A New Way to Experience the Adirondacks

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Adirondack Hamlets to Huts aims to connect the region’s vast trail network with lodging, food and experiences in communities along the way. Although COVID-19 disrupted this year’s launch plan, the organization hopes to prove its vision in 2021.

Ask any visitor to the Adirondack Park in New York what they like best about it, and you’ll likely get an answer along the lines of “the peace and quiet.” At 6 million acres, it’s easy to find vast areas of rocky peaks, networks of ponds and rivers and more than 2,000 miles of trails to explore—perhaps without seeing another human for days. The exception, however, is often the High Peaks region, which includes well-known Lake Placid and Saranac Lake and is full of peaks over 4,000 feet in elevation.

With the high number of visitors comes the potential for negative impacts to the park, such as erosion, damage to native fauna and waterways pollution. Although many groups and proposals are working to mitigate the popularity of the High Peaks, one nonprofit, Adirondack Hamlets to Huts (AHH), has packaged up a unique outdoors experience that may help. The organization’s mission is to create, manage and promote an internationally acclaimed hamlet-to-hut system that aims to advance both economic development and conservation. As part of its vision, AHH wants to introduce recreationists to the less-traveled parts of the Adirondack Park, which attracts more than 12 million visitors each year.

So rather than visiting towns like Lake Placid or Saranac, travelers get to know smaller hamlets, like Indian Lake or Inlet. Instead of exploring the High Peaks region, trip routes wend through areas like Raquette Lake, the Fulton Chain of Lakes and other, smaller and under-the-radar areas of the park.

“These are communities in the midst of trying to change from extraction economies to tourism economies,” says Joe Dadey, AHH executive director and co-founder. “We hope that over the coming years and decades, the Hamlets to Huts program can return these towns to their vibrancy.”

Raquette Lake (Photo Credit: John DiGiacomo, Placid Times)

Spreading the wealth

Like many ideas, the concept of AHH traces its roots to a couple of beers between friends. Dadey, a former educator with Paul Smith’s College, had traveled to New Zealand, which has a robust hut system, and other spots around the world studying ecotourism. Jack Drury, a Saranac Lake resident, had a deep history as a wilderness recreation educator and leadership trainer. Both shared a love for the Adirondacks and wondered what a hut-to-hut system could look like in the park.

Dadey and Drury came up with what they believe is a new concept for the United States: a community-based system that would get people out in nature but support the towns through which they passed. “It’s where frontcountry meets backcountry,” says Dadey.

The U.S. is currently home to roughly 15 or so hut-to-hut systems, including the Superior Highland Backcountry system in Minnesota, the Vermont Huts Association and the American Prairie Reserve system, which runs throughout Montana. AHH will serve as a unique spin on the concept in both design and location.

Here’s how it will work: Interested travelers visit the AHH website and scope out the offerings. After selecting from trips that include a variety of combinations of paddles, hikes and bikes in a range of distances and days. Then they book their travel through the AHH website, which they’ll be able to do starting in March 2021. Trips are self-guided or guided for an extra fee, and include gear transport, dinners and breakfasts, car shuttle and lodging.

Travelers will sleep in motels and lodges in small towns along their journey rather than in rustic huts in the backcountry, which is common in hut-to-hut systems in the U.S. They’ll dine in local restaurants in those towns and won’t have to carry food along the trails or cook for themselves.

Through grants from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Dadey and Drury got the project off the ground in 2015 and became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2017. “Encouraging visitors to enjoy the Forest Preserve while connecting them to local communities is part of DEC’s outdoor recreation focus and mission,” says Lori Severino, DEC public information officer.

Part of the DEC’s plan includes dispersing the tourism dollars and traffic around the park, making Hamlets to Huts a natural fit. “We’re studying trail systems and their linkages to local communities across the park, so by its nature [AHH] will encourage the park-wide distribution of recreationalists and promote tourism across the region,” Severino explains.

Dadey says that from the start, spreading out park visitation has been a key objective, particularly in the High Peaks region. There are 46 High Peaks in the park and becoming a “46er,” or simply wanting to bag the bigger peaks, has become an objective for some recreationists. According to the DEC, the number of registered hikers on high peak Cascade Mountain, for instance, jumped from over 14,000 in 2007 to nearly 35,000 in 2017. And in the wake of increased outdoor recreation during the pandemic, the High Peaks Strategic Advisory Group submitted an immediate action plan in June to the DEC. Recommendations include parking management, enhanced Leave No Trace education efforts and increased visitation data collection.

The nonprofit initially planned to launch the first trip in 2020, but the pandemic forced them to postpone trips until spring 2021. Route options include the Old Forge to Blue Mountain Lake paddle traverse, a four-night, three-day paddle across multiple lakes; or the Old Forge Inlet Circuit, a three-day, two-night paddle and/or hike or bike trip.

Two paddlers in a canoe in the Adirondacks region

Photo Credit: John DiGiacomo, Placid Times

Charlie Frey, owner of the Woods Inn in Inlet, plans to play host along the way. The historic inn, built in 1894, has 24 rooms, tents and a cottage on site. “We have the only surviving five-story wood frame hotel,” he says. “It’s in the center of town and on the lake.”

Frey is fully on board with the Hamlets to Huts concept and envisions a revitalization for the town of Inlet. “Participants will stay in one hotel on the way in and another on the way out, showing them variety,” he says. “It will help us all drive bookings and bring more tourism to lesser-known parts of the park.”

Great Camp Sagamore, located in Raquette Lake, initially planned to be a stopover stay this year but the pandemic delayed that. The lodge will likely participate in 2021. Emily Martz, executive director of the Sagamore Institute that oversees the camp, says that Hamlets to Huts fits into the mission of serving as stewards of the camps.

Martz also sees the value of spreading the wealth around the local communities. “The more people who come into the area the more they are likely to buy food, gas and other amenities,” she says. “That’s a positive.”

Another benefit, says Martz, is that these lesser-used parts of the park, like Raquette Lake, offer some shorter hikes through gentler terrain, which can be more accessible than the High Peaks area, which is known for rugged, higher-elevation terrain.

Other off-the-beaten path highlights in the area include OK Slip Falls, one of the park’s highest waterfalls; Ferd’s Bog, a 170-acre wetland; and the long, steady climb to the peak of Snowy Mountain, near Indian Lake, where a retired fire tower affords 360-degree views as a reward.

Looking ahead

The spring of 2021 will likely be the first real opportunity for Dadey and Drury to prove their vision, albeit in a much more limited capacity than they had originally hoped. Operating out of their trails center in Saranac, the two plan to oversee the initial trips, serving as guides to those who want that. Eventually, they hope to expand their staff and open up the concept to winter trips that include snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

There are many ideas for routes throughout the park and Dadey envisions options for all budgets and abilities. “We want to get to a place where there’s something for everyone,” he says. “We will get there, but it will take time.”

Dadey hopes to offer a wide range of lodging in every location, from economical to more upscale inns and hotels, which comes with its own challenges. In some cases, it may take hamlets time to buy into the concept and build new facilities if needed. “It will take us a while to prove that if someone wants to open a new hotel, we can fill their spaces,” says Dadey.

AHH still has some kinks to work out, according to Dadey. For one, many of the partners or potential partners in the program don’t have booking websites, preferring to work the old-fashioned way. “An electronic reservation system is still a missing piece,” he admits. “In some cases, reservation systems might be the bartender taking a phone call and putting it into the books.”

Another challenge is that some of the hamlets involved have very little in the way of lodging. Those that do have it are often booked far in advance of the summer high season.

A key component of the AHH vision is protecting the fragile Adirondacks ecosystem. “We’ve had a few folks who expressed concern that we’ll be bringing in a bunch of new construction and thus crowds to the area,” says Dadey. “But that’s just not the case. At most, we may put up some yurts somewhere along the line.”

Drury points out that the park is protected and that he and Dadey are committed to maintaining its nature. “Half of the park is public preserve and constitutionally shielded,” he says. “The other half is in private land that is similarly committed to preservation.”

Martz is optimistic about the program’s future. “People like to have adventures but don’t necessarily like to plan them,” she says. “There’s demand for a system that can create a special experience like this—it checks the right boxes.”