Landowners offer easement for Keene parking lot
By Mike Lynch
Landowners at the Keene entrance to the Jackrabbit Trail say the parking situation there has been problematic for the last few years, and they are offering a long-term solution for the popular trailhead.
The Palens, owners of Adirondack Rock and River lodging and guide service, are offering to donate an easement on their land that would allow for the creation of a new parking lot, trailhead and connector trail to the Old Mountain Road section of the Jackrabbit.
“It’s a beautiful asset and it’s important to the town, and we have to come up with a permanent solution,” said Ed Palen, who owns the business with his wife, Teresa.
Rock and River is located at the end of Alstead Hill Road, where backcountry skiers have historically accessed the roughly 3-mile Old Mountain Road, which connects to Mountain Lane in North Elba. The segment is part of the 35-mile Jackrabbit Trail, a skiing route that runs from Paul Smiths to Keene. Parking also exists on Mountain Lane.
Old Mountain Road is especially popular among skiers, but also gets consistent use from climbers and hikers. Users park in a lot at the trailhead in the middle of the Rock and River property and buildings. During busy winter weekends, skiers are directed to a second lot in the Palens’ field.
In recent years an increase in visitors has caused problems in the main lot, Palen said.
“I pretty much have to run around and patrol it every weekend to make sure people are not taking up all the parking spots,” Palen said. “Our guests have no place to park and on and on. Sometimes (skiers) go into the buildings … it just becomes a zoo on weekends, and it never used to be that way.”
Due to increased demand, the Palens created the additional parking lot for the public. They pay a contractor to plow it, so skiers can park there and not take up spots intended for their guests, he said.
The Palens said the current situation isn’t sustainable and they may not be able to provide parking to the public in their lot much longer. Plus, if they ever decide to sell their property it’s doubtful a future landowner would want to provide parking to the public, and that could end the access now available to Old Mountain Road from Keene, Palen said.
That’s because the ownership status of the current lot is unclear. The Palens said they built the trailhead lot more than 30 years ago and have maintained it but are unsure if the public has the right to park there.
The access to the trailhead is part of a public right-of-way, a town road, that runs from Alstead Hill Road through the Palens property and parking lot and continues through the Sentinel Range Wilderness as Old Mountain Road to Mountain Lane.
It’s unclear if parking is allowed on the right-of-way and much of the lot appears to be on Rock and River property anyway, Palen said.
Neither the state Department of Environmental Conservation nor the town of Keene could provide clarity about the legal status of the parking lot.
Old Mountain Road is actually part of the Northwest Bay Trail, an old wagon road that ran from Westport to the High Peaks region in the 1800s. It was the main route into Lake Placid prior to the creation of the Cascade Road, or Route 73, along the Cascade Lakes in about 1860.
In recent decades, Old Mountain Road’s status has been debated in courts. For years, the state had considered it part of the Sentinel Range Wilderness and motorized access wasn’t allowed, but that assumption was challenged about two decades ago by snowmobiler Jim McCulley.
The Lake Placid resident purposely got ticketed on the trail by the DEC and took the state to court. After a series of legal battles, the courts declared in 2018 that Old Mountain Road hadn’t been abandoned by North Elba and Keene and was still legally a town road with motorized access. The DEC now designates the route a right-of-way on forest preserve.
But McCulley’s victory didn’t change the use of the road, which had been part of the Jackrabbit Trail since 1986. After the ruling, North Elba banned motorized access on the trail and so did Keene for the most part. (Keene allows limited ATV use with a permit during hunting season.)
But Palen said he doesn’t want to focus on the status of the town road and the current parking lot.
Instead he wants to move forward with the easement for the proposed parking lot and Jackrabbit Trailhead to create a long-term solution.
It hasn’t been determined what entity would be best to hold the donated easement, Palen said.
The proposed parking lot would be about 200 yards down the road on the Palens’ property. From there, a trail would go through the woods around the backside of the Palens’ house and Climber’s Lodge, one of two guest buildings at Rock and River.
The state Adirondack Park Agency issued a permit to build the lot in early January. The DEC still needs to authorize the trail work. Palen said the DEC has expressed concern about at least one of the proposed bridges that would cross Nichols Brook and hasn’t provided much feedback in recent years.
The Barkeater Trails Alliance, which maintains the Jackrabbit Trail and has laid out a plan for the proposed connector, and Keene would raise money to pay for the construction, said Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson.
AES Northeast donated design services for the lot and another engineer has offered to donate design services for the structures that would go over Nichols Brook on the connector trail.
“The DEC isn’t being asked to pay for anything at this point,” Wilson said.
When contacted about the situation by the Explorer, the DEC would not answer specific questions and a communications person instead issued a statement.
“DEC is aware of parking concerns related to use on the town-owned Jackrabbit Trail in the Sentinel Range Wilderness and is reviewing available options to help resolve the issue,” it read.
Wilson said the DEC has contacted him and plans to visit the property once the snow melts.
Still the parties say the DEC has provided very little communication on the trailwork process since the fall of 2021 and was aware of the problem for several years prior to that. The proposed reroute is in the 2020 version of the Sentinel Range Wilderness unit management plan.
In a Feb. 1 letter from the town of Keene, Palens, and Barkeater Trails Alliance (BETA), the parties urged the DEC to act.
“When there exists a willing landowner that has offered to donate a piece of their land, affording the creation of a permanent parking lot and access point to the state Forest Preserve and a popular trail heavily utilized by locals and visitors, action needs to be taken,” said BETA Executive Director Josh Wilson in the letter.
The Keene town supervisor said he hopes his town, the DEC and the landowners can work out the matter quickly because of the importance of Old Mountain Road.
“It’s an important cultural and recreation asset for us not just from the town of Keene, but for a lot of people in the region,” Joe Pete Wilson said.