Hikers pack High Peaks for past peak foliage Columbus Day weekend

A roadside parking lot on state Route 73 is seen here Saturday, Oct. 10 with a digital sign that read: “Hiker parking limited; seek other hikes.” (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

KEENE VALLEY — The smell was one that candle makers have tried to capture for generations.

In the early morning hours on Saturday, Oct. 10, the unmistakable scent of fall in the Adirondacks permeated the trails in Keene Valley: pine, fresh air, the slightest hint of dampness.

At the Rooster Comb trailhead, on the one of the busiest weekends for hiking in the Adirondacks, all was quiet.

Then, just before 5 a.m., a headlamp flickered on. A group of hikers got out of their car.

Cornell University student Nate Barott, 22, and his friends packed their gear and prepped for their hike before the sun rose. Barott said they’d driven up from Ithaca the night before. This wasn’t their first time hiking in the Adirondacks.

“For most of us, we’ve done this a couple of times,” he said. “But it’s been a few months.”

They weren’t the first ones to arrive.

Though no one had signed in at the trailhead register yet, and though the U.S.-Canada border remains closed to non-essential traffic, the parking lot at Rooster Comb was already nearly full by 4:45 a.m. The rest of the hikers who parked their cars there were nowhere to be seen, though one van was dimly lit from the inside, curtains drawn over the windows.

Early arrivals

As more nature-seekers flock to the Adirondacks every year, particularly this swath of the High Peaks region, hikers have started arriving earlier and earlier to their trailheads of choice. Seasoned hikers know that parking for trails off of state Route 73 is in high demand, especially on Columbus Day weekend, so they arrive earlier than others. As more people catch on, the earlier arrivals have become.

Some hikers have even chosen to park overnight at trailhead parking lots and get an early start in the morning — a practice that’s not allowed, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Hikers can leave their vehicles overnight at a trailhead, but they’re not allowed to camp in their cars or anywhere within 150 feet of a road, trail or stream.

By 4:30 a.m. on Oct. 10, the roadside parking lots at Cascade were already filling up, and by 5 a.m., cars were filling up the roadside lots at Chapel Pond and Round Pond, too. Over near Lake Placid, cars packed the Adirondak Loj lot shortly after 5 a.m.

The Adirondack Mountain Reserve parking lot in the hamlet of St. Huberts was already full by 5:30 a.m., and more cars were still coming, creating a traffic backup at times as driver after driver made U-turns to exit the lot. Across the street at the Roaring Brook trailhead, one illegally parked car along the roadside was joined by at least six others in the span of 15 minutes. Hikers crossed the street and walked down the roadside in the darkness, some without headlamps. A state forest ranger arrived on scene shortly afterward and made the rounds.

Ranger response

One forest ranger was assigned to cover the AMR lot specifically from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, according to the DEC, with an assistant forest ranger available as needed.

For years, the AMR lot has filled up quickly on long holiday weekends. This summer, officials with AMR — a private land-holding group associated with the AuSable Club in St. Huberts — restricted parking there in an effort to curb capacity and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Though rumors had circulated that AMR may impose even more restrictions on parking ahead of the traditionally busy Columbus Day weekend, officials ultimately didn’t add any new restrictions, though it has been in talks with the DEC for some time about possible plans to limit use there in the future.

From Friday to Sunday, forest rangers issued approximately 150 parking tickets for violations along Route 73, according to the DEC. Between Friday and Monday, rangers in DEC Region 5 responded to eight incidents, according to the DEC. Two of those were in the High Peaks Wilderness.

Around 6 a.m., Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr. was already at the Garden trailhead, where he was waiting for an illegally parked car, blocking others’ access, to get towed. This year, the town’s shuttle to the Garden didn’t operate due to COVID-19.

Finding solutions

Faced with a high numbers of visitors and an uptick in amateur hikers visiting the Adirondacks this year, a trend that has coincided with more instances in littering, the DEC has implemented some new initiatives.

This comes at a time when the department could be facing cuts. The state is facing major revenue shortfalls and a budget crunch exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

This year, the DEC opened three new pop-up hiker information stations in Keene, North Hudson and Lake Placid. The department also started using the statewide traffic alert system 511NY to send push notifications to users when trailhead parking lots are full.

The issue of hiker parking received renewed focus last year amid what some long-term residents described as the busiest summer hiking season they’d seen in decades.

The effects of the busy season were compounded by a Route 73 roadside parking ban the DEC implemented in May 2019. The ban was designed to address public safety concerns, but it ultimately caused confusion and frustration as visitors arrived with nowhere to park, prompting many to park illegally despite posted “no parking” signs.

Peak hiker tourism days were generally limited to good-weather weekends and holidays last year, but the pandemic has somewhat derailed that norm. This summer, despite the ongoing closure of the U.S.-Canada border, many High Peaks trailhead parking lots were near or at capacity on almost every good-weather day, regardless of the day of the week.

High use

Adirondack green groups have long fought for solutions to address the impact of human use in the backcountry. One of the reoccurring proposals is a hiker permit system.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos has said he believes that should be the last thing the DEC does to address the issue. However, a Siena College Research Institute poll of 795 New Yorkers, conducted between Aug. 30 and Sept. 3, showed that 68% supported enforcing resource capacity limits rather than the construction of bigger parking lots.

“As we conclude the busiest time of the year on the trails and summits of the Adirondack Park, it is time for the state to follow the science and take heed of the public’s desire to protect the state’s most sensitive landscape from being loved to death,” Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway said in a statement last week.

Not everyone agrees with the idea of a hiker permit system, however.

“I think that’s kind of ridiculous,” said Steven Lee, who traveled from Connecticut to hike Snow Mountain on Saturday. “I feel like the reason it’s been so busy recently is because of the pandemic. I think more people are starting to realize that hiking is really nice, it’s free, you don’t really have to do much besides wear proper clothing and be prepared to hike.

“Putting restrictions on that, I think, would be annoying.”

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