Photograph by Lisa J. Godfrey
Adirondack summits may seem hopelessly crowded, but history tells us this might just be a passing trend
“The burgeoning interest in backpacking, camping, and climbing has greatly increased pressure on mountain-tops, trails, camping areas, and lean-tos. The results have been the development of herd paths on trailless peaks, damage to fragile alpine vegetation, erosion of trails, accumulation of trash at overused lean-tos and campsites, and destruction of trees and vegetation around lean-tos, especially those at high altitude. These effects of misuse and overuse diminish the very qualities of wilderness which many seek in the Preserve.”
The above quote could have come from a recent newspaper or magazine, but it actually appeared in the January–February 1972 issue of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s magazine, Adirondac, written by Dave Newhouse, then chair of the club’s Conservation Committee. At that time, many articles commented on the marked increase in hikers and backpackers during the previous four or five years. Newhouse didn’t mention the increase in the number of searches and rescues, but back then it was an additional concern.
This late-1960s to early-’70s “surge” was the first of three that I have observed in use of Adirondack Park trails. I have often referred to the first one as the “back to the land” surge that arose from the 1960s era of social change. It, like the next two, at first caused alarm, followed by proposed solutions, implemented solutions, and finally a few new regulations to deal with the increased use levels. The result is that, despite many more users, Adirondack trails, summits, campsites and shelters have ultimately been able to withstand each increase, and in some ways end up looking better than before.
Surge 1: Back to the Land
The initial response to the 1970s increase was to try to better educate hikers and backpackers about proper preparation for and appropriate behavior during their trip. The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) made the first effort in 1974 when the club fielded three so-called Ridge Runners to hike the popular trails and camp at the popular camping areas. The Ridge Runners taught hikers and campers about carrying out trash, not washing dishes in streams, and properly disposing of human waste. With no enforcement power, Ridge Runners had to rely on their powers of persuasion, usually enough to correct errant behavior. Ridge Runners also gathered statistics and impressions to identify additional steps that could be taken to improve hiker behavior.
In 1975, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) initiated a wilderness ranger program that brought in three forest rangers to patrol and educate, much like the Ridge Runners had done the year before. (This was the start of the legendary career of forest ranger Peter Fish, of Keene, who must have talked to hundreds of thousands of hikers during his long career.)
In 1978 the DEC added seasonal park rangers to the wilderness rangers. Now called assistant forest rangers, this group of seasonals supplemented the educational effort during summer months. With the advent of the park ranger program, the Adirondack Mountain Club ended the Ridge Runner program in favor of a professional trail crew that could fix years of trail erosion and widening. This division of responsibility continues to this day.
In 1978, the observations and experiences of the Ridge Runners, forest rangers and park rangers led to several significant new regulations. One prohibited camping above 4,000 feet—both to preserve the alpine vegetation and limit camping’s impact on the thin soils at higher elevations. Another limited camping groups to no more than nine. A third prescribed that one must camp at least 150 feet away from a trail or water except at a designated campsite. Physical changes included removing lean-tos above 3,500 feet, designating sustainable campsites and restoring areas damaged by unregulated camping.
Starting in 1974, use levels flattened out and even went down a bit. Sharp increases in fuel prices may have contributed, but the Ridge Runners and others noted that many of the new hikers seemed to believe that once they climbed Mount Marcy there wasn’t anything else worth the effort.
Surge 2: Healthy Exercise
In the early 1990s, the numbers of hikers and backpackers again saw a sharp increase. I call this the “Let’s get some healthy exercise” surge, given the growing national concern over the population’s lack of fitness. This influx of people caused many of the same problems as the previous increase. There was unknowing improper behavior, more damage to the resources and an uptick in search-and-rescue missions.
Around the same time, the DEC convened a Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) to advise the department on completing a Unit Management Plan (UMP) for the High Peaks Wilderness. The CAC debated many issues, including a restrictive permit system to limit use. In the end, the CAC did not recommend any restrictive permits, but did decide that limiting parking at key trailheads would help level out use. The only restrictive recommendations were to limit day-use groups to 15 to break up the charter busloads of 40 or more and to ban campfires in the eastern High Peaks Wilderness. The CAC additionally recommended some designation of the herd paths to keep hikers on the best line so that there weren’t multiple paths—such as between Street and Nye—where one would suffice.
When the UMP was finally implemented in 2000, use levels again decreased. Part of this was because of the new restrictions, but as before there seemed to have been a number of hikers who tried hiking for a few years and then moved on to another activity. Again, behavior improved and search-and-rescue missions declined because there were now fewer users.
Surge 3: Social Media
I call the latest influx of hikers the “social media” surge, since these days people can easily learn about interesting places to visit from friends’ Facebook or Instagram posts. The Internet has many hiking forums and bulletin boards to get new people out on the trail. The availability of cell-phone service and GPS technology further contributes by making the mountains seem less dangerous to potential hikers. One can now seek advice, document progress, and even call for help with just a few taps on a smartphone. Of course, as many find out the hard way, technology has its limits, resulting in a spike in searches and rescues. Often, DEC reports include numerous cell-phone calls from “distressed hikers,” who either find the effort of scaling peaks more than they can handle or have no idea where they are on the mountain as darkness approaches.
“Peak-bagging” has been a driver of Adirondack hiking for many years, but social media has made becoming an Adirondack Forty-Sixer the ultimate goal. As a result, this latest surge seems to have lasted longer than the previous ones, although 2018 did see smaller increases in the number of people hiking and the number of rescue missions. Again, the pattern of increase, leveling off, and ultimately a slight decline seems likely to repeat itself. As before, use will probably not drop all the way to earlier levels, but maybe a few years’ reflection on our current situation will lead to only a modest increase in control that allows the new use levels to be sustainable.
I have often described my recollections of what the Phelps (Slant Rock) trail to Mount Marcy looked like when I first hiked it in 1957. The trail was eroded, wide and muddy, culminating with a 100 yard by 50 yard area of black muck just before timberline. Trash was usually strewn around the lean-tos, and Marcy’s summit featured an overflowing trash can. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was the shrinking amount of alpine vegetation.
Since then, these problems have been either mitigated or eliminated. Major trail work starting in the late 1970s has significantly reduced the amount of mud and erosion. Good bridges in the bog before Marcy’s summit now make this area green and grassy from edge to edge. The “Carry it in, carry it out” ethic has decreased trash in the woods. And the prohibition on camping above 4,000 feet, plus the successful Summit Steward Program—a collaboration between ADK, the DEC and the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy—have combined to allow the recovery of much of the alpine vegetation that was lost over the decades.
The above success stories often seem to be forgotten as observers fret about increased use levels. So far, relatively minor changes have permitted almost all who want to experience the Adirondacks’ loftiest mountains to do so without doing damage to the resource. Clearly there could be some limit to how high use levels can go, but experience to date has shown that we can continue to have the freedom to enjoy the High Peaks and other areas of the Adirondacks—at least until the next surge perhaps forces greater changes.
Tony Goodwin has edited the Adirondack Mountain Club’s High Peaks Guide and Map since 1985. He’s worked for the club as a Ridge Runner, on the Johns Brook Lodge crew and as chief of its first professional trail crew in 1979. He lives in Keene.