Who knew 6 million acres of land could get crowded so fast?
New York’s efforts to promote the Adirondack Park hiking experience to visitors in order to generate sales tax, help sustain businesses and make it affordable for people to live in the park have apparently been successful.
Perhaps too successful.
The state’s outreach, combined with word-of-mouth sharing over social media, have turned once pleasant, quiet, solidarity hikes in the woods into a tourist experience reminiscent of the crowds at a beach on a hot summer day. The crowding is no longer limited to a few holiday weekends, but extends to whenever the snow melts in the lowlands right through Columbus Day and the fall foliage season.
Each weekend, the most popular trails these days are crowded with people anxious to enjoy the Adirondack experience, with cars and trucks and campers clogging narrow mountain highways not designed for both two-way traffic and vehicles parked on each side.
When you reach a certain destination, you might find you’re not only not alone, but sharing a narrow hiking trail and mountain view with hundreds of others -- hardly the pristine Adirondack experience many people seek.
A report in 2015, for example, found that the number of hikers signing the register for the Cascade Mountain trail off Route 73 on the way to Lake Placid had more than doubled, from just over 16,000 in 2006 to more than 33,000 in 2015, with much of the increase coming in the last five years. It’s likely that number has risen even higher in the last couple of years.
Overcrowding is also a problem at Pitchoff Mountain, the Van Hoevenberg Trail, which starts near Adirondak Loj, and at many other hiking areas, particularly those in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness, Giant Mountain and the Dix Mountains, state officials have said.
But traffic jams, parking issues, hiking with a lot of strangers and listening to people chatting away on their cell phones aren’t the only threats posed by the growing popularity of Adirondack trails. Those are human problems.
The greatest threat from overuse is the damage to the local environment and a degradation of the areas that make them such a pleasure to visit.
While many -- particularly those who regularly experience the outdoors -- are respectful of the environment and follow the rules about staying on the trails, not littering and otherwise cleaning up after themselves, other novice hikers who come to the Adirondacks for a day trip often are ignorant or inconsiderate of the impact they’re having.
Many High Peaks trails were not designed for large numbers of people and have become rutted, difficult to repair and potentially dangerous.
Trails worn thin by hiking boots and sneakers, particularly those steeper trails, are more susceptible to erosion from water and ice.
More people also contribute to more litter, more human waste, and more damage to the woods themselves, with reports of people cutting branches and even entire trees to improve their view.
More inexperienced people in the woods getting lost or injured because of being unprepared for the experience also means that the limited contingent of forest rangers available is spread too thin to offer adequate guidance and assistance to all who need it.
The state is doing its part to address the problem, adding bathrooms and information kiosks, marking trail head parking lots to fit more cars in, reinforcing existing trails and building alternative routes, and enforcing parking restrictions on Adirondack highways, particularly on curves, to maintain the flow of traffic and ensure the safety of motorists and pedestrians.
One proposal also being bandied and enacted on a limited basis in some places is a permit-and-reservation system for hikers. If people start getting parking tickets or find they have to register in advance to hike on the most popular trails, they might find another place to hike.
And that’s a good thing.
Remember, there are 6 million acres of land in the Adirondacks, about 2.6 million of it public land. There’s room for all.
People are going to have to take it upon themselves to reduce overcrowding.
That means actively seeking out alternative sites, hiking on off-peak times and days, learning the rules and coming prepared to follow them.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation website, www.dec.ny.gov, lists dozens of alternative locations to the most popular Adirondack destinations that could help spread out the crowds, bring more tourism development to areas that currently don’t get a lot of attention, protect sensitive environmental areas threatened by overcrowding, and still provide visitors with a great hiking experience -- an even better one without all those people crowding the mountaintops, talking on their cell phones and dumping their garbage all over the place. Click on Recreation and then
Hiking to find suggestions for the best places to go.
State officials and the people who use the trails have to cooperate in a concerted effort to preserve the great Adirondack hiking experience.
If they don’t, it will be ruined for everyone.