Do the experiences in the Catskills travel to the Adirondacks?
By Gwendolyn Craig
It was a chilly and rainy Monday in September just after 8 a.m. The 70-spot parking lot of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve contained eight cars, one belonging to Chris Hunter. The 49-year-old Schenectady science museum archivist wore a long raincoat and held a walking stick. He was ready for the slog to a couple of waterfalls and the iconic fjord view from Indian Head if the rain didn’t get to him.
The reserve’s new parking reservation system, which kicked off in May and ran through the end of October, afforded Hunter a little extra sleep. He had never hiked at the AMR before and had seen the photos of Indian Head on social media.
“It can be a little bit intimidating to find the parking,” he said, noting he would have had to get to the lot much earlier if there were no reservations. “On the flip side, leaf peeper season—it’s kind of like getting a hot concert ticket, which is why I’m here on a Monday, regardless of the weather.”
The reserve is the first location in the Adirondack Park to institute a parking reservation system, though forest preserve neighbors to the south in the Catskill Park’s Peekamoose Valley have had something similar for a few years. Visitors have both embraced and shunned the limits on access to the state’s public lands, instituted as a kind of last-ditch effort when a large number of people and a place collide. While officials at the AMR are enthusiastic about the parking reservation system, Catskill leaders are leery of the crowd management strategy.
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“It’s not a copy-and-paste for different areas, but when it works, it works OK,” said Andy Mossey, stewardship and advocacy coordinator for the nonprofit organization, the Catskill Center. Before his current job, Mossey worked with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. In that role in 2017, Mossey surveyed Peekamoose Blue Hole and recommended the state implement special regulations or a kind of permit system.“I don’t think it’s really the best solution,” Mossey added, standing inside the renovated Catskill Visitor Center in the hamlet of Mount Tremper. “I think it needs to be paired with certain other things, such as education and outreach.”
By nature, permits have limited the number of people accessing the location, Mossey said. Stewards have seen less trash and human waste at the Blue Hole. Some feel access is actually better with a permit, too. Those who have permits are guaranteed a parking space or a camping site. Combined with stewards, informational signs, bathrooms and bear-proof trash cans, Mossey said some visitors are seeing a positive difference from pre-permit days. He would like to see the state advertise the permit more. Catskill Center staff said there was animosity from some visitors who drove several hours to the Blue Hole and didn’t know they needed a permit.
Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the Adirondack reservation program, devised by his department in partnership with the AMR management, appears to be going well. He believes the system is addressing public safety while allowing DEC to manage the natural resources in the area.
“We’re going to do a debrief after the season and look at what worked well, and what may be improved,” Seggos added. “We always want to do better.”
Testing in the Adirondacks
Route 73 runs through the heart of the Adirondack High Peaks. On busy summer days in past years, hikers parked along the highway. Forest rangers stationed at trailheads witnessed a number of near misses between cars and pedestrians. Rubber skid marks could often be seen at popular non-official crossings. One of those was at the AMR.
The AMR is privately owned by trustees, who are members of the Ausable Club. Through a foot traffic easement with the state, the public crosses parts of the property to get to popular hiking destinations including Indian Head, Noonmark Mountain and about a dozen High Peaks. In return, AMR receives a tax break on the property.
The Ausable Club’s president, Roland Morris, told Adirondack Explorer last year that an increase in hiking traffic was also degrading natural resources in the area. Morris did not say where he was seeing degradation, but Schuler said there has been an increase in trash and improperly buried human waste over the years on AMR property. Trail registers the club keeps showed fewer than 5,000 hikers on the property in 1978. In 2017, the number reached 25,000.
In October last year, Morris and other Ausable Club members told the Adirondack Explorer they would implement limits on their property in 2021, whether the state was on board or not. At that time, state officials did not have much to say. A special committee former Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed to consider strategies for addressing high use in the High Peaks released a report recommending a three-year pilot reservation system somewhere in the park.
By March the AMR and DEC announced the new reservation system. Seggos confirmed that the AMR was the site of the committee’s proposed three-year pilot.
How it’s working
Through the website hikeamr.org, people can sign up for an account and book a free parking reservation up to two weeks out. While the website shows specific arrival times, AMR has since clarified the reservation would be for the full day. Each reservation covers up to eight people. While the state continues to stress the system is not a permit, AMR requires those walking in or bicycling in to also have a parking reservation. A sign outside the AMR parking lot also warns that one must have a permit.
John Schuler, general manager of the club, said since the reservation system began, staff have not had to clean up as much trash (including toilet paper) on Lake Road, the main thoroughfare to trailheads. The reservation system website includes messages about Leave No Trace, a popular set of guidelines for outdoor ethics. Schuler thinks that’s helped, too.
As of Sept. 23, AMR tracked about 13,360 reservations, which includes the approximately 3,000 reservations that were canceled. About 17,600 people had registered for an AMR account, with a registration bump between the beginning and end of September. AMR officials attributed that to autumn leaf peepers.
Seggos and Schuler said the system has adapted to the public’s feedback over the course of the year. For example, the AMR installed a one-way automatic gate so hikers arriving back at the parking lot after hours can exit. Reservations once had to be made 24 hours in advance at minimum, but that has been reduced to 12. Emailed cancellation reminders, Seggos added, has reduced the number of no-shows. A press liaison for AMR said gate attendants did not keep track of no-show numbers.
“I think in the beginning people were making reservations to make sure they had them, whether or not they had plans,” Schuler said. “That knee-jerk reaction has stopped.”
The only other way to get into the AMR without a reservation is with a same-day Greyhound bus ticket. The state, AMR and some nonprofit leaders had touted the option as a way to keep the land more accessible. But as of early September, about two people used the bus ticket option, Schuler said.
Seggos said many people are not riding buses because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ll need to look at a couple of years of data before we make any determinations about Greyhound or any other options,” Seggos said.
Seggos and Schuler would not yet comment on any specific changes that could be coming for 2022. But the AMR with the help of the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry is asking for the public’s feedback on the system, through an online survey that closed Nov. 1.
AMR hiker permits
See answers to frequently asked questions about the Adirondack Mountain Reserve’s permit system.
(Photo by Gwendolyn Craig)
One thing Chris Hunter wondered about was why the new Keene hiker shuttle system was not stopping at the AMR.
Schuler said the shuttle was not part of the pilot program at this time. Seggos said combining the two could be a possibility. He blamed tight budgets and the coronavirus pandemic for a lack of coordination this year.
Though AMR and DEC shortened the window for making reservations to 12 hours ahead, some hikers would like to see same-day reservations.
Tara Hammond was hiking with her son Nathan Martindale on the same rainy September day as Hunter. They had made their reservation two weeks ahead of time, but as the day drew closer, the forecast worsened. All other days were booked, and hikers are not allowed to make more than one reservation in a two-week time span.
Hammond, who’s from Charlton, also noticed people from out of state on social media sites asking to jump on others’ reservations. They were even willing to go on the rainy days. They hadn’t known to get a reservation or were too late. Hammond would like to see the AMR accept same-day reservations if there are cancellations, pointing to the near-empty parking lot.
“It’s not terrible,” Hammond said about the reservation system. “It’s just that you have to plan if the weather is bad, you either have to stay home or you do it.”
Hikers Steve Shadlock, of Niskayuna, and Amanda Shadlock, of Boston, were able to secure a reservation the day before. They had wanted to hike on a better weather day but had to settle for the rain.
Shadlock said the reservation system “seems like a good idea when it’s heavy. But this morning, there’s hardly anyone in the lot and reservations are booked out until Tuesday.”
It appears AMR has some logistics to work out internally, too, about those who show sans reservation.
C.J. Montante and Kelly Kaczor arrived at the AMR lot with intentions to hike Indian Head. The couple from Buffalo had heard about the hike from Montante’s brother, who had hiked there the summer before. The problem? Montante and Kaczor did not have a reservation.
The parking attendant suggested they approach someone in the parking lot and jump on their reservation, considering one covers up to eight people. They did, but another AMR attendant a half-mile down at the official trail register said the parking attendant shouldn’t have suggested that.
“What I was a little confused about is it’s free, and it’s kind of empty, so why couldn’t you make a reservation day-of?” Montante said. “I get why they would do it for the summer or busy weekends. You can’t have thousands of people on the trails. But for a day like today, obviously it would be beneficial for us.”
Montante also thought the reservation system needed to be better marketed.
About 200 miles south of the AMR, stewards from the Catskill Center and DEC forest rangers are at the helm of a paid permit system several years underway.
Jeff Senterman, executive director of the Catskill Center, said the popular swimming hole called Peekamoose Blue Hole was getting noticeably busier by 2015. A normal day would see 50 bathers but as word got out about the location, as many as 1,000 people were showing up. The Blue Hole is a day-trip drive from New York City. Families would set up picnics and spend the day.
The area saw a similar story to AMR—more trash and a congested road. But added to the mix was an active black bear population, attracted particularly to all the picnics and trash. DEC received several reports of black bears in camping areas near the Blue Hole, but so far, no direct interactions or injuries.
Then, the travel media outlet Lonely Planet named the Catskills in 2019 as the number two destination in the world to visit (second to a picturesque Italian village known for its wine). In 2020 during the height of the pandemic, visitors flocked to the Blue Hole for an outdoor escape. Any gains made by the free, weekend-only permit system started in 2018 appeared lost.
“We were kind of back to square one,” Senterman said.
In 2021, the DEC changed the permit system to be seven days a week. It went from free to costing $10 a permit to access the Peekamoose Valley parking area, not just the Blue Hole. The AMR pays for the online reservation system there, but the DEC pays Reserve America to use its online marketplace. About $7.25 per permit goes to Reserve America, the DEC said, while the remaining $2.75 goes into the state’s General Fund. There are 60 day-use permits available. DEC Region 3 Director Kelly Turturro said 4,535 day-use permits were reserved in 2021.
The DEC also now requires permits at 29 backcountry camping sites, which are also $10 each. Turturro said 1,150 camping reservations were booked in 2021. In total, that is a little over $15,600 the state pocketed this season.
“The primary reason for implementing the permit fee was to allow more access to the site,” Turturro said. “When the permit was free to the public, many people got the permit but did not use it to visit the site, in turn preventing others from being able to use the site.”
Senterman said about 50% of permit holders would show up when the permits were free. Now, between 75% and 80% show. The state was also losing money, he said, when the permit was free but the state was still having to pay Reserve America for use of its site.
Seggos said the DEC is not looking at adding any fees to the AMR’s system at this time.
Same-day booking is available for the Cat- skills permit, but unlike at the AMR, there is no cell service or Wi-Fi available in the area. One must drive about 15 minutes to get service and book a permit.
“It’s actually quite helpful for our stewards that that is the case,” Mossey said, of the lack of cell coverage. “That way, it’s less likely that if they (a visitor) were really upset that they would come back to confront our stewards.”
Generally one to three DEC forest rangers assist with enforcing the permit system, Mossey said. Once a person arrives at the parking area for the Blue Hole, there are more than two dozen signs in approximately a quarter mile posted on trees and message boards alerting the visitor to the permit requirement.
With all the changes, Senterman thinks the permit system is slowly working, but “it wasn’t like we turned a key and instituted a permit system and solved all the problems.”
Google reviewers have widely expressed their opinions on the paid permit. Some, who frequented the swimming hole pre-permit days have said they appreciate knowing they’ll have a parking spot. They’ve noticed less garbage and fewer people. Others criticized the permit and the location, calling the parking “horrible” and not worth “driving 2+ hours from the city to see a dirty green hole.”
Hiking at Kaaterskill Falls about a half-hour north of the Blue Hole, friends from the New York City area Daniel Ferreira and Jason Cho had never heard of the swimming hole. But when asked about their thoughts on a paid permit, Cho said the government should collect money somewhere else and “not in the mountains.”
“I think that would turn people off,” Ferreira said.
“This is free land,” Cho said. “America is a free land. That’s the main reason I immigrated to this country a long time ago.”
Just as Montante felt the state should do a better job with promotion, so does Senterman. The number of people who show up from the city who don’t know they need a permit, Senterman said, has created a certain level of animosity and disappointment. In 2020 with the influx of visitors during the coronavirus pandemic, Mossey said stewards turned away nearly 12,000 people from the Blue Hole. In 2021, stewards turned away just over 4,000 people.
Another consideration is where to send people without a permit once they arrive. In the beginning year of the permit, stewards would send those without one to Minnewaska State Park. But then Minnewaska told them to stop.
“DEC and Parks were not even on the same page of where to send people,” Senterman said.
While the DEC is also not yet saying what could change in the Peekamoose Valley for next year’s permit system, Mossey hopes it isn’t much. There have been so many changes in the past couple of years, he said, that “it’s been pretty hard for the general public to stay aware of what to do.” He does hope the permit website is made more user-friendly.
“At the end of the day, this is public land, and if we are going to have some type of hurdle for people to access that public land, it should be as easy as possible,” Mossey said.
This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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