By Mike Lynch
Hiking remains one of the few allowed activities for people looking to escape the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is one that the state encourages so long as people follow social distancing guidelines.
According to state officials, that means hiking on less-used trails near home by oneself or with household members. The state Department of Environmental Conservation is encouraging people to hike because it’s a healthy activity that can boost one’s immune system and reduce stress.
But some trails in the High Peaks and the Lake George region are continuing to draw crowds on prime hiking days, making social distancing difficult.
With warm weather and sunny skies last Saturday, the DEC issued 30 tickets for illegally parked vehicles in the Shelving Rock Area, located on the eastern side of Lake George. Meanwhile, the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) counted 110 vehicles at its parking lots at the High Peaks Information Center. That’s a high number for April, though it doesn’t come close to the 200 vehicles that fill the lots during peak hiking season in the summer and fall.
ADK Director of Communications Ben Brosseau said April is usually one of the slowest months of the year, but ADK is seeing an uptick in hikers on good-weather days, especially on weekends.
“You are not social distancing at a trailhead that sees hundreds of hikers a day,” said Brosseau, whose organization is encouraging people to hike near their homes.
The same situation is arising in the Lake George region, and it has resulted in at least two popular trails being shut down. In April, the Lake George Land Conservancy closed the Schumann Preserve at Pilot Knob, and the Town of Bolton gated The Pinnacle.
“Recently, the parking lot and street have been overwhelmed by vehicles, and the trails have been packed with hikers,” says an early-April statement about Pilot Knob on the LGLC website. “These conditions make compliance with social distancing rules and other regulations enacted by the State impossible. This continuous overuse is also placing a strain on the natural resources of the preserve.”
In the High Peaks, popular trails have remained open, but some parking areas have been limited to allow for social distancing. The Adirondack Mountain Club has been trying to limit parking on its property by requiring spacing between vehicles, and the Adirondack Mountain Reserve significantly reduced the amount of parking allowed at its St. Huberts parking area, from 80 vehicles to 28.
Most days the trailheads are not overcrowded, but Keene Town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson said trailheads for Giant and the Adirondack Mountain Reserve attracted big crowds last Saturday due to the good weather, and trailhead parking areas on Route 9N for Hurricane and Baxter mountains were filled beyond capacity.
Wilson said many people are driving from outside the area. “It’s remarkable how many people are traveling long distances to get out and hike,” he said, noting that hikers are still coming from Albany, Syracuse and Vermont.
Wilson, who has volunteers monitoring the amount of vehicles at trailheads, said there were 92 at Cascade Mountain Saturday afternoon.
“When you have 92 cars in one parking area, there’s no way you can do social distancing on one trail,” he said.
In Keene Valley, the Town of Keene recently took action to limit parking to visiting hikers on several local roads, anticipating a growing number of hikers in the coming months. The town now only allows locals to park on Johns Brook, Market and Adirondack streets. Wilson said that was to protect against overflow parking from The Garden parking lot, which has trailheads to popular High Peaks, but has so far only attracted a small number of hikers.
Peter Slocum, a hiker who lives in Keene and formerly worked in the communications department for the state Health Department, has been working with several volunteers in his town to educate hikers through social media about different trail options in the High Peaks region and dangers of COVID-19, including that it can be spread by asymptomatic people who travel from outside the area.
He said people clustering together outside can still spread COVID-19. That includes gathering around a trailhead register.
Slocum said the town doesn’t want to be unwelcoming “but we also want people to understand the reality of the situation.”
Brosseau, whose organization also educates hikers, said one of the mistaken ideas people have is that you don’t need a medical or cloth mask in the backcountry.
“No matter where you are going at least have a mask with you,” he said, for times when avoiding people is difficult.