The outdoors is getting crowded. Do we need to ration recreation?
The waterfall at Indian Brook has never been a secret.
Washington Irving showed the cascade off to friends back in 1834. William Rickarby Miller of the Hudson River School of painting, America’s first art movement, painted the falls in 1850. That painting, “Indian Falls, Indian Brook, Cold Springs, New York,” is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By the early 20th century, the falls were appearing on postcards.
But with the rise of social media and location tagging in the 2010s, Indian Brook Falls was in front of a global audience, one that could quickly find its exact location after seeing the picturesque falls wash up on their screens.
The falls aren’t unique in this regard. The one-two punch of social media followed by the pandemic, in which being outdoors was one of the few safe activities available, has led to record numbers at Breakneck Ridge and Mount Taurus, as well, not to mention outdoor recreation and wilderness areas throughout the world.
Although close to Philipstown and Beacon, Breakneck Ridge and Mount Taurus are not right in the middle of a historic residential district the way Indian Brook Falls is. The lines of cars along Route 9D at Breakneck aren’t blocking anyone’s driveway. The lot at Mount Taurus has room for more than eight cars, unlike the tiny parking area near Indian Brook Falls that is actually the lot for the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center & Sanctuary. Indian Brook flows through the marsh on its way to the Hudson.
People thronged to Indian Brook Falls in hopes of spending time in a quiet, calm oasis only to discover a site that was no longer quiet or calm. Indian Brook Road was lined with cars on weekends, many parked illegally or idling while waiting for a spot to free up. Litter piled up. Visitors went swimming which, as signs along the trail note, is not allowed.
Why This Series
Over the past two years, many state and national parks have set visitation records. In one sense, this is good news. The emotional, physical, mental and spiritual benefits of spending time outside have been exhaustively documented. But many parks found out the hard way that they were not ready to handle the crowds and are asking themselves some difficult questions such as:
How to best balance preservation with access? Can we make sure, in providing access, that we don’t destroy what makes the site special? Is there such a thing as a mutually beneficial relationship between hikers and the outdoors? How much “wild” do people want in their wilderness experiences? Are humans separate from the natural experience, or an integral part of it?
In Part 2, we look at how and why trails in the Highlands were created — and what might have been instead — as well as what happens when unmanaged wilderness suddenly needs to be managed.
In Part 3, we look at how recent changes at Breakneck Ridge have led to fewer visitors and rescues, and what the Fjord Trail could mean for the future of the Highlands.
In Part 4, we look at efforts to get more Black, Hispanic, as well as the disabled and elderly, into the woods and on the trails.
Feeling besieged, neighbors lodged complaints with the Town of Philipstown, which in turn urged the state Department of Parks to shut down the trail leading to the falls. When the state declined, the town threatened to sue. It was an extraordinary step: The public demanding the state shut down public lands.
Then, things got uglier.
On Aug. 21, 2020, a bus from The Felix Organization, a Long Island-based nonprofit that works with children in the foster-care system, dropped off six teenage girls and four adult staff members for a visit to Constitution Marsh. The 10 people who got off the bus were all Black.
A subsequent report from the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department did not identify who called the police. A representative from The Felix Organization said the deputy who arrived on the scene didn’t see what the issue was and allowed them to continue with their hike. But before that, the group claims that they were subjected to racial, sexual and xenophobic epithets from a few residents — including the N-word — and that they were told to “go back where you came from.” One of the teens, writing about the incident later, said, “We were told to leave, that ‘we’ did not belong there.”
Philipstown responded by blocking off the lot, as well as another informal parking area where Indian Brook Road meets Route 9.
It was not lost on some that the closing of the lot resulted in the falls and the marsh becoming essentially private amenities for residents of the high-priced homes on Indian Brook Road — including whomever accosted the teenagers — because both were now accessible only by foot and there is no other parking anywhere nearby. Accusations of classism and racism followed.
The collateral damage in all of this was Constitution Marsh, which lost its only parking lot. Entrance to the marsh is free, but it can now only be reached if one is willing to pay $14 a head ($7 each for children) to park at Boscobel House & Gardens and hike three-quarters of a mile from there.
“That’s $21 right there for a mom and her 6-year-old who’s driving her nuts,” said Sean Camillieri, the president of the Putnam Highlands Audubon Society, who is spearheading an effort to get the lot reopened. He pointed out that Boscobel encourages visitors to reserve, and pay for, a parking spot online but only offers one-hour slots. One PHAS member told Camillieri that she tried visiting the marsh that way, but found that one hour wasn’t long enough for her to hike to the marsh and back. “How many other people has that happened to?” Camilleri wondered.
Loved to death
Last year, 44 national parks set visitation records. In one sense, this is good news. The emotional, physical, mental and spiritual benefits of spending time outside have been exhaustively documented. Hiking is still relatively cheap even when you factor in transportation and gear. And as the pace of climate change accelerates, more advocates are needed in order to protect threatened areas and species.
The hope is that many of the new pandemic hikers will become stewards of the places they visit.
“It’s a good thing that people are discovering nature,” said Hank Osborn, a Philipstown native who is director of programs for the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. “But now that they’ve discovered it, I don’t think they’re going to say, ‘Oh, the pandemic is over now, I can stay inside for the rest of my life.’ They’re going to keep hiking.”
Out of Pocket
The travails at Indian Brook Road in Garrison may sound familiar to many residents of Beacon.
Last year, the city closed a small, informal parking area near the Pocket Road trail on Mount Beacon because too many visitors tried to wedge in their cars, often blocking driveways. Chris White, the city administrator, said that within the next two years, Beacon will replace a water tank at the trailhead, freeing up space.
“I hope to be able to create a small public parking area below the new tank that can provide at least a small number of spots for hikers,” he said. “As that project goes through engineering design, we’ll evaluate my conceptual proposal more fully, but I will make every effort to carve out a small parking area.”
“We’ve always said that we want people to get away from their phones and their computers and their TVs and get out in the woods,” added Evan Thompson, the manager for the Hudson Highlands and Fahnestock state parks. “So it’s great for people to have that experience of being out in the woods and enjoying themselves. But we also found during COVID that we weren’t prepared to handle that number of people.”
As a result, many communities, nonprofits and government agencies are having to turn to outdoor recreation management practices more than ever before. Muir Woods National Monument in California requires either a parking reservation or a reservation on a shuttle bus. Acadia National Park in Maine has started requiring summer reservations for Cadillac Summit Road, where many people park. The Blue Hole swimming hole in the Catskills requires reservations and trail stewards are on-hand to redirect those who arrive without.
The trail stewards program has spread to the Highlands, particularly at Breakneck Ridge, where they make sure visitors are prepared for the challenging climb and, if not, encourage alternative hikes.
The swell in popularity at Breakneck was the driving force in a redesign of the Fjord Trail project, slated to begin construction this fall. Envisioned as a simple path connecting Beacon and Cold Spring, the project now includes off-street parking at Breakneck Ridge and other amenities to spread people out in the Highlands rather than have them clump in one or two locations.
“It’s about visitor management and a sense of equitable access to space,” explained Amy Kacala, executive director of the Fjord Trail. “This is not just about hikers anymore. It’s about managing those hikers, but also hopefully providing more benefits to locals who have to deal with the inconveniences of the tourist traffic.”
Preservation, Osborn points out, is not just about preserving nature.
“A trail can be built to accommodate high use,” he said. “Parking can be designed to accommodate vehicles more safely. But do local communities have the ability to absorb large numbers of visitors every time there’s good weather on a weekend?”
Recreation management raises some difficult questions. How to best balance preservation with access? Can we make sure, in providing access, that we don’t destroy what makes the site special? Is there such a thing as a mutually beneficial relationship between hikers and the outdoors? How much “wild” do people want in their wilderness experiences? Are humans separate from the natural experience, or an integral part of it?
There are no universal solutions. But it’s too late to do nothing.
“One of the things that I’ve learned is that you can’t open a trail and then say, ‘OK, we’ve done our job,’ and walk away,” said Scott Silver, the recently retired head of Constitution Marsh. “It’s unfair to the neighbors, and it’s unfair to the wildlife.”
Nature gets the last word
After two years, the debate about whether to close Indian Brook Falls has been settled. It wasn’t shut down by the town, the state or the residents of Indian Brook Road, but by nature. This past winter, heavy rains washed away the trail.
“It’s gone,” said Thompson. “And it’s not so simple to just build a new trail.”
The steep slopes leading down to the brook — now even steeper — mean that a trail would have to be more than a dirt path. It would probably involve an elevated boardwalk, perhaps leading to a platform that would not only provide space to view the falls but make it harder for visitors to go for an unauthorized swim.
Such a trail would involve a major capital investment “and it might not even be permitted, because it’s so close to the stream,” Thompson said.
In July, the state erected a barricade at the entrance to the trail from the road with signs noting the area is closed for “wildlife/habitat recovery.” Thompson said that the state parks department considers the closure to be indefinite.
There is hope that, with the trail closed, the nearby parking lot can be reopened for visitors to Constitution Marsh. “I always felt that that part of our role is to try to build a constituency for wildlife in general,” said Silver. “And the best way to do that is to have people experience it, especially Constitution Marsh.”
In the meantime, its interim executive director, Rebecca Schultz, said Audubon has been promoting three of its other sanctuaries: Buttercup Farm south of Pine Plains, RamsHorn-Livingston in Catskill and Rheinstrom Hill in Hillsdale.
“Those are less visited, but just as beautiful,” she said. “We’ve been trying to get people to appreciate the less-navigated trails.”
In an email, Philipstown Supervisor John Van Tassel said discussions are planned about the lot. “My priority is the quality of life for the residents of that area,” he said.
One obstacle may be the New York state affiliate of the Audubon Society. In a recent meeting by Zoom with members of the Putnam Highlands Audubon Society, the state representatives advocated the continued closure of the lot, suggesting those wishing to visit take an Uber or the Cold Spring Trolley.
Camillieri noted that the Cold Spring Trolley only runs on weekends, and only for a few months of the year, and Uber is often unreliable in rural Putnam. “I can’t imagine anyone local trying to get an Uber in order to go for a walk in the woods,” he said.
PHAS responded to the Zoom meeting with a letter, signed by representatives from a dozen other local Audubon chapters and Hudson Valley birding groups, urging the state affiliate to reconsider its stance.
“This small parking area has unfortunately become a lightning rod of controversy and great disappointment over the past two years, but for decades prior it enabled tens of thousands of families, nature-loving people and bird watchers from the local community and beyond to enjoy all the marsh has to offer,” the letter said.
Camillieri suggested a few things that can be done to allow the lot to reopen, such as well-defined spaces, signs that suggest alternatives if the lot is full and security cameras.
A camera system may be needed sooner rather than later. A quick search on Instagram after the trail was closed revealed many photos of people visiting the falls and swimming there. One account belongs to a fitness influencer with thousands of followers. “Soulful Sundays” reads the caption, followed by a tree emoji.
Next: When is a trail not a trail?
This report was funded by readers who contribute to our Special Projects Fund.