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Visitor Use Management Plan for Formerly Trailless Catskill High Peaks

Plan Will Identify Management Actions to Address Adverse Impacts of Informal Trails


Erosion caused by repetitive hiking on steep,
unstable terrain.

DEC is initiating a Visitor Use Management (VUM) planning process to identify solutions that address impacts to natural resources caused by the proliferation and expansion of user-created, informal trails on formerly trailless Catskill high peaks (over 3,500 feet in elevation). The majority of these peaks are part of the state-owned Forest Preserve, and have been previously identified by the Catskill Park State Land Master Plan (PDF) as "trail-less."

Public Participation Opportunities

A draft Visitor Use Management Plan, accompanied by a public meeting and comment period, is anticipated for release in winter of 2022-23 that will present the results from the 2022 field monitoring effort and recommendations for addressing the natural resource impacts occurring on the formerly trailless peaks. The exact date of the meeting and the type of venue (virtual or in person) will be announced at a later date.

The public is encouraged to share their ideas or provide input on the desired condition they would like to see for these areas, and can provide comments by emailing DEC at catskillpark@dec.ny.gov.

Webinar
On October 19, 2022, DEC and its partners participated in a webinar about informal trail networks on Catskill peaks. A recording of the webinar is available on the Catskill Mountainkeeper website (leaves DEC website).

Visitor Experience Survey
Public feedback regarding future management of the Catskill peaks was collected via a public survey that closed on November 30, 2022. Additional opportunities for public participation will be provided when a draft Visitor Use Management Plan is released for public comment.

Background

Historically, access to the trailless Catskill peaks over 3,500 feet was limited to people who relied on traditional navigation methods such as a map and compass. For a long time, the trailless areas experienced low levels of dispersed use by a limited number of experienced hikers. Over the past several decades, technological advancements in GPS navigation have made the trailless areas more accessible to people who rely on GPS technology for backcountry navigation.

Today, a significant percentage of visitors to these formerly trailless wilderness and wild forest areas use technology aids, resulting in increased hiker visitation to these areas with a greater range of abilities. An increase of hikers in the formerly trailless areas has resulted in damage to natural resources, driven in part by a growing number of Catskill Hiking challenges. Monitoring results indicate the impacts to natural resources from unbounded recreation are occurring at an unstainable rate, which if continued, will result in long term damage.

Beginning in 2019 and continuing into 2022, field work and data collected by DEC staff have confirmed that there are extensive, user-created, informal trail networks on all formerly trailless Catskill peaks over 3,500 feet. Informal trails have many negative impacts on the high peaks including changes to water bodies and flow, loss of native plant cover, and increased soil compaction and erosion. Informal trails are often very steep and unpleasant to hike as they are typically the shortest distance between two points and hikers often create many redundant routes when attempting to avoid unpleasant sections of informal trails. The result is a destructively dense network of informal trails that can lead to reductions in tree cover, increases in predators harming nesting birds, as well as new pathways for invasive species introductions into interior forest habitats.

The Peaks

Peak Name Elevation (Feet) DEC Region Management Unit
Lone 3,721' 3 Slide Mtn. Wilderness
Rocky 3,508' 3 Slide Mtn. Wilderness
Balsam Cap 3,623' 3 Slide Mtn. Wilderness
Friday 3,694' 3 Slide Mtn. Wilderness
Rusk 3,680' 4 Rusk Mtn. Wild Forest
Halcott 3,537' 4 Halcott Mtn. Wild Forest
Kaaterskill High Peak 3,655' 4 Kaaterskill Wild Forest
Roundtop 3,450' 4 Kaaterskill Wild Forest
Big Indian 3,700' 3 Big Indian Wilderness
Fir 3,620' 3 Big Indian Wilderness
South Doubletop 3,852' 3 Big Indian Wilderness
Sherill 3,540' 4 Hunter-West Kill Wilderness
North Dome 3,610' 4 Hunter-West Kill Wilderness
SW Hunter 3,740' 4 Hunter-West Kill Wilderness
Vly 3,529' 4 Bearpen Mountain
State Forest
Bearpen 3,600' 4 Bearpen Mountain
State Forest

Key Findings to Date

  • DEC staff has confirmed that there are extensive user-created, informal trail networks on all of the formerly trailless Catskill peaks over 3,500' and that none of these areas are trailless anymore. These peaks are located throughout the Catskill Park in multiple planning units.
  • Over the past 3 years, DEC staff has documented a rapid rate in change in the distribution and condition of the informal trail networks on the formerly trailless peaks. Monitoring results have indicated that the current levels and type of visitation occurring in the formerly trailless areas is occurring at levels that are not sustainable and will lead to long-term damage.
  • DEC staff and the New York Natural Heritage Program have identified many locations where informal trails have damaged known populations of rare, threatened, and endangered plant species and are in the process of developing new solutions to strengthen protection measures for these species.
  • Informal trails are typically formed when people attempt to find the shortest and fastest route to the summit. The unplanned layout of informal trails makes them much more prone to rapid erosion in comparison to planned formal trails which are created for long-term use.

What Management Solutions are Currently Being Considered

  • DEC will identify informal trails that are damaging rare, threatened, and endangered species and categorize these into specific zones. A comprehensive educational outreach plan will be developed to decrease the use of informal trails in these vulnerable zones.
  • During the 2022 field season, informal trail networks will be evaluated to assess any trails that are good quality/have good qualities and are not located near rare, threatened, or endangered species. DEC will identify a "preferred informal trail" route to each summit while also working to develop more permanent solutions to damage caused by informal trail networks.
  • Due to the damage caused by extensive informal trail networks on the high peaks, management interventions will likely be required. Solutions could include proposals to create formal trails that are designed for long-term use and will prevent further damage to natural resources and lead trail users along an established route.

What Hikers Can Do Today


Vegetation loss caused by repetitive hiking through
sensitive understory plant communities.

Hikers can already take several steps to minimize their impact to trailless peaks:

  1. Avoid these areas after heavy rains or during mud season.
  2. Follow Leave No Trace principles (leaves DEC website).
  3. Travel on existing informal trails and avoid dispersing into untrampled vegetation to avoid further impacting rare, threatened, and endangered plants and birds.
  4. From May through July, pay extra attention to where you travel and keep pets leashed to avoid disturbing vulnerable mountain bird species, many of which nest on or close to the ground and have nestlings or fledglings during these months.

Downloadable Preliminary Field Study Findings

2019 Visitor Use Study of the Trail-less Peaks 3,500' in the Catskills (PDF)
2022 Addendum to the 2019 Visitor Use Study (PDF)
Trail-less Peak Sign-in Analysis, 2009-2021 (PDF)