Lake Placid, NY – October 28, 2020 – In keeping with a decade-long trend of growing hiker numbers, this summer was again a busy one at ADK’s (Adirondack Mountain Club’s) Heart Lake Program Center (HLPC). Without question, the pandemic played a role in motivating people to get outside. However, this surge in outdoor pursuits increased the number of unprepared novice recreationists entering the backcountry. As a result, there was a noticeable rise in recreational impacts over the summer, including illegal camping, discarded trash, unburied human waste, and an increase in the number of conflicts between humans and wildlife. While ADK continued its efforts to educate visitors on how to the minimize their impacts, several emerging trends made doing so particularly challenging. Data collected by the Adirondack High Peaks Summit Stewardship Program and the Recreational User Experience and Perspectives: Adirondack Park (RUEADK) survey—a partnership effort between ADK, the Adirondack Council, and SUNY-ESF—demonstrate some of these trends.
More in-state hikers, earlier arrivals
Despite the Canadian border closure, data show that overall hiker contacts with the Summit Stewardship Program remained consistent with years past, indicating a significant increase in the number of American visitors. Preliminary analysis of the RUEADK survey suggest that most of these hikers are New York residents. Out of 673 in-person contacts at High Peaks trailheads, the majority of respondents came from in-state, with the Albany and New York City regions having the greatest representation. Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo also sent significant numbers. “As long as impacts from the pandemic remain, the High Peaks Wilderness will likely continue to see an elevated number of American visitors,” said Seth Jones, ADK Education Director. “This does raise some questions about how we manage visitor use if the border opens, which could lead to an additional influx of Canadian hikers.”
The lack of Canadian hikers is also attributed to a shift in popularity between high peaks Algonquin and Marcy. In July and August, the average number of daily hiker contacts between 2019 and 2020 on Algonquin dropped from 99 to 87, while the average on Marcy increased from 109 to 111. “In our experience, Algonquin is popular with Canadian hikers,” said Kayla White, Summit Steward Coordinator. “We believe that this change can be attributed to the border closure, as well as a rise in novice visitors, who choose to climb Marcy because it is the tallest peak in New York.”
In addition, data gathered by ADK at the Heart Lake Program Center—the region’s busiest trailhead—from Jul. 1 to Oct. 12 indicates that hikers are arriving earlier than in prior years. Over the 89-day period, the 200-car lot filled on 61 of them—69% of days over that time period—with 5:00 am being the earliest fill time.
Over-Reliance on Apps, Last-Minute Planning
Following a year of record-breaking rescue numbers by New York State Forest Rangers, many precipitated by a lack of hiker preparedness (e.g., being caught in the dark without a light source), hiker planning and preparation continues to be an important issue. The partner-run RUEADK survey, which provides insights into how and when visitors planned their trips, reveals that 27% of respondents used the AllTrails digital application for information, while another 16.8% used DEC resources, and 18% used commercially published guidebooks or maps. “Given the accessibility of apps like AllTrails, it isn’t surprising that they are used as a resource for trip planning,” said Ben Brosseau, ADK Director of Communications. “The problem is when hikers become over-reliant on electronic information in the backcountry. If a cell phone dies or breaks, it can lead to a rescue situation because the hiker is left without any form of navigation.”
Interestingly, 59% of respondents acknowledged planning for their trip within a month of arrival, of which a third made plans only a day or so beforehand. “Understanding how and when people plan for their trip is key to determining how best to share important preparedness and Leave No Trace messaging,” said Brosseau.
Looking forward, the data gathered this year gives the state and local partners a clue about what to expect in summer 2021. As policy makers determine the state budget for the next year, ADK hopes that the state will continue investing in the High Peaks Wilderness. “Given that 10-12 million people are coming to the Adirondacks each year, we simply are not doing enough to equip visitors with the necessary information, tools, and facilities for them to have a safe and enjoyable experience,” said Michael Barrett, ADK Executive Director. “We look forward to working with the state and local partners to continue collecting data so we can develop long-term and fact-based solutions to high use.”