Press Releases

Adirondack Park Trails Too Steep, Can’t Withstand Current Use

Rerouting, Rebuilding Needed as Part of Long-Term Management Plans 

Monday, Sept. 27, 2021 

KEENE, N.Y. -- Most of the popular hiking trails leading into the High Peaks Wilderness Area are too steep to be sustainable and require rerouting now that they have become so heavily used, a new study by the Adirondack Council reveals. 

“New York must make new investments in managing the Adirondack Park like the world-class natural treasure it has become,” said Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway. “Overuse and overcrowding have harmed the Park’s most popular locations. We must revive and restore these trails and summits to better protect the natural wonders we all revere.  Charlotte’s report speaks for itself.” 

This need was echoed in the Council’s recently published 2021-22 State of the Park report, which sounded a hopeful tone by crediting state officials for plans to better address trail construction and maintenance, while still awaiting the results. 

The new report details some of the major issues. 

“Adirondack trails are suffering from trail degradation that impacts natural resources, human safety and the wilderness experience,” says the report by Conservation Associate Charlotte Staats. “There’s a solution, and it requires state action and dedicated resources.” 

The physical and mental health benefits of spending time outdoors have been well documented; and generally speaking, a growing hiking community is a plus for public health, local businesses, and our collective societal wellbeing, she explained.  

“Here’s the drawback – trails in the Adirondacks were not built with a sustainable design in mind, nor to withstand current levels of use,” the report notes. “The vast majority of Adirondack trails were built long before sustainable trail design was a concept. 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. Many trails were originally blazed to get to mountain summits as quickly as possible.” 

As a result, hiking trails in the Adirondacks often follow the fall-line (go straight up a slope) and natural stream beds or drainages. Trail blazers in the Adirondacks, with few exceptions, did not take into account the fragility of certain soils, or the impacts of water or foot traffic. In the early years, the use levels were low enough that the damage to the resource was minimal. Then in the 1970s and since, the use exploded and negative impacts multiplied, the report explains. 

“Today, the tread (the walking surface) of many trails exhibits a variety of symptoms associated with poor trail design and use exceeding capacity (overuse),” she reported  “This degradation and tread erosion is marked by gullying, washouts, and exposure of roots and rocks that create uneven walking surfaces or tripping hazards. Gullied trails make it impossible for water to shed from the tread, creating self-perpetuating erosion. For example, after a rainstorm or when snow is melting, you can often find water running down the length of a trail, carrying soil along with it.” 

Not only does this erode trails by creating gullies or washouts, but it can cause sedimentation in water sources and degrade water quality. Other impacts related to poor trail design and lack of maintenance include vegetation loss, soil compaction, muddiness, exposure of tree roots, trail widening, and the creation of undesignated trails (side trails created by recreationists, often to avoid part of an existing trail), she says.  

The drastic increase in the use of hiking trails has exacerbated these issues. Not only are these impacts from trail erosion and degradation noticeable, they detract from the wilderness experience and negatively impact natural resources and human safety, her report notes.  

In fall 2020, Adirondack Council staff examined segments of the St. Regis and Ampersand Mountain foot trails for signs of erosion. They found that trails with a slope less than 8% built on suitable soils show little to no signs of erosion with moderate use levels. Scientific literature and trail experts generally believe that an average trail slope should not exceed 10% (and meet other criteria) but the data collected suggests that even on short trail sections in the Adirondacks erosion can start at 8%. More research and work is needed to determine what standard is appropriate where in the Adirondacks.  

For scale, the maximum allowed grade for a federally funded highway is generally 6%, with some exceptions for mountainous terrain going as steep as 7%. Staircases in buildings are typically built at a 30% slope.  

St. Regis and Ampersand Mountain are only two of many mountains whose trails exceed the 10% slope standard. As this limited assessment suggests, with proper construction and maintenance, a trail at 10% or higher, for sections, can be sustainable.   

In a GIS analysis from 2019, it was found that 167 miles of trail in the High Peaks Wilderness exceed a slope of 8%. In 2018, a preliminary assessment conducted by the Adirondack Council based on input from multiple in-Park trails professionals found that 130 miles of trails in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks suffer major resource damage from poor trail design, lack of maintenance, and overuse. All trails needed more and continuous maintenance, she said. 

The report contains graphics and other illustrations explaining the need to reduce the slope of heavily used trails and make them more resilient. 

Established in 1975, the Adirondack Council is a privately funded not-for-profit organization whose mission is to ensure the ecological integrity and wild character of the Adirondack Park. It is the largest environmental organization whose sole focus is the Adirondacks.  

The Council carries out its mission through research, education, advocacy, and legal action. It envisions a Park with clean water and clean air, core wilderness areas, farms and working forests, and vibrant, diverse, welcoming, safe communities. Adirondack Council advocates live in all 50 United States. 

For more information: John Sheehan, Director of Communications, 518-441-1340 

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