroh says

    Am I missing something? Isn’t this about obtaining definitive numbers that everyone says they don’t have?

    Also isn’t 70 spaces twice as many as available last summer?

    • Zephyr says

      Yes, you are missing the point that nowhere has any number counting been shown to exist or be planned. This idiotic permit system will not generate any useful numbers, even if someone is counting. For example, why force someone who rides a bicycle to get a parking permit? Why force someone who through hikes and exits from the parking lot to get a permit? Why outlaw dropping people off without permits? Why allow people with bus tickets to get permits when there is no way to get from the bus stop to the trailhead? Why allow no-shows to reserve permits, not use them, and then eliminate the possibility of someone else from hiking that day? Right from the get go this “pilot” study is bogus–where are the studies with numbers that show there is a problem and what numbers are they trying to achieve?

  10. Steve says

    I completed the 46ers in 2019. I watched the conditions of the trails deteriorate over the years. We mostly hiked on Mondays as it would allow us to hike later during the week in case of rain. We also carried a garbage bag with us so on our hike out, we could clean the trails, removing a beer can from the trees in hike to / from Marcy. We never came out empty handed. I would agree that being Monday, the trails could have been in worse shape due to the number of people hiking over the weekend.

    I recall hiking through the Flowed Lands. The condition of the trails from my first hike to Marshall to the last hike in 2019 was in extremely poor shape. My initial thought was how could the State / DEC allow the trails get so bad. In reflection, could it have been the the hundreds, like me, using the trail to the point proper maintenance cannot be maintained.

    I agree we need to make educated decisions. Will the use of a permit system allow us to do this? I honestly believe it is a start and just might.

    I have a granddaughter who hiked 5 peaks with me. Now because of school, sports and employment she does not hike with me. Disappointed – yes I am but respect her for what she is accomplishing. She hopes to hit the trails maybe in college (studying but no sports), and afterwards.

    We should not be so short sighted. I believe this change is hard on many (and not so on many as well). Instead of complaining, maybe we should concentrate our energies on finding a solution to allow us and our grandchildren to enjoy the wonders of the High Peaks.

    As my grandmother told me “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem” (Now I am like the commercial and I have truly become my parents LOL)

    • Jim Doran says

      Despite my Master’s Degree and beyond, I am not “educated” enough on the ADK system to have an opinion on permits. But since the super-educated prof apparently favors masks, and “data-driven” policies, I thought I’d pass along some data. The only controlled trial done on mask wearing and Covid was done in Denmark, and showed no efficacy from masks. Likewise, the strong preponderance of studies on masks and flu transmission done prior to Covid showed no efficacy. Finally, look out the window. Since masks became ubiquitous (and they are ubiquitous despite the prof’s grumbling about opposition) in late spring 2020, the country and the world have seen no less than 3 major surges in Covid. The data show clearly that masks don’t work. So given the prof’s data-free opinion on masks, could he also be wrong on permits?

    • Aaron says

      Hike out west where the foot-traffic dwarfs what the HPW area experiences, with their modernized switchback trails, then come back and tell me the problem is “too many people”. No, the problem is the one you first cited, a lack of investment and planning by the state on state-owned lands to build trails that can both handle increased traffic while BETTER protecting the resource. Trail erosion has been an issue here for decades because, in many instances, construction was based on following watersheds and providing the most direct route to the summit. Do more hikers exacerbate the problem of bad design? Yes, but don’t blame the hikers for that.

  11. William Cramer says

    I LIVE here. I hike here. I pay taxes here. The High Peaks are on STATE land. Take your permits and go somewhere else.

  12. Paul G says

    You…you know 99% of the people you see parked on the side of the road aren’t camping right?? The state considered permits back in 1977 because most people camped back then. Thats why they only allocated 11 parking spaces at Round Pond and a dozen at Roaring brook. Today the vast majority aren’t camping. Shut up with this permit crap and just work on getting us somewhere to park.

  13. Erin says

    Solitude?? You want solitude in the high peaks?? Why?? There is an epidemic of loneliness in this country. We have too much solitude at home and at work. The last thing younger people today want or need is more solitude. Stop wrecking everything for us before all you boomers finally just die.

  14. RickG says

    First of all, this is NOT private property, it’s state land. Second, it’s not a permit system its a “parking reservation”, because if it were a permit system they would’ve had to do a host of reviews and comment periods. There’s even a sign set up that says “parking reservation” so why are we not allowed to be dropped off or ride our bikes there?
    I also don’t appreciate this dude’s condescending attitude.
    Finally, who is going to oversee this “parking reservation” system? How can we trust AMR who for years have sought to limit access. They run the whole reservation system, so who is to say they just do “buy” them up and have nobody on the land. If the state wants this system, it should be run by the state for the public good, NOT a private entity with a history of trying to limit access.

  15. ADKBCSkier says

    I can’t think of a more condescending and narrow-minded way to spread the wrong message at the wrong time. This is just plain embarrassing for the ADK Explorer.

  16. ChapelPomdGirl says

    This whole article circles around one central point, a point the author doesn’t want to come right out and say. They believe that these spaces ought to remain wilderness and offer solitude, the form of recreation experience that THEY think everyone should have.

    At the same time the author is condescending to every day users of this land, calling them “hordes”, “selfish”, “entitled”. It seems to me the author is the one who may have a sense of entitlement here.

    Everyone has a right to access these spaces. It’s not up to any one of us to determine what user experience is more valid. Use permits are a valid management tool in many places, mostly places with limited or access points. It may be valid here, but that’s besides the point. A permit system is not addressing the actual problem.

    That problem is CRITICAL RECREATION INFRASTRUCTURE in the High Peaks, and all of the Adirondacks, is dreadfully inadequate to meet to challenges of a modern society.

    Sustainable Trails
    Education Opportunities
    Adequate Parking

    Fix those problems and the rest of the boogeyman problems will disappear like morning fog on a sunny summer day.

    • Aaron says

      Spot on. Having just recently returned from out west to home in Keene, it’s remarkable to me that the people who cite permitting in National Parks and day-use areas out west unfailingly forget to mention how different the trails are out there. The use of switchbacks and smart drainage reflects a decades-long investment in backcountry stewardship that is both respectful to the land as well as offering access to a more diverse population of outdoor enthusiasts. They also fail to mention how many of those western state and National parks offer multiple entry points, parking areas, and ample amenities such as toilet facilities and information kiosks, again, part of a decades-long investment.

  17. HaggardSean says

    This is exactly why I canceled my ADK membership years ago, I don’t need to hear more lecturing that I’m “whining” just because I want to be able to hike on state land that I enjoy.
    We all know the issue is a lack of funding and planning, one look at the Whites or any major national park shows that properly built trails and parking spaces/shuttle busses can handle numbers 10 times what the high peaks get.

  18. Michael Stubbings says

    Here, Jack.. Read something written by someone who actually does know what they’re talking about.
    “It’s not use that’s causing trail damage. It’s design, which encourages erosion. During the past century, Adirondack trails were built without consideration for sustainability. But you don’t have to go back 100 years to find instances of poor judgment. Even within the past few decades trails have been built by people with no training in sustainable design.”

  19. Michael DAnniballe says

    What a massive load of garbage. Locals want this to keep “outsiders” of their own public lands. Little to these people know, restricted access means restricted tourist dollars. All of those tourists you love to hate that allow you to live in the place you do will eventually stop showing up and you’ll all be left with nothing.

  20. Sarah Tipton says

    I think the idea of a permit is a great idea, except reservations should not be allowed to be made months in advance. Maybe a week in advance so others get a chance to reserve a time and permit.

    My husband and I just hiked the Indian Head trailhead. We thought it was awesome that we were the only ones on the trail, because we hiked the Tatra Mountains in Poland and there were so many people it really was miserable in some parts. I’m talking thousands of people going up to one destination spot like Rysy and Morski Oko. And it’s dangerous terrain. So, the permit idea is good…do it! Preserve the wild and keep the experience of solitude there for the hikers. We’ve seen what over tourism does to a beautiful place. It’s ugly.

  21. hikers says

    Solitude can be dangerous. More people on the trails make things safer for everyone. Imagine you badly sprain an ankle or break a bone in your leg. You’re alone, and your phone is dead. Would you wish for solitude then?

  22. Erik Bruhns says

    Thank you Jack for a great perspective on the Permit system in High Use areas — I have avoided the high Peaks for the reason of overcrowding and overuse for the past 25 years. It would be nice to revisit without the crowds someday. I’m all for a permit system — like you said — the other 3 million acres is always open to any visitor without a permit.

  23. Michael says

    Great idea but I’d add fees to the permits. If this had happened in the 90s maybe I’d still be livingin there.

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