Here’s why your favorite Adirondack hikes might be getting steeper

KEENE, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Prospect, Cat and Thomas mountains. If you’ve hiked any of them, you may have noticed a steeper climb than you used to.

Don’t worry; it’s not just you. According to a recent study by the Adirondack Council, overuse has left many trails in need of rerouting. A variety of popular trails seeing the same problem up in the Adirondack High Peaks.

“We must revive and restore these trails and summits to better protect the natural wonders we all revere,” said Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway. “(Author Charlotte Staats)’s report speaks for itself.”

The study, which focuses on St. Regis and Ampersand Mountain foot trails in the park, says that many of these trails were built without sustainable use in mind, citing a popularity boom in the 1970s.

“No one could have foreseen the level of use that these foot trails would come to experience, especially on mountains that have well exceeded their usage carrying capacity, such as the popular Cascade Mountain trail,” Staats writes. “Many trails were originally blazed to get to mountain summits as quickly as possible.”

It’s a short fall from there to the current state of things. Water is getting trapped in soil along trails, causing that ground to erode over time, leading a harder climb today than a few years ago. 

Now, the Adirondack Council is looking to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to do some work on issues like tread erosion, exposed tree roots and a host of impacts on the waterways these trails often follow.

On Wednesday, the DEC explained some of the ways in which they are answering that call.

A current project is moving forward on Mount Van Hoevenberg, near Lake Placid. There, just as the Adirondack Council report suggests, erosion near waterways is the thing crew members are working to avoid.

The erosion issue breaks down like this: Fragile soil along trails that follow water bodies can become gullied, meaning that water collects in the area where hikers tread and doesn’t run back into whatever stream or river the path follows.

When that happens, that water sinks into the fragile soil, creating a perpetual erosion cycle that damages and steepens trails over years and decades of use.

At Mount Van Hoevenberg, DEC staff built a trail that switchbacks up the slope, instead of running straight up. That creates more avenues for water to run off and not sink into trail soil.

According to the Adirondack Council, stewardship like that could be what’s needed along trails like St. Regis and Ampersand, which council staff examined in 2020 to find more data.

What they found was erosion. Steepening of trails tends to happen on slopes, with science suggesting that the grade of a trail slope should not exceed a 10% rise.

For contrast, the maximum grade allowed for a federally funded highway is 6%, with exceptions up to 7% for mountainous areas.

On both mountains, the council found no significant erosion at an 8%, but began to quickly from there.

8% is a grade that 167 miles of trail in the High Peaks exceed, according to a 2019 analysis by the Adirondack Council.

Image: Adirondack Council

Solutions like the switchback trail on Mount Van Hoovenberg are a good start. That trail also features areas where the grade has been reversed or spaced out with more planning, as well as a base layer of crushed stone under compact soil to help drainage.

But, that’s just one trail out of many. In the conclusion of her report, Staats calls for more funding, pointing to a newly proposed $3 million “Restore Mother Nature” bond act that could be a key to diverting trails away from waterways, or creating stone-based solutions to encourage water runoff.

“For the benefit of our public lands and the people that enjoy them, the state needs to take action to repair and rebuild our aging trail infrastructure,” Staats writes. “If the Adirondacks are to be preserved for public enjoyment and future generations, the state must dedicate resources to rebuilding and maintaining the trails in the Adirondacks as part of the preservation and management of this wilderness resource.”

The DEC has created the High Peaks Advisory Group, which gives input on how to tackle trail damage issues as traffic – and erosion – show no signs of stopping. They’re also calling for public help, through the “Love Our NY Lands” educational program, which seeks to teach hikers what to look out for, to act as stewards themselves.

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