Keene uses parking ban to divert High Peaks hikers

KEENE VALLEY — The town of Keene implemented a roadside parking ban for three local roads on Friday, April 24. The town plans to step up enforcement this weekend in an effort to limit the number of hikers congregating at trailheads and in residential areas.

Parking on Johns Brook, Market and Adirondack streets is now limited to designated parking areas. The parking lot for the Garden trailhead will remain open, but after its 46-car capacity has been reached, anyone who parks on the roadside outside the lot will be towed, according to town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr. Department heads and town officials will monitor the roads throughout the weekend to ensure compliance.

Town officials are concerned that an influx of nature seekers could arrive in the High Peaks region with warmer weather.

Last year, the number of hikers arriving on good-weather weekends sometimes overwhelmed local resources, such as the town’s shuttle to the Garden trailhead. Some residents also reported seeing hikers park in their yards, walk through their yards and use their yards as bathrooms. Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the crowds and possibility of spreading the virus present a real public health concern, according to Wilson.

“We want people to stay safe, we want to protect the public’s health,” he said.

The town issued a call last month asking nature seekers from out of town to stay home and hike closer to where they live, rather than travel to visit the Adirondack High Peaks. The town announced earlier this month that it would not operate its Garden shuttle for the foreseeable future.

Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Shaun Gillilland, on behalf of the board, later added to the town’s request with a call for downstate residents to stay home and not visit this area, in part because of local hospitals’ limited capacity and supplies.

“One of the things we’re really concerned about is the limited EMS and medical system capacity we have up here,” Wilson said. “We just don’t have the supplies and the staff, while also being able to handle the coronavirus stuff.”

State Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers, who were tasked with writing tickets and enforcing the DEC’s roadside parking ban on state Route 73 last year, have also been deployed to aid in the state’s coronavirus response. Scott van Laer, a forest ranger and representative of the ranger’s union, has said an extensive search-and-rescue call could pull rangers away from the COVID-19 response.

Wilson said the town plans to self-enforce by towing cars in non-compliance, and will try to limit involving the forest rangers to curb any impact on their workload.

The DEC recommends that hikers use lesser-trodden trails and, if hiking in a group, to continue to practice social distancing by staying at least 6 feet away from others. The department has closed all fire towers.

The Adirondack Mountain Club has suspended its Fire Tower Challenge and Northville-Placid Trail Challenge, and has extended the closure of its facilities — including its complex at Heart Lake near Lake Placid — through May 14. The Adirondack 46ers are encouraging hikers to avoid the High Peaks region until Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York State on PAUSE order is lifted. The Adirondack Mountain Reserve, which operates a popular trailhead parking lot in St. Huberts in the town of Keene, across the street from the Roaring Brook trailhead, has reduced the capacity of that trailhead to a maximum of 28 cars.

Weekend hikers

Threat of exposure to the novel coronavirus and recommendations to steer clear of popular trails deterred some hikers from the High Peaks this weekend, but nature-seekers still flocked to a few trailhead parking lots here.

On Saturday, April 25, clusters of cars — at one point more than 90 of them — could be seen at the trailheads leading to Cascade and Porter mountains in Lake Placid. The Adirondack Mountain Reserve parking lot in St. Huberts also saw some use. Other popular spots, such as the Garden and Rooster Comb trailheads in Keene Valley, were relatively quiet.

“It was a beautiful weekend, there was a lot of traffic in town. Stewart’s was crowded. It was very spot-by-spot — the Garden and Rooster Comb were half-full, but out by the AuSable Club, people were out and illegally parked on the town road,” Wilson said.

State Department of Environmental Conservation forest rangers responded to the vicinity of AuSable Club Road, off of state Route 73, to write parking tickets for those who were illegally parked there. A few hikers also illegally camped at Marcy Field in Keene Valley over the weekend, according to Wilson. That prompted forest rangers to respond there, too.

“With great weather and fewer tourist activities available than usual with restaurants and museums closed, it led to perhaps the highest use rangers have ever seen in the month of April,” van Laer said, speaking in his position as a delegate for the forest rangers’ union.

Van Laer said most people abided by the parking limitations on state Route 73, and parked elsewhere when a parking lot was full.

“People seemed to be taking on shorter hikes, which we appreciate with staffing shortages,” he said. “(Poke-O-Moonshine) had 50 cars, which is too many but we did not see a lot of activity deeper into wilderness areas. There was a lot of front country use. People playing on stream banks, relaxing, enjoying the sun. Lots of fishing activity. There were a few people who were pulling campers who didn’t know camping areas were closed, but the issue was mitigated.”

Before going out for a hike, the DEC asks people to check out backcountry trail conditions at www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/9198.html and bring appropriate clothing, wayfinding materials and equipment.