Viewpoint: Time for permit system in the High Peaks Wilderness

Hikers on the summit of Cascade Mountain. Photo by Mike Lynch

(Editor’s note: This guest commentary appeared in the July/August issue of the Adirondack Explorer magazine.)

By Christopher Amato

The High Peaks Wilderness Area of the Adirondack Park is no longer a wilderness. The State Land Master Plan—the seminal document that guides management of all state-owned lands in the Adirondack Park—describes the attributes that define wilderness:

A wilderness area, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. A wilderness area is further defined to mean an area of state land or water having a primeval character, without significant improvement or permanent human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve, enhance and restore, where necessary, its natural conditions.

It goes on to say that a Wilderness Area offers “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”

The High Peaks Wilderness Area (HPWA) falls short of this definition. In the last decade, the High Peaks have been inundated with an unprecedented increase in visitors. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of hikers registering at the Van Hoevenberg Trail near Adirondak Loj soared by 62 percent, to over fifty-three thousand. During the same period, the number of hikers to Cascade Mountain more than doubled—to more than thirty-three thousand. The Summit Steward program reported that between 2007 and 2017, the number of contacts with hikers skyrocketed from slightly over fourteen thousand to more than thirty-one thousand. And last year, a study found that close to 80 percent of all trailheads leading into the High Peaks and surrounding Wilderness Areas were routinely above capacity and that thirty-five parking lots designed to accommodate fewer than a thousand cars frequently had more than two thousand trying to park at them.

The huge influx of hikers and campers has had catastrophic impacts on natural resources and the wilderness experience. Overuse of trails, campsites, and summits has caused widespread and serious erosion; damaged and destroyed fragile alpine vegetation; and left areas littered with trash and human waste. Moreover, the hordes of users eliminate any chance that the HPWA can provide  “outstanding opportunities for solitude.” Most insidious is that, as documented in studies by Dr. Chad Dawson, users are now changing their perception of wilderness to accommodate these dramatic shifts: “wilderness” in the minds of many is now synonymous with packed trailheads, visible and widespread evidence of human presence, and crowded summits.

Overuse of the HPWA is not a new problem. The 1999 unit management plan (UMP) for the area recognized that heavy use was, even then, harming natural resources and diminishing visitors’ wilderness experience. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the state agency entrusted with management of the Forest Preserve, has for years sought to address the overuse problem through indirect controls such as rerouting trails, closing campsites, limiting group size, and attempting to persuade hikers to visit other, less-used areas. Indirect measures such as these are important and well-recognized tools of wilderness management; however, a more direct measure—a permit system to control access—is  called for when, as now, they prove ineffective.

Indeed, the 1999 UMP called for DEC to evaluate a camping-permit system for the HWPA, but this was never done. Now is clearly the time for DEC to seriously evaluate implementation of a day-use and camping-permit system. Permits are a proven and effective means of preventing overuse. The National Park Service’s successful permit system for Wilderness Areas under its jurisdiction has been in place for decades. And this year, following two years of indirect controls to manage overcrowding at a swimming area on Rondout Creek in the Catskill Park, DEC instituted a permit system.

The advantages of a permit system are clear. Limiting the number of people who access a Wilderness Area preserves the opportunity to experience solitude; reduces impacts to and degradation of natural resources; and allows previously damaged resources to recover. It is a far more reliable method of preventing overuse than indirect methods such as limiting parking or attempting to convince users to go to less heavily used areas. As recent experience shows, hikers who may have driven for hours to hike or camp in the HPWA are not likely to be deterred by a full parking lot. And if the goal is to shift use to other Wilderness Areas in the Park, what better way to do this than by letting prospective users know that they need a permit (limited in number) for the HPWA?

DEC could institute a permit system on a trial basis, say for five years, in order to evaluate its success. My guess is that, once hikers adapt to the permit system, they will appreciate the opportunity to experience this remarkable area free from crowding, trash, and waste.

DEC should take advantage of this important opportunity to reverse the decades-long downward spiral of the HPWA and restore it to its rightful place as the premier wilderness of the Adirondack Park.

Christopher Amato is vice chair of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.  He served as DEC assistant commissioner for natural resources from 2007 to 2011.

About Adirondack Explorer

The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

Reader Interactions


  1. Andy says

    I completely agree that a permit system is long overdue. Something like this already exists at the Garden parking lot–it’s $10 a day to park there, effectively making it $10 a day to hike there. The price should probably be higher. An online reservation system, similar to a fishing license, could be put in place. The funds should be used for trail maintenance, paying rangers, etc. This is a no-brainer. Everyone would benefit–fewer people, better parking, better trails, less impact.

    • Taras says

      The current system of parking fees is nothing like what the author is proposing.

      Parking is currently first-come, first-served. Only the private parking areas (ADK Loj and the Garden) charge a fee.

      I have no problem with the state charging a fee to park at public parking areas or with the Ausable Club charging to park in their private lot (currently, it’s free).

      The author is proposing constraining the number of daily users via a permit system. It’s not like a fishing license. You don’t get a fishing/hunting license for each trip you go fishing/hunting, you get it for the year/season. This proposal is like buying tickets to an event with limited seating; you do it each time you want to go hiking.

      Imagine you are a landowner in the High Peaks area and you want to hike on nearby state land. Sorry, not today because the quota was already filled last week.

  2. Taras says

    I’ve been hiking the High Peaks since 1978. Many of the article’s statements have either reshaped or mischaracterized certain facts.

    It is indeed the same wilderness it was decades ago. Marcy in 1980 was no more primeval than it is today. If you want primeval solitude, just step *off* the well-worn trail and wander about. I guarantee you will change your mind that the area ‘no longer has a primeval character’. Be sure you know how to navigate otherwise you may become the subject of a DEC search and rescue mission.

    If you want solitude, obviously avoid the popular summits like Cascade, Marcy, Algonquin etc. That’s true today as it was in the 80’s.

    The popular High Peaks trails today are more dog-eared than they were 40 years ago … but so am I. In fact, given the amount of usage of, say, the Van Hoevenberg Trail, it’s in impressive condition. Much of it is exactly as I remember it from the 80’s.

    Much of the ‘catastrophic destruction’ you refer to, especially of alpine zones, was inflicted a long time ago. Blame past sins not present-day hiking volume. In fact, changes made post-1999 UMP have improved certain areas, notably the elimination of old trail-side camping sites and lean-tos. Dr. Ketchledge’s alpine re-seeding program (back in the 80’s) has taken root (pun intended) and present-day Summit Stewards educate hikers to Do the Rock Walk. Today’s popular alpine summits look better than in the 70’s, not worse.

    Yes, the 1999 HPWA UMP did (on page 263) indicate to ‘Evaluate need for camping permits based on assessment of campsite conditions and visitor crowding’. See, you overlooked to mention everything beyond the word ‘permits’. It was to be done *five years* into the plan and *after* the implementation of other things like potentially restricting camping to designated campsites in the highly-popular Marcy Dam-Lake Colden-Flowed Lands Corridor. So it’s not like they recommended a permit system but failed to implement it; they never even got to *evaluating* the need for one. That’s not a foundation for your argument to implement one now.

    Talk to the DEC. The last survey they did (almost 2 decades ago) measured ~150K visitors to the EHPWA. Then the volume *dropped* after the so-called ‘indirect’ controls you dismissed as ineffective were implemented. It’s only recently (past ~10 years) that volume has started to increase. Really, talk to the DEC about what’s happened over the last three decades. Restrict camping to designated sites, make bear-canister usage mandatory throughout the HPWA, and you’ll see another drop. All without the overhead of a day-use permit system.

    It’s educational to review the 1999 UMP because many of the challenges it identifies are the same ones we face today. Some were addressed and others were not, like parking. Parking issues today are like the ones in 1999 (limited; spilling over onto highway shoulders). The latest UMP’s suggestion to move the Cascade trailhead to the ORDA facility (and construct a new, modern trail to Cascade) is a practical solution.

    The HPWA doesn’t need day-use permits, it needs more trail maintenance, more education for newcomers (like the new Trail Stewards), more supervision (rangers, AFRs, etc), and more paid parking (to help defray overall operating costs).

  3. Suzanne Atkinson Delaney says

    As an old 46er (#258, on my 18th birthday in 1963 ) and longtime Keene Valley summer resident I must concur. In places easily accessible to the highway, such the Giant and Cascade trails, the crowding is out of control, and driving into Keene Valley on a weekend is an OMIGOD moment to see all the cars lined up along the road. It will not be long before there is a serious accident between drivers and people crossing the road. Aside from that, it is no longer a wilderness experience to arrive on the mountain only to find 100+ other folks yakking on their cellphones (“Guess where I am?”) taking selfies, blasting music, etc. I dislike the idea of restrictions, and want to see people enjoying nature, but we will lose our wild places without careful stewardship. As Oscar Wilde said, “Each man kills the thing he loves.”

    • Taras says

      There’s over a half-century’s worth of societal change between 1963 and 2018. The populations of the USA and Canada have almost doubled since then (1963: USA ~194M, Canada: 19M) and hiking has grown in popularity.

      Look at those 100+ people on the summit and you’ll see most are all smiles and having a wonderful time despite the presence of many other hikers. They’re just happy to be there and enjoy the views. In fact, some hikers prefer the company of others and, for that, popular Cascade and Giant are not likely to disappoint them!

      If one seeks solitude, then perhaps one could find it atop a 46er peak in the 1960’s but not today, especially if the peak is just a few short miles from the road. Fortunately, there are other peaks nearby, with outstanding views, that attract fewer people so solitude is only a matter of knowing where to find it (and where NOT to find it).

      It’s 2018 and cellphone usage is part of the fabric of modern society. Aside from ‘blasting music’, their usage has no impact on the resource nor does it violate any DEC regulations. ‘Yakking on the phone’ or with one’s hiking companions is still just yakking.

      The parking situation is a reflection of the area’s popularity … and the limited availability of parking. There are many ways to fix it without implementing a permit system (expand parking areas or forbid parking along shoulders or add shuttles from Marcy Field or all of the above).

  4. Christine says

    “be careful what you wish for, it might just come true”.. Sounds that what you want is the place to yourself, there are more people on the planet everyday so it ain’t going to happen any day soon quite the opposite. At this point in time wouldn’t it be wiser to act as to better handle the increased trail traffic as does so well the Summit Stewardship Program. Maybe finding proper funding for adequate trail work and larger parking areas better laid-out should be done first, NYS and Lake Placid advertise big time to bring hikers to the Adirondacks and even with so many people many businesses/towns are barely surviving. A reservation system is just another costly and unpractical level of bureaucracy, and who’s going to police the hikers? And sure it may keep people away, as who will and reserve a hotel and a parking at the trailhead… I know I know you are going to answer with an app…
    A reservation system may lead to more bushwhacking ,the creation of countless herddpaths all over the Park overall moving the issue sideways but not away.

  5. Julie Moran says

    This article represents the slippery slope I’ve been warning about for years … Snowflakey purists pearl clutching at the marvelous popularity of hiking in our public lands. Next thing you now, more punishing regulations, fines and fees. Please — ignore the stupid misleading photos by of bustling summits and the hew and cry of the “purists” — they are the selfish backseat drivers of the hiking world. Yes hiking in our New York public lands and elsewhere is popular. Know what? That’s a GOOD THING.

  6. Dean says

    Anyone with half a brain realizes that permits are needed to control the number of hikers and the damage they’re doing to our Adirondack backcountry.

    Not only should permits be issued to accomplish what I’ve stated above but also the fees collected could be used to hire trail stewards to maintain these trails and regulate misuse.

    No one should be allowed to hike any longer for free. NY State needs money to help defray our nearly $ 10 billion deficit.

    I can’t hunt for free or fish or trap so why no fee for hiking? I’m a NY State taxpayer and I pay.

    Charge state residents a lower fee than anyone from out of state or county.

    Dedicate these funds solely for trail maintenance and enforcement of the rules

    Let’s use common sense and do what is fairest to everyone for a change.

    While we’re at it perhaps canoes should have to have a yearly registration attached to them and utilize those funds to help maintain launch sites throughout our state

    What’s good for the gander, hunters, trappers and fishermen, should be good for the goose as well, hikers and canoeist

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