By Kris Parker
A short mountain trail and its Saranac Lake trailhead are attracting enough hikers to create the sort of “overuse” debate that surrounds higher-profile Adirondack peaks.
Roughly a mile from the village center, the trail at Baker Mountain and the street looping around Moody Pond are among the most accessible — and popular — destinations for those looking for short but scenic excursions. Their allure, for locals and for tourists, has caused residents to raise alarms about parking, road safety, pond pollution and trail erosion.
Topping out at 2,542 feet, Baker doesn’t draw the kinds of crowds that caused the governor to appoint an advisory group to analyze options for the High Peaks trailheads nearby. This trail starts in a quiet neighborhood, though, and the influx of hikers has raised calls to action.
“Saturdays are very busy and in the summer the tourist parking is crazy,” said Saranac Lake resident Ruth Hagmann, who visits the area every day.
The village promotes Baker to visiting hikers. The trail’s neighborhood access point is relatively unique for the region. Complicating matters is the fact that the neighborhood itself overlaps three local jurisdictions — the Village of Saranac Lake, the Town of St. Armand and the Town of North Elba — while Baker Mountain is on state land managed by the Department of Environmental Conservation.
A committee that is studying the issue has encouraged residents to submit ideas. It met for the first time in late May, and includes Saranac Lake Trustee Rich Shapiro, St. Armand Supervisor Davina Winemiller, North Elba’s Saranac Lake liaison, Derek Doty, and DEC Region 5 Acting Director Joe Zalewski.
“Until we can reach a consensus on what the problem is, solutions will continue to be hard to come by,” said Rich Shapiro.
There’s at least general agreement between residents and visitors that a primary problem is the amount of road traffic that the trailhead and pond attract. Forest Hill Avenue both circles Moody Pond and leads to the Baker Mountain trailhead. As the number of people parking alongside the road has increased, narrowing the lanes of traffic and encouraging pedestrians to walk closer to the road’s center, the Town of St. Armand has installed a series of “No Parking” signs along a stretch in its jurisdiction. Parking remains available near the trailhead, but with capacity for roughly 10 vehicles.
In March, St. Armand began issuing warnings and citations to vehicles touching pavement while parked at the trailhead — a decision not always appreciated by local hikers.
“It’s hit or miss whether it’s equitable,” Moody Pond resident Steve Sonnenberg said. “Tourists don’t mind paying a one-time fine of $25, while locals are less happy to pay a fine.”
Sonnenberg has personally counted 36 cars parked along Forest Hill Avenue prior to the “No Parking” going up.
Though the signs have helped, some residents worry that they make the place appear unwelcoming. Curt Stager, a Moody Pond resident and professor of natural sciences at Paul Smith’s College, favors using large boulders, rather than dozens of signs, to limit parking.
“If it were up to me, I’d use fewer signs, drop the speed limit, and use more boulders to block unwanted parking so the area looks less unfriendly,” he said. “I enjoy seeing the diversity of people who come; it’s great because it’s a beautiful, short climb.
“I love the place and want people to use it. It’s everybody’s place.”
Some have worried about leaks from vehicles polluting Moody Pond. After residents witnessed a suspected petrochemical sheen near the water’s edge last summer, St. Armand Supervisor Davina Winemiller asked the DEC to conduct a test to determine if vehicle runoff was affecting the 20-acre pond. The results determined that the sheen was a natural phenomenon called “iron bacteria,” but the risk of pollution originating from vehicles remains.
“I have not seen any indicators of runoff from cars yet, but for sure it could happen,” Winemiller said.
While Moody Pond remains vulnerable to pollution from parked vehicles, the roughly 1-mile trail up Baker Mountain has become substantially eroded in certain sections, leading to users creating their own trails as a result. The DEC is responsible for managing Baker Mountain, and when asked about the state of the trail and frequency of maintenance, the department emailed a response stating that it has periodically worked on the trail, using both department resources and volunteer groups.
“The existing trail up the mountain originated as a trail created by use – local residents finding their own way up the mountain,” the DEC said in its statement. “As with most user-created trails, the grades are unsustainable from a modern trail construction standpoint. Ideally a sustainable route would be located that addresses erosion concerns present on the current trail.”
Some community members have proposed trailhead relocation, though DEC said the “short access to the summit from State-owned road frontage on Forest Hill Rd would remain, regardless of whether the designated trail is moved.”
Like other parts of the Adirondacks, the Moody Pond neighborhood is trying to balance the local tourism economy with needed protections for the environment that attracts those tourists.
“It’s a classic case of getting what you wished for,” Stager said. “We want tourism to boost the local economy, but we don’t necessarily have the infrastructure.”
Some residents have linked hiker traffic to the Saranac Lake 6er challenge, for which the village awards a patch to hikers who summit six designated peaks. The list includes Baker Mountain.
“When the 6er challenge started, this place was mobbed, when beforehand people couldn’t find Baker Mountain on a map,” Sonnenberg said.
Not everyone thinks it’s the problem, though.
“Yes, added traffic was a result of the 6er program, but residents said they see just as much locals as tourists,” said Doty, North Elba’s representative to the committee studying Baker. “We can’t blame the 6er program.”
Different areas of the Adirondack Park are trying different hiker-management programs. One approach taken by the 7,000-acre Adirondack Mountain Reserve has been to pilot a system requiring hikers to make an online reservation before parking at its private lot. This system limits parking to 70 cars while allowing a maximum of 420 people to enter per day. At the Adirondak Loj, another popular starting point for the High Peaks, parking is on a first-come, first-served basis.
In the case of Baker Mountain and Moody Pond, the new committee is seeking compromise.
“We all make money from tourism, Doty said. “We just need to get it proportionate. It’s not like people will be turned away, but the residents only want enough traffic that they can bear.”