By Mike De Socio
The takeaway from last summer was clear: More visitors than ever flocked to the Adirondacks to get their fill of open space in a year that had us confined in our homes due to the pandemic.
This summer, when travel began returning to normal but the weather was unusually cold and rainy, the Adirondacks saw mixed results. The Adirondack Explorer spoke with leaders from around the park to understand the trends in visitation this year.
NEW THIS YEAR: Adirondack Mountain Reserve’s parking reservation system
The Adirondack Mountain Reserve, a gateway to a number of High Peaks and other popular hiking destinations, started its reservation system in May. It will continue through the end of October.
As of Sept. 23, 13,360 reservations had been made, a combination of initial reservations and new reservations made after the 3,188 online cancellations. That number does not necessarily mean that many people walked through the reserve’s gates, as up to eight people can be tied to one reservation and some reservations are “no shows.”
Also since Sept. 23, 17,600 people had signed up for an account on the reservation website, with the Adirondack Mountain Reserve expecting even more, from new users looking to see autumn foliage.
SOLID WIN: Tri-Lakes region on track for a record year
Although the data is still preliminary, visitation numbers in Essex County “were up by a good percentage” in 2021 compared to a 2019 baseline, said James McKenna, president and CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism.
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McKenna based his assessment on year-to-date occupancy tax numbers through the end of July. Despite an unseasonably rainy and cold summer, McKenna said these early numbers point to an increase in tourism compared to 2019, which was itself a record-breaking year.
“The COVID effect still is playing through,” McKenna said, with many tourists favoring outdoor destinations they can drive to from major cities. “That plays well for the Adirondacks.”
McKenna also noted that the length of stays and size of travel parties is increasing, which could point to more family vacationers.
DECLINE: A slower season on popular High Peaks trails
From the looks of it so far, hiker traffic at ADK’s Loj/Heart Lake Program Center is down significantly from its 2020 peak.
25 vs 43 — Number of days there was a full parking lot (2021 vs 2020)
In July and August of 2020, the trailhead’s parking lot filled 70% of the time (43 out of 62 days); In 2021, parking filled on 40% of days over the same time span (25 out of 62 days), according to data provided by ADK.
“That mirrors the overall lower numbers of hikers that we saw both at our trailhead and around the region,” said Benjamin Brosseau, ADK’s director of communications, in an email.
30% decrease in summit steward interactions
An ADK summit steward report from August cited the rainy weather and closed Canadian border as partial reasons for the dip in hiker traffic. The number of summit steward contacts in May and June of this year were up slightly compared to 2020, but in July were down by almost 30% compared to 2020, according to the report.
SOLID WIN: More visitors this year at DEC campgrounds
The state Department of Conversation operates 52 campgrounds across the Adirondack and Catskill parks. Last summer, those sites remained closed until late June due to COVID restrictions.
Nonetheless, campground visitation has continued to rise over the last three summers. Here’s the breakdown of data provided by the DEC:
- 2019: 901,100 campers from July 1
- 2020: 975,000 campers from July 1
- 2021: 986,000 campers from July 1 through Sept. 23 (some campgrounds are still open for the season)
At the DEC’s day use areas, the trends are less clear:
- 2019: 375,159 visitors the entire season
- 2020: 218,715 visitors from July 1st (some areas were under Covid capacity restrictions)
- 2021: 186,346 visitors from July 1st, but 229,725 season total to date
GETTING BACK TO NORMAL: Adirondack Experience and Wild Center
Going into this summer, the Adirondack Experience, which was closed in 2020, was hoping to see half the visitors that it did in 2019. But even with a shorter season than usual (July through September), 2021 attendance is on track to meet 2019 levels.
“[It’s] about double what we anticipated originally,” said Tara Murphy, the museum’s director of marketing and communications, in an email.
At the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, capacity restrictions and reservation requirements have had an impact on attendance during the pandemic. A museum official said 2021 attendance is up 150% from last summer, but still hasn’t recovered to 2019 levels of about 125,000 visitors per year.
“Attendance has outpaced what we had thought it might be so we’re happy, so far,” said Nick Gunn, marketing manager at the Wild Center, in an email.
LOWER THAN NORMAL: Boat traffic
During the summer of 2020, watershed stewards at the Adirondacks’ lakes encountered over 250,000 boaters — about 25,000 more than an average season. But this year, traffic has started to return from its COVID-induced high.
“This summer our numbers are actually quite a bit lower,” said Dan Kelting, executive director of the Adirondack Watershed Institute. “They’re lower than normal.”
The Adirondack Watershed Institute runs two main programs, one that stations stewards around the Adirondacks during the summer to speak with boaters, and one that empowers “citizen scientists” to monitor and take samples of water quality throughout the year. Kelting wasn’t able to share the final numbers for this season yet, but he said lower traffic is probably a result of the colder, rainer summer that we had this year.
“This summer for us, the big news is just less boater traffic,” Kelting said.
“Our encounters with boaters are consistently really positive,” Kelting said.
— Explorer reporter Gwendolyn Craig contributed to this report.