Coalitions are key to centers, websites and platforms to informing visitors
By Mike Lynch
On summer weekends, Crawford Notch State Park in the White Mountains of New Hampshire bustles with activity. Vehicles fill trailhead parking lots and line Route 302, the main artery. People traipse mountainside trails.
Amid the commotion, the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center lodge welcomes visitors with a sign: “adventure—lodging—learning.”
The Highland Center stands across the street from the more than 200-year-old Crawford Path, the longest continuously maintained hiking trail in North America. The lodge and its predecessors have catered to visitors since the Crawford House Hotel was built on the site in 1850.
AMC turned the place into the Highland Center, a beacon for the region and a representation of a kind of welcome point that groups around the country have developed to deal with people in search of information about outdoors options.
Today, the lodge is a launching pad for all kinds of hikers, some who head off at sunrise to tackle the 8.5-mile Crawford Path to Mount Washington. More casual trekkers pursue easier trips and others drive through Crawford Notch for the scenery.
Plenty have questions about conditions, need to buy a piece of gear or grab a bite to eat. The Highland Center has a restaurant, a store with touristy T-shirts and basic outdoor accessories. Visitors here can quiz an AMC employee or a volunteer at the trail information booth.
“We want to educate people about being prepared,” said Beck O’Brien, a front-desk manager. “It’s easy to underestimate the White Mountains.”
The facility, which also runs a visitors center at a nearby historic train depot during peak hiking season, is one of several information hubs in the White Mountains. Others are the Pinkham Notch Visitors Center near Mount Washington and the Flume Gorge Visitor Center in Franconia Notch State Park.
In the High Peaks region, the closest equivalent is the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Heart Lake complex. It features the Adirondak Loj, Hungry Hiker outdoor restaurant and High Peaks Information Center near the trailhead for Algonquin and Marcy, New York’s tallest peaks.
Workers at the High Peaks center provide gear and dispense safety tips. For instance, they’re likely to recommend against setting out for Marcy’s summit to those showing up in the afternoon or to tell hikers regulations requiring snowshoes when the snowpack is deeper than 8 inches.
“That is one of the greatest, in my opinion, educational tools in place for the High Peaks,” said consultant Ben Lawhon. “It’s a place where people can actually go in and ask real-time questions, and they get good, solid information.” While working for the Leave No Trace Outdoor Center for Outdoor Ethics in Boulder, Colo., Lawhon wrote a 2020 report on how to manage recreation impacts in the Adirondack Park. He recommended exploring the idea of a network of visitor centers parkwide.
A big difference between the Highland and High Peaks centers is proximity to highways. The New Hampshire site is along a main road that cuts through the mountains, whereas the Heart Lake property is five miles down a rural road.
Visitors entering Crawford Notch State Park can easily drop into the Highland Center for face-to-face trip planning. Those who go to the High Peaks site generally hike from ADK’s property.
Adirondack Information Hubs
A few years ago, Joe Dadey visited the Highland Center. He was joined by Muhammad “Mo” Ahmad, owner of a building and land near the Northway’s Exit 29 in North Hudson. The pair wanted to glean ideas for their own projects.
“They have a little retail and some nice displays and that planted a seed in my head,” said Dadey, executive director of the nonprofit Adirondack Hamlets to Huts. He liked the way the Highland Center combined its store with the information services and now does the same at his organization’s Trails Center in downtown Saranac Lake.
The main purpose of his nonprofit is to market, manage and create trips. Providing outdoor education was a natural outgrowth. The organization’s plan is to expand, adding interpretative displays and other features.
In 2018, Ahmad bought 50 acres and the “A-Frame,” a 20,000-square-foot structure that was once part of Frontier Town, a Wild West theme park from 1952 to 1998. Ahmad fixed up the A-Frame and opened it last fall with a restaurant and store that includes outdoor gear. In the future, he plans to host events, in addition to offering glamping through a partner.
“I would love to emulate (the Highland Center) on a smaller scale,” he said.
Ahmad’s property is well situated to be a hub for visitors. The Frontier Town state campground and Paradox Brewery are nearby, and Essex County intends to build an arena in the vicinity for rodeos, concerts or other draws, said Essex County Board of Supervisors Chair Shaun Gilliland.
A 2017 master plan described the Frontier Town site as a “Gateway” to the Adirondacks. Part of the plan, created by the Open Space Institute and state and local governments, called for a visitor center but that hasn’t been built. Ahmad and Gilliland said something of a smaller scale, like an information kiosk, is a more likely and appropriate outcome.
In 2021, the High Peaks Advisory Group recommended a circle of information hubs around the wilderness area with Frontier Town the central one.
Some information stations have started to develop organically.
In Keene, the town has been focusing on making Marcy Field a go-to place for hikers in recent years. Already the base to two hiker shuttle services and trailhead stewards, the site is under consideration for a self-serve visitors center now at the Holt House, an old farmhouse, Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson said.
Up Route 73 near Lake Placid, another information center is envisioned at the Cascade Ski Center purchased by the Adirondack Mountain Club in January. The Cascade facility has the potential to be similar to the club’s High Peaks center. Plans are still being developed.
The state has said it will be providing hiking information services at the Mountain Pass Lodge at the Olympic Sporting Complex near Lake Placid. The site is located at the head of the new Mount Van Hoevenberg trail and the future one for Cascade Mountain.
In the southern High Peaks, the Open Space Institute is improving the Upper Works Trailhead. It had Newcomb public works put in a parking lot last summer and plans to rehabilitate the historic MacNaughton Cottage in 2023. The institute hopes to make the cottage an outpost for forest rangers and home for an outfitter, supplying advice and gear.
If any of these centers come to fruition, they could provide visitors more than the guidance offered on the web and network with existing centers and outfitters. In a region with spotty cell service, the hubs could provide on-the-ground details about parking, shuttles, hiking options and other needs.
“Being a porous park, one visitor center is not going to necessarily fill the niche,” Lawhon said.
A go-to digital platform
But hubs are just one part of the puzzle for educating Adirondacks visitors. Unlike many state and national parks, there is no authoritative website or app to use to research High Peaks recreation.
Leave No Trace’s report recommended a website — in French and English —while the High Peaks Advisory Group endorsed an app with real-time news on parking, shuttles, weather, emergencies and trail conditions and closures.
“The development of the meaningful go-to site is really what we have to strive for,” said Jim McKenna, head of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism.
ROOST has developed Adirondack Hub, a website that offers recreational offerings in North Hudson, Newcomb, Schroon Lake, and Minerva, that could be part of the internet solution.
But lacking the central website for the entire High Peaks region, people turn to a variety of digital sources, some reliable from the state, and others without vetted content.
Keene Supervisor Wilson said hikers have told him they use All Trails, a national website with user-generated content.
“It’s erratic and unreliable. It can send you trespassing,” Wilson said. “It can tell you to park where it’s not legal.”
Some websites may promote herd paths or trails that aren’t maintained or can be difficult to follow for beginner hikers. ADK spokesman Ben Brosseau said the Trap Dike—a challenging climb—has been misidentified as a hike by some internet sources.
“(If) somebody decides they want to do a winter trek of, you know, one of the High Peaks and they get the wrong information, that could be disastrous. It could be deadly,” Lawhon said.
In other states, land managers work with nonprofits and other groups to create trustworthy websites.
For example, in Vermont and New Hampshire, the Upper Valley Trails Alliance and the privately-owned Center for Community GIS established Trailfinder.info, an interactive trails database, as a go-to resource.
With help from the National Park Service, state agencies and other landowners, the website provides information on 900 trail systems and 7,000 miles of trails.
Trailfinder.info draws about 350,000 users annually.
Alliance Executive Director Russell Hirschler said Trailfinder data is vetted by landowners and reports are up to date with alerts and rerouting tips.
“We’re trying to inform people, but at the same time we’re using it to also let people know of busy places, where we have use issues, such as too much demand,” said Walter Opuszynski, a forest recreation specialist with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation.
But the site isnt perfect. Organizations and landowners must want to participate and not everyone has done so.
While Trailfinder was birthed in 2008, a site for the Pacific Northwest has been around since the 1990s. The Washington Trails Association site combines user-generated content with trail descriptions, land managers descriptions and updates, and educational material, drawing 5 million users a year. It is the product of partnerships with public entities and others.
Washington Trails Association Communications and Outreach Director Kindra Ramos said the organization’s roots as a hiker resource, having early volunteers who were part of the tech wave, and the organization philosophy have played a key role in the website’s success.
“We are looking at trails as a conduit for people’s mental health and well-being and hikers as the solution to keeping those places accessible,” she said.
WTA values and education efforts are evident in one of its most recent projects. The nonprofit joined with REI and the Washington parks department to create the Recreate Responsibly movement early in the pandemic when people needed information about how to use the outdoors safely.
Since then, the movement has gone national and includes more than 1,300 partners, including government agencies, businesses and nonprofits.
The coalition emphasizes preparedness, respecting the environment, and encouraging an inclusive and accessible outdoors for solo hikers to those with pets.
While plans for High Peaks centers and digital platforms develop, local and state entities have stepped up marketing stewardship. One effort involves promoting principles that help educate users about preparing for excursions while having minimal impact on the environment. The state has included more stewardship materials on its digital channels, and in 2021 launched the Love Our New York Lands campaign. ROOST has promoted its Love Your Adirondacks messaging.
New York is following in the footsteps of Colorado. The mountainous state has taken the lead in promoting responsible recreation. The Colorado tourism bureau held listening sessions in 2016, in which stakeholders voiced concerns about the impacts of visitors and became the first state tourism office to partner with Leave No Trace.
The partners came up with the Care for Colorado campaign in 2017 promoting things such as sticking to trails or being careful with fires. Dozens of state, federal and local entities joined the effort.
“The strength and success of our program has really been with our partnerships,” said Jill Corbin, deputy director of destination stewardship.