By Roger Hannigan Gilson
TANNSERVILLE — A state advisory group focusing on how to ease overcrowding in Catskills Park is tentatively recommending a pilot reservation system for some trailhead parking lots.
The Catskill Strategic Advisory Group (CAG) released their interim report Thursday, which recommends different ways to ease congestion on trails, roadways and parking lots, and to educate visitors about safety and respecting the outdoors.
The CAG was formed in October 2020 by the Department of Environmental Conservation after pandemic closures pushed an unprecedented number of visitors to the Catskills, especially to areas in the Kaaterskill Clove.
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Solutions to overcrowding
Charlie Gadol, trail chair of the Catskill Long Path, said the biggest increase in visitors he saw was at the Clove, “where people were going down to (Kaaterskill) creek and parking illegally in massive numbers and walking up and down the road.”
In 2021, there was a “dramatic reduction” in the number of people at Clove, but the numbers remained higher than before the pandemic, Gadol said.
The DEC removed some trail registers at high use areas of the park in 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, making it hard to calculate the increase in visitors. Numbers for the 2021 season were not yet available, according to the DEC.
Tannersville Mayor Lee McGunnigle said people were attracted to the outdoors because of the pandemic, “and rightfully so.”
“We need to give them the education…to know how to treat the outdoors, and do it safely, so people aren’t running around in flip-flops on rocks and throwing beer bottles down and leaving their garbage and their grills,” he said.
Most of the recommendations are tentative, including the suggestion of instituting a reservation system, but the report recommends “immediate action” in the Kaaterskill Clove area, which includes Kaaterskill Falls and the communities of Tannersville and Haines Falls.
The recommended actions include installing technology to track the capacity of parking lots and establishing a social media group to disseminate this information; installing informational message boards along Route 23A; installing wayfinding and interpretive signage along trails, and creating a informational Kaaterskill Clove website.
Many of the recommended immediate actions center around letting adventurers know if areas they plan to visit are already full so they can chart alterative adventures, thereby avoiding the parking nightmare seen along Route 23A during the last two hiking seasons.
In the longer-term, the CAG recommends various ways to dilute the number of visitors at hotspots by “encourag(ing) use of a broader diversity of trails” in the 1,100-square mile park. This includes trails leading to fire towers, which are “often old roads that are already hardened, so impacts to surrounding natural resources are limited, there are staff and/or volunteers to greet the public at fire towers, and the structures are already on the mountain tops.”
The report also recommends the pilot reservation system, but does not identify where it should be implemented.
When queried which parking lots would be part of the system, the DEC stated that it was still evaluating the CAG recommendations.
A reservations system was introduced at a 70-spot parking lot in Keene Valley leading to some of the most popular Adirondack High Peaks last year.
A Kaaterskill shuttle
Next year in Kaaterskill Clove, hikers will be able to take a shuttle up and down Route 23A and to the nearby North-South Lake.
The shuttle service is endorsed by the CAG report but was planned separately between a private businessman and the village of Tannersville.
The service was created by Ryan Chadwick, whose LLC has already purchased the shuttles. Tannersville is using some of the money it received from a $10 million state Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant to construct stops for the service.
Visitors would park in the village to access the shuttle, bringing them amongst the village’s restaurants and shops, according to Chadwick.
The shuttles would travel down the Clove, stopping at Haines Falls, Kaaterskill Falls, North-South Lake, the Fawn’s Leap swimming hole and other locations before reaching Palenville and turning back, according to Chadwick’s plan.
Two shuttles would run the route, with one available every half hour for the price of $2 a ride, or $5 for a day pass, according to Chadwick, who also said he wanted to create an annual pass for locals.
The shuttles’ drivers would have microphones and would inform visitors of historical tidbits along the route, Chadwick said.
Mayor McGunnigle said the shuttle may bring more people to the area, but it would cut down on traffic and parking issues.
He said the drivers could also educate visitors about safe hiking and ‘carry in, carry out’ practices.
Gadol, who had read the CAG plan, said he thought it was sound, adding that increased visitation as good for the Catskills economy.
“You just have the manage it,” he said.
McGunnigle said he would be in favor of the parking reservations, in part because it would force people to plan their visits.
“It raises the value of [the visit],” he said. “You go to a big attraction, you plan…this is an amazing, beautiful area that should be respected, and when you come to visit it, you should be planning.”