ADIRONDACKS — The number of people hiking the Adirondack High Peak region continues to grow, but visitation has dropped slightly at the region’s busiest locations, according to a new analysis by the Adirondack Council.
The council, which compared data — primarily car counts at trailheads — between 2017 and 2019, gave some of the credit to the state’s efforts to curb overuse of the 275,000-acre Adirondack Park’s High Peaks Wilderness Area, but said more needs to be done.
“While total peak use and total annual use are still growing, data shows the Department of Environmental Conservation’s efforts to educate the public and encourage hikers to try new places had a measurable impact,” said Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway.
The new analysis comes as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in recent State of the State and 2021 executive budget documents has revealed plans to put state resources into managing visitor flows and preserving natural resources in both the Adirondacks and Catskills.
The High Peaks and Catskills each are seeing tens of thousands more visitors than they did a decade ago — a phenomena driven in large part by social media. An increase in the number of unprepared hikers has also led to an increase in search-and-rescue work for DEC’s forest rangers, who have another new duty in recent years — they are assigned to enforce parking restrictions around popular trailheads between Northway Exit 30 and Lake Placid.
Environmental groups have called, as recently as a state budget hearing on Monday in Albany, for more forest rangers, but that is not proposed in Cuomo’s budget. Cuomo has called overuse a “legitimate issue,” and the administration says it wants to deploy trail crews to make heavily used trails more durable.
The administration has already formed an Adirondack High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group, to “develop new visitor flow solutions to better manage traffic and hikers to provide a more enjoyable, less congested user experience.” The advisory group is expected to report by June.
In addition to imposing parking restrictions, DEC has sought to promote hiker use of other locations in the region, as alternatives when the High Peaks entrances are busy. The proposed state budget includes $1.2 million for support of a hiker shuttle system in the Keene Valley area, to reduce trailhead parking pressures.
The new survey by the Adirondack Council, done by counting parked vehicles in peak fall weekends, found that use in the busiest lots — the Adirondack Loj/Heart Lake complex, Cascade Mountain and in Keene Valley — dropped by 3.5 percent from 2017 to 2019. Still, the total of 1,577 vehicles counted was 254 percent more than the parking lots were designed for.
Use was up, however, at another 10 locations in or near the High Peaks, and overall use across the entire High Peaks Wilderness Complex increased from 2,113 cars in 2017 to 2,260 in 2019. Some destinations saw far more activity. In one example, the Council said the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area, which has a five-vehicle parking lot, saw the number of vehicles increase from 35 cars in 2017 to 75 vehicles in 2019.
The number of hikers using the Adirondack Mountain Reserve/Ausable Club access point has grown from under 5,000 annually in the 1970s to over 27,000, according to hiker registration data, and the number of people using the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Heart Lake property to hike to Marcy dam has increased from around 20,000 in the 1970s to around 100,000 cited by the council.
“We understand and agree with the DEC’s decision to redirect visitor traffic so that the High Peaks Wilderness is not loved to death,” Janeway said. “But that alone won’t solve the overuse problem.”
In testimony at a state budget hearing Monday in Albany, David Gibson of Adirondack Wild recommended the state pilot-test an online reservation system, similar to the one used for reserving a site in state campgrounds, that would limit the number of hikers in the High Peaks at any one time.
“Reservation systems are a management tool successfully used in other popular, overused Wilderness areas in the U.S.,” Gibson said in a press release. “DEC would study and carefully set limits on the number of people hiking specified, heavily impacted trails to the High Peaks.”