by Peter Bauer
Three days before Memorial Day Weekend, a partly cloudy, but warm Tuesday, I decided to check out the new hiking reservation system put together by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR). This new permit system, a few weeks old at this point, is set to run into the fall of 2021. It was greeted with concerns about limitations on public access and lots of speculation about how the program would or would not work.
The AMR manages a trailhead parking area off of Route 73 in St. Hubert’s, east of Keene Valley, and across the highway from the DEC parking lot for the Roaring Brook Trail to Giant Mountain. The AMR is part of the Ausable Club, an exclusive private club where many members own homes spread around a legendary golf course, its fairways basking in great views of Giant Mountain, and in a series of camps or Lower and Upper Ausable Lake. A state conservation easement purchased in 1978 secured public access through the AMR, which is now managed jointly by the AMR and DEC.
I decided the check out the new reservation system as a consumer, just like everybody else. In addition to going through the reservation system, I’d work in a hike up Gothics Mountain to boot, and what could be better than that. On Monday afternoon, May 24th, I looked at my schedule for the week and looked at the weather. The only time I could fit in a day in the field for this trip was Tuesday, May 25th.
I figured I’d get shut out of a parking reservation given the short notice. One complaint among the local hiking population is that the new reservation system precludes folks from hiking spontaneously on a day when the weather is good, or when they want to hike. I made a reservation on Monday afternoon for a slot at 8 AM on Tuesday, having a 90-minute drive to St. Hubert’s from my home in Blue Mountain Lake.
The AMR reservation website is easy to use, but users need to set up an account. The reservation for a parking spot is free, doesn’t cost a dime. I was emailed a confirmation. The website provides good FAQs, emphasizes preparedness, and links to Leave No Trace.
While hikers can’t make a reservation for a month ahead of time, one can make a reservation on fairly short notice. AMR staff told me that the most favorable comments they get regularly come from people traveling from far away who are happy to nail down a slot for the opportunity to hike one of the AMR trails. I can understand complaints from people who drive up without a reservation, see a half-empty parking lot, and are turned away. No one can walk in or ride a bike in. No one can be dropped off. If the state and Essex County get the shuttle system running, it will not stop at the AMR lot. Overall, the number of vehicles parked at AMR this spring appears to be running below the rate of past years when it was free-for-all parking.
When I arrived at the AMR parking lot, greeted by an attendant, an “Ambassador” says the AMR, a recent Paul Smith’s College grad, who checked-in a friend and me as my name was on the daily list printed out earlier that morning. The AMR parking lot is now gated and striped, which is weird for an Adirondack trailhead but helps the AMR staff regulate the parking and make the whole thing work. Passenger vehicles are limited to a max of 8 hikers, vans that seat up to 15 must sign up for two slots. These correspond with longstanding DEC group size limits for the High Peaks Wilderness Area. On Tuesday, there were a dozen other cars in the lot at 8 AM, more than the nine vehicles across the highway at the DEC Roaring Brook lot.
There are 70 parking spaces and three for disabled individuals in the AMR lot. Eight parking spaces are set aside for overnight campers, who make a multi-day reservation, so there are 65 parking spaces available each day. Under the DEC-AMR conservation easement, AMR is only required to provide parking for 20 vehicles. In 2018 and 2019, when parking was less organized and hikers parked atop one another, somewhere around 90 to 100 vehicles often squeezed into the AMR lot on peak-use days. While the reservation system marks a reduction, it’s more than the lot allowed all through the 2020 COVID19 summer when social distancing parking was practiced. The DEC provides porta-johns at the site, and they were the cleanest ones I’d ever seen.
The hike to Gothics starts with a walk along a dirt road into the Ausable Club from Route 73. Within a few hundred yards, it passes the trailhead register and trail to Noonmark Mountain and the Dix Range. Just beyond, the dirt road joins the Ausable Club paved roads around the golf course and Clubhouse. The stunning view of Giant Mountain towers over the fairways and accompanies the hikers.
It’s about a half-mile from the parking lot to the gate at the beginning of the Lake Road, where there is a trailhead register and ornamental Adirondack twig design gate. There is a foot traffic counter at the gate. Under the new reservation system, there is now an attendant at the gatehouse who asks hikers for their names and checks them off the list, which the same morning printout for reservations that’s used at the parking lot. If one is not on the reservation list, and accessed the property by some other means to reach the gate, they are asked to leave the property.
I’ve always found walking down the Lake Road a pleasing experience. I probably walk in the middle of the road too long for passing vehicles, because I’m either yacking with a friend or lost in thought. I’ve never encountered more than a few vehicles on the road. The road is immaculate and the surrounding forest and rocky Ausable Brook are beautiful. I enjoy warming up for a hike on the Lake Road on the way in, and I like walking carelessly and weary on auto-pilot on the way out.
The hike up Gothics at its shortest route using the Beaver Meadow Falls Trail is about 12 miles round trip, with 2.5 miles on the road. The trail through AMR lands passes through a forest dominated by towering 30- and 40-inch-diameter hemlocks. At about a half-mile in, the steep ascent begins and continues for more than two miles. The trail is hammered, packed with exposed and fractured tree roots, is heavily eroded in stretches, hardened with stone staircases in some places, and worn down in many places to open slabs of slippery exposed bedrock. A typical degraded, poorly designed and maintained, High Peaks fall-line trail that runs straight up the mountainside in many places. As we hiked, we were treated to the calls and responses of Hermit thrushes.
Just east of the junction with the Great Range Trail, we met Joe Henderson, a professor at Paul Smith’s College. Joe had made his reservation on Sunday afternoon for his hike on Tuesday morning. He’d hit the trail early and steamed up the Lake Road and climbed to Gothics via Pyramid. He said he’d spent nearly an hour completely alone and bug-free in a stiff wind on the summit of Pyramid Mountain. He was also alone on the summit of Gothics.
When we reached the summit of Gothics Mountain it was empty. The wind was fierce, and there were no bugs. When I’m on a summit of one of the interior High Peaks, surrounded in every direction by other High Peaks, the scene always astounds me. Massive mountains, open cliffs and slides, all carpeted with a thick, dense forest (interrupted from Gothics only by the rooftop of ADK’s Johns Brook Lodge and the Ausable Club boathouses). There’s a reason why the High Peaks are so popular. They’re so popular because they’re so spectacular, and because there’s nothing anywhere near the High Peaks that’s anything like the High Peaks.
Perhaps our experience of having the summit of Gothics Mountain to ourselves was because it’s bug season. Or maybe it was due to the uncertain weather forecast. Or maybe it was because it was a Tuesday in May before a holiday weekend. Or perhaps it was the reservation system. On Gothics we sat and ate our lunch and soaked up the view. A Junco flew in. It hopped across the summit and then stood for the longest time on one of the large boulders on the west side with its back to us, looking over the expanse. We encountered just two other hikers on the way down.
In the late 1970s, then-DEC Commissioner Peter A. A. Berle and then-Governor Hugh Carey bought spectacular Adirondack properties for addition to the Forest Preserve, for which we all are indebted to their vision and action. They purchased Lake Lila. In 1978, they purchased Armstrong Mountain, Basin, Blake, Colvin, Dial, Gothics, Haystack, Saddleback, Saw Teeth, Upper Wolf Jaw, Lower Wolf Jaw, and Noonmark Mountain from the AMR. At that time, they also purchased a conservation easement over the AMR holdings that insured the right of the public to traverse the property from numerous points, such as access from Route 73 up the Lake Road to a dozen different hiking trails, including trails to Indian Head, or through the property between the two lakes. The easement lists 24 public trails that AMR must maintain and provide public access, requiring those areas to be maintained in a forever wild and natural state. Click here to read a copy of the conservation easement.
In the AMR conservation easement, the state purchased “a foot travel easement” for “foot travel only on, over and across all such trails, paths and roadways as now exist” or for new trails that the AMR and DEC “may in the future permit.” The public access right is for the “width of said trails, paths and roadways.” The easement has more expansive language about the purposes of public access, but public access is distinct and absolute. As stated above, the easement calls for AMR to maintain a public parking lot for 20 vehicles, which was expanded to 28 when the Roaring Brook lot was expanded. The current AMR reservation system accommodates 73 vehicles, well beyond what the easement legally requires.
While the public’s right to access the property is absolute, how public access is managed is negotiable between the state and AMR and has changed over the decades as public use pressures have changed. Neither side can make unilateral decisions. Here’s the relevant section on page 11:
(4) Said Easement is and shall be subject to the right of
either the Grantor or the Grantee, with the consent of the
other, which shall not unreasonably be withheld, to close said
trails, paths and roadways, or to deny access thereto or to limit
such access whenever and to the extent necessary to protect said
trails, paths, and roadways from undue adverse environmental
damage, or in case of fire, drought or other disaster or threat
thereof, or under any other circumstance in which the failure to
close, deny or limit such access shall constitute a threat either
to the public health, safety or welfare, or to the natural,
aesthetic, scientific and educational resources of the Protected
Property or the Benefited Property or to the safety or integrity
of the structures arid facilities located on the Adjoining Property
or the Protected Property. Nevertheless, any action closing or
limiting the use of trails, paths or roadways pursuant to this
item shall be done in a manner consistent with the purpose and
objectives of the Foot Travel Easement.
While public access is now managed this summer through a reservation system, it’s not abridged in any way that I can determine. So far, the biggest friction points are about having to make a reservation and around the hours of operation. If you can’t get beyond making a reservation, like some of my friends who are boycotting the area, then you’re out of luck. There are plenty of other trailheads in the High Peaks Wilderness Area where public parking and access is managed as a free-for-all, so have it.
As to hours of operation, AMR opens the gate at 5 AM. The initial program had sought to cap public use at 7 PM, which drew many complaints. Given the challenges of hiking a High Peak, completing a hike and exiting the property by a set time seemed unfair and unreasonable to many. It was the biggest sticking point in the plan for me. AMR has relaxed the exit plan and has not locked in anybody. A parking lot attendant remains at the lot now until 8 or 9 PM, and evening security patrols it after that and while the gate is closed after hours, it’s not locked. Anyone walking down the Lake Road in the dark, dodging shadows, their way lighted by their headlamp, is not going to find their vehicle locked-in at the parking lot.
Super early access does not appear possible for those who want to reach one of the mountain summits before dawn to set up for sunrise picture making or for those who are chasing Verplanck Colvin’s mythic “Brocken spectre.” For that you’ll have to make a reservation for an overnight camping permit and come in the day before or access your desired mountaintop from a different trailhead.
The reservation program runs through the fall. It will not be in place through the winter as use drops off considerably. This type of program was recommended in the recent High Peaks Strategic Planning Group report. The DEC has not yet announced how it plans to assess and evaluate the AMR reservation program. I hope that they contract for an independent outside scientific assessment that surveys users and analyzes the data freely.
The DEC is struggling to organize a new comprehensive, coordinated management program for the High Peaks Wilderness Area that is based on science, public education, sustainable trails and good facilities, stronger financial support and more dedicated staffing. The AMR reservation system is an experiment and DEC should be given the space to experiment with different public policy and management options for the High Peaks. There’s a lot to learn from this type of experimental program, which is something new for the Adirondacks. For its part, AMR is making a big effort with more staffing and building and administering a new reservation system.
As I was forming a narrative in my head with thoughts about this trip during the month of May, when the new reservation program kicked off, and before I was able to get there and experience it for myself, I focused on the gripes I had read that the purposes of the program made no sense or complaints from my friends who told me that the program was unworkable for them or that they were planning to boycott the area out of principle. As I planned for this trip, I anticipated finding a poorly designed, cumbersome, intrusive, and inefficient program that restricted public use.
What I found by actually using the reservation program is a system that’s easy to use, safeguards public use, especially for those from far away who visit and want to make sure they have an opportunity to hike the AMR trails, and is a program that has shown flexibility to make the public user experience as easy as possible. I imagine that the program will see greater numbers of hikers in the months ahead as more and more folks see how easy it is to use and are repeat customers. My hike on May 25, 2021 to the summit of Gothics Mountain, using the new reservation system for the AMR parking lot, despite the terrible conditions of a hammered and degraded hiking trail, was as wonderful as every other trip I’ve ever been fortunate enough to make to the top of a High Peak.