Younger people from cities don’t mind High Peaks crowds, Clarkson surveys find
By TIM ROWLAND
A study of Adirondack hiking by a class of students from Clarkson University has uncovered what might be a tricky dilemma for Adirondack problem solvers: The younger, more urban demographic that is flocking to the High Peaks may not have the same values or concerns about the wilderness as older, more solitary hikers.
“A few people on the summit of a mountain didn’t bother anyone,” said Maria Pelusi, one of six students who presented their findings at the Nature Conservancy in Keene Valley on Wednesday. “In fact, they felt safer with more people on the trails.”
Pelusi was speaking of informal surveys conducted by the students during hikes on some of the summer’s more crowded weekends. While the students stressed their findings were not scientific, the scope of their interviews, which included about 90 hikers, suggested the responses they received were more than anecdotal.
The students participated in Clarkson’s Adirondack Semester program, and partnered with the Adirondack Council on the research.
Speaking of trail erosion on Cascade, student Liam Lewis said, “A lot of them seemed not to be concerned; they said this (trail) was just fine.” They also came across people from the cities who were used to elbowing their way through crowds on streets and subways — to them, a summit with a scant 30 people milling about might indeed fit their definition of wilderness.
Students acknowledged they might have heard different comments on other, less busy days. Pelusi said locals were conspicuously absent on the trails on high-use days, suggesting they were off hiking on trails less taken.
Indeed, the hikers surveyed skewed far more international and urban than in the past. Even with the caveats about sample size and timing, it would appear people are coming from further distances than they have in previous hiking eras.
Students said it also indicates that hikers are less likely to understand Adirondack ethics, such as Leave No Trace principles. Among their recommendations, the students suggested an emphasis on stewards, interns, and something along the lines of the Trail Runners on the Pacific Crest Trail, who dispense information and do light maintenance.
This recommendation dovetails with local summer steward programs that have met with some success in managing crowds. The Town of Keene, which is a believer in the power of personal contact, successfully applied for a state “Smart Growth” grant this month that will pay for three years of front-country steward programs.
Another reason hikers are not receiving proper information and education is a failure of Department of Environmental Conservation web pages to attract much attention. In comparing the Adirondacks to Baxter State Park in Maine and Franconia Notch in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, students found that the top hit on a web search for Baxter and Franconia was the respective park’s own website. By contrast, the DEC website was the 18th result on Adirondack web searches.
What that means is that visitors to the Adirondacks are more likely to get their information from sites such as TripAdvisor, which is notably short on, for example, the proper usage of a map and compass. DEC web pages, by contrast, are jam packed with good information, which in these days of abbreviated attention spans is as much a burden as an asset.
Among their other findings, students noted that Franconia Notch — which has experienced similar traffic problems to the Adirondacks — has had success closing off the Franconia Parkway to roadside traffic and going to a shuttle system to transport hikers to their destinations. Unlike Baxter, Franconia does not use a permitting system, said student Forrest Gifford, “because New Hampshire prides itself on its ease of access.” Permits seem to work better in parks with controlled entryways, students said.
Noting the considerable erosion, and general steepness, of Adirondack trails, students suggested that other parks have had success with a matrix that numerically ranks trails most in need of attention. Trail conditions in other parks that were studied were a mixed bag. On the Pacific Crest Trail, reliance on switchbacks minimized the steepness and the frequency of washouts. By contrast, when switchbacks were proposed in Baxter, the idea produced blowback from traditionalists who did not want to see the trails changed — even if for the better.
Eric Avery says
Can we dispense with the myth that crowded peaks in the Adirondacks on nice weekends are something new? The first time I summited Algonquin I had to wait a half an hour for my “turn” to touch my boot to the summit bolt. There had to be 100 people up there. That was in 1997. There’s not that many more people Now than there were 20 years ago when the weather is spectacular. The only difference is that the Adirondack Mt Club isn’t really “a thing” anymore so no one is carpooling from Glens Falls or Clifton Park. The same number of people are arriving in twice as many cars. The AllTrails app gives people directions to the trail head and a line to follow and off people go. Can we please just have more parking and maybe a few new routes from different lots?
It’s not a myth; it’s fact.
The dramatic increase in usage/visits at all parks across the country has surged in the last 10 years. https://e360.yale.edu/features/greenlock-a-visitor-crush-is-overwhelming-americas-national-parks
Anyone with a decade of experience driving on 73 or trying to park at the Loj has clearly seen this. The ADK Summit Stewards have a clear record of the massive growth. The recent issue of Backcountry Magazine details the surge of people on Teton Pass in the decade etc. etc.
This is a hugely important article.
Crazy that such a simple demographic-attitude study hasn’t been done before! With all the concern for education to not “know the customer” and how they perceive things and what they are aware of and concerned about seems a big miss. The relative Google search results is eye-opening! And the “what works/what doesn’t elsewhere” is just basic research that should preface any discussions of these topics yet I haven’t seen them before but is essential to figuring out what to do (ie. copy success!)
Thank you and Bravo! to the Clarkson students who did this!
Tony Goodwin says
I attended the presentation by the Clarkson students and I agree that they did a great job in both describing the current situation in the ADKs and in researching how other areas are dealing with current use levels. In particular, their analysis of who is hiking now and how those hikers perceive the experience is especially important. Any educational effort must first determine who it is who needs to be educated and what it is that need to know.
The group recognized the Franconia Notch State Park had done an excellent job of dealing with the high use levels there. It should be noted, however, that the task was easier in Franconia Notch because there was the parking area for a major ski center (Canon Mt.) within a few miles (all in the same direction) of all the popular trailheads.
Here, even if we were to turn half of Marcy Field into a parking lot, the logistics would be much more difficult to get hikers to their chosen trailhead. So, while the solutions found in other areas can help to inform us of solutions, ultimately it will have to be a unique ADK solution to mitigate the problems created by current use levels.
Obviously every situation is different, but we – and everyone else – should have a reference catalog of what “plays” are available and how they work elsewhere.
“Leave no trace” is also about no littering and that is not just an Adirondack principle. People should only leave traces in their own private homes . It cannot be taught better than at home as children. It involves respect and should be a statewide principle.
I am curious to know whether the Clarkson survey team advised the group in the photo to move their feet and belongings out of the earthen areas to protect fragile vegetation. Note the 2 prominently in the foreground. This article could also have been an opportunity to advance the “Leave No Trace” principles.
Gary Hartwick says
It seems to be the self appointed environmentalists that have the problems. Most everyone else seems fine.
I shudder to think where we would be without “self-appointed environmentalists” such as John Muir, Rachel Carson, Leopold, Abbey, and Roosevelt. There certainly would be no Adirondack Park, not to mention National Parks. “Everyone else” should know how their public playgrounds came to be and do their share to help preserve and protect them.
Good study, many kudos to these students for talking the time!
As a millennial, the idea about there being safety in (limited) numbers resonates with me a lot. I am not experienced enough to feel super confident when hiking alone even though I do know basic navigation. To be honest, I’ve gotten slightly lost on ADK trails more than anywhere in the country. I’ve gotten tricked by old trail markers, misjudged distances, been accidentally rerouted by alpine terrain that isn’t a trail, etc. it’s really good to have someone pass you occasionally to indicate that you are in fact on the right track.
I know some folks definitely do not feel that way, and in my experience they tend to be older. Though I know older urban folks who grew up on ADK vacations that feel similar to locals.
In our google maps generation, extreme confidence in old fashioned navigation is less prominent imo. I don’t think that should prohibit us from being out there.
I know that the ADKs seem really crowded, and yes the sunny day we visited in October was pretty ridiculous. But the other two days with moderate weather on weekdays were totally tame. I strongly agree with local commenters in Keene who have observed that the overuse problem is limited to select few days.