- Roger Hannigan Gilson
- The western Catskills from Blackhead Mountain in Greene County.
Last summer, as the threat of COVID-19 came into focus and New Yorkers were advised against gathering indoors, an unprecedented number of hikers took to the trails of the Hudson Valley and Catskills. In addition to the seasoned outdoor adventurers, there were many first-timers from points south, and some trails strained under the impact. Mount Beacon was closed in the late spring due to the impossibility of social distancing amongst the crowds, and the roads around Kaaterskill Falls in Greene County were lined with illegally parked cars.
Scenic Hudson, a nonprofit conservation group, saw some of the highest use ever at its 45 parks up and down the Hudson Valley, according to Director of Parks and Community Engagement Rita Shaheen—an influx the organization is embracing. “We’re delighted that people have learned that parks are essential, and that they are a big part of how we cope and recover from this crisis,” she says. Scenic Hudson has seen many first-time hikers from New York City, Shaheen continues, which has “made it clearer than ever that access to the outdoors is a right for everyone.”
A Delicate Balance
But the influx has led to some changes to trail systems in the region as state and private partners look to balance the needs of hikers with the ability of nature and local infrastructure to absorb them.
The biggest change is still forthcoming. In October 2020, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the state agency whose purview includes most public land in the Adirondacks and Catskills, appointed a Catskill Strategic Planning Advisory Group (CAG) to advise the agency on sustainable use of the Catskills. The group, consisting of stakeholders in the region and representatives of state agencies, is expected to release its interim report later this year. In the meantime, the DEC is working with the Catskills towns of Hunter and Jewett on how to address concerns over parking, pedestrians on roadways, sanitation, and refuse. DEC Forest Rangers are also increasing patrols in popular hiking areas to educate visitors about sustainable use and the Leave No Trace principles.
- Roger Hannigan Gilson
- The Hudson River looking south from Breakneck Ridge in Cold Spring.
There are also some specific changes hikers should be aware of when setting off on their latest expedition.
• Reservations are now required for parking on Route 73 in Keene, the gateway to the High Peaks Region of the Adirondacks. Reservations can be made online through the Adirondacks Mountain Reserve, which maintains this area in a partnership with the DEC.
• Graham and Doubletop Mountains in the Catskills are now permanently closed to the public. The two summits are on private land and were accessible with a politely worded phone call to the owners until the end of last year, but trespassing and overuse have led the owners to shut access down. The mountains were two of the 35 Catskills peaks over 3,500 feet, and those who mounted all 35 gained membership into the Catskills 3500 Club. The club is working on replacing the two mountains on their list.
• A slew of casual hiking and biking options are now available following the completion of the Empire State Trail, which begins in New York City before splitting north of Albany, with one branch terminating in Buffalo and the other at the Canadian border. The path hooks up rail trails with roadways, and includes the Albany-Hudson Electric Trail, which runs from the City of Hudson to Rensselaer. In Kingston, the trail runs through former brickyards and cement plants along the Hudson River in an area once slated for development.
As always, hikers are reminded to follow the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace Behind: plan ahead and prepare; travel and camp on durable surfaces; dispose of waste properly; leave what you find; minimize campfire impacts; respect wildlife; and be considerate of other hikers.
Hikers should also wear bug repellent and check for ticks at the end of every hike. Most importantly, have fun and practice respect—because in nature, we’re all visitors.