Managers expand parking and shuttles to deal with busy hiking destinations
By Gwendolyn Craig
John DeVivo has had it with hikers.
Their cars clog up the roads and parking lots of Franconia Notch State Park in New Hampshire, 600 to 800 vehicles every beautiful Saturday and Sunday. They come in flip-flops and expect to hike three mountains. They leave trash. They come out of the woods on strange parts of the highway, lost and looking for a ride. DeVivo has given some a lift “in all their after-hiking glory.” He keeps the windows down.
The 53-year-old has been the general manager of the park going on 15 years. Many hikers are good stewards, but over time he has seen more unprepared people attempting some of the White Mountain National Forest’s most serious climbs, he said. More than 65% of hikers he sees do not have essential gear.
What also peeves DeVivo is how much is spent tending to hikers and how little they spend in return.
“The old joke is they show up with a $20 bill, and they leave with the same $20 bill,” DeVivo said.
Proving his point, a hiking shuttle system started in 2019 lost the park close to $30,000. The park rented four, 14-passenger vehicles running an approximately 20-minute loop from the Peabody Big Lot at Cannon Mountain to the Falling Waters/Old Bridle Path trailhead. For $5 a person, hikers could get dropped off and picked up. DeVivo acknowledged the shuttle kept people from parking on busy Interstate 93 and helped with the congestion of the most popular parking lots.
The Adirondack Explorer set out during the 2021 hiking season to learn more about visitor management strategies being tried—and some that seem to be working—in other popular recreation areas. Over the course of several issues of our magazine and online, the Explorer is diving into shuttle systems, trail maintenance, permits, stewardship programs and more.
It’s an example of success for New York officials to study. Essex County and the state Department of Environmental Conservation piloted a hiker shuttle last summer. Officials hoped it would prevent cars from parking on busy roadsides and get hikers safely to their trailhead destinations. Places like Franconia Notch State Park and Acadia National Park illustrate the benefit of such transportation systems.
And yet, DeVivo warned, these solutions might be contributing to the crowding problem, and they’re costly.
“The fact remains that we’re almost too accessible to the Everyman, and as a result, we’re starting to beat the snot out of the trail systems,” DeVivo said. “Our concern is that by offering a shuttle and offering more parking, we’re actually inviting more people to come here.”
“It’s definitely a Catch-22. You see it, national parks are getting hammered. State parks are getting hammered. There’s really no way of getting around it.”— John DeVivo, general manager of Franconia Notch State Park
Highway parking lot
New Hampshire’s park system is self-funded. About one-quarter of the state’s 100 venues make money. Six of those venues are under DeVivo’s care in the 7,200-acre, 9-mile-long park split by a two-lane interstate highway. Franconia Notch State Park collects more than 50% of the annual revenue of the entire park system, DeVivo said. The top money makers are the Flume Gorge, the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway and the Cannon Mountain Ski Area.
“Where does hiking fit into all of that?” DeVivo said. “It really doesn’t.”
In 2016 and 2017, National Geographic magazine featured the park as one of the top hiking destinations in the world, particularly the Mount Lafayette and Franconia Ridge Loop. Hikers often start the approximately 9-mile journey at the Falling Waters trailhead across from the Lafayette Campground. The 3,800 feet of elevation gain leads hikers past Stairs and Cloudland Falls and up to three peaks—Little Haystack and two of New Hampshire’s 48 High Peaks, Lincoln and Lafayette. Park attendance “exploded” in the last five years, but in 2020 during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, numbers were “through the roof,” DeVivo said. Up to 800 cars for the hiking crowd alone were arriving to park. DeVivo estimated that as many as 1,200 people were descending on their “little slice of heaven” on a weekend day.
When the 130-space parking lot at the Old Bridle Path/Falling Waters trailhead filled, people parked at the 70-space lot at Lafayette Campground. When that was full, they’d park on Interstate 93. It’s similar to the way hikers left vehicles along state Route 73 in the Adirondack Park’s Keene Valley. Like their counterparts in New York, New Hampshire’s local leaders were bracing for the worst—a deadly car accident.
A few years ago, New Hampshire State Police and the Department of Transportation closed the highway to all parking. They put up roadside barriers that were bright orange, later changed to forest green to blend with the scenery. DeVivo said the public was up in arms over the orange-colored barriers, another familiar story for Adirondackers, many of whom balked at the silver metal posts New York’s transportation officials installed on 73.
People called for more parking at the notch. DeVivo said the park will never run out of parking spaces, but the lots are not located where hikers want them. So in 2019, the shuttle program was born.
New Hampshire shuttles
Peter Kailey leads Franconia Notch’s “HIT Squad”—Hiker Interaction Team. The 70-year-old greets visitors at trailheads and hands them a paper map of the Franconia Ridge hike. In 2019, Kailey drove one of the shuttles. He estimates the four shuttles had moved 600 to 700 people on a weekend day.
“I was actually very surprised how well the hiker shuttle thing worked,” Kailey said.
When the pandemic struck, the shuttle system stalled and continued to in 2021. But there is talk about getting it going again, even if it lost money.
Hikers, like Ellen O’Brien, of Newton, Mass., gave the weekend service strong reviews when she used it in 2019. “Awesome,” O’Brien said at Cannon Mountain last June.
“They won’t allow parking on the highway anymore, so they had to do something,” O’Brien said.
Stanley Bujalski, a volunteer trailhead steward with White Mountain National Forest, was staking out the Falling Waters/Old Bridle Path parking lot last July. He had witnessed instances on Interstate 93 “where it was just pure luck that people weren’t getting killed.” He, too, said the shuttle succeeded in averting people from parking on the highway.
The park rented each shuttle for $2,500 a month, generally used on Saturdays and Sundays. The shuttle drivers worked from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. but it was stressful for Kailey and DeVivo when cars were still in the shuttle parking lot. Another challenge was planning for the ebb and flow of hiker traffic and the weather.
The approximately $30,000 annual loss was “the cost of doing business and keeping people off the highway,” DeVivo said. But he’s trying to find a way to cover it.
DeVivo and state officials plan to charge $10 to $15 per car at the two popular parking lots in 2022 after seeking authority from state legislators. At $10 per car per weekend during the hiking season, DeVivo estimates generating about $80,000, not including the shuttle revenue.
The Appalachian Mountain Club also runs a shuttle system servicing parts of the notch and other areas of White Mountain National Forest.
James Wrigley, director of the AMC’s White Mountain Lodging Operations, said the shuttle mostly services the club’s huts and shelters and ties into public transit. The shuttle makes stops at the two trailhead parking lots where DeVivo wants to charge parkers. AMC’s shuttle, however, has less of a day-hiking schedule than the state park’s program. AMC’s riding system has fewer drop-off and pickup times, travels farther and charges $24 one-way for non-members.
Bujalski said AMC’s shuttle was a great option when he hiked part of New Hampshire’s 30-mile Pemi Loop. He parked at one trailhead, hiked for a bit, stayed in one of AMC’s huts and returned by shuttle.
“You can get a lot more different hikes in and rely on the shuttle to bring you back,” Bujalski said. “I do a lot of solo hiking myself, so it’s a big benefit to someone like me.”
Acadia National Park
Commuter buses rumble down the old carriage roads of Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine. Signs flash destinations. Cars line Loop Road near Sand Beach. Drivers maneuver in the beach parking lot packed to the brim on a warm day last September. Down the road, more vehicles swarm the famous Thunder Hole, a coastline attraction where smacking waves create a sonorous boom.
The buses and traffic are a slice of city life on 35,000 protected acres overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
The bus system is called the Island Explorer. It is supported by federal, state and local taxes, a friends group and private businesses, including L.L. Bean, whose headquarters is in nearby Freeport.
The transportation network was conceptualized in 1992 in the park’s general management plan. It came to fruition in 1999. A federal air-quality grant funded the purchase of 17 buses and seven routes, now expanded to 40 buses and 10 routes, said Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, operator of the system. The buses now carry nearly 700,000 passengers annually. The system costs about $2.5 million per year.
Buses often go outside of the park and pick up visitors at their lodgings.
“It’s a hop-on, hop-off service,” Murphy said. “Some people do stay on a bus for its entire route to sightsee, but for the most part, people are taking it out to places where they’ll recreate.”
Murphy recalled how skeptical locals were when the system started two decades ago. There was little public transportation in the area, and fewer visitors. Between 2007 and 2017, visitation to Acadia jumped nearly 60%, records show. Now, the park’s transportation plan calls for even more buses and parking “to meet visitor demand.”
Stephanie Clement, conservation director of Friends of Acadia, said the bus system helps reduce traffic problems, but the number of riders is a fraction of the overall 3.5 million annual park visitors. Acadia’s transportation plan states, “it is impossible to meet demand for accessing park features (especially parking spaces) without significant adverse impacts to resources, safety, and the visitor experience.”
That is why the National Park Service is also building more parking, even though the original 1992 general management plan said the park would not do so.
“There are a few exceptions they’ve made,” Clement said. “The biggest one is happening now.”
Construction began last summer on a larger parking lot at Eagle Lake, where Clement said “parking was so bad.” She described a scene familiar to what New Hampshire and New York recreationists have witnessed—roadsides lined by parked cars.
Planners propose an Acadia Gateway Center at the home base of the Island Explorer with more parking and shuttle opportunities. The NPS also wants to implement parking reservations and possible additional parking lots off of Loop Road, the vein traveling through the heart of the park. But the plan may take more than a decade to complete.
Murphy said more shuttles and drivers are needed. But unlike DeVivo, he does not believe the buses are attracting more visitors and that the Acadia system is keeping thousands of cars off the road.
“We will never be the solution,” Murphy said. “We’ll only be part of the solution.”
Adirondacks and Catskills
A seasoned shuttle system and a pilot program ran last summer in the Adirondack’s High Peaks, giving state and local officials hope that buses or vans could be part of the answer to managing crowds.
For the last two decades, the town of Keene has operated a 15-passenger van from Marcy Field to the parking lot of the Garden trailhead, for the Johns Brook Valley and beyond. Essex County and the state DEC kicked off a 20-passenger shuttle from Marcy Field with several stops along Route 73. Both are free for the public.
The weekend programs got late starts last year, in part due to the pandemic. Keene started in July and Essex County in late August. Keene picked up just over 1,000 riders and the county picked up 85 through Indigenous Peoples Day/Columbus Day weekend.
“The shuttle ridership really pointed out what a unique summer this was,” said Joe Pete Wilson, supervisor for the town of Keene. Wilson thinks there was an “incredible slowdown” in the hiking demand in 2021, between the Canadian border’s closure until reopening Nov. 8.
Katie Petronis, deputy commissioner of natural resources for the DEC, said High Peaks visitor numbers fell last year and parking spots were available for many of the days the shuttle ran. Wilson said the town had to tow just one illegally parked car during last year’s hiking season, astonishing given that in a typical year, the haul is several cars a week.
The town-run shuttle program did not run in 2020. In 2018, about 1,600 took rides. The number rose to 3,235 in 2019, Wilson said.
The Essex County shuttle went “OK” in its debut, said Shaun Gillilland, chairman of the county’s board of supervisors.
“(There were) a tremendous number of unknowns,” Gillilland said. “It took a while to get traction, just like anything.”
The state spent $335,000 for four buses for the county shuttle program and only one was ready for prime time last season. The rest may be wrapped with the Adirondack Park motif on its sides and ready for hikers this year.
Gillilland, Wilson and the DEC are in talks about how to make a more connected transportation network. Gillilland would like to see the shuttle expand to additional trailheads and hubs to help spread out hikers. The patchwork system in place provides stops at Rooster Comb, Giant Mountain/Ridge Trail, Roaring Brook Falls across the street from the Adirondack Mountain Reserve and back to Marcy Field.
“We know that shuttle systems are the types of programs that grow over time,” Petronis said. “DEC and our partners will learn from 2021 and will take a critical look with our partners at what worked, what could be improved, and how to continue the shuttles as valuable tools for protecting public safety in the region.”
Forest preserve neighbors to the south in the Catskill Park are monitoring the High Peaks experience.
Catskill Center Executive Director Jeff Senterman and his colleagues in visitor management think a shuttle has potential for destinations such as Kaaterskill Falls in Greene County.
In New Hampshire, DeVivo envisioned another year of shuttles at Franconia Notch and wished New York luck controlling crowds.
“Let us know when you figure it out,” DeVivo said.
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