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ON THE SCENE: So far, so good for the AMR reservation system

An Adirondack Mountain Reserve employee welcomes and checks in hikers. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Parking at popular trailheads in the High Peaks has been becoming an increasingly hazardous undertaking for hikers and motorists over the past decades. Most parking spaces are small, and when they fill, people have taken to parking and, subsequently, walking along the highways to gain access to trailheads.

On busy holiday weekends, the number of cars can stretch for well over a mile, resulting in increasingly difficult conditions for all concerned.

The most dangerous and popular trailheads are located in the town of Keene. They include Cascade, Giant and Pitchoff mountains, and the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (aka Ausable Club). At the AMR, hiker numbers have surged, going from 16,500 in 2014 to 29,100 last year. As a means of mitigating parking and safety issues, the state posted no parking signs along roadways and started ticketing violators.

When COVID-19 hit a year ago, state and local governments sought to curtail large gatherings of people as a means of reducing the potential spread of the novel coronavirus. In line with popular state venues like Whiteface Mountain Ski Center, the AMR reduced its parking lot’s capacity across from Roaring Brook Falls to about 50%.

However, as people could not travel overseas and going anywhere by plane became difficult, thousands took to the roads looking for places where they could get out in nature within a reasonable distance from their home. Hiking in the Adirondacks fit the bill. The outcome was that well-intended public safety efforts resulted in frayed tempers, frustrated visitors and residents alike, and fingers being pointed in all directions.

Hikers Brett Sabin and Matt Ryan (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Seeking to mitigate the problem, the state Department of Environmental Conservation established the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group that involved various stakeholders, including the AMR. One of the ideas floated, as it has been for decades, was establishing a parking reservation system that’s very common in national parks. However, people hiking in the Adirondacks had always enjoyed the notion of just heading out when and where they wished, weather permitting. Thus, any attempt at a reservation system received tremendous pushback.

Even so, the DEC and the AMR decided to pilot a free, three-year reservation system as continuing previous efforts were viewed as unfriendly, unsafe and unworkable. The pilot program was made available to the public on April 15, and it has been tweaked to address initial concerns.

The AMR is a 7,000-acre private reserve established in 1887 primarily to curtail lumbering in the High Peaks flanking the Ausable Lakes and the Beede Hotel. It was eventually expanded to become the present Ausable Club’s main building. In 1887, hotel guest William George Neilson, joined by several friends, purchased 25,000 acres and established the AMR. By 1910, the AMR’s land had been expanded to 40,000 acres, including the tops of most of the High Peaks surrounding the lakes.

From the beginning, the public was allowed to hike through the property, gaining access to the High Peaks and such popular destinations as Indian Head, Noonmark Mountain and Round Mountain. Indeed, in 1897, the non-profit Adirondack Trail Improvement Society was established to maintain and improve the trails. In 1923, a portion of the AMR’s land was sold to the state as part of the “forever wild” Forest Preserve, and again in 1978, reducing the AMR’s holdings to their present 7,000 acres.

To further decrease walking along state Route 73, the DEC increased its roadside parking restrictions while the AMR expanded its parking capacity back to 70 spaces. As a means of lessening the number of ill-prepared hikers in the woods, the AMR added a check-in booth with employees trained to give hikers advice on backcountry etiquette, safety and trail options.

“The hiker reservation system is one of the pieces of the puzzle in a comprehensive plan to improve hiker safety, hiker access and the long-term preservation of both public and private lands in the Adirondacks, especially along the well-traveled Route 73 corridor,” said John Schuler, general manager of the AMR. “We want to be part of that solution.”

The DEC and the AMR’s goal is to provide a fair and equitable means of allocating parking for people of all levels of experience desiring access to the High Peaks through the AMR trail system. To that end, 24 hours before one’s reservation, the AMR sends out a request asking those who have changed their minds for any reason to cancel their reservation so their spaces can be made available to others. The good news is many do.

“The AMR trailhead is my favorite place to start hiking,” said Matt Ryan, of the Capitol District, with fellow hiker Brett Sabin. “There are too many times in the past when I wanted to park here, and I couldn’t. I don’t want to leave my house at 3 (a.m.) to hopefully get a parking spot at 5. So, this is good.”

There remains pushback by some locals that they must also make a reservation to park at the AMR. On the other hand, like everybody else seeking a parking spot before there was a reservation system, locals, too, had to get up earlier and earlier seek a parking spot. Now, people seeking a last-minute hike can often find openings 12 to 24 hours out. To date, more than 6,000 people have registered on the AMR site, and about 2,400 have made reservations since April 15.

“I usually hike in the Catskills, but I’ve always wanted to come up here,” said Alexis Jost, of Parsippany, New Jersey. “When I first tried to make a reservation, everything was booked. I was initially so upset, but I refreshed the page for the next two days, and a time slot opened up. So, it worked out. They said keep trying, and I did. I am so happy I got a slot.”

Blake Jarvis, Sabastian Vallejo, Austin Moehringer, Brian Estrella, equally divided from Albany and New York City, came up for the “immaculate views, positive vibes, and to get away from the hectic urban life.” For them, the reservation system worked well; they urge others to get in their reservations as early as possible.

Dale Enslin brought his family from Niles, Ohio, for their first-time hiking in the Adirondacks and to get his kids away from watching TV and playing video games all day. Enslin would have preferred to book a reservation further out, but he was pleased to get the time and date he wanted the day it opened.

“It worked out,” said Enslin. “The reservation system worked nice and easy.”

Are there complaints? Sure, there are many about the aesthetically appalling and unnecessary forest of reflecting signs the state Department of Transportation placed along the highway, and no-show hikers that fail to cancel their reservations. Some financial incentive may be necessary, such as a fee to register that’s only charged to one’s card if one fails to check in. To make a parking reservation, register at www.hikeamr.org.