The outdoors is getting crowded. Do we need to ration recreation?
First-time visitors to the 8,000-acre Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve might look around at the towering trees and rocky cliffs and marvel at the unspoiled wilderness, free from human interference. That’s before they run into a stone wall, or the ruins of a dairy farm.
The land that draws hikers and outdoor enthusiasts to the Highlands has long been worked by hands and industry. Before Europeans arrived, Lenape, Wappinger and other Indigenous tribes shaped the land through controlled burns. These fires helped thin out underbrush to make the woods more favorable for hunting, as well as for the growth of favored plants such as blueberry bushes and trees that provided edible nuts such as oak, chestnut and hickories.
Clearings were created to chase prey into. Trees were felled to create fields to plant. When the soil was depleted from farming, the fields would be abandoned to regrow for several decades into forests before being cleared again. When the Europeans arrived in the Highlands, so did foundries, mines, quarries, farms, livestock and a chemical factory near Anthony’s Nose.
But by the beginning of the 20th century, many of these industries had shut down, human populations fell and nature began to reclaim the Highlands. In 1907, William Thompson Howell noted that “the picturesque, quaint and all-together delightful village of Cold Spring had no industry of any importance, and is in fact the deadest town on the lower Hudson.” Hikers — both locals and restless inhabitants of New York City — began exploring the abandoned roads and trails.
The way we thought of “wilderness” was changing. After hundreds of years of colonizing, settling, chopping and clearing, Americans were looking at the changed landscape and romanticizing what was once there. Hudson River School artists spent a century producing idealized landscapes of lost Edens. With the Highlands rewilding, many people saw an opportunity to reclaim paradise.
Inspired by the conservation of the Palisades overlooking the western shore of the Hudson, and a successful campaign to stop a prison from being built at Bear Mountain, a proposal began circulating for a Hudson Highlands National Park.
To understand why the park and local trails are so popular, and sometimes overrun, it helps to look back at how and why they were created — and what might have been there instead.
The idea of a national park in the Highlands found little support in the nation’s capital, so activists turned their attention to creating a state park. In the 1930s, newly formed conservation groups bought land to preserve, most notably parts of Breakneck Ridge and Anthony’s Nose. But not much progress was made until a new threat arose that was bigger than a quarry or foundry.
Sixty years ago this month, in 1962, The Nature Conservancy began investigating how it could acquire private tracts stretching from Mount Beacon to Breakneck Ridge to Mount Taurus. It did not consider Storm King, across the river, as a candidate for preservation — the idea that anyone would touch such a majestic landmark was too outrageous.
Four days later, a headline on the front page of The New York Times proved them naive. “Huge Power Plant Planned on Hudson,” it read. Con Edison had announced its intention to construct a hydroelectric plant in a cavity carved into Storm King.
That began a nearly 20-year fight to save the mountain — a battle that helped form a canon of environmental law and established the concept that scenic beauty can be as important, legally, as industry.
What’s often forgotten about the Storm King saga is that there were two power plants in development: Central Hudson also wanted to build at Breakneck Ridge. In addition, Georgia Pacific wanted a wallboard factory at Little Stony Point, which it had just purchased. Locals believed that, if the plant was built at Storm King, it would set off a chain of dominoes.
The Storm King plant was seen by the state as a foregone conclusion; in a bid to appease the angry residents of the Highlands, it bought the land at Breakneck and Little Stony Point, and the Hudson Highlands State Park was born. The state, with the assistance of nonprofits such as Scenic Hudson and the Open Space Institute that purchase additional tracts and donate them, continue to expand the boundaries of the park, which has more than 70 miles of trails.
For a park that was created mainly to serve as a consolation prize, Hudson Highlands State Park has exceeded all expectations. Over the past 10 years, it has drawn more than 3 million visitors, with attendance increasing sharply around 2015. That was when Breakneck Ridge, aided by photos taken atop its lookout spots and posted to social media, became one the busiest trails in the country.
The park’s popularity vindicates the conservationists of the early 20th century who fought for the land to be preserved, although one of them — if he were alive — would probably not be happy about what it has become.
Howell, the man who delighted in Cold Spring being the deadest town on the lower Hudson, hoped that any park in the Highlands would contain no infrastructure: no parking lots, no places nearby to stay, no trails. “There is a wild charm and isolation about the Highlands that will fly forever when the ‘improvements’ begin to come in,” he wrote.
“Storm King is a mountain which should be left alone. It rises like a brown bear out of the river, a dome of living granite, swelling with animal power. It is not picturesque in the softer sense of the word, but awesome, a primitive embodiment of the energies of the earth. It makes the character of wild nature physically visible in monumental form … It can still make the city dweller emotionally aware of what he most needs to know: that nature still exists, with its own laws, rhythms and powers, separate from human desires.”
~ Vincent Scully, a professor of art history at Yale, testifying in 1967 against Con Ed’s plans for Storm King
The Hudson Highlands State Park has grown both in acreage and popularity, but the improvements have struggled to keep up, as the past few years of overcrowding has shown. Now the park is about to undertake its biggest change: the Fjord Trail along the eastern bank of the river that aims to ease overcrowding and congestion, keep hikers off busy roads and from overwhelming the streets of Cold Spring, and provide alternate trailheads and attractions instead of funneling every hiker who comes to the area to Breakneck.
The project has already received pushback from locals who fear that it will make the problem worse by drawing more people to the village and Breakneck, and would prefer to follow Howell’s maxim to leave “improvements” out of the Highlands before the park is improved to death.
Fifty miles north, another outdoor hotspot elevated by the sentimental Hudson River School is finding the only way to improve on nature is to take the extraordinary step of keeping every human out.
The Catskills 3500’ Club was created in 1962. Inspired by the Adirondacks’ 46er Club, membership is contingent upon summiting the peaks in the Catskills above 3,500 feet, an elevation at which the vegetation transitions to evergreens such as the balsam firs that serve as the home for the rare Bicknell’s Thrush. There were 35 such peaks; four had to then be climbed a second time in the winter.
Even in the early 1960s, there were concerns that the challenge might bring too many people to the mountains. So the fledgling club went over the prospective list with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and decided that about half of the peaks would remain “untrailed”: no marks, no blazes.
The idea was to leave these peaks alone so hikers could experience the “wild” and rely on their own navigational skills. The only sign of civilization would be canisters that the club attached to trees at the summits containing notebooks that hikers would sign to prove that they had arrived.
The only access to two untrailed peaks — Graham and Doubletop — was through private land, but the club arranged with the owners to allow hikers to call and ask for the OK to pass through.
Aside from the occasional misadventure or social faux pas, things went relatively smoothly for 58 years. Then came the pandemic, and people found themselves languishing, and in need of a project.
The trailed peaks of the Catskills saw the same crowds that so many outdoor spots did during early COVID: full trails and cars parked where they didn’t belong. But the untrailed peaks took a particular beating. When you’re not on the trail, every footfall crushes something. That wasn’t much of an issue with limited numbers and everyone taking a different route. But when inexperienced hikers show up and all follow the same path, the effects are quickly visible.
The onslaught was particularly devastating at Graham and Doubletop, which now have trails because hikers tied ribbons to trees to create blazes. This led the landowners to ask themselves: Can a mountain be “wild” if there are people on it? Is there value in having places in the Catskills that are free of humans?
After discussions with the DEC, the Catskill 3500’ Club and The Catskill Center, the landowners announced that their property was off limits. The 35 high peaks became 33. With crowdsourced trails now showing up elsewhere, the conversation has continued: Do the unmanaged Catskills need to be managed?
More than a list
Even before the pandemic, the number of hikers in the Catskills had been steadily increasing for years. “We felt it was important, before it went any further, to start thinking about solutions,” said Maria Bedo-Calhoun, a past president of the 3500’ Club.
The DEC is conducting field research to determine if the untrailed peaks need a visitor management plan. By examining the canister notebooks, noting where informal trails have sprung up, and examining public GPS data that hikers had posted using apps such as All Trails and Strava, the DEC was able to establish a baseline of activity. While the study isn’t complete, Pine Roehrs of the DEC, who is leading it, said it shows a significant increase in negative impacts on the peaks since an initial study was completed in 2019.
When planning trails, designers consider which routes will cause the least amount of erosion. They look at fragile, rare plants and nesting grounds for endangered species. They consider whether a rocky scramble is challenging but doable, or flat-out dangerous.
An inexperienced bushwhacker on a high peak is not going to take any of those things into consideration. Many simply make a beeline to the top, which tends to therefore be steep, leading to increased erosion as rainwater always finds the easiest route down. Roehrs said impacted areas are also seeing an increase in noxious, non-native species such as Japanese barberry and garlic mustard, which thrive in impacted soil, and the hemlock woolly adelgid, which may be hitching a ride on unsuspecting hikers.
Many rare and endangered mountain birds also build their nests on or close to the ground, making them vulnerable to hikers who aren’t using a trail. In a cruel irony, Bicknell’s Thrush, the bird that inspired the Catskill 3500’ Club, is having one of its few habitats threatened by hikers attempting to qualify for membership. Roehrs said that the DEC is planning a study in 2023 that will focus on the effect of encroachment on endangered and threatened bird species in the Catskills.
The DEC’s report-in-progress will likely have recommendations for each of the untrailed peaks. For some, it’s likely that no action will be taken. But on others, Bedo-Calhoun believes the agency will recommend a practice that is already being undertaken in the Adirondacks on its untrailed peaks: managed “herd” paths.
A herd path typically refers to an unplanned trail created by people and/or animals walking the same route. But if the DEC determines that, on peaks where multiple paths have formed, one path has less environmental impact, it may be designated as a “preferred informal trail” and hikers encouraged to use it. Meanwhile, the problematic informal trails can grow over.
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 1, we look at the problem of Indian Brook Falls in Garrison, and the collateral damage that occurs when a once-secluded spot becomes internet-famous.
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.
Bedo-Calhoun says a nuclear option — closing the Catskills 3500’ Club — would not be so simple. Members of other clubs pursue extreme challenges such as hiking all the high peaks in a month. Roehrs said two untrailed peaks that weren’t part of any club challenge until the last few years have seen the most damage.
Perhaps, Bedo-Calhoun suggested, hikers have lost sight of what made completing a list of high peaks special in the first place: It requires you to spend a lot of time in a beloved place that has mystified and enchanted people for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Over the course of 39 (now 37) hikes, you come to know a place a little bit better, and learn how the peaks change throughout the seasons. You learn how to snowshoe and use a map, and what to do when you see a bear. You learn how to get yourself out of trouble, a lesson you can’t learn unless you make mistakes that lead to trouble.
“You see such amazing transformations in people who have little experience hiking and gain confidence,” Bedo-Calhoun said. “It’s a love for nature, it’s a love for the mountains, it’s community, it’s friendships. It is so much more than a list.”
It’s also a stark contrast to “peak-bagging” — the term usually used for mountain-climbing challenges — that suggests that summits are prey to be hunted, eliminated and bragged about.
If the untrailed high peaks of the Catskills have to be trailed, there will be benefits for wildlife, rare plants and safety. But many hikers will mourn the passing of, in Howell’s words, the “wild charm and isolation” of nature without improvements.
Next: Breakneck Ridge
This report was funded by readers who contribute to our Special Projects Fund.
Behind The Story
Type: Investigative / Enterprise
Investigative / Enterprise: In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.