No community identifies with the High Peaks as much as Keene Valley. State Route 73, the only way in or out, snakes through the same mountains that attract tens of thousands of hikers to the hamlet every year.
Now the High Peaks are closed and Route 73 is barricaded to the north and south—a double-whammy to a local economy that relies on tourist traffic.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation may start opening some trails in the High Peaks as early as next week, but it’s uncertain when the highway will reopen. During Tropical Storm Irene, raging brooks washed out parts of the road, creating giant craters.
Keene Valley business owners would like to see the road repaired before Columbus Day weekend, one of the busiest times of the year. That’s just five weeks away.
“The road closure is obviously devastating for all of us who own businesses in Keene Valley. It’s our lifeline,” said Marion Jeffers, owner of the Birch Store, which sells clothing, housewares, and other goods.
“Basically, our season ends on Columbus Day weekend,” said Vinny McClelland, owner of the Mountaineer, an outdoors store. “If we can’t get that road open quickly there are going to be a lot of hurting businesses here.”
Earlier this week, Carol Breen, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, said Route 73 would be reopened before winter. When I called back today to ask if it could be reopened before Columbus Day, she said she could not predict, but she and other DOT officials say fixing the road is a priority.
Business owners are upset with DOT for erecting a wooden barricade north of Keene Valley at the junction of Route 73 and Route 9N near the hamlet of Keene. Signs on the barricade direct motorists who want to get on the Northway to head east toward Elizabethtown. Ordinarily, southbound motorists would pick up the Northway after continuing on Route 73 through Keene Valley, but 73 is impassable below Saint Huberts.
Although people can drive between Keene and Keene Valley on Route 73, Jeffers contends that the barricade creates the impression that the road to her hamlet is closed.
“They should remove the barricade and make it clear that the Keene Valley business district is open,” Jeffers said. “Now more than ever, we need people to come and support us.”
In fact, after some prodding, DOT did install a sign saying the business district is open, but Jeffers insists that the barricade should go. McClelland suggested that barricade be replaced by signs indicating that the road is closed south of Keene Valley.
Breen said DOT hopes to improve the signage at the intersection next week “to clear up some of the confusion,” but she said some kind of barricade is likely to stay. She said DOT feels a barricade is necessary to grab the attention of motorists looking for the Northway.
South of Keene Valley, Route 73 is barricaded at the intersection with U.S. Route 9. The distance between the two barricades is about eleven miles, but the heaviest damage is concentrated in a half-mile stretch at St. Huberts, a tiny seasonal community a few miles south of Keene Valley.
The other day I traveled (by car and by foot) the whole stretch of Route 73 between the barricades. Here’s what I observed:
- The five or so miles from U.S. 9 to the south entrance of the Ausable Club appears to have sustained relatively minor damage along the shoulders of the road or along pull-offs. In the worst section, a narrow forty-foot strip along the east shoulder had collapsed, leaving the guard rail dangling.
- In the half-mile between the Ausable Club’s south and north entrances, Roaring Brook undercut the highway dramatically in three places, gouging out craters that extend beyond the middle of the road.
- The five and a half miles between the Ausable Club’s north entrance (in St. Huberts) and Route 9N also appears to have sustained only minor damage. In fact, people are already driving on this stretch. Traffic cones mark damaged shoulders.
Of course, DOT engineers may find problems that escape a layman, but it seems to me that the stretch south of St. Huberts also could be open after a little roadwork. This would give the public access to popular hiking trails and rock-climbing cliffs in the Giant Mountain Wilderness and Dix Mountain Wilderness. Although both Wilderness Areas are now closed, they are likely to reopen before the worst damage to Route 73 is repaired.
It would be possible for motorists to avoid the craters near St. Huberts by taking a detour through the Ausable Club. By doing so, they could reach Keene Valley from the south. The road through the club property is owned by the town, but Highway Superintendent Bruce Reed said it is not designed for a large volume of traffic. The road is narrow, and part of it is dirt.
Even if people won’t be able to drive to Keene Valley from the south, it seems worthwhile to reopen the southern part of Route 73 to give the public access to trailheads and climbing cliffs (as well as to Chapel Pond). I asked DOT’s Breen about this possibility.
“We’ll open any portions we can as soon as we can,” she said, “but we can’t say at this point which portions they would be.”
If DOT doesn’t act quickly, though, the rest of the tourist season will be lost.
“September is a good month for us up here,” said Steve Bowers, owner of the Rooster Comb Inn and a rustic furniture maker. “It’s when the Adirondacks are at their most beautiful. Losing that drive-by traffic we suspect will be devastating.”