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Survey counts how trailhead parking was overwhelmed

On Labor Day weekend 2019 at the Giant Mountain trailhead, cars are parked on the side of state Route 73, far beyond a sign that says no parking beyond that point. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

An Adirondack Council survey, conducted this past fall, outlines new data showing how hiker traffic in the High Peaks continued to overwhelm the capacity of trailhead parking lots.

The survey, released Monday, was conducted mid-day on peak weekends. It shows that High Peaks Wilderness Area trailhead parking lots have a total estimated capacity 951, but saw a combined 2,260 cars on average — 238% above capacity — on peak weekends. That’s a 7% increase from 2017, when that number was 2,113 cars.

The survey results were released as state lawmakers reviewed environmental conservation funding proposed in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2020-21 Executive Budget during a joint hearing in Albany. While the big-ticket item is $33 billion to address climate change impacts, his plan includes $300 million for the Environmental Protection Fund, $1.2 million to kick-start a hiker shuttle system along Route 73 this summer, and funding for more trail crews.

Hiker crowding in the Adirondack Park, particularly at trailheads along Route 73 between Keene Valley and Lake Placid, has been a hot-button issue for years. Concern over the increasing number of nature seekers wading into the High Peaks reached a fever pitch last year after the DEC implemented a roadside parking ban along a 4-mile stretch of Route 73, and directed its forest rangers to step up parking enforcement. The ban was designed to improve pedestrian safety along the busy stretch, but packs of hikers could still be seen walking along the roadside to their desired trailhead after parking further away. The ban caused some confusion and frustration among visitors who arrived at trailheads in the early morning hours to find few options for legal parking.

The council surveyed trailhead parking lots this past fall because the state Department of Environmental Conservation “says they try and limit use to the number of cars for various trailhead lots — and this lets us see how far over capacity we are at peak,” Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway said. “Peak is important because it’s when use is beyond capacity that we have negative impacts to visitor safety, more natural resource damage and compromise the quality of the visitors wilderness experience.”

Some areas saw decline

While the total number of visitors to the High Peaks Wilderness Area continues to climb, according to the survey, three of the most popular trailhead parking areas along Route 73 were less overwhelmed with cars this past year than in 2017.

“Peak visitor traffic decreased across the top three destinations in the High Peaks by 3.5%. That is progress and we celebrate that, while recognizing that there is still much to do to ensure Wilderness and access are preserved,” Janeway said in a statement.

Parking areas by Adirondak Loj, Cascade and trailheads off of Route 73 in the hamlets of Keene Valley and St. Huberts collectively saw 1,577 cars on average on peak weekends last year — down from 1,635 cars in 2017, but still 263% beyond the capacity of those lots, according to the survey.

Most of that decline occurred in the Adirondak Loj and South Meadows parking area, according to the survey. That parking area, with an estimated capacity of 196 cars, saw approximately 610 cars on peak weekends last year, compared to 674 in 2017.

Janeway attributes the decline in those three popular areas to actions taken by the DEC last year to redistribute hiker traffic. He said the department’s efforts “to educate the public and encourage hikers to try new places,” specifically, “had a measurable impact.”

The Adirondack Council pointed to three places that saw increased visitation last year: the Haystack Mountain trailhead in Ray Brook, which saw a peak increase from 23 cars in 2017 to 53 last year; the 10-car lot at Crow’s Clearing in Keene, which saw 46 cars last year, up from 24 in 2017; and Boreas Ponds, a new state wilderness area.

Vehicle access to Boreas Ponds on Gulf Brook Road had been limited to weekends for most of 2018 up until this past September, when the DEC announced the road would be open to a new Four Corners parking area about a mile from Boreas Ponds. In 2017, Boreas Ponds parking areas saw eight cars during peak times. Last year, that number increased to 35.

Calls for funding

While Janeway pointed out that state efforts to redistribute hiker traffic to other areas are working, the Adirondack Council also underscored what they see as negative impacts of that success.

“For example, the DEC has encouraged hikers to try the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area in an effort to relieve pressure from the High Peaks Wilderness Area. The five-car parking lot at the Jay Wilderness had a peak of 35 cars in 2017. In the 2019 survey, the number of parked cars was 75,” a news release from the council reads.

The Adirondack Council, echoing other Adirondack Park green groups, again called for more state investment to address the impact of overuse.

“The state expanded tourism promotion, visitation is booming, and not all the impacts are good,” Adirondack Council Director of Government Relations Kevin Chlad said during a joint legislative hearing on environmental conservation funding Monday. “More than 12 million people are visiting our Adirondack Park every year, up 2.4 million from 2001. In that time, staffing and resources to protect and manage the Park have not increased, despite this increase in use. “While we celebrate success in the growing popularity of our park, the impacts of this overcrowding trend are being felt. Without updated visitor management, controls and investments in infrastructure, we will continue to see degradation of our natural resources, greater risk for those who visit, and the loss of that ‘wilderness character’ which draws people from long distances and provides such an important economic boost to the small communities of the park.”

By the #s

951 High Peaks Wilderness Area trailhead parking capacity

2,260 cars on average in those parking areas on peak weekends in 2019

238% above capacity

(Source: Adirondack Council hiker parking survey)

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