When Trails become Traffic Jams
Finally, after hours of uphill hiking through muddy puddles and slippery rocks, the summit is here. Breathe in the crisp sweet air in front of a sea of mountains and spruce trees, a common scene in the Adirondacks. The sun is high, the boots are muddy and adventure awaits. Everything is seemingly perfect—well almost.
Screaming kids and talking families are drowning out the wind and the birds. People wearing jeans and grasping drawstring bags casually sit in fragile alpine vegetation. Anyone looking to sit and eat their PB&J and trail mix is left disappointed as there is no room to enjoy lunch. Just when things are already too close for comfort, a line of people appear down the trail eager to get their fill of the mountain air.
Welcome to the new reality of the Adirondack High Peak Region. This area has always been popular due to the 46 High Peak Challenge, which involves hiking the Adirondack’s 46 highest mountains to earn the title, “46er”. However, the 46 challenge has increased in popularity as people try to get outside more because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, others are trying to capture the perfect picture for their Instagrams.
This is a stark contrast to the lonely summits and peaceful nature walks that the Adirondacks was once known for, for more than a century. An influx of people is present. In 2016, there were 19,000 more people on Cascade Mountain, arguably the most popular of the 46 High Peaks, than the previous year. That same year, there were 13,000 more people registering at the Adirondack Loj trail site. These increases correlate directly with trail erosion, and littering that go against LNT, Leave No Trace, principles.
As more people visit the Adirondack Park, locals see the trails slowly deteriorate from heavy usage. Trail widening is becoming a more apparent issue from people going off the designated trail to avoid mud and obstacles, according to the Adirondack Council.
Good luck to anyone attempting to hike Giant Mountain or Mount Marcy. All of the parking spots are taken before the sun comes up. Anyone parking on the side of the road in the High Peak Region will instantly get ticketed; no parking is allowed. However, this hasn’t stopped visitors from lining up the sides of roads. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics published a report with the Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club, suggesting a permit system as one possible solution to overcrowding. Without action, overcrowding will worsen with time.
Double Edged Sword
Scott Van Laer, a Union delegate for Park Rangers in the Adirondacks, has spent over a decade working in the Adirondack Park.
“We have been trending upward for the last decade, but it seems we have seen more [people] this year,” Laer says. “A lot of it has to do with an introduction to the outdoors for those who were not previously interested, due to the fact that so many events and activities are closed or canceled.”
Laer has seen more food wrappers, toilet paper and human waste on big trails like Mount Marcy and swimming holes like Split Rock Falls, than ever before. On the other hand, more people are experiencing the Adirondack Park who wouldn’t have before. As people are going stir crazy with the current pandemic, the desire for the outdoors is becoming heavily apparent.
Apart from rangers and summit stewards, people who give information about mountains and promote LNT, other individuals are also noticing changes, as well. Local Adirondack photographer Patrick Bly is quite frustrated about the matter. Living in the Adirondacks his whole life, Bly developed a love for the area, but he has seen some changes throughout the years.
“The High Peaks area is really what is drawing all these people to the Adirondacks. I try to stay away from that region because I do not enjoy being on a summit with 100 other people,” says Bly.
He spends a large portion of his free time reading trail books and looking at maps outside the High Peak Region to get a better understanding of what the rest of the park has to offer. Areas like St. Regis Canoe Area and Upper Works trailhead in Newcomb offer their own unique piece of the park. Bly also remains hopeful despite overuse of the park.
“It is good that people are learning to appreciate the outdoors more, it gives you some hope for the future,” says Bly.
Bly wanted to stress that change is inevitable in the Park involving crowds and the actual landscape. Trail erosion and overcrowding will continue to change the Adirondacks as we know it.
Not only is the High Peak Region being affected by the rising popularity of the outdoors, other mountains are getting some noticeable attention, as well. Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain is a popular local hiking and climbing area that has been receiving more visitors. Twenty minutes south of the city of Plattsburgh, right off exit 33 on Interstate 87, Poke-O-Moonshine offers easy access and even easier hiking. Compared to an hour drive to the High Peak Region, this mountain offers scenic hiking with minimal travel.
Will Roth, a local climbing guide in the Adirondacks and adjunct professor for the Expeditionary Studies program at SUNY Plattsburgh, spends a lot of his time at Poke-O-Moonshine. Roth loves educating college students, teaching them about how to practice rock climbing safely in a fun, educational manner.
“Hiking is definitely high, Poke-O-Moonshine with its accessibility and beautiful views is falling victim to [overcrowding], it’s actually been off the charts,” says Roth.
Roth gave some different points concerning COVID-19 and the accessibility of the park.
“People come up here to hike at places like Poke-O-Moonshine because our COVID-19 rates are going down,” says Roth.
With more people traveling from other counties, this risks an increase in cases spreading in Clinton County. Tourism is usually good for the local economy, but in a global pandemic it can also be a health risk.
“For people coming from all over, they do not see this as overcrowding like the locals do. They do not care if there are no people on the summit or if there are 1,000 people,” says Roth.
Whether it’s hiking Poke-O-Moonshine or summiting Marcy, odds are there will be a crowd on the summit. Travelers should be mindful of the environment being used and how it can be left for better or worse. Look past the High Peaks at other hidden gems around the park, beauty and adventure can be found in the strangest of places.
Seven Leave No Trace Principles:
These are guidelines of how we can properly treat the environment when participating in outdoor recreational activities:
1. Always plan ahead and prepare, know the plan and what is required for it.
2. Camp on designated campgrounds or durable surfaces, make sure it is legal and not damaging any vegetation.
3. What you pack in, pack it out, try to make an area better than it was previously.
4. Leave what is there, do not take or move anything that you happen upon in the wild.
5. Minimize the impact of a campfire, clean it up properly when finished.
6. Respect all wildlife, it is their home not yours.
7. Be aware of other people, let everyone get a chance to enjoy the peace and quiet.
Story by Jackie “Wheelz” Pelton
Photos by Matthew Adams and Sierra McGivney