Today’s backcountry is teeming with trekkers. I’ve said it before; that’s great! COVID-19 has compounded a situation that was already growing. People being stuck indoors with little to do figured out that the great outdoors was a solution to coping with a pandemic. With this enthusiasm comes a problem; overcrowding. In 1990, about 5,000 hikers registered at the Cascade Mountain trailhead; in 2016, the number approached 35,000. It has increased significantly since then, and there’s a likelihood you may not get to climb your peak if the overcrowding continues.
Climbers at Cascade Mountain
The numbers of hikers that climb Cascade Mountain have exploded.
According to the Adirondack Council “Actual use levels across the High Peaks repeatedly reached more than 200 percent of the DEC’s targeted daily capacity limits established in the 1990s.”
Overcrowded trails, overflowing at parking areas, illegal parking, and much more have led to advisory groups suggesting solutions from doing next to nothing to implementing national park-style reservation systems for the Adirondack High Peaks. Due to crowds and rule violations, some landowners who had decades of easements with the state have closed them, and another is attempting a reservation system to park and cross their property which is key to accessing prime Adirondack peaks. We’ve lost access to two Catskill high peaks.
Parking areas are a way to keep reasonable numbers of hikers on a trail at any one time. Is it perfect? No, but seeing hundreds of illegally parked vehicles along the road is scary. Not only is it a traffic hazard but the incredible number of people on the trail stress the environment and trails themselves. Police are ticketing, residents are worried, and management plans are being developed.
But we cannot expect New York State, local towns, counties, or organizations to be the solution.
It’s time we police ourselves.
Three hike rule
We’ve gone to a three hike rule when planning our outings. The three hike rule states that we plan two backup hikes within a 15 to 20-minute drive for every primary hike planned. It’s pretty simple.
The rule allows us to get to our primary hike early, and if the parking area is full, we can go to our first backup with plenty of time to hike. If that’s full, we move to the next and maybe have a 45-minute delay for starting our hike. You can identify as many backup hikes as you’d like. Make one a trek that is less well known.
The rule also states:
- We don’t park illegally (not breaking the law)
- We don’t hike at popular destinations on holiday weekends (avoiding the crowds)
- We don’t revisit busy hikes at peak times (sharing the space)
- We have one non-hiking plan if all else fails (accepting disappointment)
Other options to beat the crowds
Other options that people can try are starting early (before dawn) or finishing late (after dark). Pick your season wisely. Memorial Day to Labor Day are peak times. Give the fourth season a try. And there is always Tuesday through Thursday; these days are much less crowded in our experience than the “three-day weekends.”
Use social media
Lately, I’ve noticed Rangers have taken to social media and post when parking areas are full. Last summer, I saw Twitter posts about Adirondack High Peak trailheads filled at 5:45 AM!
Get on your favorite social platform, look up some rangers or organizations, and hook up with them if you see posts about current trail usage. Also, the NYSDOT website 511ny is worth checking as when trailheads are full; they may be posted as such. If we as a hiking community don’t see ourselves as part of the solution, we’re then part of the problem, and we may risk restrictions that few people want.
Backwoods wanderer with a passion for backpacking, hiking, kayaking, and exploring the wilds of the Catskills and Adirondacks in New York. A Catskill 3500 Club Member and Adirondack Forty-Sixer. Climbed Mount Rainier. Professionally an Exercise Physiologist.