ADIRONDACKS — It's common to see dozens of vehicles overflowing trailhead parking lots near the Adirondack High Peaks' most popular trailhead, creating roadside traffic hazards and undermining the sense of wilderness.
With concern about the crowds in the High Peaks Wilderness growing, a report released Monday by environmental groups and local governments documented that on fall weekends last year, there were twice as many vehicles as parking lots could hold on average, and some trailheads were far more crowded than that.
The findings support the widespread perception that the lands around the highest mountains in the Adirondacks have become overcrowded, as word-by-internet and state promotional efforts have increased the popularity of trails that are easily accessed, especially from state Route 73 or other highways. The result is overflowing parking lots.
"On any busy summer weekend, that is essentially what you're going to find," said John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council. "We'll do this again, but this is a pretty good snapshot of what's going on."
The report was released as the Adirondack Park Agency and state Department of Environmental Conservation formally review how the High Peaks are being managed for the first time in nearly 20 years, with the Boreas Ponds tract and other newly acquired state lands being added to the High Peaks Wilderness.
Overuse can lead to wear and erosion on popular trails, and the number of people parking on the highways around popular trailheads can lead to dangerous situations.
"Parking along state highways puts hikers into the path of motor vehicle traffic which is traveling 60 mph," said local government leader Bill Farber, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors. "Avoiding disastrous outcomes required better planning, better management, and most importantly, action on all our parts."
The study found that the Cascade Mountain trailhead a few miles east of Lake Placid, which has parking available for 73 cars, actually averaged 240 cars on fall weekends. Because of its proximity to the road and an outstanding view, Cascade is one of the most popular climbs in the Adirondacks.
Nearby, Adirondack Loj at the end of South Meadow Road has parking available for 196 vehicles, and actually averaged 674; Hurricane Mountain, with parking for 12 cars, averaged 46; and Giant Mountain/Chapel Pond, with parking for 80, averaged 177 vehicles. Just down the road, at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve/Giant trailheads, there is parking for 109 vehicles, and the average number was 314.
Adirondack Council staff conducted the vehicle counts, Sheehan said.
The Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club, as well as some local government officials, see the findings as illustrating the need to encourage people to head for different parts of the Adirondacks. Some said the planned visitor center off Northway Exit 29 at the former Frontier Town could help steer people to the southern High Peaks or other less-used destinations.
"What we can do is help spread hikers throughout the Adirondacks to mitigate the overcrowding and safety issues," said Keene Town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson, whose town sees much of the traffic impact from High Peaks visitors.
The study's survey was conducted between Labor Day and Columbus Day last fall by the Adirondack Council. Overall, it found that while there is parking at access trails to the High Peaks for fewer than 1,000 vehicles, as many as 2,100 vehicles were trying to park in them, meaning they parked along the side of the highway, on private property, or in other unsafe locations.
"Twice as many cars means twice as many hikers and campers than the wilderness can handle and twice as much damage to plants and wildlife," the report states. "Overuse of trails, campsites and summits has led to erosion, soil compaction, loss of fragile vegetation and impacts on sensitive wildlife."
The report was released as state officials look at a new unit management plan to incorporate the Boreas Ponds, MacIntyre property and existing VanderWhacker Mountain Wild Forest into a single expanded High Peaks Wilderness -- the first update to the High Peaks management plan since 1999. One of the goals of releasing the parking report is to provide hard data that can support people's perceptions about overcrowding.
"This is a conversation that's been tough to get started and has been difficult to sustain," Sheehan said. "We think this is a much better approach, that we and (Adirondack Mountain Club) and local government can get together on not just the problem but on the solutions, they have much better chance of being adopted."
The draft plan the APA commissioners will review call for mandatory registration by all people using the wilderness trails, and for closer year-by-year tracking of the level of use as each trailhead.
It also proposes moving the existing Cascade/Porter parking on Route 73 to the state's Mt. Van Hovenberg complex, where there's a much larger off-road parking lot built for the 1980 Olympics. DEC diverting visitors to Mt. Van Hovenberg during last fall's busy Columbus Day weekend.
The plans also recommend adding new parking lots at Chapel Pond and building a new lot at Ampersand Mountain in Saranac Lake, which now has parking for 10 cars. That trailhead averaged 64 vehicles, according to the fall survey.
The Adirondack Park Agency commissioners are to discuss the draft plan on Thursday in Ray Brook, and are expected to release it for public comment.
The developments also come as the DEC on Friday warned hikers that muddy conditions still exist because of the late arrival of spring weather. That means the public is encouraged not to climb into fragile high-altitude areas, and instead hike at lower elevations or go to other places.
"This time of year you can really do a lot of damage to vegetation that is in its earliest stages," Sheehan said.