What harm could a little hike do?
For your own personal health, it’s probably good for you. But for the health of the Adirondacks — where more than 12 million visitors go each year to enjoy the lush forests, fresh air and the beautiful vistas — all that hiking is a growing and potentially permanent threat.
Summer hiking season unofficially kicks off this weekend, as the air warms up and many trails finally dry out from a rainy spring and a long winter under snow.
That means people will be heading north in droves to enjoy what the Adirondacks has to offer — 2.6 million acres of public land, 11,000 lakes and ponds, and more than 30,000 miles of rivers, brooks and streams.
But according to a new report issued earlier this month by the Adirondack Council, this wonderful recreational space is threatened by overuse and inadequate trail maintenance.
When too many people use a popular trail, the wear and tear causes problems that are difficult to fix. Trails themselves are subject to erosion, which is made worse when people wander off the sides of the trails, stomping vegetation. That leads to greater instability and more erosion. Hikers who wander off trails also intrude into wildlife territories and damage precious vegetation.
This time of year, the trails at higher elevations, those above 2,500 feet, are particularly vulnerable to damage from hikers.
While the snow is long gone down here, where most of us live, up in the higher terrain of the Adirondacks, there’s still plenty of snow and ice. As that winter precipitation melts, it makes the trails muddy and even more subject to damage from hikers.
Hiking and use of trails is on the increase throughout the Adirondacks, and at some places has reached record levels.
Many trails can’t handle even modest levels of hiking, much less an increase in hikers and damage from those who don’t wait for the trails to dry and harden.
In the High Peaks, some trails each summer exceed their intended capacity by 200 percent.
For the hikers themselves, this damage from overuse makes the trails more challenging and less safe and can ruin the experience for them.
State officials, preservationists and hikers all have a role to play in preserving the trails for current and future generations.
Hikers should seek out less popular trails to hike on.
Many trails offer similar or even better views than some of those most commonly hiked. If hikers can spread out, there’s less chance for them to damage existing trails.
Hikers also need to stay out of the High Peaks for a little bit longer. Trails above 2,500 feet offer challenging hikes and beautiful views, but there are plenty of great hikes to be had at the lower levels while hikers give the High Peaks trails time to dry out.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is a great resource for lower-elevation hikes, including Panther Mountain, Long Pond Mountain, Jenkins Mountain, Azure Mountain and The Pinnacle.
Visit https://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/116823.html for a list of hiking trails under 2,500 feet in various Adirondack regions.
Hikers also can visit any number of other websites that can direct them to great hiking off the beaten path, so to speak.
The state also needs to take a greater role in preserving the hiking experience for visitors by taking better care of the trails.
Those 12 million-plus visitors to the Adirondacks generate tens of millions of dollars in tourism money and sales tax for state and local governments. If the state wants to maintain that kind of use, it’s going to have to come up with a comprehensive plan to upgrade existing trails and create alternative trails to spread out the impact of hiking.
Then it’s going to have to reinvest some of those sales tax dollars into creating, upgrading and maintaining those trails, building new trail heads, adding more and better signs directing people to trails, creating more parking areas at less-popular trails, and educating the public as to where to find those trails.
The state also needs to set limits on trail use, perhaps by imposing time restrictions on when trails are open and limiting parking in the areas of the most highly used trails.
Finally, the state needs to spend more money to boost the number of forest rangers and trail maintenance workers in the Adirondacks.
Forest rangers, law enforcement and first responders play an important role in preventing people from getting lost or injured and in rescuing lost and injured hikers. But they also serve a direct role as educators and guides, directing hikers to less populated trails, ensuring they’re prepared with proper clothing, footwear and fitness to handle challenging trails, and reminding hikers of their role in protecting the wildlife and plant life near the trails.
If you want to enjoy the Adirondacks now and in the future, you’ll have to play a part.
Find alternatives to popular trails. Respect the environment by not straying off established paths. Stay off the High Peaks trails, at least until they dry out. And contact your local state legislator, the governor’s office and local government officials. Urge them to support comprehensive trail planning and to make the necessary financial investment in trail construction and maintenance.
The Adirondacks are a treasure.
Do your part to make sure they stay one.