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AMR hiking reservations begin

Adirondack Mountain Reserve General Manager John Schuler, left, and state Department of Environmental Conservation Deputy Commissioner of Natural Resources Katie Petronis stand in the St. Huberts Parking Area Saturday. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

ST. HUBERTS — Hikers looking to summit mountains from the St. Huberts parking lot, owned by the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, must now get a reservation.

Saturday was the first day of the parking reservation pilot program. State Department of Environmental Conservation Deputy Commissioner of Natural Resources Katie Petronis was at the popular trailhead along with AMR General Manager John Schuler, asking hikers about their experience with the new system.

Schuler said reservations for Saturday were full, but the parking lot was not. He thinks the sudden return of winter weather Friday contributed to the no-shows. While there were a few inches of snow in Lake Placid and Saranac Lake Saturday morning, the parking lot was sunny and snow-less. There was still ice on the peaks though.

Hikers pulled in and showed evidence of their reservation to the staff there.

If someone showed up without a reservation, an AMR staff member or forest ranger gave them a card directing them to Marcy Field, where front-country stewards from the town of Keene pointed them toward other hikes they could do. The card also explains how to obtain a reservation.

Petronis said they are focusing on education over enforcement, adding that she wants to keep a positive experience. Schuler said staff had to turn away around eight groups that morning.

Petronis said the DEC has seen increasing rates of illegal roadside parking on state Route 73 and hiker drop-offs at the parking lot in St. Huberts. She said these create a dangerous road situation for both pedestrians and drivers. The 70-spot reservation system is not meant to limit the use on the trails, she said, but increase public safety.

Schuler said the AMR has expanded its parking lot to 70 spaces, with 42 added in the last year. He said this should match the use the trailhead would usually see during high-use days.

Schuler said in the seven years since he started work at the AMR, he’s seen “exponential growth” in hikers. In 2014 the entrance saw around 25,000 hikers. Last year, he said 35,000 people passed through its gates.

Last month, the DEC closed off parking areas on state Route 73 near the trailhead, but Schuler said with the added lot parking there are now more spaces available than there were with the roadside parking.

Parking for rock climbers ascending the Beer Walls on state Route 73 will still be available, and Petronis said she hopes those spaces will open up more to climbers because they will not need to compete with AMR hikers.

She said forest rangers have spent more time on state Route 73 dealing with traffic issues recently, and she hopes this change will give them more time to be in the backcountry.

How it works

The reservation is for a parking spot. It is also needed for hikers who are dropped off at the lot or who park elsewhere and walk over to use that trailhead.

There is not a fine for hiking without a reservation and the DEC is hoping people will follow the new rules without incident.

Schuler said 3,000 reservations have been made already, including 400 in the next three weeks. They’ve had around 80 cancellations, and around the same number of groups have adjusted their reservations.

If a group cancels, their spot will open back up.

The reservation times are not specific, Schuler said. If someone makes a reservation for 3 p.m. they can show up at any time that day — before or after — and have their spot. The times are to space out arrivals to keep traffic from backing up on state Route 73, but reservations are for the whole day.

Petronis believes this will make planning hikes easier. She said this means hikers won’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn to get a parking spot. There are also overnight reservations.

The program is not set in stone, she said. It may and probably will change over time as issues are brought up by hikers. For example, she said, a change already underway is creating a plan for late exits from the lot. She said this comes after hikers have voiced concerns that if their hike lasts past 7 p.m., when the gates are scheduled to close, they’ll be locked in. She said the new plan will be announced soon.

Since the program was first announced, she also said the DEC has expanded the number of people allowed per reservation from six to eight to accommodate groups in shuttle vans.

What the future holds

Petronis has seen people opposing the reservation system online. The DEC has been monitoring social media comments on the topic. She said when people are accustomed to entering the peaks one way, it’s hard to accept that there’s another layer of planning to complete now.

“I would say, I understand. Change is hard,” Petronis said.

She said the recent change in visitation numbers to the peaks, and especially this lot, means the DEC has to change its stewardship management plans, too.

She said increased usage is great because it shows more people are turning to nature for recreation and therapy, but it also causes management problems.

“We’ve loved to see our wilderness being loved to death, now we want to love it to live,” Schuler said.

“We are not alone in thinking about this issue,” Petronis said.

National parks like Yosemite, Zion and Rocky Mountain are re-introducing reservation systems brought in last year for COVID-19 to prevent overcrowding this summer.

The AMR reservation system will run until Oct. 31 and continue for at least the next two years. In October, AMR and DEC will crunch the numbers and see how, and if, this new system changed things.

Petronis said this is a pilot program but not a model. There are not plans to replicate it elsewhere in the High Peaks at the moment and she added it’s not a predecessor to a High Peaks hiking permit, an idea which has been discussed frequently recently.

She said the AMR parking lot is unique in being a busy lot on private land with a lot of wilderness access. She said it was perfect to experiment on.

Schuler said he’s “thrilled” to be a guinea pig. He’s talked with the DEC about making parking at that site safer for years.

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