Research firm’s report complements ongoing visitor data collection in High Peaks
By Gwendolyn Craig
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a link and download to the Adirondack Council’s report.
A newly released Adirondack Council-sponsored report could provide hints of what’s to come in a state-funded study of visitors in the High Peaks.
The council commissioned the Oregon-based research and planning firm, Otak, to collect data on visitors to the trails and summits of Algonquin and Marcy, the state’s two highest peaks, each above 5,000 feet. Otak has a national reputation for these projects, including helping Acadia National Park in Maine develop a reservation system for viewing the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain.
The council and state say studying the number of High Peaks visitors is important to determining the area’s social carrying capacity. That is how many visitors the natural resources in the High Peaks can withstand before negative impacts, and what to do when those limits are reached.
The council’s research was conducted over the 2021 hiking season. At the beginning of 2023, the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced it, too, had hired Otak for its own visitor use study of the High Peaks region.
The field work for that study is ongoing and is expected to end in August, according to a timeline on the project’s website. Otak, the DEC and other stakeholders held a public meeting in May and continue to collect feedback via a website: https://highpeaksvum.com/get-involved.html.
On Monday, the Adirondack Council shared Otak’s key findings from its July 2, 2021 to Oct. 31, 2021 data collection.
Otak found that in a four-hour span, a person hiking toward Algonquin could expect to encounter as many as 32 groups of other people. A hiker on the Van Hoevenberg trail could expect to encounter as many as 40 groups of people. That translated to seeing another person on these trails every six or seven minutes. The report noted that visitation was remarkably down that year, likely due to rainy weather and the Canadian border closure around the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state’s two highest peaks are part of the High Peaks Wilderness. Wilderness has a specific meaning in Adirondack Park policy. It is a land classification defined as a place “untrammeled by man” that “has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” The council said the amount of foot traffic documented in the report points to a diminished sense of solitude.
Otak recommended the DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency, a state body charged with long-range planning for the approximately 6-million-acre park, focus on “numeric thresholds” and devise “long-term management strategies,” according to the council’s report.
The study also found that vehicle arrivals to the Adirondack Loj, a popular High Peaks trailhead run by the Adirondack Mountain Club, began at 4 a.m. and peaked from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. There were, on average, 260 visitors to the Loj per day.
The council spent $150,000 on the study, but had been prepared to spend $500,000 if the DEC did not begin its own visitor use investigation, said Raul “Rocci” Aguirre, who was recently named executive director of the council.
In March, the DEC announced it had hired Otak for work that may be covered by $600,000 in the state’s Environmental Protection Fund in the 2022-2023 budget. Aguirre said he was grateful the DEC was able to secure funding.
“We hope to keep seeking the funds needed to make this project successful and provide the DEC the tools they need to manage the ongoing challenge of visitor use in the High Peaks and other high use areas across the Forest Preserve,” Aguirre said.
The DEC said it is reviewing the report and called it a “complement” to the work underway in the Adirondacks. Otak was also hired to study visitor use at Kaaterskill Clove in the Catskill Park.
“Protecting the regions’ natural resources while promoting safe access to the outdoors are top priorities for the state, and the comprehensive visitor use management effort currently underway will inform future strategies to advance these goals,” the DEC said. “Public input throughout the process to develop recommendations and monitor the effectiveness of their implementation over time is critical, and we look forward to working with the Adirondack Council and other stakeholders throughout the park as these efforts advance.”