By TIM ROWLAND
Hiker shuttle buses will serve popular High Peaks trailheads this summer under an agreement between the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and Essex County.
As planned, the state will pay $1.2 million for four 24-passenger buses and their operation, including at least eight drivers. The buses will be folded into the county’s existing transit system, said Shaun Gillilland, chairman of the Essex County Board of Supervisors. The supervisors unanimously approved the plan on Monday.
Gillilland said the shuttles would operate 16 hours a day and pass every Route 73 trailhead once every half hour. The county wanted to provide frequent service, he said, and late enough that “we won’t be leaving hikers in the woods.”
“If it says ‘Essex County’ on the side of those buses,” he said, “it’s going to be robust.”
Under the current plan, ridership would be free. “The DEC wants to make this work, so based on how it is now, this will be a non-paying system,” he said.
The routes will begin at Marcy Field, where the Town of Keene already operates a shuttle to The Garden trailhead, one of the three busiest entry points into the High Peaks. Keene will continue to run its town shuttle independent of the new county routes, Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson said.
County buses will circulate southeast to the vicinity of the intersection of Routes 73 and 9 — popularly if uncharitably known as Malfunction Junction. The other route will go west to the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic sports complex. Hikers will have access to roadside trailheads heading to the High Peaks of Cascade, Porter, Giant and Dix, as well as St. Huberts, where a wealth of trails from the Ausable Club lead into the High Peaks interior. It will also pass lesser mountains with popular trails, such as Pitchoff, Hopkins and Rooster Comb.
Wilson said the plan is for the shuttles to run most days from the end of school in June through Labor Day, and then on weekends and holidays in the fall. The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism and the Adirondack Mountain Club will publicize the network, he said.
“We’re glad to have the state jumping in with some substantial support,” he said, adding that the shuttles will dovetail nicely with the town’s front-country steward program, which was also the recipient of a state grant late last year.
Front-country stewards are stationed in parking lots and offer route suggestions, as well as ensuring hikers are adequately prepared for the trip they have in mind. “They’re a captive audience while they’re waiting for the shuttle,” Wilson said.
Wilson said he does not expect shuttles will necessarily alleviate crowded conditions on the trails, but he believes it will make Keene Valley significantly “safer and more user-friendly” by reducing the number of hikers walking a mile or two along the highway to get to their cars.