A sharp rise in hikers climbing some of the region’s highest mountains leads to the degradation of natural resources and raises a variety of other issues.
By MIKE LYNCH
The number of hikers in the High Peaks has been steadily increasing in recent years, especially near Lake Placid and Keene Valley, raising concerns about safety and degradation of natural resources.
“I think that we’ve got a serious overuse of some of our places in the High Peaks,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). “Clearly, Cascade and Pitchoff are just getting a very large number of people.”
Located along Route 73, Cascade Mountain is one of the easiest and most accessible of the High Peaks to climb. Pitchoff Mountain, while not a High Peak, also is popular and rises just across the highway. On a busy weekend, it’s not unusual to see dozens of cars lining the narrow road and large numbers of hikers on both summits.
State Department of Environmental Conservation statistics show the number of hikers signing the register at Cascade each year more than doubled over the past decade—from 16,091 in 2006 to 33,149 in 2015. Much of the jump occurred over the past five years.
On weekends and holidays, hundreds of people may climb Cascade on the same day. On the Sunday of the Labor Day weekend in 2015, the summit steward reported coming into contact with 540 people.
Adirondack Mountain Club Education Director Julia Goren, who oversees the summit- steward program, said it’s good news that hiking numbers are up because people who enjoy the outdoors are more likely to become conservation-minded later in life, but the increase is happening faster than expected.
“You need to have people have direct experience [of the outdoors], but on the other hand, you need to manage the population, and I don’t think that anyone is quite ready for the numbers of people who show up,” Goren said.
Cascade isn’t the only trail seeing steadily rising usage. The Van Hoevenberg Trail, which starts near Adirondak Loj, is perhaps the most popular trail in the Park. It leads to Mount Marcy and is used to reach other destinations in the eastern High Peaks. Last year, 53,423 people signed the trail register—a 62 percent increase from 2005.
Although that’s a steep rise, the 2015 number is only 6,486 higher than the 1998 number. Visitation in the eastern High Peaks decreased in the early 2000s after the state Department of Environmental Conservation enacted regulations in 1999 that, among other things, limited the size of hiking groups and prohibited fires.
The recent increase in hikers mirrors regional trends. Hiking challenges play a part. In New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the number of people hiking the four-thousand-footers rose from 330 in 2010 to 529 in 2015—a 60 percent jump. Likewise, the number of hikers climbing the forty-six High Peaks in the Adirondacks also has increased dramatically (see sidebar).
Neil Woodworth, ADK’s executive director, said numbers in the High Peaks are way up partly because the state has been marketing the Lake Placid region as part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s initiative to increase tourism in the Adirondacks.
“Maybe the solution is to start advertising other places in the Park. Usage in the Adirondack Forest Preserve is very, very uneven,” Woodworth said. “You’ve got all these people using the eastern High Peaks, but you could go just a short distance away to the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest or you could go to the Hoffman Notch Wilderness, and you could find very little usage. We could do a better job of spreading people around.”
The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST), which is based in Lake Placid, says hiking is by far the most popular outdoor activity of people who visit the Adirondacks. ROOST Executive Director Jim McKenna said the non-profit organization already promotes other areas of the Park such as Hamilton County and Tupper Lake.
“Most of our effort has been at the surrounding area, not the High Peaks,” McKenna said. “We try to expose the other areas than the High Peaks because they need it, and the High Peaks [visitation] almost happens on its own. I think anybody that’s getting into hiking or knows hiking, if they are going to come to the Adirondacks, they are probably going to gravitate to the High Peaks.”
McKenna also pointed out that most visitors to the LakePlacid.com website are looking for short hikes, not hikes in the High Peaks—although interest in all hiking content has been way up in recent years.
Woodworth and others fear that the increased traffic will diminish the hiking experience, because of the crowds and the chatter of people talking among themselves or on cell phones. “It’s degrading the experience when you have large numbers of people on a relatively small peak area,” said Woodworth.
Woodworth is also concerned about damage to natural resources. Many trails in the High Peaks are severely rutted, partly because of the foot traffic and partly because of poor trail design. Old trails such as the one on Cascade go straight up the mountain because they followed paths created by guides and early explorers looking for the shortest route.
“Trails that go straight up the side of the mountain are not sustainable because the water wants to run down them,” said DEC forester Tate Connor, who oversees the eastern High Peaks. “But we have this legacy of trails that are like them, so as hikers go on them and water comes down them, we have increased erosion. The newer, evolved science with trail building involves traversing the slope, switchbacks, different techniques that basically has water shed to the side of the trail.”
Connor said DEC and its contractors employ modern trail-building techniques when rebuilding old trails or constructing new ones. Examples of rebuilt trails can be found on Jay, Hurricane, and Lyon mountains.
Another growing problem is that hikers often fail to heed Leave No Trace principles that aim to minimize human impacts in the wild. For example, hikers have cut trees on summits to improve views. Connor said this was done on Nippletop and Lower Wolf Jaw in the last three years.
“There was some branch cutting in the past, but we’re seeing actual tree cutting,” Connor said.
Human waste and trash also are issues. The woods near the summit of Cascade are littered with toilet paper and female hygiene products. Similar problems have been reported on other mountains and near trailheads.
The waste issue motivated DEC to take the unusual step of installing box privies high on Cascade last fall. The department plans to install privies on other peaks as well, including one at about four thousand feet on Marcy. “Historically, we haven’t put privies up there because of the [shallow] soils,” Connor said.
ADK’s Goren said many visitors are relatively new to hiking and lack backcountry skills. Surveys by the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2003 found that one-third of the hikers in the eastern High Peaks were novices or visiting the High Peaks for the first time. “We assume that’s pretty consistently true [every year],” Goren said.
Hikers’ inexperience may also partly explain a rise in search-and-rescue missions. In 2006, DEC forest rangers rescued fifty-three people in the greater High Peaks region, which includes the Giant Mountain, Dix Mountain, Sentinel Range, and McKenzie Mountain Wilderness Areas. In 2015, that number jumped to one hundred people (including ninety-three hikers).
“We definitely see more and more people who don’t have maps, who have never looked at the guidebook, who are navigating off their phone, or have taken a picture of a map and then are trying to use that printout for navigation purposes,” Goren said.
Additional efforts are being made to prepare hikers for the backcountry. DEC is upgrading its website to contain more educational material, and the Adirondack Forty-Sixers plan to station volunteers at the Cascade trailhead to talk to hikers. These initiatives will supplement the ongoing efforts by DEC’s rangers and Adirondack Mountain Club to educate backcountry users.
Safety has become an issue at popular trailheads where parking areas often overflow, especially along Route 73 near Giant and Cascade, where vehicles frequently line both sides of the road. Connor said DEC recognizes the problem.
“Parking lots overfill, people line both sides of the road, people are crossing with traffic coming through,” he said.
Connor said DEC plans to meet with officials from towns, police agencies, and the state Department of Transportation to come up with solutions. One idea is to move parking areas to stretches of road where drivers have a longer line of sight.
Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee said he would welcome an initiative by the state to address the parking problem. In the last few years, he said, hikers have taken to parking on side streets in Keene Valley when trailhead lots are full.
“My stores—Stewart’s and my grocery stores and my diners—they are happy because they are picking up more revenue, more business, but parking is an issue,” Ferebee said. “We thank God for our governor, who is promoting our area heavily, but so far they haven’t come forward with trying to help us with parking issues.”
46er ranks grow
By MIKE LYNCH
The Adirondack Forty-Sixers organization has seen a record number of people joining its ranks in recent years. Started in 1925, the club now has 9,425 members—more than a third of whom joined over the last ten years.
The club is open to hikers who have climbed its list of forty-six High Peaks, most of which top four thousand feet. It has seen a record number of new members each year since 2009. Last year, 606 hikers joined.
Forty-Sixers President Brian Hoody said the club hasn’t done much to market itself. He suspects the rise in membership reflects a general interest in hiking-oriented clubs.
“The club itself hasn’t really changed since its inception. It’s basically the same peaks, the same kinds of rules,” he said. “I don’t know why the sudden interest in the club, but people are finding us in droves.”
The club has always put a value on outdoor education and trail work, and Hoody said it is trying to make sure that new members heed Leave No Trace principles to protect natural resources in the backcountry. The club is updating its website and posting educational links on its Facebook page. It also plans to station volunteers at the Cascade Mountain trailhead—and possibly others—in the near future to educate hikers.
Fran Shumway, an at-large director of the club, said the trailhead volunteers will work in cooperation with summit stewards. They will teach hikers about rules and regulations, make sure they’re prepared, and remind them to carry their trash out of the woods. “People need to leave things the way they found them, or better than they found them,” Shumway said.
A consequence of the increased interest in hiking all of the High Peaks is that herd paths on the so-called trail-less peaks are seeing more foot traffic. The herd paths are not marked, but Forty-Sixer volunteers maintain them. Hoody said parts of some paths, such as those on Seymour and Cliff, need to be rerouted. The club also plans to meet with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to discuss erosion near the summit of Panther Mountain, one of the trail-less peaks.
“What we’re seeing up near the summit is an entire sloughing off of the vegetation from people scrambling off the top,” said DEC Forester Tate Connor. “So that’s something I’m going to look at.”
The list of the forty-six High Peaks dates back to the club’s founding. At that time, it was thought all exceeded four thousand feet. Later surveys found that four of the peaks are below that altitude. In addition, one peak not on the list was found to reach four thousand feet. The club, however, sticks with its traditional list.
Social media add to ills
By MIKE LYNCH
Getting information to visitors of the Adirondack Park has always been a challenge for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Unlike other state and national parks, the Adirondack Park lacks an entrance facility where visitors can pick up brochures, maps, or other handouts.
In the past, recreational users relied on local visitor centers, guidebooks and maps, guides and outfitters, and word-of-mouth for ideas on where to go and what to do. It took time to plan a trip. That changed with the rise of the internet. Now information can be found in just seconds or minutes from websites and social-media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
The information explosion has had a number of impacts. One of them is that people are going to places that in the past saw few visitors. For example, DEC Forester Tate Connor says the herd path between Gray Peak and Mount Marcy sees more and more hikers even though DEC has tried to discourage its use.
“Years ago, it was all word of mouth,” Adirondack Forty-Sixer President Brian Hoody said. “To find out about a potential herd path or route to the summit, it may be years until you found out that maybe this is the way to go, [or] this may be the compass bearing you should use. That’s long gone. Maybe it started with the forums, because there was always a lot of good information on the forums, but now with social media you can even get it faster. Bam, ask a few questions and you’re ready to go.”
Adirondack Mountain Club Education Director Julia Goren said that while it’s good that more people are becoming interested in the Adirondacks, it’s troublesome that some are getting information from unreliable sources that don’t promote wilderness ethics or properly explain the dangers of adventures they are promoting.
On one weekend day this past July, Goren said, the summit stewards on Mount Colden reported that more people ascended the mountain via the Trap Dike—a steep, narrow canyon where a slip could result in death—than the traditional hiking trail. Goren said most were not prepared for such an outing.
“There were groups of people, five people in a group, one pack among them, all of them in sneakers, no rope, no approach shoes, nothing, because they read about it online and they thought it would be cool,” she said. “Part of the problem is everyone is an author. Everyone has the ability to publish their ideas.”
DEC spokesman Dave Winchell said another problem is that many groups that organize hikes via the internet aren’t aware of the Park rules and often break the group-size limit (fifteen for a day hike).
“We’ve seen pictures of hundreds of people on top of Ampersand, and they were all part of this [online meet-up] group,” he said. “It used to be the summer camps going in with large groups. Now you have these [online groups].”
Winchell said the state is upping its presence on Facebook and Twitter. “In the past we’ve used the Forty-Sixers and Adirondack Mountain Club to help get our message out,” he said. “Now there’s a larger population out there that is not communicating through those outlets, so it’s becoming harder to reach out and educate people. We are looking at other methods. DEC has a Facebook account and Twitter account, so we’re looking at those to educate people.”