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Labor Day weekend brings familiar rush of nature seekers

A trailhead parking area on state Route 73 in the town of Keene is seen Sunday. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

KEENE VALLEY — The Labor Day weekend brought a rush of nature-seekers to the High Peaks region, filling trailhead parking lots early each day.

This part of the Adirondacks has continued to see historic levels of hiker traffic throughout the last few years. Despite the ongoing closure of the U.S.-Canada border to non-essential travel, the rush of tourism this past weekend marked a continuation of that trend.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is expecting this volume of hiker traffic to continue in the next few weeks, according to DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino.

What’s typically the busiest weekend for hiking in the Adirondacks — Columbus Day weekend — has yet to come.

The increase in tourism over the Labor Day weekend wasn’t limited to trailheads. Lake Placid’s Main Street was bustling over the weekend and well into Monday afternoon. On Sunday, the Keene Farmer’s Market at Marcy Field was busy with visitors. Some restaurants and businesses in the Tri-Lakes area saw lines out the door at certain times of the day, in part because of state-mandated limits on capacity.

Early birds

The Adirondak Loj parking area, serving one of the Adirondacks’ busiest trailheads, filled up by 6 a.m. on both Saturday and Sunday, according to Adirondack Mountain Club Director of Communications Ben Brousseau. That’s about half an hour earlier than usual.

The early arrival of hikers is shaping up to be the norm this summer, he said.

Forest Ranger Scott van Laer took a photo of a line, about 20- to 30-people long, of hikers waiting to sign in to the trail register around 6:30 a.m. Van Laer, who spoke to the Enterprise in his role as a delegate of the Police Benevolent Association of New York State, said the line took around 15 minutes or so for hikers, but cleared up eventually.

“What happens now is that the savvy, experienced hikers know they have to arrive at extremely early hours to get a parking spot,” van Laer said.

On holiday weekends, between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m., Adirondak Loj continues to see dozens of people arrive all at once, creating a rush at the register. By 8 a.m., when new hikers begin arriving, parking is often already gone.

“From 8 (a.m.) to 1 in the afternoon, you have a very steady stream of people unfamiliar with the area,” van Laer said. “They don’t know that they’re coming to an area that’s completely overwhelmed.”

Camping increase

Camping was much more popular this weekend than it has been the rest of the summer, according to van Laer. He said there were more campers than campsites, leading to some illegal camping.

“We’ve also been noticing more people camping in the backcountry, more people staying overnight,” Brousseau said.

With more people camping overnight, there’s slower turnover for parking spaces at Adirondak Loj. Brousseau said the number of people camping has declined somewhat since the state reopened its campgrounds, but there’s still a lot of people camping in the High Peaks.

Education

This country remains in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and although this state’s economy has mostly reopened, public health organizations continue to promote outdoor, socially-distant recreation as among the safest activities. Those recommendations — paired with the comparatively low local infection rate, and the gradual reopening of the economy following months of self-isolation for many — has prompted a new wave of hikers to venture out onto the trails this year, posing an education challenge for the state Department of Environmental Conservation and local green groups.

In an attempt to meet that challenge, the DEC set up hiker information stations in Lake Placid, Keene Valley and North Hudson last month to educate visitors on best practices and where to hike when the popular trails are busy. Those stations were open this weekend. The DEC also sent out alerts through the 511NY system to notify travelers that trailhead parking lots were full, something the department started doing in June. In addition to “no parking” signage installed on state Route 73 last year, large digital signs were also placed at popular trailheads over the weekend. New York State Police were out on patrol.

Forest rangers largely focused on the frontcountry over the weekend, according to van Laer.

“We were just having so many new people to outdoor recreation, camping and hiking, that we really need to be able to have people to provide them with information,” Van Laer said. “Not only where to park and what equipment to have, but just to direct them to trails and give them the basics on Leave No Trace.”

That frontcountry focus and increased staffing resulted in few parking tickets issued by rangers because they were able to speak with hikers directly, according to van Laer. Over the weekend, rangers issued about 15 tickets for parking violations along state Route 73 and six tickets for land use violations, according to Severino.

Van Laer said although the frontcountry focus made parking and informing new hikers of trail etiquette easier, it left the backcountry mostly neglected. Because of this, he said it is unknown how many issues in the backcountry there were this weekend.

“I have very little confidence that the backcountry was handled adequately,” van Laer said. “We did the best we could with our limited resources.”

Van Laer said he wanted to thank the Adirondack Mountain Club.

“They do a great job managing their facility,” van Laer said. “They do a great job with (summit) stewardship. I wish the DEC did as well.”

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