This report outlines data collection and analysis of visitor use numbers with the intent to inform management actions. The study was conducted by Otak, a research, planning, and design firm with extensive Visitor Use Management (VUM) experience. This study pre-dates and is separate from the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) contract with Otak that is carrying out the state’s first VUM process.
This early study is intended to be complementary to the current DEC/Otak partnership and provides a deeper understanding of current conditions and a more robust suite of data for managers to utilize. The Council’s report documents that high levels of foot trail traffic in parts of the High Peaks diminished the sense of solitude typically found in other more remote wilderness areas. The report also tracked when parking lots in the area overflowed during times of high foot traffic and found that people start arriving in popular areas at 4 a.m. or earlier.
“We want to thank Commissioner Basil Seggos and the DEC for selecting the right consultants to undertake this important work. We believe Otak is the best firm to help the DEC develop its Visitor Use Management Framework for the High Peaks,” said Raul J. Aguirre, Executive Director of the Adirondack Council. “It is a national firm with a solid reputation and staff with a great deal of relevant experience in the outdoor recreation sector and the Adirondacks in particular. This expertise was evidenced at the initial VUM public meeting held in Saranac Lake in May.”
Adirondack Park advocates have been urging state officials to take action to assess and reduce overuse in sensitive areas across the High Peaks and other high use areas of the Forest Preserve. The most-loved regions of the Adirondack Park’s public lands are showing signs of stress and damage due to the numbers of visitors attracted to them. Their popularity rarely gives them a break from throngs of visitors during the growing season.
Otak’s projects have included: transportation and visitor capacities studies in Acadia National Park, work to support visitor use management in Mount Rainier National Park, and a visitor survey on the Angels Landing Trail in Zion National Park.
For the earlier visitor use study, Otak gathered several types of data points, including the number of cars parked by the Adirondak Loj, the number of people moving along trails corridors to/from Algonquin and Marcy summits, the number of people that were on those summits, and how frequently groups of visitors encountered other groups.
Among Otak’s findings from 2021 regarding those High Peaks trails were:
Based on the average inter-group encounter, visitors could encounter as many as 32 other groups in a four-hour span on the Algonquin trail corridor, and as many as 40 for the Van Hoevenberg trail corridor.In terms of solitude, group encounters averaged occurrences every 7 mins on the Algonquin trail while the Van Hoevenberg trail was every 6 mins (average group size was 2 people).
Average of about ~260 visitors arrived per day at the Adirondak Loj (with Saturdays often seeing more than 600 people); visitor levels above 300 generally meant a full parking lot at the Loj. At the Loj, hourly arrivals started around 4:00am and peaked between 6 am and 8 am.
Visitor Use Management was born out of a framework developed by six federal agencies to respond to increasing resource management challenges on federal lands across the nation. VUM uses science and data-driven information to inform adaptive management actions that protect natural resources and enhance the visitor experience.
This planning framework is intended to review current conditions, define desired conditions, develop and implement a monitoring strategy, and use data to inform appropriate management actions that fulfill the desired conditions through time. VUM is intended to be used on large areas and at-scale as opposed to focusing on localized, trail specific issues.
In 2021, the Adirondack Park Agency and DEC released a Visitor Use Management & Wildlands Monitoring (VUMWM) framework. While similar in nature to the federal framework, it is intended to focus on small-scale, management specific issues – such as a trail corridor or primitive tent-sites. Both frameworks are currently being employed in the Adirondacks. The VUM study Otak conducted for the Council used some VUMWM indicators to assess visitor use levels in the High Peaks Wilderness Complex.
Photo: A crowd of hikers on Cascade Mountain (photo by Dan Plumley).