Observers say more money is needed to repair and maintain an antiquated network of hiking routes.
By MIKE LYNCH
When many of the High Peaks’ trails were cut more than a century ago, the work was done by guides and hired hands. Keene Valley’s Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps created the first trail up Mount Marcy in 1861; Verplanck Colvin’s survey workers cut routes up Algonquin and Dix in the late 1800s; and Henry Van Hoevenberg developed a trail system for the Adirondack Lodge (as it was then spelled).
The early trails opened up the High Peaks to more people and laid the groundwork for today’s trail system, but some of the original trails continue to cause maintenance problems.
“When trails were originally cut about a hundred years ago, there wasn’t anything called trail design,” said Adirondack Mountain Club Trails Coordinator Andrew Hamlin. “It was basically just a way to get to the mountain summits, so there’s a lot of erosion taking place on trails, especially in the High Peaks region. That’s pretty much why our crews exist: to try to mitigate and minimize that erosion.”
Modern trails tend to switchback up mountains and employ trail hardening techniques to minimize erosion. In the old days, however, trails were cut straight up steep slopes. Such trails can turn into streams during rainstorms. Due to erosion, the walking surface is often characterized by rocks, roots, and loose soil.
Given the poor design and increasing number of hikers, many people argue that more money is needed to maintain and redesign trails in the High Peaks as well as on other popular peaks, such as Baker Mountain in Saranac Lake.
This isn’t a new idea. For decades, leaders around the Park have said the state needs to do a better job maintaining the Forest Preserve—a view often espoused when the state is looking to acquire new land. The issue is in the public eye now because of problems created by the growth in hiking in the High Peaks in recent years. In online forums and on social media, people have been debating whether hikers should pay fees to fund such projects and whether hiking permits should be required to limit usage.
When the Explorer questioned trail-maintenance organizations about whether more work could be done in the High Peaks, the answer was a resounding yes.
“We could easily double size of our [twenty-member] trail crew,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). “The work is out there to justify a much larger ADK trail crew.”
Tony Goodwin, head of the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society, which maintains trails in the St. Huberts area, agreed. “If ATIS had the budget, I would try to field a crew of a dozen, and we usually have five or six,” he said. “When the state did have a real trail crew, they were still not big enough to maintain what was there and not really do any major improvements. When ADK started building a professional trail crew in 1979, that was the first time that any real improvements were being made on the trails.”
As recently as the 1990s, the state had four trail crews of about four people each in the northern Adirondacks, including two focused on the High Peaks. Interior caretakers at Lake Colden and Johns Brook also worked on trails and continue to do so. But over recent years, DEC’s crews have shrunk while their responsibilities have grown as the state has acquired more land.
Discussions about trail maintenance seem to surface whenever usage spikes. Sandra Weber wrote about similar issues in the High Peaks in her 2001 book Mount Marcy: The High Peak of New York. She noted ADK’s magazine, Adirondac, published an article in 1971 that raised concerns about increasing usage marring the “wilderness experience” and causing trail erosion.
“In 1975, some 28,000 people registered at Marcy Dam, and it was estimated that over 35,000 people visited Mount Marcy that year,” Weber wrote. “Hikers becoming Adirondack Forty-Sixers grew from 15 in 1960 to 70 to 126 in 1975. The membership of ADK grew from about 2,000 in 1960 to almost 9,000 in 1975. Today, it has nearly 35,000 members.
“The new Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which took over the duties of the old Conservation Department, had limited staff and budget; it could not handle the increased usage. Fortunately, volunteer organizations contributed more help. The Forty-Sixers, ADK, and ATIS assisted with trail maintenance, rehabilitation, and rerouting, and offered educational programs.”
Today DEC faces the same budget and staff problems and continues to rely on the same organizations for work, paying for some of it and relying on volunteer work for the rest. However, the pressure put on the High Peaks today is substantially greater than it was a few decades ago. Instead of 126 people a year finishing the forty-six High Peaks in 1975, there are now more than six hundred finishers a year. And popular summits such as Cascade Mountain and Mount Marcy might see that number of hikers in a single day. The number of hikers signing the register at Cascade rose from 16,091 in 2006 to 33,149 in 2015. The Van Hoevenberg Trail, which leads to Mount Marcy from Adirondak Loj, has seen a similar large increase in people signing the register: 53,423 last year, a 62 percent increase from 2005.
DEC relies on money from the Environmental Protection Fund to pay for trail work when it contracts with outside trail crews. In addition, the Adirondack Forty-Sixers and other groups have donated money for trails. The Forty-Sixers have given more than $350,000 in the past sixteen years to various Adirondack causes, including $169,000 for ADK’s professional trail crew.
The department provided the Explorer with a list of work accomplished this year: more than two hundred miles of trail patrolled for blowdown; more than seventy-five miles of trail patrolled for drainage issues; more than forty privies relocated, and more than a hundred new signs installed. Other projects included installing at least nine box privies at high-elevation sites; improving trails on Cascade Mountain, Hurricane Mountain, and Mount Colden, and restoring campsites at Roaring Brook Falls.
Nevertheless, many observers say trails need more regular maintenance and some should be rerouted. “We need to provide the human resources necessary to maintain and upgrade backcountry trails, bridges, tent sites, outhouses, et cetera,” said Jack Drury, an outdoor guide who is developing a hut-to-hut network in the Adirondacks. “We need trail maintenance raised to world quality.”
Goodwin said damage is especially noticeable on herd paths—unmarked routes on the so-called trail-less High Peaks, such as the Sewards and the Santanonis. These trails were created by use, not design, and lack the erosion-control features of modern trails. Also, they don’t receive as much maintenance as officially designated trails do, and they are showing the consequences of the increase in foot traffic.
“It definitely has had a significant impact on herd paths like Seymour, Seward, Cliff, Marshall, Tabletop,” Goodwin said. “The other marked trails—Cascade, Algonquin, Marcy, Giant—those seem to have been improved [by trail crews] as the numbers have increased and have at least not deteriorated significantly. …I’ve looked at the Cascade trail and, yeah, I can see it’s gotten a little bit wider. It’s deteriorated. It could use some more work to refresh some of the structures that were built twenty-five to thirty years ago, but when you think about the number of people that go up and down Cascade, that trail has stayed in pretty good shape.”
Should the herd paths be marked, maintained, and perhaps redesigned? That is another recurring question. About twenty-five years ago, the Citizens Advisory Committee that worked on the High Peaks management plan grappled with the issue of herd paths. Barbara McMartin wrote about the discussions in her book Perspectives on the Adirondacks. She said the committee did well by closing off many herd paths and channeling traffic to one route on each peak. But McMartin was disappointed that the committee did not recommend that herd paths be redesigned “with minimal grades using switchbacks to minimize erosion.” Several people interviewed for this article said the herd paths should be marked and rerouted.
The Adirondack Forty-Sixers have been working with DEC to improve herd paths. But Adirondack 46er president Brian Hoody said the paths don’t necessarily have to become marked trails, suggesting that doing so would diminish their wild character. “They are definitely getting more use, but as long as you have an adopter [who takes responsibility for a trail] and you deal with the problems, they should be all right for a while,” he said.
However, Goodwin, who represented the Forty-Sixers on the High Peaks Citizen’s Advisory Committee but isn’t officially part of the organization now, said it’s time for the organization to recognize that herd paths are not holding up to increased use. “They’re just going to have to accept the fact that these trails are going to become much more evident and need to be laid out strategically and maybe not marked as heavily as some of the state trails, but they need to become real trails,” he said.
Add that to the list of work that Goodwin and others believe needs to be done in the High Peaks. “One of my sayings has been that if you’re in the trail business in the Adirondacks, in this era, you’ve inherited about 125 years of poor design and maintenance, and it might take another 125 years to fix it all,” Goodwin said.
Disturbing the wild
By MIKE LYNCH
A trail weaving its way through the woods to a summit takes up just a minuscule fraction of the wild lands it traverses, which may leave the impression that trails have little impact on wildlife. Research in recent years by the Wildlife Conservation Society suggests that is not the case.
“You’d be surprised by the ripples left by a day hiker’s ramble through the woods,” wrote Christopher Solomon in the New York Times in 2015. “In 2008 Sarah Reed, an associate conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, and her colleagues found fivefold declines in detections of bobcats, coyotes and other midsize carnivores in protected areas in California that allowed quiet recreation activities like hiking, compared with protected areas that prohibited those activities.”
The Wildlife Conservation Society is now working on similar studies in the Adirondacks to determine recreation’s impact on wildlife. Although the studies are not finished, WCS biologist Michale Glennon believes there are impacts along some popular trails.
“This is my gut feeling. Birds and other species that are living adjacent to the Cascade Trail, where six hundred people might go up on a given day, are going to perceive that number of people that go up on the trail that day,” she said.
Potential impacts can vary. Some species might leave the area to avoid people. Black bears, however, might get used to people and become emboldened to steal food.
Given that the High Peaks Wilderness is crisscrossed by hundreds of miles of trails, the cumulative impact on wildlife could be quite large. In addition, there are leantos, tent sites, privies, and summits where the human presence is conspicuous. Keep in mind, too, that animals can sense people from a long distance.
Glennon compared the presence of hikers in the wilderness to a house in the woods. Homeowners typically see robins, blue jays, and doves in their backyards. What they don’t see are birds that live in the interior of the forest and are sensitive to development, such as scarlet tanagers and some woodpeckers. “So it’s not so much that you’ve created a dead zone, but you have sort of changed the dynamic of who is there,” she remarked.
Alpine plants in jeopardy
By MIKE LYNCH
The growing number of hikers in the High Peaks in recent years has heightened concern for the fragile alpine vegetation found on many of the summits.
If the number continues to increase, summit stewards charged with educating hikers may find themselves overwhelmed, said Julia Goren, the Adirondack Mountain Club’s education director.
“I don’t think we’ve lost ground yet,” said Goren, who heads the summit-steward program. “But I do think it’s not hyperbolic that we’re kind of at a tipping point where there’s not much more we can take before there’s going to be some kind of loss. One summit steward can’t talk to six hundred people in a day and make sure that people are respecting every patch of alpine vegetation.”
To prevent a loss of flora, Goren said there needs to be a “great investment” in infrastructure or personnel.
There are about 175 acres of alpine habitat, which harbors some rare plants, on the tops of sixteen Adirondack mountains. Summit stewards spend most of their time on Mount Marcy and Algonquin Peak, two very popular peaks where much of the alpine flora grows, but they do visit other peaks.
In recent years, the program expanded to Cascade Mountain, a summit popular with hikers new to the High Peaks. The idea is to educate hikers before they head to other mountains.
Besides educating hikers, stewards perform trail work on and near the summits, building scree walls around the vegetation. They also offer advice to hikers and even assist in search-and-rescue missions.
On busy days, stewards might talk to hundreds of hikers. Over Labor Day weekend, for example, 2,563 hikers signed the Van Hoevenberg Trail register, the starting point for hikes to Marcy and Algonquin, and 1,577 people signed the Cascade register.
In fact, the summit-steward program has been setting records for interactions each of the five years leading up to 2016. Last year, summit stewards talked to 31,440 hikers for an average of ninety-one hikers per day. Just three years ago, stewards talked to an average of seventy-eight people per day; five years ago they talked to seventy per day.
And yet funding for the summit stewards has fluctuated over the years. Prior to last season, the program lost roughly one-third of its funding, or about $24,000. The Adirondack Forty-Sixers stepped in to fill that gap, but Goren doesn’t expect the organization to be able to do that every year.
“Having lost about a third of the program funding, every single year we are in the process of closing that gap,” Goren said. “A lot of people just don’t know the summit-steward program isn’t fully funded.”
Goren said the program receives about a third of its money from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and a third from the Adirondack Mountain Club. For the rest, it relies on the Adirondack High Peaks Foundation and other donors. It’s also in the process of starting an endowment fund.
A quote from “Mount Marcy: The High Peaks of New York” by Sandra Weber was corrected after three words were accidently omitted from the original article. The quote now reflects that the Adirondack Mountain Club’s “membership grew from about 2,000 in 1960 to almost 9,000 in 1975” to 35,000 members at the time of the book’s publication in 1991.
The correction was made on October 27, 2016.