Use buses to get hikers where they want to go

The holiday weekend is upon us: Columbus Day in the U.S. and Thanksgiving in Canada. It’s one of the busiest weekends of the year for hiking in the Adirondacks — and that’s saying something, because hiking has been exploding in popularity here.

Many people didn’t expect last weekend to be so crazy, but the fall leaves were at their peak and the weather was gorgeous on Saturday. The hiker traffic was off the charts.

There are nowhere near enough parking spaces at the most popular trailheads, and the state’s biggest solution so far — a roadside parking ban for 4 miles of state Route 73 in the town of Keene, where many of the busiest trailheads are — has routinely been ignored, evaded and raged against. Parking tickets haven’t had an obvious deterrent effect, and last weekend cars were even towed to keep them from blocking corridors for emergency vehicles.

Lots of people are talking about what state and local government should have or could have done to alleviate the strain, but we’re looking forward. Making recommendations is moot for this year, since we are now on the last weekend of the tourism season. But we can make them for next year.

Environmental groups want the state to start a permit system for parking, and possibly even for hiking in the High Peaks Wilderness. That is bound to be controversial and complicated.

Many Keene residents we know want the state to build more parking areas near the busiest trailheads. While we think some of that would be valuable, it’s not easy for the state to cut down trees and convert land for parking.

Shuttle buses, however, could be implemented quickly and less expensively than most other options. Essex County worked with other agencies to start a hiker bus run to Wilmington, but it hasn’t seen much ridership. That’s because it’s not going where most hikers want to go. True, some tourists come to Lake Placid first and then decide they’d like a little hike, but that is not the contingent that has grown so massively in recent years. The growth comes among people who want to hike all 46 High Peaks, or see spots others have posted pictures of on Instagram. For the most part, the hikers whose cars are clogging the trailheads decided where they wanted to go before they came here.

A park-and-ride system should be established on summer and fall weekends along Route 73 from Lake Placid through the town of Keene. Essex County and state agencies must work with the town, which wants to expand its existing shuttle bus run but needs support from bigger government agencies.

There are challenges, of course. Weekend busing would have to start early and end late, so as not to strand hikers, and run at frequent intervals in between. Roadside spots would have to be established for buses to pull off to load and unload passengers. But we think those obstacles are much more surmountable than those of a permit system, new parking lots or other proposed solutions.

Another great thing about buses is that a video could be shown to the captive audience of riders, teaching them about proper backcountry ethics and practices to help them protect themselves and the natural environment.

People understand shuttle buses — permits, not so much. We think most hikers would get on board if we give them a better, safer, more environmentally friendly way to get where they want to go. It could change the culture of Adirondack hiking, for the better.

This isn’t just about Route 73. Other trailheads are overcrowded, such as those to McKenzie and Ampersand mountains. The popularity of local hiking challenges such as the Saranac Lake 6er and Tupper Triad is exploding, too, and we believe there is a lot more growth to come. If we figure out what works for hiking shuttle buses on Route 73, that model can be extended to other places relatively easily.

This is a good problem to have. Not only are tourists coming to the Adirondacks and spending money here, but more people are getting fresh air, exercise and the spiritual benefits of nature. Surely some of these visiting hikers will decide they want to spend the rest of their lives here, and will become wonderful contributing members of our communities.

Therefore, we want these visitors to have good experiences, not be turned off by parking tickets or locals’ angry comments. We need to be good hosts. But doing so doesn’t just require smiling and being polite. If you invite a crowd of people to your house — and that’s what state and local tourism marketers have been doing for the Adirondacks — you need to have your act together and have enough food and drink for them.

It will take a multi-pronged approach to improve the situation, but we think shuttle buses should be the first and foremost step.