By Tim Rowland
A planned shuttle-bus system for Adirondack High Peaks hikers in Essex County has been shelved for the summer due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. The Town of Keene has also suspended its bus service from Marcy Field to the Garden, an insular trailhead with limited parking that on busy weekends is filled to capacity before the sun comes up.
Combined with increased and more-enforced parking restrictions along state and town roads and virus-related parking-lot restrictions, the lack of shuttles will severely reduce hiker access to some of the Adirondacks’ most popular mountain destinations this summer — a circumstance not everyone sees as a bad thing.
Funded by the state and operated by Essex County, the buses were to have run along the breadth of the State Route 73 corridor, serving multiple trailheads where parking and hiker congestion have become a concern — illustrated by a three-car crash near Chapel Pond earlier this month.
But Essex County Supervisors Chair Shaun Gillilland said the county and state agreed that there was no safe way to operate the shuttle, which would have commingled visitors from many different locales in a confined space.
If the virus subsides over the summer, Gilliland said there is still hope the buses might be put through their paces during leaf-peeping season to get a feel for how well they will work. If the virus remains problematic, the program will be pushed back to 2021.
Transportation and parking have been among the thornier problems for state and local governments facing an increasing number of hikers who, in a 6 million-acre park, tend to concentrate in Keene Valley.
To some, less accessibility is a tool to prevent heavy foot traffic in the peaks, which can be detrimental to the environment and compromise a wilderness experience. A recent interim report from the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group recommended that parking spaces at popular trailheads be reduced, and that the long-standing tradition of looking the other way when hikers parked illegally be abandoned.
The state has tried to discourage parking along the highway, but “No Parking” signs have had mixed results, with hikers parking farther away and walking greater distances along Route 73, or just ignoring the signs altogether. With no shuttle to The Garden, parking in the 46-space lot has come at a premium, as it has at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve lot near the Ausable Club, where a sizable parking lot serving High Peaks hikers has been cut from 80 spaces to 28 due to concerns about the virus and congregating hikers.
Local officials have also tried to guide hikers away from the more popular peaks, but in light of that effort, these lesser mountain trailheads have become overrun as well.
To funnel hiker cars away from the well-traveled Route 73 — a vital truck corridor between the Northway and Lake Placid — the state allocated $1.2 million for the shuttle project, roughly divided between operations and the purchase of four new buses. Gillilland said three of the four buses are “on the lot” and a fourth is on the way. They include television screens for information and hiker-education spots.
Education is key to protecting the mountains from heavy use, and Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson said that, even though buses aren’t running, front-country stewards have been hired to staff popular trailheads to offer advice and make sure hikers have proper equipment and achievable hiking itineraries.