The signs of increasing use in the Adirondack High Peaks are undeniable:
On a fall weekend, cars line the shoulders of Route 73 along the corridor from the Northway to Lake Placid. The state is counting more and more hikers at Cascade and the Adirondack Loj trailheads. The Adirondack 46ers club has topped 10,000 members. State Forest Rangers are swamped by search and rescue missions.
Leaders of some the Adirondacks most prominent advocacy groups – the Adirondack Council, the Adirondack Mountain Club and the Protect the Adirondacks – agree that state officials should take a new look and consider changes to current High Peaks Wilderness management plans, which was adopted in 1998.
After the Department of Environmental Conservation moves past a controversial fight over what land classifications to gives thousands of acres of new state forest preserve south of the High Peaks, the advocacy groups hope the state would reform the High Peaks Citizens Advisory Committee that helped develop the current plan.
“We need to have a conversation about different ideas about spreading hiker use out,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club. “We believe that there are no indications that we won’t just start right back at the user levels that became so large… If this continues, it’s not sustainable; we are talking about mountain soils that took eons to form.”
Pete Bauer, director of Protect the Adirondacks, said he thinks the state should also reevaluate the management plans of other high mountain wilderness areas – like Dix Mountain Wilderness and Giant Mountain Wilderness. Bauer said there is a “critical under investment” in trail maintenance, parking, staffing and public education in the High Peaks.
“It’s a real head-scratcher when the governor (Andrew Cuomo) is proposing to put $30 million into a new facility at Exit 29 to try and attract visitors,” Bauer said, referring to a budget proposal to build a Adirondack “gateway” center at the site of the old Frontier Town. “We already have something no one else has in the northeast, which is the High Peaks Wildnerness… it gets thousands of visitors each year and is critically underfunded.”
Bauer also emphasized that the heavy trail use strains and problems are heavily focused on a handful of trails and mountains – chiefly Cascade and Porter, the trails that lead to Mount Marcy, trails from the Adirondack Loj trailhead and Mount van Hovenberg trail.
At Cascade, the number of hikers registering at the trailhead – which understate actual usage – increased nearly 65 percent from 2012 to 2015, and those numbers have continued to climb, according to DEC and the Adirondack Mountain Club.
For its part, a spokesperson for the DEC said that reestablishing the High Peaks advisory group, which would be a step toward considering changes to the wilderness area’s management plan, “is not the immediate priority of DEC at this time.”
State officials and Adirondacks advocates are also ramping up efforts to diffuse intense use of the High Peaks by encouraging hikers to explore other parts of the park. During peak fall hiking season, DEC posts information about hikes outside the High Peaks, and advocates are pushing other hiking challenges like the Saranac Six and the long Northville-Placid trail.
If the management plan is reopened, advocates said it is worth examining whether permitting or day-use fee systems could help with overuse. They also talked about expanding the number of trail stewards and ramping up education about the trails and summits at major trailheads. Others have suggested a traffic crackdown on parking along 73 could teach the hordes of hikers a lesson.
But the 46 High Peaks remains the park’s preeminent destination, and even as hikers finished out their 46 peaks they move onto finishing them in the winter. Some are even attempting to climb every High Peak in every month of the year – a hiking “grid” that would take years to complete and requires 552 mountain ascents.
Forest Ranger Scott van Laer, who patrols the heart of the High Peaks, said more hikers are setting out on more ambitious – and challenging – day hikes than ever before, sometimes attempting to climb 10 or more peaks in a single day.
“You see a phenomena where people are challenging each other to get out and do peaks and compete with each other to see who can do the most peaks,” Woodworth said.
The president, Brian Hoody, and vice president, Siobhan Carney Nesbitt, of the Adirondack 46ers club did not respond to email requesting comment.
Some in the hiking community worry that the drive for more and more High Peaks and the winter challenge, coupled with a deluge of Instagram-ready nature pictures, is putting hikers in more dangerous situations. While the number of search and rescue missions reached an all time high last year, more than one mission per day, rangers that cover the High Peaks won’t say definitively if they think today’s hikers are any less prepared than they were in previous years. But they do point to the lightweight hiking trends, social media meet-up groups and ambitious itineraries as possibly
And the 46ers have come under some criticism for pushing the high use of the High Peaks region, but the group helps maintain trails and promotes wilderness safety and leave no trace practices. Pete Fish, a former High Peaks forest ranger, said he thought the 46ers filled a positive role, pointing to a trash bag program they were organizing in the 1970s. He did say the club “opened a new door” when it created the winter challenge, possibly luring inexperienced hikes into challenging winter conditions.
“The 46ers seem to be getting a black eye because they exist, and I don’t think they deserve it,” Fish said. “If it wasn’t for their organization there would be another group that was less responsible.”