Published in Northern Exploring
March 15, 2019
By Joshua Miner
The days begin to stretch longer as the ground slowly thaws, and hibernating hikers become restless with memories of last year’s beautiful adventures. Throughout the unforgiving North Country winter, thoughts of warmer days keep us going until eventually our daydreams can become reality. With all the beauty of spring in the air, however, comes the melting mess of mud on many of the Adirondack’s favorite hiking trails. While you may be eager to reach your favorite summit, local rangers and hiking guides are urging hikers to steer clear of certain trails until mud season has passed.
Every year, anxious locals and inquiring tourists look to the Adirondacks as a place where they can finally scratch their itch for hiking. Seth Jones, education director for the Adirondack Mountain Club for the past 10 years, says the warm weather can often fool people during this time. Those from lower elevations may come to hike the High Peaks unaware that there is plenty of snow and ice on these trails still in the process of melting.
To be prepared, the most important thing for hikers, he says, is to check the DEC website for voluntary trail closures and current trail conditions. While hikers will not be stopped if they choose to disregard these closures, their activity can be both dangerous for themselves and permanently damaging for the trails.
During the spring season in the Adirondacks, many of the most popular trails such as the High Peaks tend to have plenty of standing water, Jones said. While there are multiple factors that contribute, a good rule of thumb for hikers is anything over 2,500 ft in elevation is most likely not ready for hikers without doing damage to the trail and surrounding vegetation.
“Really the takeaway is to stay below 2,500 feet,” Jones explains. “Above 2,500 feet, there is sensitive high elevation vegetation, the trails are usually frozen and some of the top layer is thawing. A lot of soil erosion can happen.”
Damage to the high elevation vegetation occurs when hikers go off-trail in order to avoid mud puddles and standing water they encounter on the trail. While hikers may not think much of it, destruction of this vegetation begins when a single person elects to go around a bad spot on the trail, rather than through it. These plants may then take years to fully recover from the damage.
Jones said the best thing a hiker can do when encountering a mud puddle, is to simply walk straight through it and stay on the trail.
While hikers may think that no real damage occurs from them going momentarily off-trail, the cumulative effect of hundreds or thousands of people with this mindset is the destruction of extremely sensitive alpine vegetation.
“These plants are well adapted to the harsh conditions in that area. They’re well adapted to the ice and the high winds and acidic soils, but they’re not well adapted to people stepping on them. So hiking during this time of year, a lot of the soil can be damaged,” Jones explains with concern. “There can be a higher rate of erosion up in the higher elevation. Once the soil is gone, it takes a long time for those soils to reestablish. Then you start losing those plant populations because of that.”
One of the reasons for people going off-trail is to navigate around not just puddles, but also patches of ice they aren’t properly equipped to hike on. While proper hiking boots are essential anytime you hit the trail, spring trails often require hikers to utilize micro spikes as well. The spikes allow hikers to gain the necessary traction to stay on the trail when faced with patches of ice.
“That time of year there could still be ice in the higher elevations. So people that don’t have the proper gear, like micro-spikes, they’re going to trample on the vegetation to get that traction to go up the mountain,” Jones says of the methods of hikers who disregard established trails. “If the middle of the trail is too icy to walk on, they start walking on these rare, fragile plants.”
While the closings are voluntary, Jones believes that over the years, hikers have become increasingly aware of the damage done to their favorite spots. Through education programs like Summit Stewardships, most trails are in better condition than they were decades ago. Forest Ranger Jim Giglinto, Forester Tate Connor and Ray Brook Public Participation Specialist Dave Winchell of the Department of Environmental Conservation explain that while social media such as Instagram has caused a marked increase in traffic for certain summits, that massive influx of foot traffic has not resulted in a dramatic increase in damage. On the contrary, they say, the trails are in much better condition than they were decades ago. And the reason for that is simple, they say: Education.
“A large group of educated users have significantly less impact than a small group of uneducated users that are just going on a hike with no idea what they’re getting themselves into, and what they can do to protect the resources,” Winchell explains. “A great example of that is the summits. While we are seeing record usage levels of people going up on the summits, the summits themselves are not as impacted as they were back in the 70s when there was less use. And that’s a direct result of the education through our Summit Steward program, our forest rangers and others.”
The Summit Steward program is a partnership between the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Nature Conservancy and DEC. The goal of these organizations is to educate visitors on the importance of alpine vegetation and why they should protect it. Through educating hikers on the importance of plant life at these altitudes, people want to know what they can do to help. This increased awareness, Winchell explains, is obvious when comparing the summits today to the often run-down conditions they were in during the 1970s.
“The alpine vegetation up there continues to re-inhabit areas that it hadn’t previously,” Winchell proudly explains. “And it’s not being pushed back like it was previously. There [are] efforts to rehabilitate those habitats as well. But the great majority of it is [this message], and it’s a very simple one: walk on the rocks, not on the plants. And people follow that. Because of that the alpine vegetation has been able to recover.”
Rather than take those chances, Winchell hopes hikers steer clear of these higher elevations, and use the opportunity to explore parts of the park they may not normally visit during the warmer months of the year.
“We have thousands of miles of trails and this a great time of the year to explore those other trails and come back to the High Peaks during the summer or the winter,” encourages Winchell.
One of the advantages of hiking in the spring, however, is being privy to views unobstructed by leaves and vegetation. In addition, only during the spring can you watch flowers wake from their slumber, budding and adding splashes of living color to a landscape which had been monochrome and blank for months. Surrounding yourself in an environment which is coming back to life can be an extremely invigorating experience for hikers, making for a unique and memorable time.
The DEC typically directs spring hikers to trails on the outskirts of the Adirondack Park and into the Champlain Valley, and their online resources are updated constantly to provide hikers with the most up-to-date information possible. Hikers are encouraged to check the list of voluntary trail closures before they embark on any hike during the spring season. Hammond Pond Wild Forest, the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness Area near Schroon Lake and Split Rock Mountain Wild Forest near Westport are three of the less commonly visited hiking areas which the DEC encourages spring hikers to visit, as those locations are naturally suited to handle an influx of visitors during this muddy time of the year.
Some of the worst trails during these months are also some of the Adirondack’s most popular destinations. The DEC strongly discourages hikers from visiting the core of the High Peaks, including Mounts Marcy, Algonquin and Giant. These trails have shallow soil and typically still have frost this time of year, making them the most fragile.
Forester Connor explains that oftentimes hikers that are unfamiliar with the area begin a trail with no problems, completely unaware that once they reach a certain elevation, conditions become quite different. Not only does this lead to the widening of trails as people maneuver around the ice looking for traction, but those who are not prepared to deal with the conditions can injure themselves in a number of ways. Hypothermia is a real concern, especially for those who travel from south of the park. While they may have been wearing shorts, enjoying weeks of warm weather in their hometowns, the weather in the high elevations is still very much like winter. Leg injuries are also common in those who neglect to equip themselves with proper foot gear. Hikers should always be properly prepared to deal with an injury while waiting for help to arrive, and cannot expect their smartphones will have service in these areas. By contacting the DEC before they go on a hike, rangers can be aware of their general location in the event of an emergency.
“We get a few incidences every spring where our forest rangers need to go in and get somebody that’s hiked into the snow,” Winchell cautions. “One of the baffling things to us is that they continue [hiking] into a deeper and deeper snow until they get exhausted and could be suffering from hypothermia, and then need assistance to get out.”
By checking with land management agencies like the DEC, visitors can know what type of weather can be expected on any given day, as well as the current condition of the trail. One of the more frustrating scenarios for rangers occurs when people have no idea what the condition of the trails are or what the weather is going to be when they decide to head into the wilderness. By utilizing these internet resources, hikers can eliminate much of the difficulty encountered by spring visitors in the Adirondacks. And regardless of what you may anticipate, it is crucial for hikers to prepare for the unexpected.
“A day hike [might not] necessarily turn out to be a day,” Forest Ranger Giglinto cautions. “A lot of people make those assumptions, thinking ‘Oh, I’m going to be back in six to eight hours.’ They need to be prepared that if they had to spend the night, they could survive. Not that comfortable, but they’ll survive the night.”
Proper boots and traction devices such as spikes can go a long way for spring hikers, but there are other items visitors can bring to prepare themselves. This includes non-cotton insulating layers, rain gear, extra socks, hat, gloves, food, flashlight, extra batteries, map, GPS and compass. Knowing how to use a map and compass can be the difference between life and death, and the DEC advises that hikers should assume that their smartphone will not be usable for directions, flashlight or for emergency calling.
“One of the big trends we see is an over reliance of people using their smartphones for some of these things, like a flashlight. Don’t rely on your smartphone to be a flashlight or a navigation device,” Connor warns.
A lot of work goes into trail maintenance during the spring, he explains, and this is essential for allowing these spots to dry for the influx of visitors in the coming months.
“The biggest thing with trails across the board is drainage,” Connor explains. “If there’s existing water bars or drainage devices on a trail, those need to be opened up and cleaned out in the spring and again in the fall.”
Blow-down is another concern for trail maintenance. Trees and limbs that have fallen on the trail must be removed to prevent people from going off trail and damaging the surrounding vegetation. Trail hardening also takes place in spots that are particularly worn down. These areas are filled with gravel and small stones to help raise the trail tread above the micro water table, so it can withstand compaction and use by hikers. Without trail hardening, these spots are unable to shed water properly, resulting in buildup and more puddles in the spring.
The damage hikers can do to a trail on a simple hike during the spring is exponential in comparison to the same hike during the summer months, DEC warns. Still, those whose life work revolves around these trails are encouraged by the increased care visitors have shown throughout the years, despite the influx of visitors to the area.
“One of the benefits to having a lot of people come here, is we’re exposing a lot of people to the natural world and the benefits of wildlife recreation, eventually encouraging those people to plan and prepare ahead” Connor explains. “Hopefully, as people fall in love with it, they can get tuned into the proper ways to learn and become less of a threat to themselves [and] the natural resource.”
While there is plenty for springtime hikers to keep in mind regarding their impact during mud season, Jones reminds the public that expeditions during this time can be unique and rewarding. The goal is not to discourage, but to educate.
“There are beautiful wildflowers, usually you have this really beautiful neon green with all of the leaves starting to emerge,” Jones recalls, painting a mental picture of these springtime trails. “It can be a really special time to recreate outside. But we want folks to do it responsibly, try to go into some of the areas that have those drier soils that DEC is recommending, so we’re not doing damage to the higher elevation trails.”
To check up-to-date trail conditions and weather, be sure to visit http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/7865.html before heading out on the trails.