Upstate New York is home to the Adirondack Park, which encompasses 6 million acres and is the largest park in the contiguous United States. A mix of publicly and privately owned lands, it requires no entry fee and is famed for its 46 high peaks, each of which boasts an elevation higher than 4,000 feet.
Since the early 1900s, people who summit all 46 have been given the prestigious title of 46er. Today, more than 13,000 have achieved that status, with many more having climbed at least some of the peaks. That number increased substantially in 2020 when the Adirondacks saw more climbers than ever before.
Joe Pete Wilson, the supervisor for the Adirondack town of Keene, New York, referred to it as the “high water mark.”
“It was just crowded every day,” he said. “Parking was an issue every day.”
While Covid restrictions and the closure of the Canadian border contributed, it was the culmination of an ongoing trend.
“We were already experiencing incremental growth going back a few years,” Wilson said. With inspiring summit snapshots on social media and plenty of information about the high peaks available online, a new interest in climbing cropped up, and with it came new challenges.
“For the first time in many, many years, you had people thinking it was just fine to carry wood up and have a campfire on top of Marcy,” Tony Goodwin said. Goodwin has been hiking and adventuring in the Adirondacks all his life and is the author of numerous area guidebooks. He’s also 46er number 211 (the 211th person to climb all 46 of the park’s peaks).
Hikers acquainted with the high peaks know that fires are prohibited on Marcy, the tallest of the high peaks. Strict bans or limitations on fires have long been in place across the Adirondack Park for both safety and environmental reasons, something not always realized by hikers new to climbing or to the area.
In Goodwin’s early days, “everyone you met on the trail had considerable experience and was very slow and methodical about how they planned their trips,” he said. But more recently, the people he encounters seem to select trails even the morning they climb, sometimes based on what’s popped up in their social feeds.
Indian Head is a good example. The summit, which overlooks Lower Ausable Lake, has appeared on Instagram thousands of times. “It’s a little steep going up there and then there’s a flat area at the cliff, so you get quite a view,” Brooks Rogers said.
46er number 440, Rogers began climbing in the Adirondacks when he was 11, summiting all 46 peaks by the time he was 14 and spending subsequent summers working on the trail crew. “You didn’t see a lot of people and you certainly didn’t see many at the top,” he said. In fact, nearly half of the 46 climbs were “trailless” then.
Rogers, who summered in Keene with his family, completed many of his hikes through scheduled treks with the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society (ATIS). “Usually, it would be routed so you could get two or three mountains at the same time,” he said, recalling several overnight trips.
It was during those hikes and additional ones led by James “Jimmy” Goodwin, Tony Goodwin’s father and a lifelong outdoorsman in the Adirondacks, that Rogers learned his trail etiquette. “Jimmy Goodwin told a lot of great stories and he would teach you things along the way,” Rogers said.
Lessons included details of the environment, as well as practical matters, such as distancing yourself from water when nature called, packing out what you packed in, and always leaving kindling behind at the lean to for the next group.
At the summit, “You’d have lunch together,” he said, as well as time to explore and take in the view. “You were always counting out the mountains,” he said.
These days, Tony Goodwin often sees people looking not out at the sky but down at their phones. “They’re very distracted,” he said. While it makes for a different vibe, Rogers was able to shed some light.
“For us of an older generation, it feels weird to have so many people on top, and you certainly wouldn’t sit near each other,” he said. But an article he came across recently offered a different take on newer generations. “They’re happy to be there with more people because it makes it an event. I’m here; we’re all here… It’s a sharing thing,” he said.
Will the crowds continue? While 2020 was exceptional, last year had fewer hikers. “So this summer is a big question mark. I honestly don’t know what I’m planning for,” Wilson said. But he is leaning on the side of preparedness.
One of the most challenging issues for the town of Keene is parking. When small lots on private land fill up, hikers turn to parking in residential neighborhoods, sometimes blocking critical areas or walking down stretches of a busy highway to reach trails. To combat this, “We run a shuttle from a remote parking lot that takes hikers to The Garden, which is a very popular trailhead,” Wilson said.
In addition, parking lots are staffed with “Front-country stewards, trained professionals, a lot of them hikers, who are there to educate,” Wilson said. The stewards also help people find alternative peaks when lots are full.
At one highly frequented trailhead at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, a reservation system was also launched in 2021. Though it was a major change for regular hikers, now that everyone is used to it, “they actually appreciate that when they have a reservation, they know they’ll get a parking spot,” Wilson said.
Finding these solutions is critical. “Even 30 years ago, the selection of places to shop or dine or buy gas in the town of Keene was extremely limited. Now we have those things and it’s because the tourism economy supports that,” Wilson said.
But it requires infrastructure so visitors can have a positive experience without compromising quality of life for residents. Fortunately, Wilson sees increased collaboration between the town, state, and local environmental groups as a game-changer.
In tandem, “we need more good trail work,” Goodwin said. He’s amazed by how much better the trails are now than 50 years ago. But much more work is needed to prevent erosion and hiker damage. Funding for skilled professionals to perform trail hardening projects over a matter of weeks at a time would make an enormous difference.
In Goodwin’s mind, it’s not about staving off the climbers but improving the trails to accommodate them. “Getting people out in the woods is, to me, a good thing. They end up appreciating it and are willing to do more to protect it,” he said.
Caroline Tremblay writes stories for The Daily Yonder and Radically Rural, a two-day summit on key rural issues Sept. 21-22 in Keene, New Hampshire. For more information, go to www.radicallyrural.org