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Route 73 hiker shuttle will begin on Saturday

The new hiker shuttle, operated by the Essex County Transportation Department and supported by the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, is pictured here. (Provided photo — New York State Department of Environmental Conservation)

A new shuttle system, designed to alleviate longstanding parking issues along state Route 73 by bringing hikers to their desired High Peaks trailhead, is expected to start service on Saturday, Aug. 21.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation — which is partnering with Essex County, its transportation department and the town of Keene on this system — announced in June that the shuttle would start service this summer, but until Thursday, Aug. 12, had not shared an official start date.

The shuttle will be free to ride. It will pick up hikers in the Marcy Field parking lot and stop at three trailheads along state Route 73: Rooster Comb, Giant Mountain Ridge Trail and Roaring Brook Falls, according to the DEC. The shuttle will also bring hikers back to their cars at Marcy Field.

The shuttle can accommodate 20 riders at a time. It will run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends and holidays through Oct. 11, according to the DEC. The final loop for return trips to Marcy Field will depart around 6 p.m.

The town of Keene will still operate its shuttle between Marcy Field and the Garden trailhead. Right now, that shuttle runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends and costs $10 to ride. When the new, free shuttle launches, the town’s Garden shuttle will be free to ride, too, according to the DEC.

Masks must be worn on both shuttles, regardless of riders’ vaccination status, according to the DEC.

“Riders are expected to provide their own masks and may be denied entry if not masked,” a news release from the DEC reads.

Leashed dogs can only ride the town’s shuttle, not the new shuttle, unless the dog is a service animal.

Frontcountry stewards are expected to be on site at every pick-up and drop-off location along the new shuttle’s route, and will be available to provide hikers with information on Leave No Trace principles and hiking safety.

“Ensuring public safety and enhancing access to the world class opportunities in the Adirondack Park is a top priority, and this new pilot shuttle system is a critical next step in our comprehensive efforts to promote sustainable tourism in the region,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a statement.

Postponed

This new shuttle system was first announced early last year, before the coronavirus pandemic was declared and before the High Peaks saw a record number of hikers flock to this region seeking a respite after months of isolation because of the pandemic.

The system was supposed to launch last summer, but because of public health guidance designed to curb the spread of the virus, almost all of this area’s public transportation was shut down until late summer and early fall. The launch of the shuttle service was postponed.

When this system was first announced, the goal was for there to be two routes, one shuttle north from Marcy Field to the Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg and another in the opposite direction, from Marcy Field to trailheads leading to the High Peaks and Giant Mountain wilderness areas.

Ongoing effort

There are a number of popular trailheads along state Route 73. A cluster of those popular trailheads are within 5 miles of each other in the town of Keene.

At peak times of the year, particularly on holiday weekends in the summer and fall, hikers will often park on the roadside after the trailhead parking lots fill up and walk up the road — which doesn’t have a sidewalk — to their desired trailhead.

It’s this scenario, which has gotten more and more frequent in each recent year, that the DEC has been trying to address. The creation of this new shuttle service is just one piece of a broader effort.

In 2019, the DEC extended a roadside parking ban on a section of Route 73 and upped enforcement of parking restrictions. But upping enforcement and extending the ban created anger and confusion among some of the hikers who were unaware of the changes and got ticketed. It also forced the relatively small group of state forest rangers assigned to the High Peaks Wilderness Area to spend more time in the frontcountry enforcing the parking ban, rather than in the backcountry.

The DEC created a committee in 2019 to submit recommendations for how to address hiker traffic in the High Peaks Region. The High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group recommended in its final report that the DEC consider parking passes or permits as an option to limit hiker traffic into wilderness areas.

The DEC has taken steps to limit parking rather than increase it. This year, the DEC blocked off two parking areas on state Route 73 near Roaring Brook Falls with metal stakes in an effort to address parking safety issues.

The DEC, in collaboration with the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, created a pilot parking reservation system at the AMR’s trailhead lot in St. Huberts this year. Hikers can make a parking reservation at AMR’s lot by visiting www.hikeamr.org.

The DEC has also started issuing alerts about hiker parking availability through the 511NY traffic alert system. The DEC set up pop-up hiker information booths in Keene, Lake Placid and North Hudson last summer and have staffed hiker information booths this year, too. At the beginning of the summer, the DEC launched the “Love Our NY Lands” campaign, which aims to educate hikers about Leave No Trace principles and hiking preparedness.